Margaree Steamship’s S.S. Farnorth – The last of the Boston Boats

The S.S. Farnorth, probably in Halifax ca. 1935. Photo from http://www.tynebuiltships.co.uk/R-Ships/richardwelford1908.html

The direct connection between Prince Edward Island and Boston which existed for more than fifty years was broken during the Great War when the Plant Steamship Company elected to taken the last of their steamers off the run owing to war conditions. However there were probably sound economic reasons for ending the service as well.  Passengers had other options with the development of better rail connections which gave speedy access to New England and patterns began to shift as more and more Islanders were going to Montreal, Toronto and the west. There was also less north-south trade as Canadian manufacturers from central Canada took over Atlantic markets.

Never the less the idea died hard and for many years the Charlottetown Board of Trade lobbied for a resumption of the direct connection. After a gap of twenty years the idea seemed to have died but it was revived in 1934 when Wentworth N. McDonald, owner of Margaree Shipping of Sydney Cape Breton bought the steamer Farnorth  which had been owned by the bankrupt Farquhar Steamship Company.  Farquhar had operated several shipping routes in Atlantic Canada and its ships were occasional visitors to Charlottetown, taking cargos to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland ports.

The new service was to be provided by the 255 foot Farnorth which had been operating throughout the Gulf of Lawrence for a decade under the ownership of Farquhar & Co,. of Halifax.  The ship had been completed in 1908 having been built in the Jarrow Yard of the Palmer Shipbuilding and Iron Company on the Tyne. She was originally named the Richard Welford and was operated by  a Newcastle company. In 1915 she was hired as an armed boarding steamer by the Admiralty and although torpedoed off Gibraltar she was repaired and survived the war. She was returned to her owners in 1919 and re-named the Hethpool.

S.S. Farnorth, launched in 1908 as the Richard Welford. Photo from http://www.tynebuiltships.co.uk/R-Ships/richardwelford1908.html

The ship was powered by a triple-expansion steam engine generating 350 horsepower giving (when new) a speed of 13 knots. It was a mixed cargo and passenger vessel, originally configured for 60 – 70 1st class and 40 2nd class passengers.

The new owner in 1934 was the Nova Scotia-based Margaree Steamship Company owned by Wentworth N. MacDonald of Sydney. MacDonald would have been know to Islanders as he owned a variety of small steamers including the Constance and the Enterprise which served Island ports.

Unlike the Plant Line steamers which operated on a Charlottetown – Halifax – Boston routing the Farnorth’s schedule was a little more of a meander. It advertised Boston – Halifax – Charlottetown – Mulgrave – Port Hawkesbury – St. Peter’s Canal – Baddeck and the Sydneys  (both Sydney and North Sydney) where one could connect with the Newfoundland Railway steamers.  The service re-established an old route whereby one could travel from Montreal to Boston or New York with the Farnorth connecting with the Clarke Shipping steamer Gaspesia at Charlottetown. The vessel arrived in Charlottetown on 10-day schedule with a fare starting at $50 for the round trip including stateroom and meals or $26 from Boston to Charlottetown  ($30 from Charlottetown to Boston to account for the additional time taken through the Bras d’Or lakes)  With a nod to the changing tourism patterns they also advertised transport for automobiles beginning at $16 in either direction.

In 1935 McDonald spoke to the Charlottetown Board of Trade about the service he had established the previous year. He said he considered that the Charlottetown to Boston route had great possibility of additional passengers and freight. He did however, hint that the four months of operation in 1934 had not met expectation noting that the route had  been dormant for twenty years and that the period could be considered “a fair trial.”  He asked the Board of Trade to lobby for a subsidy for the service but at the same meeting a letter was read from the Trade and Commerce Department stating that the route was not being considered for assistance. It appears however that a subsidy was provided with a required number of trips to qualify.

By early November 1935  the Farnorth had been suddenly taken of the route and sailings cancelled without notice, a move that caused concern for shippers as the move left freight bound for Prince Edward Island on the wharves at Boston and other ports. It was reported that the ship had made the required trips to access the subsidy and then ceased service. The following year the Charlottetown – Boston route was dropped entirely but the steamer continued to call irregularly for freight, especially potatoes, for both the Newfoundland and Boston markets for the next few years. Fond remembrances of the Boston boat could not recapture the traffic lost to rails and roads, and even in in the 1930s to air routes.  It is unlikely the more than 100 passenger berths on the Farnorth were ever more than sparsely filled in the 1935 season. The day of the Boston boat was well over.

In 1937 the Farnorth owners were soliciting support for their steamer in a proposal to put her on the Charlottetown – Pictou route, which was being served by the S.S. Hochelega, promising to cut side loading doors in their steamer in order to load take autos, but they were not successful and later that year the ship was sold to Fraser Shipping and seems to have ceased visits to Prince Edward Island. The Farnorth was sold and re-named several more times before finally being broken up in Baltimore in 1952.  Wentworth McDonald continued to have an interest in Prince Edward Island and was one of the original owners of Northumberland Ferries crossing between Wood Islands and Caribou.

Piracy in the Service of the State

Engagement between a French privateer and an armed merchant ship

Although I seem to have unaccountably missed International Talk Like a Pirate Day on 19 September I was reminded of it in reading British newspapers from the early 1800s. There are few pirate tales relating to Prince Edward Island and the closest we come are brief encounters with privateers during times or war.  The best known is the invasion of Charlotte Town by American privateers in the American Revolution when colonial officials were taken from the Island by New Englanders – an episode that resulted in an apology from George Washington (back in the days when U.S. presidents were still folks who could acknowledge that they were sometimes wrong). 

Many more lesser-known privateer episodes took place in later years when the British were pitted against the French and later the Americans in the Napoleonic era and extending to the War of 1812-14.  The continental blockade of European shipping resulted in a boom in the Atlantic timber trade and Prince Edward Island harbours were suddenly busy ports with dozens of timber ships visiting the colony. In addition to the inherent dangers of crossing the North Atlantic where hundreds of ships were lost by shipwreck, fire, collision and storms, the conflict with France, and later the United States, introduced a new hazard as privateers sought to disrupt British shipping.  The unarmed and sparsely-crewed slow-moving timber ships laden with timber, sawn deals (planks), lathwood, masts and spars were easy pickings for the vessels given letters of marque by governments. It was these letters of marque that differentiated the privateers from pirates for they set out a legal process concerning the control and management of the captured vessels and their crews. 

A captured vessel could meet with several fates. Most preferable for the privateer was to send the ship to their home port with a prize crew where the ship and cargo would be sold and the proceeds divided amongst the privateer owners and crew. In other cases the ship would be plundered and then scuttled or burnt.  Crews of captured ships would be put into longboats if near the shore or kept on the privateer if on the high seas. If the privateer became overcrowded through successful captures the crews of captured vessels might be put on one of the captured vessels and released.

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser [London] 23 August 1810 p.3

Some privateers were extremely successful, others were themselves captured or sunk, especially after the British began to use convoys with merchantmen protected by the Royal Navy. By 1810 some of the vessels sent out to Prince Edward Island and other timber ports began to advertise that they were armed. The Sir Sidney Smith, for example, soon to leave for Prince Edward Island  was announced as a “fast-sailing cutter” with “eight carriage guns.” The vessel was named for an English admiral who just happened to be brother of Charles Douglas Smith who was shortly to become Governor of Prince Edward Island. The capture by privateers was so common during the 1812-14 war that some newspapers carried dedicated columns with news of vessels encountering privateers. A taste of the intensity of the privateer’s activities (and a degree of honour and trust) can be seen in a note in the London Globe in February 1811 when the conflict with the French was at its peak. Ironically this action involved the Sir Sidney Smith noted earlier.

The Invincible Bonaparte, French Corvette privateer of 18 gun, on Friday, se’nnight, in long. 30 lat. 47, captured the smack Sir Sidney Smith of Portsmouth with a cargo of timber from Prince Edward’s Island, which she kept in possession one day, and then put the crews of the following vessels, which she had captured, on board the Sir Sydney Smith, and liberated her, viz. brig Princess, of Portsmouth, which she burnt; Clyde of Leith, which she burnt: l’Amitie of Jersey, from Honduras with mahogany , which she sent to France; brig Hope of Poole, from Newfoundland, which she sent to France; ship Bellona from Plymouth for Boston, with wine and brandy, which she burnt. The Captain  of the privateer gave the Sir Sydney Smith and her cargo to the Captains of the six vessel; previously condemning her under his own seal, which he said he had authority to do; and he delivered the documents to the Masters, with a muster roll of the crews, for whom French prisoners, are to be released and sent to France. He put 39 persons on board the Sir Sidney Smith, and the crew of that vessel consisted of eight; all of whom for the last nine days, were living upon a biscuit and 2 oz. of meat each a day;  part of which they were indebted to the Master of the Invincible Bonaparte for who gave them three barrels of bread when he left them. The Sir Sydney Smith arrived in this port [Portsmouth] yesterday.                        

Globe [London] 4 February 1811 p.3

The Invincible Bonaparte had a remarkable war history being captured herself a total of five times between 1812 and 1814 serving as a privateer for both the French and Americans at various times throughout the period and capturing at least 20 vessels. At the war’s end she was under British command.

“most suitable for an afternoon’s enjoyment” Excursions in the Bay – 1877

On hot summer days it is refreshing to think that for many of us getting to the beach is only a matter of jumping into a car and heading out. This ease of access to the sea shore is a relatively recent phenomena for Charlottetown. In spite of being a port the shoreline is remarkably inaccessible as there is not a really good beach within the city limits. There was bathing at Victoria Park and Kensington Beach and for the uninhibited there was always the attraction of swimming off the wharves. But this was hardly a family or social activity. Accessing a real beach meant a train ride to Hunter River or Bedford and then by wagon to Rustico or Tracadie where there were summer hotels, a round trip that could easily take all day.  Or one could take the Southport ferry and then go by carriage to Keppoch or Langly Beach.

What was accessible however, was a mini-ocean voyage or cruise to the mysterious Islands in Hillsborough Bay.  There was no regular steamer service but vessels were available and for a moderate expense a party could charter one of several boats to go beyond Charlottetown’s Pillars of Hercules (Blockhouse Point and Seatrout Point) to the Bay beyond, an area marked in the townsfolk’s mental map with the warning “here be dragons.”

The exotic realm beyond the Harbour’s Mouth was popular with groups of all sizes. Pooling of resources for a sports club, fraternal lodge, or Sunday school put the cost of a charter within almost everyone’s grasp and these sorts of excursions were a popular fund-raiser.

An article in the 25 August 1877 Semi-Weekly Patriot details the attractions of the islands of the bay. Of the two islands St. Peters was the more hospitable with four farmsteads and a fish stage (later a lobster factory). It would soon have  schoolhouse and a lighthouse.  Today it is uninhabited and slowly reverting to forest and marsh and the extensive reefs make landing difficult for all but shallow draft boats. The lighthouse had been decommissioned by 2020, but it still has an attraction. Venturing to the interior will expose you to significant danger from the champion mosquitos raised on the island.

St. Peter’s Island 1880. Meacham’s Atlas

Very few of our people  have ever been on either Governor’s or St. Peter’s Island, or know that the latter is well cultivated and contains over 400 acres of land, divided into four farms, has good water, diversity of scenery, sheltering trees, good beach, fine lookout on the strait, and is in every way most suitable for an afternoon’s enjoyment. If you wish to take a party over forty, get the Southport, with her fine deck for dancing; leave the city about 2 p.m.: Capt. Mutch will land you on the Island dry-footed, and unharmed in an hour and a half. Spread the cloths. “do” the Island; there are obliging residents who will boil the water for tea or coffee, and whose horse and cart you can get to haul the heavier baskets &c. to land from the boat.

St. Peter’s Island 2020. Google Earth.

Three hours can be pleasantly spent on the Island and should you have chose a moonlit night the steam home will be most enjoyable, the music on the water, fast flitting feet, happy faces and voices, and the perfect safety, thanks to the obliging captain and crew, will make one think that the landing at the pier at 9 p.m.is too early. Should you desire to go in a smaller party, say eight, fourteen or 25, then Batt’s Tub [sic] Boat will run down and back for about $10, or the Daisy, if not occupied by her owners, will do it for half the money but carries fewer people than the Tug. The Southport will cost you about $25, which is certainly very little for a boat capable of carrying 1,200 people.

More isolated and without a resident population Governor’s Island is even less visited although seal watching draws quite a few to the shores but few brave the rocks land on the beaches. The downwind stench of an extensive cormorant rookery which is gradually killing off any of the trees of the Island is a further deterrent to visits. The moaning of the hundreds of seals on the island’s eastern sand spit and reefs at low tide is  a bizarre accompaniment to the visual desolation.

Governor’s Island about 1970.

Governor’s Island is a little farther outside the harbour’s mouth, is unsettled, but cuts a good deal of hay. Along its shore is good snipe shooting and mackerel fishing. On the reef looms the fog alarm while over all rests a deep calm and hush unbroken by passing steamers that pass too far “on the other side” and everything tends to rest the eyes and ears, and soothe the weary mind.

Even more accessible and cheaper,  but still carrying the hint of an ocean adventure was the ferry to Rocky Point with its several attractions for the day visitor.

Perhaps you choose rather to take a basket of picnic varieties step on board the Rocky Point Ferry Boat, enjoy the ten minutes run across, spread and appreciate the lunch on the bluff overlooking the Elliott or West River, and return to town in the cool of the evening, having some hours study of the everchanging scenes upon our harbour, with spirits greatly lightened for city work and life, and purse almost untouched.