Aerial photo of Robinsons Island, 1935

Little we see in Nature that is ours: PEI National Park & Aerial Photography (part 2)

Aerial photo of Robinsons Island, 1935

In this and a previous post, I draw on five sets of aerial photographs of Prince Edward Island taken from 1935 to 2000 and posted on the provincial website, to discuss landscape change at PEI National Park.

When the north shore of Prince Edward Island was chosen as the site of a national park in 1936, Robinsons Island – a three-mile long ribbon of land in the very centre of the proposed park – initially escaped attention, hidden in plain sight between the promise of mass tourism at Cavendish, to the west, and the promise of a more upmarket clientele at Dalvay, to the east. The site examiners didn’t notice it, the provincial government expropriators considered excluding it, but as shown in a 1937 map on the wonderful new “Island Imagined” website, the Parks Branch ultimately did take possession of Robinsons Island. The agency renamed it “Rustico Island,” presumably to free it of any association to past land ownership. And then the park left the island alone, unused.

Aerial photo of Robinsons Island, 1958

Aerial photo of Robinsons Island, 1958

As a result, unlike at Green Gables, where landscape was altered dramatically as soon as the park came in, the 1958 aerial photo of Robinsons Island seems similar to the one from two decades earlier. Trees are only slowly covering over evidence of past agricultural use. The most obvious change is the band of roadway being cut through the island’s center. By the 1950s, the Parks Branch had decided to create a single scenic drive along all of PEI National Park, including linking the two ends of Robinsons Island with the mainland. Although it is difficult to see in this 1958 photo, the Branch had built a causeway across “Little Harbour” on the island’s east end, making the island in essence a peninsula.

There was an ulterior motive for this engineering: it was hoped that by bridging Little Harbour, there would be increased tidal flow through “Big Harbour” to the west of Robinsons Island’s, scouring it more efficiently, and making it a deeper, safer harbour for the fishermen of North Rustico. But instead, once the park closed off Little Harbour, the tides began to eat away at the sandy west end of Robinsons Island – a result just beginning to be visible in the 1958 photos:

Aerial photo of Robinsons Island (west end), 1958

Aerial photo of Robinsons Island (west end), 1958

If staff had examined historical maps, the Parks Branch might have better appreciated the risk of focusing the planned parkway on the shifting sands of Robinsons Island. Maps from1835 and 1880 overlaid on Google Maps indicate how much the island’s shape and even location has changed over time. (That being said, the mapmakers undoubtedly showed greater fidelity drawing the PEI shoreline and property boundaries than they did the glorified sandbar that was Robinsons Island). The Parks Branch had assumed the park was a canvas on which they could create whatever scenes they wanted, but this was an instance in which nature was just as fluid as humans’ plans for it.

Aerial photo of Robinsons Island, 1974

Aerial photo of Robinsons Island, 1974

Aerial photo of Robinsons Island (west end), 1974

Aerial photo of Robinsons Island (west end), 1974

By 1974, Robinsons Island is as developed as it ever had been or ever would be: the Gulf Shore Parkway bisects it and an amoeba-like campground has multiplied and engulfed farmers’ fields. By this point, the park has long abandoned hopes to build a bridge to Big Harbour. As seen in the detail of the island’s west end, it has been eroding constantly – about 1000 yards over the previous two decades. One hundred yards more would disappear on a single, stormy October 1975 night alone.

(The 1974 aerial photo series also signals the arrival of a long sandbar attaching itself to Anglo Rustico – presumably the remnants of Robinsons Island’s west end. It is quite prominent today, as shown on Google Maps.)

Aerial photo of Robinsons Island, 2000

Aerial photo of Robinsons Island, 2000

The 2000 photo is especially dramatic: the entire western end of Robinsons Island has been carved away. By this point, Parks Canada has largely given up its hopes for the island – it has even agreed to restore the original name. The white parkway turns to grey halfway across the island, where a large barrier tells cars to turn back: nothing to see here. The campground eventually closes. Robinsons Island slowly begins to regain some of the wildness it lost when it became part of the national park.

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I'm a Professor & Graduate Chair in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. You can reach me at amaceach@uwo.ca.

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