Before the English Settlers
The Petitcodiac River, from which the Village takes its name, runs through territory that was occupied by the Micmac and Maliseet First Nations. The name, Petitcodiac, is believed to derive from 'Pet-kot-que', which means 'the river that bends and turns', or 'the river that bends around like a bow'.
The first settlement of the Village started about 2 miles downstream from the present-day location of the Village, at a Portage that linked the Canaan and Petitcodiac Rivers. A Portage is an area of land between two waterways where the First Nations carried their canoes over land to avoid obstacles such as rapids, or to transfer from one waterway to another. The Portage was used by the Maliseet and Micmac, and most likely by early French and English settlers. A cairn (photo on the right) was built in 1937 on the spot that is believed to be the original Portage.
First English Settlers
The family of David Blakeney is believed to be the first European family to have settled at the Portage. The Blakeney clan originated in England, but moved to Ireland circa 1611. In 1767 at the age of 22, David Blakeney, his parents and siblings migrated to South Carolina where they owned and operated a plantation. As English Loyalists, David and his brother, Chambers, fought on the side of the British in the American War of Independence. It was this loyalty towards the British that forced both brothers to flee South Carolina with their families, but without any personal property.
In November 1782, David Blakeney and his family arrived in Halifax where they spent the winter in a refugee camp. The family moved to Saint John, NB, from where they set out for the Petitcodiac region. By 1786, David Blakeney had acquired 793 acres of land on the banks of the Petitcodiac River, right where the Portage used to be. The land grant was made official 16 years later, in 1802.
After the Blakeneys, many other settlers arrived, mostly Empire Loyalists. The settlers remained farmers until a settlement was established in 1830, on the Blakeney land. The settlement was initially called 'Prices', but the name changed to 'Head of Petitcodiac' and finally, in 1849, to 'Humphrey Corner'. The settlement consisted of, amongst others, a post office, school, store, church, cemetery, tavern and Inn.
In 1836, the stage coach started runs between Saint John and Amherst, NS, with an overnight stop at Holstead's Inn in the settlement. The first bridge spanning the Petitcodiac river was constructed in 1839 where the current bridge in the village is located. Connected to major centers like Saint John and Moncton, the settlement grew steadily, but was never very large. Various mills, such as Humphrey's Grist Mill and other sawmills and carding mills, became the leading industry after 1820.
The railway would soon change the fate of the settlement known then as 'Humphrey Corner'.
Humphrey Corner Relocates To Present Day Petitcodiac
In 1833, O.A. Pitfield obtained a land grant of 300 acres where the Village of Petitcodiac is currently located. Because this land was prone to flooding, the land changed hands a few times until E.B. Chandler bought the land on speculation after having heard that a railroad would be built. Initially the railroad would have been built on the other side of the river, but since it was cultivated land, a later railroad survey placed the tracks on the south side of the river, across Chandler's newly acquired land. In 1857, the Eastern and North American Railway established a train station on Chandler's land and three years later, on July 18, 1860, the first train steamed into the Village.
The flooding problem on Chandler's land was solved by the fill and ditches that were built for the railway. With the flooding problem solved, Chandler hired a civil engineer, Mr. Dibble, to map out a village with streets and building lots. This would soon become the Village of Petitcodiac. In the early years of the Village, the area was commonly called 'The Station'. Most of the businesses at Humphrey Corner relocated to 'The Station'.
Development in Petitcodiac from 1860 to World War I
Because of the railway, business boomed in the Village of Petitcodiac between the years 1860 and 1902. Some of the industries that sprang up were:
Various retail and service businesses set up on Main Street and Kay Street, including a hotel, shoe store, meat shop and law office.
By 1910, Petitcodiac had a bank, post office, magistrate and law office, drug store, barber shop and several grocery shops. The first ice skating rink was built in 1912, but it was destroyed in the fire of 1913.
The fire of 1913 claimed all but 2 businesses in the block that is currently contained within Main Street, Kay Street, Old Post Road and River Road. This fire was the most severe in the 126 year history of village up to that point. A fire truck from Moncton came on a special train, just in time to stop the flames from completely destroying the entire business district. Apart from the 1913 fire, War broke out in Europe in 1914. For the next 4 years, not much growth took place in the village.
World War I to 1920
During World War I (1914-1917), Petitcodiac residents undertook various efforts to support the War and many young men from the area enlisted. The Women's Institute organized fund raisers and knitting events, packed essentials such as jams and Maple Sugar, and sent it off to the troops on the front. When a machine gun was desperately needed on the front in 1915, local committees from Petitcodiac managed to raise $1000 towards the purchase of such a gun.
In 1917, the Halifax explosion again required the aid of the Village of Petitcodiac. Amid a heavy snowstorm with high winds, Petitcodiac (then with a population of just over 600 people in about 125 residences) managed to pack and ship about $5000 worth of relief goods to Halifax.
After the war, rebuilding started again – remember that the 1913 fire destroyed a large portion of the downtown area. However, in March 1919, another fire broke out, this time destroying almost all of the Central Business District. 17 separate residential and business establishments were destroyed, including the elegant Mansard House which was a highly renowned Hotel.
Despite the fire, the citizens of Petitcodiac built a hall in honour of the the men of the area that fought in World War I. The Soldier's Memorial Hall (in the photo on the right) served as a community entertainment center with dances, movie nights and graduation parties. The current location of a time capsule that was created during the laying of the Hall's cornerstone in 1921 became a mystery after the hall was dismantled in 1969.
1920 - 1950
Between 1920 and 1950, Petitcodiac's growth came to a standstill, most likely because of the severe impact of the Great Depression and World War II. Several fires, most notably the fires of 1913 and 1919, earned the village the nickname of 'Village of Fire'. These fires had an enormous impact on the overall growth of Petitcodiac. Many people thought there was an arsonist at work, but nobody was ever accused or arrested for arson.
In 1924, Petitcodiac got its first electric lights. Shortly thereafter, the Women's Institute started a project to install street lights, especially around the Railway crossing (Even though the railway brought growth to the village, the railway crossing was the sight of numerous fatal accidents).
Even though the Great Depression caused many people to face severe financial hardships, two new businesses opened during this time, one of them being the Fawcett's Sawmill. The Sawmill remained a major employer in the Village until the collapse of the forestry industry in the new millennium.
After World War II, prospects for Petitcodiac picked up again. In 1946 to 1947, a building boom took place, with 12 new homes built in a single year.
1950 to Present
In 1966, by proclamation of Equal Opportunity, Petitcodiac formally became a 'Village'. The new Village office and fire station was built in 1984.
In 1971, the Westmorland County Fair started in Petitcodiac. The fair still takes place annually during the month of August. Various activities, including a Lumberjack competition, craft and commercial displays are regular features at the fair.
After rebuilding the village numerous times after fires, it seemed as though the village's number one enemy could be contained. But alas, in 1986, the Village of Petitcodiac was once again ravished by fire. Petitcodiac had to rebuild again since a large part of Main Street was yet again destroyed. Then, in 1993, another fire broke out, this time destroying the beloved and widely known Stedman's Store.
Sadly, the CN Railway Station was torn down in 1990.
Despite numerous setbacks, the Village always rebuilt itself. The Village is now looking forward to a time of growth, again thanks to its physical location. In the past, the railroad, and especially the location of the station, served the community well. In this new millennium, Petitcodiac's location on the highway between Moncton and Saint John will likely be the driving force behind exciting new developments.
Source: 'Village of Fire: History of Petitcodiac' by Robert and Mary Hibbert, 1996.