President, Bridgewater Photographic Society
The echoes of the New Year's church bells still lingered in the crisp air as the people of Bridgewater joyously welcomed 1899. People had revelled into the early morning hours, marking the beginning of a promising year. Optimism lingered in the frosty air, even as the cold north/northeastern wind swept down the LaHave River.
Days and weeks leading up to the new year had seen the bustling Commercial Street, now King Street, alive with activity. The town thrived, thanks to the prosperity of the fall season. Pockets were lined with money, which had been spent on Christmas shopping. Stores owned by W. H. Card, R. A. Logan, J. L. Oxner, Robert West, J.T. Power, Henry C. Barnaby, and others worked tirelessly. Their eyes gleaming as they handed goods over the counters.
The Bridgewater Hotel, situated next to the bridge, and the Eureka Hotel near Phoenix Street buzzed with activity. Cafés and restaurants along the street were filled with local residents and travellers who were chatting and gossiping as they hurriedly checked off items from their Christmas shopping lists.
Bridgewater was indeed, a vibrant town, particularly Commercial Street. The Lovell's Provincial Directory described Bridgewater as a flourishing and romantic town, with residents displaying a remarkable commercial spirit. The Halifax Herald called the LaHave River the Rhine of Nova Scotia, describing it as the most lovely river in the province.
However, this thriving scene came to an abrupt end on the fateful night of January 12, 1899. A devastating fire swept through Commercial Street, leaving a trail of destruction from Dominion Street to Dufferin Street. The unforgiving cold froze water hoses from the LaHave River, forcing firefighters and volunteers to resort to buckets to combat the flames. Sixty buildings and businesses succumbed to the blaze, testing the mettle of the town.
Yet, Bridgewater's merchants and residents exhibited remarkable resilience. Their enterprising and communal spirit came to the fore as Commercial Street and the town rose, akin to a phoenix, from the ashes. The well-established Tayler Drug store, founded by Charles A. Taylor and situated in the lower part of the Eureka Hotel, burned to the ground alongside the hotel. However, Taylor quickly opened a drugstore in a hastily constructed wooden shack, again serving the community. After Taylor's demise later that year, his widow, Cathrine A. Taylor, continued to run the business.
A month after the devastating fire, on February 13, 1899, Bridgewater was incorporated and established with its own mayor and council. This marked the beginning of the new Bridgewater. Within a few years, Commercial Street was once again flourishing with new buildings, many constructed with bricks along the western side of the widened street. Trees adorned the riverbank, replacing smaller houses and structures that once stood there. Bridgewater and its residents embodied their name, displaying an incredible spirit of revival.
The river continued to play a crucial role, with vessels lining both sides, shipping lumber and iron ore to destinations in Europe, South America, and beyond. Trains brought people to Bridgewater, a natural hub where the trains stopped to refuel and change staff. Travellers seized the opportunity to stay over, indulging in shopping on King Street and experiencing the legendary hotels.
The Fairview Hotel on Queen Street, which survived the fire in 1899 but later burned down in 1916, was again ready for visitors. And the burned-down Eureka hotel was re-established on Pleasant Street, next to the courthouse. By 1902, it was enlarged and again became a prominent feature in Bridgewater.
Despite facing the trials of two World Wars and the Great Depression in the late 1920s and early '30s, Bridgewater persevered. Post-World War II, the town thrived, and King Street bustled with people and parked cars under the shadows of maple trees. However, as time passed, cracks began to appear. Ships no longer transported lumber to Europe, and industries like the Davidson Mill and the Acadia Gas Engine Company on King Street South shut down.
The CN Rail reduced its services, leading to the abandonment of the station in the '70s, and its elegant station building, designed by Vincent Griffiths of New York City, burnt down on Dec. 12, 1982.
In 1988, CN abandoned the rail line from Liverpool to Halifax, making way for the establishment of the South Shore Shopping Centre. The once-flourishing King Street lost its vibrancy with shopping malls emerging on High Street, the east side of the LaHave River, and later in Cookville. Fires, including the most recent one in 2017, further marred the landscape. The relocation of Gow's Furniture Store to the new Gow's Home Hardware store up on High Street in 2019 left King Street looking abandoned.
Yet again, Bridgewater is on the path to resurgence. The council has developed new plans, recognizing the LaHave River and King Street as the town's most valuable assets. Attractiveness is vital in drawing people back into the town, with proposals to divert through traffic away from King Street and transform parts of the South Shore Center into multi-unit houses and condos, giving room for people to enjoy the east side of the river. Housing density and appealing businesses along King Street have become the town's new focal points.
To vividly portray Bridgewater's historical journey from the 1890s to the present, the Bridgewater Photographic Society is embarking on a new project. Over the summer, a Retrospective Exhibition of Bridgewater's Journey through Time will be showcased at Bridgewater's South Shore Centre.
Supported by the Town of Bridgewater, LighthouseNOW, CKBW Radio, the DesBrisay Museum, and the local business community, the exhibition will present images from the past and compare historical Bridgewater with its present-day counterpart.
Galleries in the South Shore Centre stores and main public areas will host this exhibition, offering an excellent opportunity to acquaint new and older residents with the rich and dramatic history of the town. The hope is to present the town in a new perspective - celebrate its history and attract tourism and new residents to the town and the South Shore.