Campbellton is situated on the south bank of the Restigouche River opposite Pointe-à-la-Croix, Quebec, Campbellton was officially incorporated in 1889 and achieved city status in 1958.
Forestry and tourism are major industries in the regional economy, while a pulp mill in nearby Atholville is the largest single employer in the area. As part of the tourism “industry”, wealthy sport fishermen seeking Atlantic Salmon flock to the scenic Restigouche Valley every summer. The region sees extensive annual snowfall. Alpine and Nordic ski facilities at Sugarloaf Provincial Park provide winter recreation opportunities for both visitors and local residents.
The area around the site of the present city was settled by French people circa 1700 with a trading post based upon fishing and fur trading with the Mi’gmaq. More settlers arrived here when Ile St. Jean was lost to the French as the result of the capitulation of Louisbourg in 1758.
It was here that the Battle of the Restigouche, the final naval battle between the English and French for the possession of North America during the Seven Years’ War, was waged in 1760. It marked a turning point for the settlement.
Robert Ferguson and the development of Campbellton and Atholville owed their development to the enterprising immigrants from Scotland. In 1769, only nine years after the Battle of Restigouche, Scotsman Hugh Baillie and a partner set up a fur and salted salmon business on the site that would become Campbellton. The business was sold to London merchant John Shoolbred, who in 1773 established the first British settlement on the Restigouche. His agent, William Smith, brought over eight Scottish fishermen from Aberdeen, Scotland, to work for him. Two of these fishermen were John Duncan and Robert Adams, who brought their families with them as well. These two fishermen devoted themselves to the salmon fishing industry at Old Church Point, today Atholville.
In 1794, a Scotsman from Perth named Alexander Ferguson settled in Martin’s Point (Campbellton), where his brother Robert joined him two years later. From 1760 to 1833 the settlement went through a series of names such as; Pointe-des-Sauvages, Pointe-Rochelle and Martin’s Point before Robert Ferguson provided it with its present name Campbellton, in honour of Lieutenant-Governor Sir Archibald Campbell.
Regarded as the founder of Restigouche County, Robert Ferguson played a crucial role in the development of northern New Brunswick during the first half of the 19th century. Inheriting his brother’s business in 1803, he rapidly became the region’s leading merchant and fish exporter. Until the 1840s, he shipped between 1,200 and 1,400 barrels of salted salmon annually, making him the most prominent landowner in the area. Ferguson also operated a flour mill, a sawmill, and exported hewn wood. Additionally, he built boats in what is now known as Atholville. In 1812, he constructed the impressive Athol House in the village, named in honour of his Scottish homeland.
The arrival of the intercolonial railway in 1875, followed by the establishment of a permanent railway station in 1876, significantly impacted Campbellton’s growth. The population rapidly increased, reaching 1,800 by 1891, and the town’s development shifted westward. Campbellton was incorporated as a town in 1889, and in the late 1880s, the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph founded an Hôtel Dieu, an order responsible for establishing hospitals and schools throughout Canada.
On July 11, 1910, a catastrophic fire originating from a waterfront sawmill engulfed a large part of Campbellton. The fire spread across the town, fueled by flaming shingles. The population, nearing 4,000 at the time, received aid from nearby communities in the form of food and supplies. Many residents were forced to live in tents while rebuilding plans were developed. The town was eventually rebuilt, and in the ensuing months and years, several new (now historic) brick buildings were constructed on Water Street, which was designated a “Fire District” requiring fireproof exterior walls for all new structures.
In the aftermath of the fire, the railway station was relocated to Roseberry Street, which played a significant role in defining Campbellton during its early years. The town aimed to become the leading commercial center on the North Shore, and by the 1920s, it boasted three banks, five churches, two schools, six hotels, and a hospital. Up to 16 trains a day passed through Campbellton’s Central Station during this period. In 1928, the construction of a pulp mill in nearby Atholville further fueled the town’s population growth, which steadily increased over the years.
In 1958, Campbellton was incorporated as a city, with its population nearing 13,000. Around this time, construction began on the J.C. Van Horne Interprovincial Bridge, which was designed to facilitate travel between Quebec and Northern New Brunswick. Completed in 1961, the bridge enabled the cross-river town of Pointe-à-la-Croix to fully integrate itself commercially with Campbellton. The Salmon Festival, inaugurated in 1967, has become a popular annual week-long event enjoyed by tourists and residents alike. In 1979, Campbellton’s city limits expanded when the Richardsville area was incorporated into the city.
Campbellton’s history is incomplete without mentioning the infamous Phantom Ship, also known as the “Fireship of Baie des Chaleurs.” Reported sightings of this mysterious phenomenon include visions of a burning sailing vessel, a ship with its sails set gliding across the water, a ball of fire on the water’s surface, or a burning vessel fading out of sight. Although sightings are infrequent, some attribute the phenomenon to a ghost ship from the Battle of the Restigouche, while others believe it is merely the result of heat waves, reflections, or hallucinations.
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