Imperfectly Known Dangers: Sailing Directions for Hillsborough Bay 1855

The 1830s and 1840s saw a major improvement in the aids to navigation on Northumberland Strait and Hillsborough Bay. A black can buoy was in place at Fitzroy Rock to mark one known hazard by the late 1830s. The Bay was surveyed under direction from the Colonial Government in 1839 and a chart published in 1842.  In 1841 Captain Henry Wolsey Bayfield transferred the headquarters of the Hydrographic Survey from Quebec to Charlottetown and quickly began to chart the Strait as well as the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence. In 1845 the colonial government commissioned the building of a lighthouse at Point Prim which showed the entrance to the Bay. The following year a chart of the Bay was published based on Bayfield’s survey.

Prior to this activity the only charts were those of J.F.W. DesBarres published in the 1780s  and they contained little more detail than the information from the Holland survey in 1764, twenty years earlier. Since the Holland survey dealt with the land, the chart contained little marine detail and only a few soundings.

Detail from J.F.W. DesBarres Chart of the South-Eastern Coast of the Island of St. John. Published as part of the Atlantic Neptune ca. 1785. Detailed soundings are rare and many hazards are not shown.

One essential aid to navigation, then as now, was the series of published “Sailing Directions” or “Pilots” which added navigation details to the charts. These were often complied from the observations of ship’s captains.  For example many of the observations on the navigation of the waters of the Maritimes are from the log of H.M. Sloop Ranger which was on fisheries patrol in the area in 1831. The Sailing Directions could be extremely detailed or frustratingly vague. An edition of 1810 said only this of Hillsborough Bay:

Hillsborough Bay is the finest bay in the island, and the River Hillsborough is a fine navigable river; but timber here is not plentiful.  Before Charlotte Town in this river, there is good anchorage in from 6 to 9 fathoms.  

We praise Bayfield for the excellence of his charts but the first edition of his Sailing Guide which includes Prince Edward Island, published by the British Admiralty in 1847 is a magnificent achievement and is as much a contribution to navigation as the charts themselves.  He introduces the section on Hillsborough Bay thusly: “The numerous dangers it contains, having hitherto been very imperfectly known and represented have rendered its navigation extremely difficult to strangers in a large ship; but this will now be obviated, it is conceived, by the Admiralty Chart accompanied by the following directions.” He then goes on for a full ten pages describing the hazards of the bay and the directions for avoiding them.

Detail of Bayfield’s 1846 Chart of Hillsborough Bay showing Huntley Rock, Fitzroy Rock and Astyanyx Rock. Detailed soundings can easily be seen.

The sailing directions were a very marketable item and every ship, except perhaps those in the local coastal trade, would have had a copy for the area for which they were destined.  Copies were published using Bayfield’s information with no regard for the copyrights of the Admiralty. There were English and American editions, both official and otherwise, as well as dozens of other editions, reprints, additions, improvements and condensations. A French-language of the Bayfield volume was published in 1864. One English version by hydrographer J.S. Hobbs published in 1855, had the remarkably comprehensive and descriptive title:

Part of the title page of an 1855 edition of Sailing Directions

A small sampling of the information contained (condensed from the Bayfield edition)  follows:

Hillsborough Bay is the finest bay in the island; within it is the principal harbour and capital town of Charlotte Town, which is advantageously situated on the northern bank of the Hillsborough, where the deep water approaches nearest to the shore. The town is well laid out with squares and its streets at right angles; the houses are generally of wood, and the population about 5000. All kinds of supplies may be obtained here, and there is sufficient water in the harbour for the largest ships; and the Hillsborough River is navigable for large ships 7 or 8 miles above Charlotte Town; smaller vessels may go farther up: the shores are all well settled. It is high water full and change, at 10h. 45m. ; spring-tides rise 9 1/2 feet, neeps 7 feet. Ships generally lie off the wharves of the town, where the channel is nearly 10 fathoms deep and 280 fathoms wide.

Strangers or those unacquainted, when bound to Charlotte Town, should take a pilot; but in the event of not meeting one outside, the bay may be safely entered, and good anchorage will be found N.W. of Governor Island, until a pilot can be obtained. When entering the bay from the westward the leading mark is Pownall’s Point, just touching the north point of Governor Island, bearing E. by N. run in with this mark, until you see the Presbyterian Church , and as soon as it is in one with Block-house Point  N. by E. 1/2 E. steer N.E. by E. or N.E. 1/2 E., according to the tide, until the west side of Government-house and Battery Point come in one bearing N. 1/2 E.; these latter marks lead up the deep-water channel to Trout Point, at the entrance of the harbour. If you cannot see the leading marks, keep along the southern and eastern edge of the St. Peter’s Shoals, in 5 fathoms, up to near the Spit Head buoy, then anchor.

When coming from the eastward at night, Point Prim Light must not be brought to the westward of N.N.W., to avoid the Rifleman Shoal; and Prim Reef should be rounded at 10 fathoms, in a large ship; smaller vessels may cross it in 4 or 5 fathoms. As soon as the light bears to the southward of E. by S. 1/4 S. , and in not less than 10 fathoms of low water, or with Point Prim E. by S. , you will be to the northward of the reef. The course across the bay must be north or N. 1/2 E. , in thick weather or at night; the object being to strike soundings on the southern edge of the bank off St. Peter’s Island, and following it to the north-eastward, in 5 fathoms , till about 1 1/2 miles within the Fitzroy Rock, where you may anchor off Governor Island, in good holding ground, and wait for daylight, or a pilot. In clear weather, your course from the outer end of Prim Reef, in 10 fathoms, will be N. by E 1/2 E., about 5 miles.

Except in areas where there was silting in the harbours or where sandbars and shoals shifted with wind and tide the hazards to navigation changed little over the years. Although published over 170 years ago Bayfield’s sailing guide could still be used today to bring a ship into safe harbour in Charlottetown.

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Cruising to New York – The S.S. Trinidad

Postcard showing the Trinidad ca. 1910. Phil Culhane collection. http://www.peipostcards.ca/collection/

In spite of the extreme difficulties associated with winter travel across Northumberland Strait, in the other three seasons of the year Prince Edward Island was reasonably served with the “continuous steam navigation” sought in the  confederation agreement.  With direct services to the mainland across Northumberland Strait, to Montreal and Quebec through the Gulf, and to New England via Halifax and Boston one could get from the Island to just about everywhere served by steamship and rail – if you weren’t in a hurry.

Most coverage of P.E.I.’s international connections has centred on the “Boston Boat”, the regular steamer service provided by at least one, and often more, steamship lines. These links pre-dated confederation and lasted until the Great War and served the trade links and flow of population between the Island and New England.

What is less well-remembered is that the province had direct steamer service to New York for several years early in the twentieth century. The Quebec and Gulf Ports Steamship Line, later the Quebec Steamship Line, had run a service between Montreal , Quebec and Pictou, stopping at Summerside, Charlottetown and Gaspe for several years.  At the same time the company  had regular sailings between New York and Bermuda, a service which had begun in 1874 and continued for more than forty years.  One of the vessels used on this route was the steamer Trinidad.

SS Trinidad at Bermuda ca. 1890 before being lengthened. Note the single funnel.

The Trinidad was built for the Quebec Steamship Company in 1884 at Deptford on the Wear River in northern England. She was 270 feet long and the 2100 ton ship operated primarily as a freight vessel with limited passenger accommodation.  She had been built specifically for use on the crossing between New York and Bermuda but also travelled elsewhere in the West Indies. The run was profitable and nine years later the Trinidad was sent back to the Wear and was rebuilt in Sunderland. Forty feet were added to her length and tonnage increased to 2600 tons. A new engine was installed and the look of the vessel was significantly changed with the addition of second funnel. More importantly cabins and saloon were overhauled and renovated and new accommodation added.  She was now capable of carrying 170 first class passengers.  The New York Times stated she looked like a miniature liner.

Stern view of the Trinidad

In 1908, the tercentenary of Champlain’s voyage of Quebec the company began a summer service using the Trinidad to travel from New York to Quebec stopping at Halifax and Charlottetown.  Following the stranding and loss of the Campana the Trinidad took over her duties on the subsidized Quebec to Pictou Service and the further use of the vessel to go to New York was suspended for the rest of the season although it resumed the following year.  A review describing the vessel appeared in the Quebec Chronicle in June 1909

SS Trinidad at Gaspe

[She is] fitted up in the most modern style as a passenger steamer. Her salon, a handsomely furnished apartment is situated amidships, and has accommodation for nearly 200 passengers. Immediately forward of the salon is the ladies sitting room, most tastefully fitted up and furnished …[and aft], a cosy smoking room, where gentlemen can enjoy a quiet smoke of their favourite brand … while discussing topics of the day. There is also a music room in  which both sexes can meet and listen to the music of a first class piano … staterooms are lofty, well ventilated, and comfortably furnished. The passages to them are wide and lofty, being richly carpeted. On the upper or boat deck is a promenade extending nearly the full length of the steamer. This deck is covered with canvas awnings and is well supplied with chairs.  

In the winter season the Trinidad returned to the Bermuda run which became increasingly popular and the ship turned from being mere transportation to a cruise experience. In 1911, for example,  advertising notices appeared such as one in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle touting the Quebec cruise which covered 1500 miles over five days. “The voyage during the summer months is a veritable yachting trip, and the rates of passage so low that it is brought within the  reach of the most moderate income. “

In fact there were great differences between the New York Service and the Boston Boat. The former  was primarily a cruise line. Charlottetown was a port on the route rather than the terminus and the main business was the tourist. For those wishing to get from New York to Quebec there were much quicker rail connections.  The Trinidad made the round trip only once every two weeks and only in the high summer season  while the Plant Line had a regular weekly or semi-weekly service which began in the spring and extended into the fall.  While the Plant Line Steamers did have a major cruise component it was still very much a shipping line.  Some Islanders did travel to New York on the Trinidad but it never did have the same intimate connection with the Island as the Boston Boat.

In 1913 the Quebec Steamship Company became part of Canada Steamship Lines and the following year the Quebec to New York service was cancelled. During the Great War the Trinidad was used to carry supplies across the Atlantic and between England and France. Prior to the United States entering the war in 1917 the Trinidad was known to have travelled under a false name and neutral registry port. The ship was sold in 1917 and was torpedoed in March 1918 while travelling between Rouen and Liverpool and sank in the Irish Sea.