Sailing to infectious melancholy: travelling by steamer from Charlottetown to Shediac in 1854.

I have an affection for cranky travellers, being one myself, but the travails of today seem slight when compared with those of our ancestors. Case in point are the observations of Isabella Lucy Bird when she left for New Brunswick following a lengthy stay in Prince Edward Island in 1854. She was one of several passengers on board the paddle steamer Lady Le Marchant (of which I have written here).

Haszard’s Gazette 12 July 1854 p.3

The boat left Charlottetown late at night, bound for Bedeque, which had not yet acquired the more common name of Summerside, and thence to Shediac. On leaving the Steam Navigation Company wharf in the darkness of a rainy night the steamer became entangled with a schooner, broke some of the piles on the wharf and smashed the bulwarks of a new brig. Once on their way up Northumberland Strait en route to Bedeque the passengers entertained one another with songs but in the gloomy atmosphere the mood soon changed.

…indefinable sensations of melancholy rendered the merriest of the party silent, and a perfect deluge of rain rendered a retreat into the lower regions a precautionary measure which even the boldest were content to adopt. Below, in addition to the close overpowering odour of cabins without any ventilation, the smell of the bilge-water was sufficient in itself to produce nausea. The dark den called the ladies’ cabin, which was by no means clean, was the sleeping abode of twelve people in various stages of discomfort, and two babies.

I spent a very comfortless four hours, and went on deck at dawn to find a thick fog, a heavy rain, the boards swimming with soot and water, and one man cowering at the wheel.  Most of the gentlemen, induced by the discomfort to be early risers, came up before we reached Bedeque, in oilskin caps, coats, and leggings, wearing that expression on their physiognomies peculiar to Anglo-Saxons in the rain. 

Isabella Lucy Bird in later life. Still scowling after seeing Shediac.

The Lady Le Marchant reached Bedeque and Isabella was safely ashore by six in the morning. There she parted from a colleague who had accompanied her on the trip up from Charlottetown and took a welcome break in the voyage, taking tea and drying her clothing, thankful of the reprieve.

Who, that has ever experienced the misiries of a voyage in a dirty, crowded, and ill-ventilated little steamer has also not appreciated the pleasurers of getting on land even for a few minutes? The consciousness of the absence of suffocating sensations, and of the comfort of a floor which does not move under the feet – of space, cleanliness, and warmth – soon produce an oblivion of all past miseries; but if the voyage has not terminated, and the relief is only temporary, it enhances the dread of future ones to such an extent that, when the captain came to the door to fetch me, I had to rouse all my energies before I could leave a blazing fire to battle with cold and rain again.

The wharf in Bedeque, more properly Green’s Wharf, which would become Summerside, was only a small one and unless the tide was full could not handle the Lady Le Marchant, small as she was. Passengers and goods had to be rowed back and forth. Isabella had to stand in the boat, her feet deep in water with a group of gentlemen with dripping umbrellas. Getting aboard the steamer brought little relief.

I went down to my miserable berth, and vainly tried to sleep, the discomfort and mismanagement which prevailed leading my thoughts by force of contrast to the order, cleanliness, and regularity of the inimitable line of steamers on the West Highland coast. Where ever the means of locomotion are concerned, these colonies are very far behind either the “old country” or their enterprising neighbours in Canada; and at present they do not appear conscious of the deficiencies which are sternly forced on a traveller’s observation.

The prospect which appeared through the door was not calculated to please, as it consisted of a low, dark, and suffocating cabin filled with men in suits of oilskin, existing in a steamy atmosphere, loaded with odours of india–rubber, tobacco and spirits. The stewardess was ill, and my companions were groaning; unheeded babies were crying…  My clothes were completely saturated.

They reached Shediac about noon and Isabella was of the opinion that it presented “every appearance of unhealthiness”.  In the early 1850s Shediac was still an important timber port visited by large numbers of British and European timber ships. However the harbour was shallow and the Lady LeMarchant was forced to anchor about two miles away from the landing place at Harrington’s Shore on the west side of the bay. There was little in the way of a village but the place was the end point of a stage line to “The Bend” (now Moncton) and from there steamers and other stages to Saint John could be had. Isabella was not impressed with Shediac:

Shediac Harbour. Detail from the Chart of Shediac Bay by H.W. Bayfield 1849. Note absence of wharves or a village on the current town site or at Pointe de Chene

Shediac had recently been visited by the cholera, and there was an infectious melancholy about its aspect, which, coupled with the fact that I was wet, cold, and weary … had a tendency to produce anything but a lively frame of mind. 

We and our baggage were unceremoniously trundled into two large boats, some of the gentlemen, I am sorry to say, forcing their way into the first, in order to secure for themselves places on the stage. 

As we were rowing to shore, the captain told us that our worst difficulty was yet to come – an insuperable one, he added, to corpulent persons. There was no landing place for boats, or indeed for anything at low water, and we had to climb up a wharf ten feet high, formed of huge round logs, placed a foot apart from each other, and slippery with sea grass.  It is really incredible that, at sa place through which a considerable traffic passes, as being on the high road from Prince Edward Island t the United States, that should there be a more inconvenient landing-place than I ever saw at a Highland village.  

With a few years much had changed. In 1857 the European and North American Railway had been completed between Shediac and The Bend of the Peticodiac, as Moncton was known at the time. Three years later, just in time for the visit of the Prince of Wales, the tracks were extended to Saint John, and more importantly for Prince Edward Island, to Pointe du Chene where a wharf was built which could accommodate most steamers, even at low tide.

Isabella Lucy BIrd was undaunted by the travel in the Maritimes. She made an extensive trip through North America and published the results as The Englishwoman in America in 1856 and over the next forty years went on to be a world traveller with trips to the Rocky Mountains, Japan, India and Persia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and China. She was the first woman to be a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. She died in 1904.

Her travels on Prince Edward Island take up several chapters in The Englishwoman in America and provide a fascinating glimpse of the colony at mid-century. An on-line copy can be found here.     

 

James Duncan – Charlottetown’s Biggest Bankrupt

The Duncan shipyard property in 1878 at the time of Duncan’s bankruptcy. Duncan’s house was on the corner of Prince Street with its conservatory. The property also included a residence to the west which dated to the 1820s. Image from the Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878.

Between the Steam Navigation Wharf (which had carried the names of Reddin’s Wharf and Pope’s Wharf) and the Ferry Wharf at the end of Prince Street  lies a property of some significance to the history of Prince Edward Island. Here the foreshore stood at the foot of a high embankment and the waters were relatively shallow so that any wharf would have to be quite long to reach the channel.  Instead of a wharf the property became the site of one of the few shipyards on the waterfront.

The Duncan shipyard saw the building of a number of ships but most of the vessels owned by James Duncan were built elsewhere and  closer to the raw materials required, many in the Mt. Stewart area.   However the Duncan shipyard was the site of the building of the largest ship ever launched on Prince Edward Island, the Ethel, which displaced 1795 tons when she slid down the ways and promptly went aground in June 1858. Luckily the 205 foot ship had to wait only until the next spring tides before she was freed.

Duncan Shipyard property in 1863. Detail from D.J. Lake Topographical Map of Prince Edward Island

Andrew Duncan and James Duncan (who may have been brothers) were both involved in shipbuilding in the 1840s. Andrew had a shipyard in Elliot River and was one of the Directors of the Steam Navigation Company. Their firm A.& J. Duncan & Co., which also included James Duncan Mason who may have been another relation, was dissolved in 1855 and reconstituted as Duncan, Mason & Co. with Robert Robinson Hodgson as a new partner. One of their first projects was the building of a large 3 1/2 story brick store on the corner of Dorchester and Queen Streets which still stands.

Duncan Building on corner of Queen and Water Streets. Meacham’s Atlas of Prince Edward Island 1880.

For the next two decades the firm reaped the benefits of the wood, wind and water economy  building and selling or managing dozens of vessels. James Duncan became a member of the Island’s Council and participated in a wide range of civic activities. Shipbuilding in PEI reached a peak in the late 1860s but leveled off and was relatively steady at a lower level through to the mid 1870s. However Island builders had difficulty matching their output with the market and prices and production dropped after 1875.  In 1878 only 35 vessels were built in the Island and about half were sent to Great Britain for sale. By the end of 1879 only 10 of these had sold and at unfavourable prices. James Duncan and Co. were caught with large debts and ships they were unable to sell at other than a loss. 

James Duncan House in 2005. Photo: City of Charlottetown

In October 18978 the Merchant’s Bank of Prince Edward Island pushed Duncan & Co. into bankruptcy and a loss of confidence in the bank, which was one of Duncan’s largest creditors, meant it almost went under as well, saved only by investment from other Island banks.  There were many significant losses. Two creditors were each owed more than $100,000; Sir James Malcolm who was Duncan’s British agent was owed $119,000, and the Merchants Bank was owed $146,000 (3.1 million and 3.8 million respectively in todays funds) Another 17 companies were owed more than $1000 each and many others faced losses at lesser amounts. For small businesses even a slight loss could tip them from profit to loss. The Duncan bankruptcy had a ripple effect as the effects spread across the community. The total amount of liabilities of bankrupt firms on Prince Edward Island more than doubled over the previous year.  Duncan & Co. was soon wound up but the assets brought in far less than was needed and the settlement was only 32 cents on each dollar owed. Carvell Bros., who had not been a major Duncan creditor, suspended their operations blaming the failure of many of their customers but they were able to re-open their doors by the end of 1879. Two of the Island’s marine insurance companies stopped writing new policies and crossed their fingers that they would have no major claims which would bankrupt them and luckily both survived.

James Duncan was briefly jailed and his assets were seized by creditors and liquidated.  These assets which included several ships, the Duncan shipyard property, and the Duncan property on Water Street including the contents were all sold for the benefit of creditors. Much of the property was purchased by Captain Ronald McMillan who built a coal depot on the shipyard site.

James Duncan Property 1873 (outlined in green). Note how the shoreline comes almost up to the buildings. Note building wing “form’ly the Foundry” and the blacksmith shop. The solid red line shows the property of the Prince Edward Island Railway. Dotted line shows possible route of railway extension to Great George Street. This land was expropriated in the 1880s.

Several of the Duncan properties still stand; the large brick double store on the corner of Queen and Dorchester Streets, Duncan’s residence at the corner of Prince Street and Water and the large building (now apartments) next door to the west which had originally been the store of Messrs. Waters & Birnie and which was likely built in the early 1820s.  It was also the site of the Phoenix foundry. The foundry and a blacksmith forge were still on the property in 1873 and were likely used in conjunction with the shipyard.  Other than the two residences traces of the estate and shipyard have disappeared under the Confederation Landing Park. James Duncan left Prince Edward Island soon after the bankruptcy and died in Scotland in 1889.

Where was the Island’s first “Public Hospital”?

Examiner (Charlottetown) 4 August 1851. p.3

Health care was very much a private matter in the first half of the 19th century Prince Edward Island. The colony had a smattering of doctors and there was a hospital building at the military garrison located at the western end of Water Street. However the hospital building at the barracks served only the small military establishment and it was sold in 1845 and either torn down or removed from the site.

There were two exceptions to the determination of health issues as private and the responsibility of families. The first of these was the necessity of protecting the citizens from infectious diseases such as smallpox and typhus which often reached the colony accompanying immigrants or the crews of ships. Then, as now, one of the first lines of defence was quarantine and there are reports of temporary isolation hospitals being set up to deal with disease outbreak. The other exception was mental illness which taxed the abilities of families to provide the long-term care needed. In the 1840s a lunatic asylum was built on farmland in in Brighton to provide relief and limited treatment and it also served as a workhouse for the indigent.

Both the Charlottetown Hospital (established in 1879) and the Prince Edward Island Hospital (established in 1884) lay claim to being the first public hospital in Prince Edward Island. Is it possible that these claims are made in error?  

In 1851 the Charlottetown Board of Health, established by the Colonial Government, was provided with funds to build a public hospital  and tenders were called in August of that year for the erection of the hospital, sinking a well, and excavating a cellar. Later tenders for the supply of posts and the erection of a fence around the “Public Hospital Ground” gave a location for the new facility – the south-western corner of the Government House Grounds.  The Public Accounts of the Colony record that £251 had been spent for the erection of a new building for a hospital” in 1851.

Detail from a plan of Government House Farm 1856. The hospital can be seen at the extreme left . Image Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum.

The building shows up on Duchess Point an 1856 plan of the Government House property and is featured on  an 1869 edition of Bayfield’s Chart of Charlottetown Harbour.  As a building on an easily identifiable part of the waterfront it would have had value on a chart as an aid to navigation. However by the time that the chart revisions had reached the printing stage the landmark had disappeared. However It continued to appear on later editions of the chart into the 20th century.

Detail of Government House property from 1869 Chart of Charlottetown Harbour.

Unfortunately there seems to be little or no information about the building or how it operated. Was it truly a public hospital providing a range of services or was it, as is suggested below, simply another name for an insolation or quarantine hospital?. The location at some remove from the town suggests  that this may be the case. We can conclude that it was unsuccessful in addressing the health care needs of the city for a dozen years later, in April 1863, it was advertised for sale by auction. In the sale advertisement the building is described as “commonly known as the Quarantine Hospital. In an unusual desire for speed the building was to be removed within a week of the sale.

Examiner (Charlottetown) 29 April 1863 p.3

The sale was scoffed at by the editor of the Examiner newspaper who saw it as a false economy. The building, on which several hundred pounds had been spent sold for only £18!  “Should any infectious disease be brought into our community, where are the unfortunate patients to be put? That is a question which evidently does not alarm our government.” asked the paper’s editor. The question was to be answered  by a series of attempts to establish a separate isolation hospital but was ultimately decided through the erection of not one, but two, hospitals in the city between 1879 and 1884. 

Prior to the discovery of these advertisements concerning the “public hospital” I had convinced myself that the hospital on Duchess Point on the Government House Grounds was an error on the chart. I should never have doubted Her Majesty’s  Hydrographers. However the building had disappeared in 1863 and the chart did not appear for another six years so technically it was a defective aid to navigation.

For an earlier posting detailing more of the rich and confusing history of Charlottetown’s marine and quarantine hospitals click here

Post script July 2020.  Expert researcher and genealogist Linda Jean Nicholson appears to have resolved the main question of this posting, From her experience in researching health matters she has provided a note from the appendices for the PEI House of Assembly for 1862 (a year before the building was torn down) from the Charlottetown Health Officer, Dr. John T. Jenkins, complaining of conditions at the quarantine hospital and stating that in the absence of any other public hospital those with serious medical problems would show up at both the Lunatic Asylum (also in Brighton ) and the quarantine hospital seeking help.