“The Night was Rather Dark…” The Incident at Connolly’s Wharf.

 

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Charlottetown Guardian 19 June 1907 p. 1

Even for the Guardian it was a decidedly strange way to present a front-page news story. Occupying the centre column of the 19 June 1907 issue was a story that named no names and provided few enough facts, although those that emerged were intriguing. In a city as small as turn of the century Charlottetown it is possible that the major players were already known to the people and the editor was simply being coy.

Even the style of the piece is a departure from the usual news reporting. The item begins with a bit of semi-poetic doggerel

It was the schooner Sea Slipper
That sailed the summer sea
And her skipper had gathered in Charlottetown
a “goodlie companie.”

They did devise a high enterprise –
A deed to make men laugh –
But one there was in the company
Who “blew away the gaff”

The scene opens with the schooner Sea Slipper stranded on the sands between the end of Richmond Street and Victoria Park, the victim of “a brilliantly conceived adventure which went astray.” The scene then shifts to the previous day when the skipper of the vessel secretly recruited a crew of eight or ten to recover goods purchased under a Bill of Sale which had subsequently been seized under a Warrant of Destraint.  The subject of the legal action was a load of lumber being held on Connolly’s Wharf.

The Guardian writer can hardly restrain himself as the plot (and the prose) begins to thicken; The night was rather dark, and the quiet waters of the harbor at midnight were gently ruffled by a growing breeze from the west, and on their broad bosom was reflected only the light of the blockhouse and the riding light of a solitary vessel riding at anchor, when the adventurers put forth to their task.  The Sea Slipper was quite empty, her hold having been cleared out to make room for her expected cargo, which was to be hurriedly loaded by the eight active members of her intrepid crew. But all concerned in the contemplated descent on the lumber piles reckoned without their host. 

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Early view of Connollys wharves. PARO photo

The Sea Slipper crept up to Connolly’s wharf and the skipper gave  a signal to someone waiting on the wharf that they were ready to start loading the lumber.  It immediately became obvious that the secrecy of the mission had not been complete as two bailiffs, one armed with a pistol and shotgun stood facing the crew.  Suddenly buckshot from the shotgun tore through the Sea Slipper’s mainsail and having turned away the crew the chief bailiff ordered the man on the wharf off the property.  The schooner drifted away from the wharf but caught by the wind and ill-served by the perplexed crew it fetched up on shoals just off the Park at about 3:00 a.m.   The crew was saved from a watery grave by the fact that the low tide left the vessel in about two feet of water. and they were able to walk ashore.

For those not in the “know” it was to be more than six months before more details of the incident were made public. The man on the wharf was a young Charlottetown lawyer, Edwin O. Brown, and the details of the Sea Slipper adventure were a small part of the trial of Brown for fraud.  On the night in question Brown had appeared a the Deputy Sheriff’s house between one and two in the morning complaining that he had been ordered off Connolly’s Wharf by a bailiff. The evidence was one of the small details that emerged in his January 1908 hearing which led to Brown’s being found to be insane and unfit to stand trial. One element of his paranoia was that the legal processes connected with the seizure of the lumber had been part of a plot against him and had directly led to his forging of mortgage documents.

Although Sea Slipper incident is barely a footnote to history there is a much more interesting story of the of the hospitalization of Brown at Falconwood Asylum, his escape and his eventual death in August 1917 in the Canadian assault on Hill 70 to be found in John Sutherland Bonnell’s article “The Case of E.O. Brown” in the spring/summer 1990 issue of The Island Magazine.

Of the schooner Sea Slipper little is known. There were several vessels of that name in the region, most out of Newfoundland ports.  The one most likely in Charlottetown on the dark June night was one built in 1858 in Mahone Bay Nova Scotia and owned by Frank Murphy in Montague P.E.I.  Although almost a half-century old it was still registered on the Mercantile Naval List in 1907.

 

 

Lillian E. Kerr – An icon of the age of sail?

 

Four-Masted Schooner “Lillian E. Kerr” Leaving Charlottetown Harbour, August 1941. Photo by George Coffin. Photo: Collection of National Museum of Science and Technology, Ottawa.

It is perhaps the most iconic and best-known image of the age of sail on Prince Edward island.

The reality is that the Lillian E. Kerr had little to do with either Charlottetown or with the Island’s long-passed age of sail.

In August 1941 a four-masted schooner arrived in Charlottetown with a cargo of coal from Weehawken New Jersey. The vessel was one of what may have been only two or three surviving ships with that rig still on the Atlantic.  No one could have known it at the time but it was the last four-master to ever visit Charlottetown. Although a coal-hauler, the ship retained a certain grace and in the early days of the Second World War she was a reminder to residents of the days of wooden ships and iron men.

The photo of the Lillian E. Kerr as she left Charlottetown Harbour was one of at least two taken by George Coffin at the request of B. Graham Rogers, then director of the P.E.I. Travel Bureau. The striking photo was doctored to include a little boy posed pensively on the seawall and was the image on a travel bureau calendar issued in March of 1942.  This was the first visit of the Lillian E. Kerr to the Island capital. There would never be another.

The Lillian E. Kerr had been launched in 1920 from the large E. James Tull shipyard in Pocomoke City, Maryland. She was the last ship built in that yard. The age of the wooden ship was drawing to a close but the schooner rigged vessels were still popular in the early years of the twentieth century as they were affordable high-volume freighters which required only a few crew and no fuel other than the wind and were therefore cheap to operate. They hauled coal, lumber and fertilizer – cargos for which the speed and set delivery times were not essential.

In 1921 the Captain of the Kerr brought mutiny charges against a member of his crew following a fight aboard the ship. The Captain had found the crew member asleep at the wheel. The crew member attacked him with a knife and the two men fought on deck while the captain’s wife steered the vessel. The captain alleged that the crew member attacked him a second time and he was forced to shoot the violent man. The outcome of the charge is not known.

Built as a three-masted vessel the ship was later sold to Capt. James L. Publicover of Le Have Nova Scotia. He added her to his small fleet of cargo vessels and made a major change to the appearance of the schooner by having her re-rigged as a four-master.

“Lillian E. Kerr” in Charlottetown Harbour. Photo by George Coffin. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

A little more than a year after leaving Charlottetown the Lillian E. Kerr was transporting a cargo of timber to Boston. During the night of  12-13 November 1942 she was overtaken by a convoy carrying war materials overseas. Although the Kerr was carrying running lights the ships of the convoy were not. She was rammed by a steamer called the Alcoa Pilot and went to the bottom with all of her crew except for one person was recovered but died soon after. The owner, Capt. Publicover, lost his son, son-in-law, and two nephews in the sinking.

It was not until almost five years had passed that the Admiralty court in New York heard the case. The evidence showed that the Alcoa Pilot, one of the lead ships in the convoy, had overtaken the Lillian E. Kerr and ran her down without taking proper evasive action. She was also charged with failing to stop to pick up survivors. The Alcoa Pilot was held at fault for the accident. The decision was upheld on appeal and damages awarded to Publicover.

Besides the tourism calendar, the main reason why the image of a vessel not built here, and seldom sailed here, became so familiar to Islanders is most likely because the picture, complete with a short-panted boy posed on an imaginary seawall adorned the cover of the menu of a well-patronized eatery, the Rendezvous Restaurant during the 1950s and early 1960s.