The Unhappy Afterlife of the S.S. Prince Edward Island

Whitby 1991

S.S. Prince Edward Island in Whitby Harbour 1991. Toronto Star photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive.

In 1968 the arrival of the new carferry John Hamilton Gray the railcar ferry S.S. Prince Edward Island was finally made redundant. Now this had happened before. In 1933 the S.S. Charlottetown was launched and the Prince Edward Island was relegated to stand-by back-up service, taking over when the Charlottetown was sent to its annual refit in drydock or on those rare occasions such as Old Home Week when traffic began to back up. It was on a trip to Saint John for re-fit in 1941 that the Charlottetown sank after hitting a reef on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.  The Prince Edward Island was once again lead boat with only the Canso Strait ferries Scotia and Scotia II available to take over for the Prince Edward Island’s own annual trips to re-fit. 

With the launch of the Abegweit (the real Abegweit, not the trumped up, banana- shaped,  seagoing bus station that replaced it) in 1947, the Prince Edward Island once again became the second boat, spending much of the year forlornly tied up either at the old slip in Tormentine or on the Borden side. Increasing auto, passenger, and rail traffic meant the Prince was more and more frequently called to assist in the summer and shoulder seasons so that for part of the year, at least, there was effectively a two-boat ferry service. 

As a child I was always delighted when we caught the Prince Edward Island as it was a much more interesting ship to explore. We, with the abridged parental responsibilities of the period, had the full run of the ship from bow to stern and from lifeboats to engine room. Everything, from engines to winches to the ventilation fans ran on steam and the ship had a peculiar atmosphere of condensing steam, even when the coal boilers were replaced by bunker-C oil tanks. A strange blocked off stairway near the stern spoke of another time aboard as it was labeled “First Class Passengers Only.” I was only later that I learned that this was from the days before the vessel was disfigured to create an auto deck from the handsome passenger lounge. 

In the flurry of changes in the later 1960s with new boats and new terminal facilities the Prince Edward Island disappeared from Northumberland Strait. The veteran vessel was moved the Halifax waiting for final disposition and although seen with a slight list its profile with the unusual four funnels was one of the sights of the Halifax waterfront that Islanders remarked on until 1971.

Halifax 1970 copyright Mac Mackay

The S.S. Prince Edward Island awaiting its fate. Halifax 1970. Photo – Shipfax. Copyright Mac Mckay

It was at that time that the vessel was acquired by McNamara Marine, a dredging and marine facilities concern with an operation base on Lake Ontario.  The company, which was established in 1954 had a shipyard and dry-dock  on the east side of Whitby Harbour. In 1972 McNamara was one of a consortium of companies that had successfully bid on a major dredging contract to deepen the waters near the Isle of Orleans, just downstream from  the city of Quebec, so that larger ocean-going vessels could access the port.

The companies assembled a fleet of bulk carrying lake boats to carry dredging spoils as well as a number of dredgers. The latter vessels were powered by powerful electric motors to handling the dredging. The Prince Edward Island became a sort of mother ship for the fleet. With her superstructure removed, six diesel generator sets, each producing 1,200 horsepower, provided power for the dredges. The mother ship also served as the receiver for the spoils which were piped to the vessel from the dredges and transferred to the lakers for dumping. With the completion of the Quebec project the vessel continued to be used by McNamara for other projects. One source suggests it was once towed to the Caribbean for use as a mobile generating station. However it ended up at the company dock in Whitby.  Sometime before the company was wound up in 1988 the ship (or what remained of it) to was sold to another owner. 

The now derelict hulk came with a host of problems. Two transformers still on board contained  500 gallons of cooling chemicals containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The transformers were in common use across the country but in the 1970s the chemical was found to be a dangerous source of cancer agents and its use was banned.  Aside from the problem of the unsightly hulk, the Town of Whitby was alarmed by the presence of the chemicals on the waterfront and in 1987 began a campaign to have the vessel and its contents removed. The wharf, however, was owned by the federal government and the vessel’s owner had continued to pay dockage so the Town’s efforts were stymied. 

In 1990 the Prince Edward Island sank causing additional concern but when it was refloated it was inspected by the Canadian Coast Guard which concluded that the ship was in “relatively good condition” and was safe to continue to be used for storage of the transformers. In the meantime the Town has been successful in its bid to have the wharf property transferred to the municipality and began proceedings to evict the vessel. It was removed by court order in June 1992 and appears to have been moved to Toronto.  It is possible that at a later date it was moved to St. Catherine’s but the exact location after 1992 has been hard to determine. 

Whitby 1987

S.S. Prince Edward Island in Whitby 1987. The graffiti message “adios” was not to be fulfilled for another five years. Toronto Star photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive


Whitby 1990 tpl

Bow view of the S.S. P.E.I. Three transformers filled with dangerous chemicals can be seen on the upper deck. Toronto Star Photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive

At this writing, more than a century since the launch of the once-proud ship, it has in all likelihood, been long since scrapped. I would be pleased to hear from anyone who can tell me more about the vessels fate. The ship beloved by Islanders was a vital link with Canada for more than half a century and it is a surprise to find that it existed in its much altered form for another 25 or more years. Today aside from memories and photographs little remains of the S.S. Prince Edward Island. Little, that is except for one  large artifact.          

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Wheelhouse of the S.S. Prince Edward Island at the National Museum of Science and Technology, Ottawa . Photo Paul Martin / Ingenium

At some time during the removal of the ship’s superstructure the entire wheelhouse and its equipment was removed. Today it is in the collection of Canada’s Museum of Science and Technology. The wheel, binnacle, telegraph and rudder indicator are the original equipment, installed during the ship’s building in 1914-1915 and are retained as artifacts of the age of steam.  

If you found this posting on the S.S. Prince Edward Island of interest you may want to look at other pages concerning the ship. These include a detailed examination of the building and launch of the vessel here, and to story of her conversion to accommodate automobiles which can be seen by clicking here.

I am grateful to researcher Gary Carroll who passed on information with two of the photos of the Prince at Whitby  which led to my quest to discover the fate of the vessel. 

The last iceboat on the Strait

When the S.S. Prince Edward Island began service between the Capes in 1917 it looked as if the iceboat days were over. The new railcar ferry certainly met expectations with its comfortable interior and fast crossings. It seemed as if the unreliable days of the winter steamers such as the Northern Light, Stanley, Minto and Earl Grey were finally at an end. Each of those boats had promised more than they delivered and although each had been better and more reliable than the one that it had replaced the ice was still a formidable foe.

Until the S.S. P.E.I. began service, each of the new steamers seemed unable to cope with the many winters when severe ice jammed the strait and rafted the floes into ridges sometimes exceeding twenty feet. While many crossings had been routine there were a few that created major problems for travellers resulting from being stuck in the ice for days, weeks, and even on a few occasions for more than a month. The winter steamers carried Capes-style iceboats because there was a frequent need to transport mails and passengers to shore when the vessels became jammed in the ice. Because of the unreliability of the steamers, iceboats at the Capes were kept in readiness and were often called into service. Better a cold, uncomfortable, and possibly dangerous day on the ice in an open boat taking four, eight or ten hours than stuck off Pictou or Cape Bear for a week or more.

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S.S. Stanley in Charlottetown Harbour showing iceboats on davits. A.W. Mitchell Photo. Public Archives and Records Office.

The S.S. P.E.I. changed the expectations and although sometimes delayed by heavy ice it was unusual that the new steamer was trapped for any length of time. However, as security and in remembrance of earlier times the Prince Edward Island was equipped with iceboats as had been the older steamers. By 1925 it was beginning to look as if that precaution was excessive.

That changed in March. It had been a winter of heavy ice but the carferry was able to make slow progress through the ice until early in the month. On a Saturday morning the ship left Port Borden and made good time until it neared Cape Tormentine when it became good and truly stuck in rafted ice jamming up near the Tormentine Reef. Walter O’Brien remembered the trip well. He had been working as fireman and that winter had worked for six weeks without a day off to get ashore or have a haircut, paid a hundred dollars a month. As a fireman he shoveled coal and raked fires on four hour shifts, often with just a snack of bread between watches and little time to wash or shave and always with not enough sleep.

EPSON MFP image

S.S. P.E.I.  at Borden showing iceboat carried at stern. ca. 1918 Detail from Louson postcard for Carter & Co.. Image courtesy of Phil Culhane peipostcards.ca

With the vessel stuck off Tormentine, coal began to run low and had to be shifted from the reserve bunkers and carried to the stoke holds to keep the steam up and the engines running day and night. Captain J.L. Read kept the engines constantly running ahead and astern to keep the ship from being pinched by the ice but was unable to make any progress towards port. O’Brien remembered the ice surrounding the ship as soot-stained from the black coal-smoke from the four funnels. By Tuesday afternoon of the following week, with food on the ship beginning to run out, Captain Read ordered the iceboat to be lowered and directed that the passengers be taken to shore with crew members hauling the passengers’ luggage in the iceboat. Office A.B. Paquet (later to be Captain Paquet), armed with a pike pole for safety, guided them across the ice to the Cape. Scarcely had the last of them reached the Tormentine shore than the wind and tide changed. The ice was finally lifted and within an hour the Prince Edward Island had safely tied up to the ferry terminal. The trip from pier to pier had taken seventy-six hours. Quickly taking on the waiting Island-bound passengers and rail cars stuck at Tormentine for for up to three days, the steamer made the passage back to Borden in an hour.

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Charlottetown Guardian 7 August 1926 p. 8

Notwithstanding this last small service for the iceboat, the following year tenders were called by Canadian National Railways for the dispersal of the fleet. Advertised for sale were ten iceboats at Cape Traverse, five at Cape Tormentine and three at Pictou. The last group had been used prior to 1917 and were frequently called for in relation to the steamers plying between Georgetown and Pictou. All were to be sold together with oars, rowlocks, leather straps, boathooks, handles , telescopes, sails, ropes, foghorns, bailers and spars. It is not clear where the boats ended up but some may have ended up being used for the iceboat across Charlottetown Harbour to Rocky Point or for the service from Cariboo to Pictou Island.

Crushed by ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: the sinking of the steamer Tunstall

There are few better indicators of the reality of climate change than the state of sea ice. While there can be some variation from year to year it is clear that there are significant changes over the last few years which have seen far less ice both in Island harbours and in the Strait and Gulf. This change is dramatically illustrated by the story of the S.S. Tunstall which was crushed in the ice off the Island’s north shore in May of 1884.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

The Tunstall was an iron screw steamer of modern design launched in 1879 from the shipyard of Shore Bros. in Sunderland. The cargo steamer was 230 feet long, 32 feet wide and a depth of over 17 feet. She was powered by a 2 cylinder steam engine which drove a single screw propeller. She made a number of trips across the North Atlantic and in European waters and by 1881 was being operated by the Black Diamond Steamship Company of Montreal. Normally she operated between Montreal and coal ports such as Cow Bay (now Port Morien) and Sydney in Cape Breton, and Pictou but when Montreal was closed by winter she also carried coal to New York, Havana and other southern ports. She carried a crew of 20 officers and men.

Tunstall 2

Early May 1884 found the vessel loading at Pictou with a cargo of coal bound for Montreal. She completed loading about noon on Saturday the 3rd of May and steamed without difficulty but encountered a large field of ice at East Point. The vessel turned and made its way up Northumberland Strait hoping to avoid the ice but by noon on the 4th encountered heavy ice at Cape Traverse. In hopes the ice might move out she anchored but after a day she turned to try the East Point route once more. It was not until Friday the 9th of May that the Tunstall was able to round East Point and in company with another steamer, the Benona. With plenty of open water between the shore-fast board ice and the “running” ice of the floes she began to steam up along the North Shore, and by nightfall both vessels were near Cape Turner. On Saturday the captain reported the weather as “dirty, blowing hard and thick” and the ice, being pushed by the wind began to drive down on the land. The Tunstall turned and found open water again near Little Rustico, the channel at the east end of Robinson’s Island. The ship remained in that area all night fighting the wind which had shifted to the north west and was blowing hard with heavy snow. The vessel kept moving to keep clear of the largest pan bearing down on the Tunstall. By 10 am on Sunday morning the ship was completely pinched in the ice and the engines were unable to provide any movement. The Benona was about a mile and half distant but was in clearer water. Within an hour the ice had pinched the ship so tightly that it began to list and the ice began to pile up over the rails on deck. Suddenly the pressure caused the plates on the starboard side of the ship to give way and water began pouring in. To find and stop the leak the crew began desperately to unload the cargo of coal over the side but they soon discovered that the hole in the ship was larger than they had feared, about 2 feet square. Although the hole was plugged with ice if the ice moved the water would be impossible to stop.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

Concluding that the ship was doomed the captain ordered the lifeboats lowered and dragged away from the ship on the ice. Refusing to do any more work to save the doomed vessel the crew left the ship and gathered near the lifeboats. As the now-helpless ship slowly filled with water the crew were able to land some of their valuables, clothing, and food. It was at this point that the only loss of life occurred. Two pigs aboard the vessel to supply fresh meat for the crew were slaughtered. The Tunstall sank, bow first, beneath the ice at about four o’clock in the afternoon of the 11th. Leaving the boats on the ice the crew struck out for the shore, walking across the ice in the increasingly bad weather. However they were compelled to return to the boats by the ferocity of the winds. Left with little shelter from the lifeboats in the teeth of the storm the crew spent the night on the ice. During the night the ice continued to drift eastwardly and in the morning the crew found themselves on the ice about six miles off the St. Peter’s Bay Lighthouse.

On Monday morning the officers and crew began to cross the floes to the shore. The St. Peter’s lightkeeper and another man came out on the ice with a boat to meet them and seventeen men were guided ashore. However, three of the crew, separated from the main body by open water, decided not to run the risk the dangerous crossing on the ice and lolly and turned back to the safety of the lifeboats. A rescue party from St. Peters and area was organized the following day and succeeded in bringing the men to shore in spite of thick fog in the area. A number of men from the community were later awarded $5 each for their heroic efforts to save the three crew. One of the boats left behind on the ice later drifted ashore at St. Margaret’s and was auctioned off to benefit the crew of the ship.

The Benona had spotted distress signals from the Tunstall and noted when she sank but was unable to offer assistance. She herself was trapped in the running ice and was being swept towards East Point into the Northumberland Strait. It was not until 19th of May before she was able to get free of the ice and continue on her voyage to Montreal.

In the haste to abandon the Tunstall the Captain had neglected to get a fix on the location where the ship had gone down and for many years the wreck was lost. In June 1884 it was reported that divers would be sent to the wrecksite to see if the ship could be raised but they were either unable to find the vessel or decided it was not worth salvaging and no salvage was attempted. However in the 1930s fishermen in the Covehead area had been complaining of fouled gear and lobsters with discoloration from coal and the wreck was eventually spotted off Covehead Harbour.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

Resting in about 70 to 80 feet of water it has become a popular spot for recreational divers. Several videos have been posted to YouTube and Vimeo, one of the best being that of Justin Pater and can be accessed by following this link  

It is interesting to compare this real-life account with that of a fictional sinking some twenty-years later in W. Albert Hickman’s The Sacrifice of the Shannon