A fixed link to Southport: The Hillsborough River Subway

Tired of waiting for the ferry across the Hillsborough to Southport? Take the tunnel instead.


The enthusiasm for the interprovincial tunnel can be seen in this artifact of the campaign. The Hillsborough Subway failed to generate the same kind of widespread support and was primarily a debate between the Government and Opposition.

The 1870s gave Prince Edward Islanders a great belief in the benefits of technology and the promise of prosperity was tied to new advances in transportation and communication. The Prince Edward Island Railway had linked the province’s towns and villages from end to end (excepting only the soft underbelly of Queens and Kings County) Along with the railway, the telegraph system formed a web linked to the mainland by the undersea cable. The annual winter isolation remained a problem although the advances proposed with improved vessels (see the Northern Light)  suggested that the solution was within reach.

By the mid-1880s it appeared to many that the solution to the Island’s isolation in the winter would be quickly solved by going under, rather than over, the Strait and in the midst of the mania for a fixed link in the guise tunnel, the forward thinkers of the province also saw a solution to the vexing question of linking Charlottetown and Southport. The same questions writ small held true for the Hillsborough as they did for Northumberland Strait.  Summer crossings were on unsatisfactory craft that were too small and too infrequent and the ice of winter meant that the southern parts of the province were cut off from the capital for long stretches.

1885 saw the beginning of a decade-long tunnel mania. All over the world tunnels were being proposed and built: under the Thames at London, under the Hudson at New York and even, it was daringly suggested, under the English Channel. Many of these were more properly “subways” – cast iron tubes dropped to the bottom of the river, bolted together and pumped dry – an apparently simple and cheap way to  connect the two sides of a river.

The tunnel was quickly adopted as the best way to link P.E.I., with the mainland and Senator George Howlan of Cascumpec was an early proponent, forming the Northumberland Straits Tunnel Railway Company in 1886 and ceaselessly lobbying for construction. The story of his obsession can be found in Boyde Beck’s article titled “Tunnel Vision” in the Spring/Summer 1986 issue of the The Island Magazine  found here.

Howlan had enlisted P.E.I. Premier W.W. Sullivan in his campaign to have the Dominion Government support (and pay for) the project and as part of his effort suggested that the Island government might consider a subway under the Hillsborough River while waiting for the Straits tunnel to get approval.  Sullivan and the Island government moved decisively. While the Legislature was sitting plans for the project were displayed in the legislative library and on 6 April Sullivan presented a bill calling for the construction of the Hillsborough Subway.

The link would run from one of the streets of Charlottetown to a point to be determined in Southport.  Sullivan outlined the advantages  and the financing.  Like so many projects (including many Public-Private Partnerships of more recent memory) it would cost the taxpayers nothing.  The cost and risk would be borne by a private company which would build it. The Province would allocate up to $300,000 for the project to be paid for by the company accepting 4% bonds payable in 30 years. The bond payments would be met by the province through the savings in not operating the Southport ferry and by avoiding the inevitable cost associated with replacing the ferries worn out in the crossing.  Another savings would in not having to build a bridge across the Hillsborough and replacing it on a regular basis as a bridge would only last for about five years on the swiftly flowing river.

The advantages would be obvious and would open up the southern part of the province to prosperity. Growth and benefits would accrue to the province’s capital. It might even serve as stimulus for the development of a long-desired branch railway to Murray Harbour. Although the subway would be built only for horses and carts and for foot traffic it would be designed so that trains could transit the route when the branch railway was finally built. A final point may have been the reason why Howlan and Sullivan were so supportive. The Premier noted “The successful construction of the work would show to the people of Canada that the proposed subway across the straits is not, as many think, impractical. In fact it would clearly demonstrate the practicality of the more important work in which the whole province is so deeply concerned. “

The opposition quickly waded in, challenging what they termed “an electioneering dodgem.” They argued that they had not been given promised details about the proposal and charged that the government had overstated the cost of the bridge alternative in order to make look like an unfavourable option and suggested that the cost of a bridge would shrink if it was built a little upstream from Charlottetown. Moreover the cost of the ferries could not be eliminated as they would still be needed serve Rocky Point, West River and Mr. Stewart. For them, the proposition was much too vague and lacked any kind of study on which to make a decision.  They estimated that the cost would be as much as double the figure suggested by the government. Operational costs had not been factored in. (Still a failing in many public initiatives)  In addition to servicing the debenture payments there would be a need for ventilation of the tunnel and items such as gas lighting – 20 lamps at $300 each would add $6000 to the annual cost!   

In addition to the political split on the question support seemed to depend on the issue of direct benefit. The most ardent supporters came from constituencies across the Hillsborough who saw it as a way to leverage a long-requested branch railway to Murray Harbour.  Those opposed, such as Prince County member James Yeo, were from parts of the province which would have little to gain from the new link. 

After several periods of debate in the House of Assembly spread over several weeks the final attempt to defeat the bill took the form of an opposition amendment requiring competent engineers to look at issues such as a full examination of the bed of the Hillsborough to see if it was suitable for the subway tubes, a specific proposal for the costing  of construction and operation, and a true comparison of the bridge and subway options. The amendment also required that a company willing to take on the project be identified.  In the rush of tunnel enthusiasm the amendment was defeated 14 votes to 11 and the decision to proceed with the subway seemed to have been made.

There was, however, one small stumbling block to be overcome. In 1887 Prince Edward Island still had an upper house termed the Legislative Council. Although this was by now an elected body the Councilors still retained the right to refuse legislation and maintained the appearance of “sober second thought. “

There was a large attendance at the Council debate on the Hillsborough Subway Bill and press reports suggest that the discussion took the form of  charges as to which party would do more for the good people of Southport, Belfast and Murray Harbour district rather than the substance of the proposal. When the talking was done only three members favoured moving the bill to committee for consideration and it was thrown out.  While the Examiner termed it a “capital opportunity lost” that seems to have ended the matter. While the Northumberland Straits Tunnel continued to have its vocal advocated until the beginning of the Carferry service in 1917 there was hardly a peep about the Hillsborough subway again. The fixed link across the Hillsborough came with the Hillsborough Bridge in 1904 – and with it the Murray Harbour Branch Railway.                  


Spuds, Steamers, and Stevedores: Potato Shipping in the Inter-war Years



Potato shipping from Charlottetown ca. 1930. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 4332/2 Wallace MacDonald album

Up until the 1970s the arrival and departure of potato boats was one of the rites of fall. Each year dozens of shipments would be made from the wharves in Charlottetown and Summerside and to a lesser extent from Georgetown, Souris, and even Victoria.  However it had not always been so. During the 19th century potato shipments had been dwarfed by the Island’s largest export — oats. Oats were the diesel fuel of the horse era with thousands of animals in American and Canadian cities and farms being powered by Island oats. Although potatoes had been exported they were a much lesser crop and their large bulk and relatively low value meant that most shipments were by the small schooners that could visit the Island’s shallow harbours. 

There were some developments in the last quarter of the century. Potatoes made up part of the cargo of the S.S. Prince Edward for an experimental shipment of produce and livestock direct from the Island the Great Britain in the 1870s and the same decade also saw R.T. Holman shipping potatoes from Summerside to American destinations by steamer.  However, until the end of the Great War the vast majority of shipments were still small cargos carried by sailing ships. 

Seed potatoes were crop of which the Island was proud. The province was was the first jurisdiction to place a slogan on its license plates

It was the development of seed potato exports which really spurred the shift toward steamers. The 1920s saw a boom in the high quality, high value seed potatoes and Island farmers, led by the Potato Growers Association, turned to the new crop in ever increasing numbers. In 1922 the Association entered into an exclusive agency agreement with the Southgate Produce Company of Virginia which saw most PEI seed potatoes for southern U.S. markets landed at Norfolk.  In a 1928 address to the Charlottetown Rotary Club a Southgate officer described in detail the shipping and processing of seed potatoes once they left the Island. Shipping by water was preferred to the rail shipping used for shipments to Canadian markets owing to the special handling required as well as the reduced costs.  In his speech he credited the efficiency of stevedores at Summerside and Charlottetown in ensuring quality through the loading process. This was a labour-intensive operation often requiring sixty to one hundred longshoremen and was described by a Guardian reporter in a 1925 article when he visited the steamer Orkild taking on 30,000 bags potatoes in Charlottetown.     

There are four “gangs” comprised of twenty-two men to each hatch, eighty-eight men in all, including four winchmen. Each hatch has eight men stowing the potatoes as they come aboard; the men are divided to the port and starboard side thereby alleviating any undue “list” as she is being loaded; in other words the steamer is ion an even keel; at all times.

To stand on the combing [sic] of a hatch and look down into the huge hold of the steamer makes one wonder and imagine how a space so large can be stowed to the top deck in such a comparatively short time by the thirty-two stalwarts working below. 

Stowing the ship does not mean merely throwing the cargo into the hold, it takes ingenuity and skilled workmen all-round in order that the valuable cargo may not become loosened when the ship is heaving far out at sea. The cargo must be stowed with the shear of the ship from stem to stern, and every bag placed so as to occupy just a bag space, and stowed tight at that.  If a cargo is not properly placed in a vessel it is to realize what may happen in the extreme — a loose and poorly stowed cargo before now has been the loss of many a good ship. But thank goodness such is not the case with steamers leaving this port as the ability of the local men is known far and wide for the thoroughness and experience they show in handling freight. Therefore the Labourers’ Protective Union is to be congratulated on the capable and efficient body of men which represent this city. Their work may be hard at times, exposure and loss of sleep, may be experienced but this does not seem to bother then in the least — the work goes on amidst good natured chaffing and joviality which appears to prevail throughout the entire working hours. All hail to the Labourers’ Protective Union.

Mr. Wallace MacDonald is the stevedore in charge of loading the steamers.

The Labourers’ Protective Union had not always had such glowing support from those operating steamers from Charlottetown. The union had been formed in the 1880s and over the years successfully negotiated for wages on the wharves. In 1905 they clashed with the Plant Steamship Company with claims for an advance in the labour rates. The company charged that “the laboring men evidently have no interest in the welfare of their city when they band together to increase the cost of doing business to such an extent…”   However, as is often the case, claims of both sides in the disagreement were successfully compromised and trade on the waterfront continued with only a short delay. Issues again arose in 1917 when the steamer Aranmore was brought in to clear a shipping backlog while the carferry steamer Prince Edward Island was awaiting completion of the terminals at the Capes.  The S.S. PEI, which had to be loaded by hand through the stern, required more handling and workers were paid 60 cents per hour. For the Aranmore the longshoremen demanded 40 cents per hour for day work and 45 cents for night work. After lying idle at the wharf the P.E.I. Railway, which was operating the Aranmore finally reached a settlement and work continued. 

The arrival of larger steamers dedicated to freight saw a shift in loading procedures. Prior to WW I many of the steamers loaded through side ports which was slow and   labour-intensive. Larger freighters with ship-borne derricks and multiple holds sped up the process although large work gangs, as noted above, were still required. Shipments became massive. In 1926 for example amidst a month in which 700,000 bushels were shipped from the Island. One vessel — the S.S. Sabotawan — loaded over 185,000 bushels for Norfolk, Virginia, at the time a world record for a single shipment. 

Even with improved ferry and rail connections the steamers continued to load each fall from government warehouses at the Island’s ports into the 1970s, with shipments from Summerside continuing for somewhat longer. However, with the end of rail traffic on P.E.I. and completion of the Confederation Bridge, potato shipping easily shifted to trucking and containers and the potato boats vanished from the Island’s harbours. At the same time the move to processing potatoes on the Island spelled the end of the profitable seed-potato trade. The number of potato boats seemed to drop each year and it is hard to remember just when the last of the big freighters left our harbours.   

All the world’s a pier

 All the world’s a pier,
And all the sail and steamers merely vessels;
They have their arrivals and their sailings;
And one ship in its time sees many ports,
With apologies to the Bard.
Some ships lead a solitary existence barely straying from the ports of their launch and their end – either dramatically through wreck or peacefully by reason of scrapping.  That certainly is the case with many of the steamers such as ferries for which Charlottetown was almost the only port. Other vessels played a multitude or roles in their visitation to the port. Such is the case with the S.S. Aranmore which over a forty year period was a frequent and sometimes regular visitor to the harbour but for many different  reasons and under the management of several different owners and operators.
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S.S. Aranmore

The Aranmore was built in 1890 by the W,B. Thompson & Co. yard in Dundee Scotland. It was a general cargo steamer of 1170 gross tons, 500 net tons and was built for the Clyde Shipping Company of Glasgow.  Besides its cargo capacity the Aranmore also was a passenger steamer with accommodation for 75 first class passengers, 20 second class and 100 steerage and deck passengers. Clyde Shipping had developed a regular coastal service to Cork and Waterford and to Galway Bay, the Shannon estuary and Limerick. A service to Plymouth was later extended to Southampton, Newhaven and London. From 1888, the deep-sea tramping trade saw the company heavily involved in the guano, nitrate and copper trade in the Pacific islands. After fifteen years serving the Irish Sea ports the Aranmore was purchased by the Holliday Brothers  company of Quebec which had been awarded a five-year mail contract for ports on the Quebec North Shore and the vessel also extended service to Charlottetown and Sydney. In the fall of 1905 the Aranmore was chartered from Holliday’s by the Plant Line to replace the S.S. Halifax  sailing from Charlottetown to Boston. The following year, still owned by Holliday’s, she was sailing under the Dobell Line operations and again regularly stopped at Charlottetown, this time on a passage from Montreal to St. John’s. During this period the ship was occasionally charted by the Dominion government for lighthouse supply.   
At the end of 1913 Holliday Brothers ended their steamship operations and sold their vessels, the Aranmore being acquired by the Dominion Government and re-registered as a government vessel in 1915. As the C.G.S. (Canadian Government Steamship) the Aranmore was primarily engaged in the lighthouse and buoy service, although on several occasions the vessel was chartered by Clarke Steamships for their Quebec North Shore service. 
In 1916, pending the opening of the car ferry service a the Capes,  the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company had sold the steamer Empress to the C.P.R and the Canadian Government acquired the company’s Northumberland, attaching it to the Canadian Government Railways. The following year the Island had a bumper crop of ships carrying freight and passengers across the Strait. The Northumberland mainly served on the Summerside to Point du Chene route. Construction of the ferry terminals at the Capes was still underway and so the rail ferry was crossing from Charlottetown to Pictou but its capacity was limited as freight had to be transferred from rail cars to the ship and then unloaded by hand at the other end of the crossing. Rail shipping became backlogged at both ends of the crossing and early in 1917 the Government advised that P.E.I. Railway that the Aranmore would be detached from other duties and put on the Charlottetown – Pictou route to assist.  Throughout the 1917 season the Aranmore was a regular sight in Charlottetown harbour supplementing the voyages of the S.S. P.E.I.  One trip in July 1917 showed a glimpse of the Island’s future as the steamer carried 60 passengers, one motor truck and nine new automobiles for dealers including Bruce Stewart, Horne Motors and Grant & Kennedy.  In addition the load also included one railcars worth of paper, one of bran, two cars of corn and 1,200 sacks of cement.    
By the end of 1917 the ferry terminals had been completed and the S.S. Prince Edward Island was in full operation at the Capes. Although the Aranmore continued on the Pictou route until freeze-up it was clear that the carferry would be able to handle the traffic in the future. Government operated steamer service from Summerside to Point du Chene was halted and the Charlottetown-Pictou route was handled by subsidized private operators. (see the Constance, Magdalen and Hochelega)  
The Aranmore was then moved to the Yarmouth to Boston route where the vessels had been taken off the service for wartime duties. It was leased to Eastern Steamship Lines to meet a demand from Nova Scotia shippers for a continuation of the New England connection.  When Eastern Steamships was able to secure new vessels for the route the Aranmore was returned to lighthouse duties.  

Belle Isle North End Lighthouse. One of the facilities serviced through the 1920s and 1930s by the Aranmore from the Charlottetown base.

In the 1920s Charlottetown was the primary depot for the Gulf of St. Lawrence with responsibilities extending to the Strait of Belle Island and beyond as well as a number of Newfoundland lighthouses. The Aranmore saw lighthouse duties along the north shore of the Gulf and into the Strait.   Late in 1919 the Aranmore had been stranded in an attempt to carry  supplies to marooned and starving wireless operators at Battle Harbour and two crew members spent the winter ashore in shacks maintaining the ship. It was  not pulled from the shore until September of 1920.  Throughout the 1920s the Aranmore was normally attached to the Charlottetown Marine Agency during the season and was laid up in Halifax over the winter, occasionally making voyages to Sable Island.  A large number of the ship’s crew were from Prince Edward Island.

The lighthouse work continued through the 1930s but in 1938, as the Aranmore was approaching almost 50 years of age the Government announced that the ship, along with two other vintage vessels; the Bellechase and the Lady Grey would be scrapped and a new combination icebreaker and service vessel would be built. However with the outbreak of World War II scrapping of a ship that was still operable would not have been a wise decision and early in 1940 the ship was sold to the Halifax-based salvage company Foundation Maritimes, then engaged in essential war work. The ship was re-named the Foundation Aranmore and served throughout the war in the Foundation fleet along with the better-known salvage tug Foundation Franklyn. At the conclusion of the war she was purchased by Wentworth MacDonald of Sydney who had owned a number of other vessels, such as the Constance, with P.E.I. connections. He held onto the Foundation Aranmore for only as year and it was sold to Cuban interests and was stranded, salvaged and sold in 1946. 
Like an actor playing different parts the Aranmore had been in P.E.I. waters for many years as a part of operations of Holliday Bros., Clarke Steamships, Dobell, and Plant Steamships and the Dominion. It had served as a passenger carrier, a ferry, a buoy tender, lighthouse supplier and general marine spear carrier.   Often crewed by Islanders it was a familiar sight in Charlottetown Harbour, a reminder of how much of a port Charlottetown once was.