Beaubear's Island - The Russell Years

Joseph Russell, who arrived on the Miramichi from Clackmannan, Scotland in 1812, established himself in Chatham as one of its leading citizens. He became a master shipbuilder and in 1832 he purchased from Francis Peabody, Founder of Chatham, the shipyard at England's Hollow. Russell also owned the King's Arms Hotel until it was destroyed by fire in 1831.

When John Fraser advertised Beaubear's Island for sale, Russell sold the England's Hollow shipyard to Joseph Cunard and bought the Fraser establishment. On Beaubear's Island he expanded the shipyards so that five ships could be constructed at one time. He also increased his retail business.

At this time there was a ferry between Beaubear's Island and the Point and either Russell or the Frasers before him constructed a road from the ferry at the west end to the shipyards and sawmills at the east end. The large two-storey house constructed by the Frasers was not occupied by the Russell family until 1846; the family continued to live in Chatham until their sons George, Thomas and Archibald had finished school. Six other children had died.

In 1847 Joseph and Agnes Russell built a tomb a short distance from their stone house. They removed the bodies of the six children from the various graves and buried them in the tomb that still remains on the island. When their son Thomas died of consumption in 1849, he was buried there also.

According to the book on Joseph Russell, written in 1980 by Grant Nielsen, twenty-six ships were built on the island between 1839 and 1850, when Russell sold Beaubear's to John Harley and George Burchill.

An interesting fact is that Russell family was baptized into the Mormon Church about 1840. Mormon missionaries came to New Brunswick then just as they have come to the Miramichi in recent years. Joseph Russell had a chapel in his house and was a presiding elder over the church of the Latter Day Saints. His devotion to the Church prompted him to sell all his holdings. In June 1850, he and his wife and son Archibald left for Liverpool, England where they stayed for about a year and a half before they settled permanently in Salt Lake City, Utah. They remained faithful Mormons. Archibald died in 1853 and Joseph Russell died two years later.

George H. Russell, the eldest and only surviving son, died in Chatham in 1868 at his home "Blink Bonnie", which still stands. George H. Russell had chosen to spend his life in Chatham and had become a very prominent and successful merchant.

Harley and Burchill

John Harley was a master builder who had emigrated from Cork, Ireland in 1823. He worked first for William Abrams at Rosebank (Nordin). In 1844 he was hired by Joseph Russell and as his Master builder, built the ships Ensign, Zion's Hope, In-rinsic, Standard, a second Ensign, Commissary, Ostensible, Rectitude and Omega.

George Burchill also came from Cork. He arrived on the Miramichi in 1826 with his parents. By 1834 he was clerking in the Chatham store of Henry Carman. He was hired by Joseph Russell to clerk in his store on Beaubear's Island and was later promoted to bookkeeper and then to business manager.

After some negotiating, arrangements were made by John Harley and George Burchill to purchase Beaubear's Island which included the shipyard, buildings, equipment and supplies. The Russell family retained title to the land around the family tomb for a time.

Harley and Burchill began their shipbuilding operation in the spring of 1850. By 1857 they had built nine ships. Their operation was carried out with the financial assistance of Gilmour, Rankin and Co. In addition to being shipbuilders and lumber merchants, they were also general retail merchants.

The partnership was dissolved in 1857. Burchill severed his connections with Beaubear's Island and moved to Nelson where he entered the merchandising trade. He expanded his business to include fish and lumber. In 1857 he purchased his own mill and in 1881 George Burchill and Sons was formed.

John Harley, who had bought out Burchill's interest in the island, built at least ten ships between 1857 and 1866. They were Ocean Home, Coronet, Everton, Vicksburg, Rio Grande, Sandringham, Sea Mew, Choice, Goldfish and La Plata.

In 1866 Harley mortgaged Beaubear's to the Commercial Bank. In 1871, the bank sold the island to Peter Mitchell for $2,700. Eight years later the entire operation burned to the ground.

The following account of the fire is taken from the Union Advocate of May 28, 1879.

Mill Burned

We regret to publish the occurrence of a very serious and destructive fire which took place on Beaubair's Island on Friday night last (May 23, 1879), involving the entire destruction of the buildings known as Campbell's Factory, together with a large quantity of manufactured lumber piled on the wharf ready for shipment, consisting of 63,000 staves, 12,000 clapboards, 25,000-30,000 feet boards and scantling, and various lots of other lumber. Also, a large quantity of seasoned lumber, consisting of ash, hardwood, and pine, piled in the mill, the burning of which, together with the buildings, literally melted the machinery and rendered it entirely useless.

The machinery was entirely new, consisting of a fine set of barrel machinery, rotary carriage, shingle machine, lath, paling, clap-board and stave machinery, valued with the engine and boiler, shafting, belting connections and buildings, at $10,000.

The principal losers by the disaster are A. G. McFadgen, of Tignish, P.E.I., James W. Fraser, Chatham, W. & G. Watt, Newcastle, Thomas B. Peace, Chatham and A. C. Campbell of Beaubair's Island.

The fire, which occurred between eleven and twelve o'clock, is supposed to be the work of an incendiary, as every precaution had been taken, particularly on that evening, A. C. Campbell, who was in charge, having visited the mill that night at nine o'clock, afterwards sending the engineer, G. Copeland, accompanied by R. Nesmith, to the mill at bed-time, or about half-past ten, there then being no sign of fire, they pronounced everything safe. The mill was out of lumber for sawing, and had been idle for a week or more.

Beaubear's Sold Again

In 1893 Peter Mitchell sold Beaubear's Island to Hubert Sinclair for $2,000. The Sinclairs had built a mill at Northwest Bridge in 1870 and it is likely wood was brought to the mill from the island.

According to J. Leonard O'Brien in "Historical Sketches of Beaubear's Island," the ownership changed several times until it came to the O'Brien family in 1920.

During the O'Brien years the island was closed to the public. When J. Leonard O'Brien died he left Beaubear's to Parks Canada for a National Historic Park. This park was officially opened in September 1979.

A plaque on the island states that Beaubear's Island is to be used by the people of Canada for their enjoyment and relaxation. At the time of this writing there is still no way to get over to the island. Perhaps someday there will be a ferry or a causeway, but in the meantime a boat should be provided in time for the coming summer.

(Acknowledgements: "Joseph Russell, Miramichi Shipbuilder and Financier," by Grant Nielson; "The Burchill Lumber Firm" by Burton Glendenning; John G. Burchill; "Historical Sketches of Beaubear's Island by J. Leonard O'Brien; "Ships of Miramichi," by Louise Manny; The Old Manse Library).

(Northumberland News, May 4, 1983)

Copyright © Lois F. Martin, 1985. All rights reserved.