Early History of Dorchester NB

As told by Captain William Harding Bisset's daughter Alberta May Bissett

Courtesy of Beverly H. Barney

Capt. William Harding Bissett was born in the district known as the Devil's Back in St. John Co. NB on February 28, 1808 and as a boy spent some of his time on logging operations on the St. John River. He is told of skating from above Fredericton to St. John a distance of over 70 miles in one day. As a very young man he went to sea with his father, Capt. William Bissett in the coasting service between New York, Boston and the Maritime Provinces and after he became a captain, he purchased a ship and established a regular service between St. John and points on the Memramcook River, principally Dorchester. The village of Dorchester was at that time an industrial point of some importance, the ship building yards usually containing several ships in various stages of construction. So a very large number wooden sailing sloops have been constructed in these yards.

The Memramcook River freezes up in the winter, but Cap. Bissett always tried to take trips up the river as late in the fall as possible and ........again in the spring. He sailed between Boston, St. John, Yarmouth and Halifax. On the last trip up the Memramcook River in the winter of 1836-37 he became seriously ill. Gideon Smith, who lived nearby and who later became Capt. Bissett's father-in-law fearing that the Capt. would not live if he remained on his ship, had him moved into his home, and before he recovered, the ship was frozen in. Capt. Bissett remained all winter and fell in love with Gideon Smith's young daughter Mary, who he married on June 30, 1838.

Shortly after his marriage Capt. Bissett purchased a farm of about 800 acres very close to the farm of his father-in-law, but, as he knew little about farming and disliked it, he continued in the coasting service until the winter of 1843 then, on the last trip he expected to take that year as he was sailing into Chicnecto Bay in the night

He encountered a terrific storm which drove his ship onto the rocks near the mouth of the Apple River, NB. In a short time the ship was broken to pieces. All hands were thrown into the sea and with the exception of Capt. Bissett who although a small man was a powerful swimmer, all were drowned.

Capt. Bissett in relaying this experience told how he was badly battered about but was able to keep afloat and eventually was thrown up upon a narrow edge of rock jutting out from an almost perpendicular cliff. He gladly would have stayed where he landed until daylight but the waves continued to sweep over him and he realized that unless he could climb higher he would soon be pulled back into the sea and drowned. He tried to climb up the cliff and for some time met with little success, but eventually he was able to get a foothold and a handhold, and started the painful climb to the tip, which he reached in a condition of almost utter exhaustion, with most of his clothes torn off him. He was so worn out and cold he wondered if it would not have been better to have died in the sea, rather than freeze to death on the top of the cliff. After resting for a while he saw a light some distance away, to which he struggled and upon reaching it, found it was the home of Polly Vaughn, who always kept the light he saw burning at night because, some years before, her son had wrecked in the same place and had perished. The Canadian Government later established the Polly Vaughn lighthouse at this point. Polly Vaughn took the Capt. in and gave him warm food, dry clothing and a place to rest. As soon as he was strong enough to travel, he started for his home in Upper Dorchester, walking practically all the way and seeking shelter where he could find it, as all his money had been lost when his ship was wrecked. He was too proud to ask for the assistance he so much needed. After this incident, his wife prevailed upon him to give up the sea and remain on the farm, which he reluctantly did, but he would complain that 'a good sailor could not be spoiled by making him over into a poor farmer'.

He became a fairly successful farmer and through the influence of his wife developed a real fondness for flowers. They saw to it that part of the farm close to the house was given over to flower beds, and with its white board fence at the road the farm always presented the most attractive place in the district, which was highly pleasing to them.

After the end of the Crimean War, many British soldiers, both wounded and well, emigrated to Canada, landing at Halifax, and in going overland to what were then know as the Upper Provinces of Canada passed by Capt. Bissett's home, which was on the main road from Halifax and the Upper Provinces. Public stopping places were few and far between and as Capt. Bissett was known as a man of great hospitality his home was often filled with travellers and discharged soldiers. Bathing facilities were not readily available and consequently these travellers and soldiers were not always clean. This and the fact that the home life of the family was almost lost, brought forth strenuous objections from his wife and family, and he very regretfully, refrained for a time from further entertaining the passers by. That winter two travellers were caught in a terrifically cold storm and were found frozen to death. It was said that they had been refused shelter at some place farther down the road. Shortly after this incident his wife and family capitulated and agreed to give the travellers food, that they were obliged to keep in one of the out buildings. This continued until the railroad (the Intercoastal) was constructed through that country and the travellers ceased using the road.