During the early decades of the 19th century, the position of Beaubears Island at the confluence of the Southwest and Northwest Miramichi made it especially suited to the shipbuilding industry that developed along the river.

The shipyards

Painting depicting a 19th century shipyard.
Painting by John Alexander Fraser done at the turn of the century depicting Beaubears Island, the shipyard, and schooners.

James Fraser and James Thom established the first shipyard on Beaubears Island in 1790. In 1805, Fraser built a large stone house on the island, which was still standing in 1906. The Fraser family owned the yard for over 45 years.

During this time it was considered to be the most important commercial establishment in New Brunswick. In 1838, Joseph Russell, owner of a shipyard at Chatham, purchased the island, where he constructed 26 impressive sailing ships.

During the 1840s, Russell became a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He sold the shipyard to John Harley and George Burchill in 1849 before selling the remainder of his island and moving to Salt Lake City, Utah where he died in 1855. The stone tomb on Beaubears Island contains the remains of seven of his nine children.

A prosporous era

The 1850s were regarded as the golden age of Miramichi shipbuilding with yards in operation from Beaubears Island downstream to Escuminac. Harley, Russell's master builder, and Burchill remained in business at Beaubears until 1856 when Burchill withdrew from the partnership. Harley continued to build ships and in 1866 launched what is believed to be the last vessel constructed at Beaubears, the barque La Plata.

By the end of the 19th century, the island appears to have been deserted. It was acquired by the O'Brien family in 1920 and willed to the government of Canada in 1973 following the death of J. Leonard O'Brien, a former lieutenant governor of New Brunswick.