A Yacht it was Not – the Dominion Steamer Petrel

DGS Petrel

With her ram bow and sleek lines the vessel looked a lot like a small yacht when she came into Charlottetown Harbour for the first time in 1905.  One could easily mistake the reason why the Petrel was cruising eastern waters. Was this the pleasure ship of a wealthy industrialist?  Indeed the gushing description of her interior which the Guardian borrowed from the Pictou Standard  re-enforced the impression.

It seems almost impossible that such a small craft can be made so comfortable and roomy. Every alteration gained room and comfort. The engineers’ and officers’ quarters and mess room are fitted with every modern convenience. The pantry is fitted in a style that would compare favorably with any the modern ocean liner can produce. Hot and cold water, steam heaters, and the finest equipment of china of any craft of her kind. The master’s dining room, which is immediately aft of the officers’ quarters, and the pantry reminds one of a miniature palace. It is only 12×22 feet and on each side is a beautiful plush settee of the finest red silk plush. The room is also beautifully carpeted, which with the beautifully enamelled walls makes as neat and pretty a dining room as one would wish to see. Just aft of this room is the master’s sleeping apartments, which are fitted on a par with every other part of the vessel. On the main deck is the chart room, in which are all the necessary charts and other equipment and flags for the international code signals.

The D.G.S. Petrel was to be a frequent visitor to P.E.I. waters – not as a pleasure cruiser but as a patrol vessel in the years before Canada had a navy. Her job was fisheries protection but she took on all sorts of tasks that a government boat might be expected to have and for several years her main port was Souris, overseeing the fisheries of the eastern Gulf.

The Petrel was not a new vessel in 1905 but  was new to salt water. She was launched in late 1892 from the Polson Ironworks yard in Owen Sound Ontario and was the last built of three near-identical armed patrol vessels designed to target illegal American fishing on the Great Lakes.  When tensions on the lakes lessened her sister-ships the Curlew and the Constance were transferred to the East Coast and were frequent visitors to Island harbours – the Constance was later to serve as a steamer on the Charlottetown to Pictou service.  Meanwhile on the lakes the Petrel had been rendered obsolete as American fishing craft turned more and more to high-powered engines and the Canadian vessel could not keep up. On the East Coast sail was still in heavy use for the fishing fleets.

This photograph is noted in some publications as being the Petrel, in others the ship is described as the Curlew. As both vessels were similar the name may not be relevant. It appears to be an early photo as over the years additional deckhouses were added to all three sister-ships. A small cannon can be seen at the stern of the vessel but this may not be an armament as the ships often participated as judging or starting boats in local regattas Photo: NAC PA136650 reprinted from Freshwater Vol. 10 No. 1

The Petrel was 116 feet long, 22 feet wide and drew 9 feet. In 1905 she carried a crew of 22 men  and the ship was armed with Ross rifles and Maxim-Nordenfeld quick-firing [machine] guns. She appears to have been re-built at the time of her transfer east. Originally fitted with a 54 horsepower engine, by 1905 her 400 horsepower coal-fired engine was said to be able to move her at 12 knots but she likely fell short of that as a working speed.  She was, however, more dependable than the vessel she replaced – the unpowered schooner Kingfisher which had been based for several years in Souris.  The Petrel monitored the activities of visiting American vessels and kept an eye on the local vessels seizing and destroying illegal nets and lobster traps.  Still, the luxurious accommodation was not entirely wasted on fisheries protection officers as the following article from the 1907 Sackville Tribune suggests:

Rev. C.F. Wiggins returned Saturday from one of the most enjoyable trips of his life. He was absent about a fortnight, the first week being spent in Summerside and Charlottetown, while the second week was spent on board the government cruiser, Petrel, in company with Sir Louis Davies , of Ottawa [at the time a supreme Court Justice]  and Mr. Hyndman of Charlottetown. They sailed through the Bras d’Or Lakes, visited Sir Graham Bell, called at Sydney, fished trout to their hearts’ content and had a good time generally. The Petrel landed Mr. Wiggins at the Narrows C.B., whence he took the train for Sackville.  

In 1912 the Petrel, Curlew and Constance were all fitted with minesweeping gear to assist the operations of the newly formed Canadian Navy and on the outbreak of war in 1914 they were was taken over by the navy for examination duties and coastal patrol. The Dominion Government Steamer Petrel became H.M.C.S. Petrel. She spent much of the war in the Bay of Fundy but when the navy added submarines to their fleet the Petrel was transferred to the Bras d’Or lakes and used to train hydrophone operators.  Like many other vessels the end of the war ended her government service although she continued to be listed in the Mercantile naval List as belonging to the Minister of Marine and Fisheries until the 1924 edition when she was owned by Labrador Goldfields Ltd. of Montreal.  Labrador Goldfields turned out to be a scam stock operation earning thousands of dollars for its Montreal owners. It appears that Petrel may have been briefly re-united with sisters Constance and Curlew as they were both leased to Labrador Goldfields by their Cape Breton owner, Wentworth MacDonald.

In 1927 the registration for the ship was transferred from Ottawa to Sydney and John T. Cruikshanks of Sydney was the owner – some sources note that the ship had been seized for smuggling at the time. Another Cape Bretoner, George Burchill became the owner in 1933. The Petrel was wrecked on the Magdalen Islands in June 1934 and her remains lie near the N.E. end of the Dune du Sud close to Grande Entrée. Divers can still visit her although little is left of the vessel, now over 120 years old.

The Petrel originally had a bad reputation on the Island as it was mistakenly confused by both editorial writers and politicians with another Petrel – a tug owned by the Collins Bay Rafting and Towing Company of Ontario. That ship had been chartered in 1896 to run between Cape Tormentine and Cape Traverse to test the theory that the strong tidal currents would keep the Strait ice-free and allow steamer passage. The vessel made a few early trips and was then trapped for the rest of the season at the Cape Traverse wharf by rafted board ice. The experiment proved to be a failure and was not repeated.

I am once again indebted to Kevin Griffin and his research on the Clarke Steamship Company – which is really a comprehensive study of merchant shipping in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – for providing information about the Labrador Goldfields and the coincidence of the possible reunion of the three sisters.  A link to his excellent series can be found here.



The West River Draw-bridge

For those living beside them, rivers can be both a blessing and a curse.  The river itself is a highway providing access for ships and boats to the communities and farms along their course. In winter it became a different sort of highway with ice providing a smooth passage both up and down and across its route. On P.E.I. river estuaries reached deep into the landscape and while giving communities access to the sea it also separated them. One area where this was a special problem was along the West or Elliott River.  In early years those living south of the river faced a long trip inland to Bonshaw on their way to Charlottetown.  The unbroken shoreline meant that for those in Cumberland or Rocky Point a trip to town, which they could easily see across the water, was a twenty-mile trip – barely doable in a day. Moreover the route went into the Bonshaw Hills with steep horsepower-destroying grades.

Mac Irwin’s Roamer coming down river ready to pass through the draw of the West River bridge. The raising of the draw may have been something of a local attraction.  All effort was manual, using hand-cranked winches to lift the draw leaves – two can be seen to the left of the photo. This picture originally appeared in the excellent Clyde River community web-site at https://clyderiverpei.com/2010/03/04/original-bridge-at-dunedin/ 

Until 1881 there was no bridge across the Eliott although there were a number of wharves and a steamer service went up and down the river. There was a rope-ferry across the river at Westville but the service seems to have sporadic.  A bridge was needed and according to Walter Shaw’s in his local history, Tell Me The Tales, there was a local battle for the site. Was it to be Westville, not far from the present causeway, or farther inland?

Detail of Lot 31 showing site of Westville ferry and the site which would be chosen for the West River Bridge. Meacham’s Atlas 1880.

Wherever it was to be built it would function as a terminal for the river steamers because they would simply be too large to pass under or through a bridge.  The higher up the river the more local residents could reach the steamers. The St. Catherine’s proponents of a site near Shaw’s wharf were successful and a 1250 foot pile structure was thrown across the tidal waters.  However access to the upper reaches of the River was still needed, albeit for smaller vessels, and the bridge contained an 18 foot draw section.  The same arrangement was made for a number of other Island bridges.  At Morell for example, a swing bridge on the railway and a draw-bridge at the village allowed small boats to go 8 miles into the hinterland.   With the creation of the West River crossing a small community developed at the north end of the bridge with a general store and a few houses. The community was called Dunedin. There was a post office there from 1892 to 1913. It was here that the steamers such as the Southport,  City of London and the Harland ended their trips up river and in summer Dunedin was one of several picnic and excursion destinations on the West River. With the development of gasoline engines a number of smaller boats provided subsidized packet service above the bridge as far as Bonshaw.

Another group benefiting from the drawbridge was the increasing number of pleasure boaters who made the Strathgartney and Bonshaw areas as an excursion, fishing  and camping destination. Passing through the bridge was a brief but interesting interruption in the trip.

Air photo of the Dunedin bridge about 1937. While the wharf at the bridge is clearly visible there is no sign of a draw section.

The bridge was completely rebuilt in 1919 but the draw was retained. A warehouse was built on the east side of the bridge where goods could be transshipped to the steamers.  In 1929, following a jurisdictional dispute and not a little politicking, the Dominion Government built a warehouse at  Bonshaw and dredged shallow sections of the river above the Dunedin Bridge.

However, by the mid-1930s the traffic on the river had fallen off considerably, The subsidy for the gasoline boats was discontinued. While there were only a few wharves above the Dunedin bridge; McArthur’s and Bonshaw, they were little used and fell into disrepair. Roads had improved and cars and trucks became the favoured mode of transport.  In 1936 the bridge was replaced but this time there was no draw section.  Although the Conservative Charlottetown Guardian editorialized that the people of Bonshaw had received scant consideration by the Liberal Government the only concession made was that the Dunedin Bridge had a bit of a “hump” to give additional headroom so that small boats could more easily pass under the barrier.

For many years the remains of the wharf were visible at the bridge site but a recent rebuilding has removed even these modest reminders that the Elliott was once a water highway to the Bonshaw Hills.