Winter Pic Nic at Point Prim

Several times I have mentioned in these postings that once winter set in on Prince Edward Island the rivers and bays became highways. The ice roads, often marked by “bushing” the ice with spruce poles, were more effective for winter transport than the roads of the Island with their hills, woods and spring mud and a well-constructed sleigh gave a smoother and more efficient ride than any carriage or cart.

There was usually only a brief time between the closing of navigation and the opening of the winter roads and often the rivers and coves would freeze while the main channels were still open. Sleighs would stick to the shoreline and “portage” across points and headlands until the hard frosts made the bays safe for passage. Many surviving diaries faithfully give the dates of the first and last crossing of the ice by sleighs and teams.

One of the best examples of how significant the ice passage was can be seen in the following account dating from March 1848 which appears in the Islander in Charlottetown but was reprinted in the Liverpool Mercury in June of the same year.  The event may have seemed as strange and delightful to a Victorian Liverpudlian as it does to us today.

This 1846 chart of Hillsborough Bay was the first to show Prim light which had been first lit only a month earlier in December of 1845. The chart shows the light at a considerably distant set-back from the shore showing the extent of erosion at the point. 

The event celebrated the recent arrival in the Island of a new Governor, Donald Campbell, who was the first Highlander to fill the Governor’s role. It also celebrated the building of the Point Prim light which had been completed three years earlier.  The light did more than mark the dangerous reef at the point. Because the point extended well out in Northumberland Strait it was a major way-point for vessels coming up and down the Strait, even if they were not bound for Charlottetown. The sixty-eight foot elevation of the lantern meant that it was visible for many miles. The notice of the new lighthouse was publicized by the British Admiralty and was widely reported in British newspapers.  Then, as now the sight of the tall white light tower by day and the flashing light by night was a comfort to mariners in vessels large and small. The founder of the feast and organizer of the event, William Douse, was the Member of the House of Assembly for the Belfast district and the agent for the Selkirk Estate.

PIC NIC AT POINT PRIM.

On Thursday the 30th March past, a Pic Nic party consisting of His Excellency Sir Donald Campbell, Hon. T. H. Haviland, Hon. J. S. Smith, Hon. R. Hodgson William Campbell, Esq., His Excellency’s son, William Douse, Esq., M. P. P and several other members of the House of Assembly together with about 40 other of the private gentlemen of Charlottetown, on the invitation of Mr. Douse, was held at the Light House, Point Prim. About 9 o’clock, the party, in twenty sleighs, having assembled at the Queen’s Wharf, proceeded directly across the river, and thence by portage to Belle Vue, where they again took the ice, and drove thereon, a distance of 18 miles, to Prim, without stopping —passing the different points of land at a distance. When the party arrived off Belfast, the inhabitants, in parties—to the number of between two and three hundred—were observed proceeding towards Point Prim—some on foot, and others in sleighs—with a Piper at their head, for the purpose of giving His Excellency “A Highland welcome.” The party, on arriving at Point Prim in the first place inspected the Light House; they then sat down to Luncheon, outside, at a table erected for the occasion, of about 40 feet in length. Mr. Douse presided, with His Excellency on his right hand, and the Hon. Mr. Haviland on his left

After luncheon the worthy chairman proposed the Health of Her Majesty the Queen, which was received with every demonstration of loyalty and respect. F. Longworth, Esq., M. P. P. for Charlottetown, then proposed the health of His Excellency Sir Donald Campbell, which was received in the most complimentary and flattering manner. His Excellency acknowledged the compliment, in a short, but pertinent and happy speech; and then, turning to the people assembled as spectators and and to do him honour, addressed a few words to them which afforded them much satisfaction. When His Excellency ceased to speak the party, and his countrymen—the people of Belfast most especially —made the welkin ring with their enthusiastic cheers. The party spent about two hours, altogether at the Point in the most social and agreeable manner. When they were making ready to return to Charlottetown, the people would not allow His Excellency’s horses to be put to his sleigh, but drew him themselves for about a mile on the ice. His horses were then attached to his sleigh, and such of the people who had drawn and accompanied him on foot, loudly cheered him once more, and took their leave; but many of them in sleighs, together with the Piper—who all the continued playing National airs—accompanied His Excellency for four or five mile further on the ice; and then took their leave of him, directing their course towards the shore. His Excellency and party continued their way, on the sea ice, direct across the Bay to Belle Vue.

On arriving in Town, the party with Mr. Douse at their head, conducted His Excellency to Government House. Having arrived there, Sir Donald alighted on the colonnade, and the party drove past him in succession for the purpose of respectfully taking their leave, and received from His Excellency, in their turns, as they passed, the most courteous salutation.

Possible route of the Governor’s party from Belle Vue cove to Point Prim. For safety they would have travelled from major headland to headland. Detail from 1846 chart of Hillsborough Bay

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The Whole Story of a Half-Company: The Navy on PEI in the 20s and 30s

Sims Building at corner of Kent and Hillsborough Streets. Headquarters for the RCNVR Charlottetown Half company beginning in 1935. Undated photo: P.E.I. Regiment Museum

Several histories of Charlottetown date the beginning of a Canadian naval presence in the Island’s capital as the establishment of H.M.C.S. Queen Charlotte in 1942. In fact it began almost two decades earlier.

The Royal Canadian Navy was in a poor state after the end of the Great War. Its fleet, which had included civilian ships drafted for the duration as well as well-used cast-offs from the Royal Navy had been gradually reduced as naval spending diminished. By 1923 there were only two active warships; one on each coast. In 1922 the entire navy had only 402 officers and men.

However, in 1923 the Dominion Government, in spite of its reduced budget decided to strengthen its defence capacity by establishing two reserve organizations.  The first of these, the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve (RCNR) recruited experienced men who worked on the sea in their civilian occupations such as merchant mariners and fishermen. Charlottetown was one of the port divisions established. The RCNR replaced the Royal Navy Canadian Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR) which had come into being in 1914. The other component of the reserve was the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) and originally consisted of fourteen naval reserve companies (later known as “divisions”) across the country. Three of these were in the Maritimes with a full company in Saint John, a half company in Charlottetown and another half company in Halifax. A half company consisted of about fifty seamen, three lieutenants or sub-lieutenants and a medical officer.  In March 1923 the lieutenant commanding the Halifax half-company visited Charlottetown to begin setting up the new unit which was to be entirely manned by volunteers. Recruits signed up for three year’s service which included two weeks each year aboard one of the navy ships or at a land-based training base such as Halifax, and thirty drills of one hour at the company headquarters in Charlottetown. Recruits were paid 25 cents per drill while officers served without remuneration.  However during the annual two-week training both officers and men received the normal regular navy pay for their rank.

The similarity of the names of the several organizations resulted in considerable confusion on the part of the public and of the media and it is often difficult to completely separate the activities of the groups.

HMCS Patriot ca. 1922.  This ship was one of those on which Charlottetown Naval Reserve crews received training.

By the end of April 1923 George Hedley Buntain had been gazetted as Acting Lieutenant and officer commanding the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve Charlottetown Half Company. Early in May recruiting began and training commenced soon afterwards. In June the following year two members of the half company, Wilfred Cullen and Willard Locke, were chosen to join the crew of H.M.S. Hood and H.M.S. Repulse on a training cruise from Esquimalt to Halifax via the Panama Canal. When H.M.C.S. Patriot visited the city in July 1924 the officers and crew of the half company marched with the crew of the visiting vessel in a church parade. In later years the training in Halifax often coincided with naval visits to the West Indies.   

HMCS Champlain ca. 1932  which replaced the Patriot and was used as the east coast training vessel for both the regular navy and the RCNVR

It appears that not all the activity of the volunteers centred around training as there is a report of a social at the Navy League Club in May 1925 which saw a concert with songs, recitations, and musical numbers followed by a dance by the Brighton Club Orchestra.  Later that year a re-organization meeting of the half company concluded with a card party and led to the establishment of a RCNVR bowling league at the League of the Cross Alleys. The reserve also had a very successful hockey team and in the 1930s it fielded a basketball team.  The RCNVR had regular use of the gyms at the Holy Name Club and the YMCA.

While the local press was fulsome in its praise of the RCNVR half company in Charlottetown the reputation of all of the maritime units was not the highest at naval headquarters.  After three years of operation the director of naval reserves found “… the units very similar in a general way, and not up to the standard desired or required…Halifax and Charlottetown require shaking.” Part of the problem was the quality of the petty officer instructors but the availability of suitable quarters was a contributing factor.

John Ings House, Dundas Esplanade. Headquarters of the Charlottetown Half Company RCNVR 1929-1935.

When founded, the half company was headquartered and trained in the Charlottetown armories on Kent street near West Kent School where they had use of a room and the drill hall. In 1929 the Department of Naval Defence leased the Navy League Building on Dundas Esplanade and converted it to company headquarters for the RCNVR, equipping the facility for both training and leisure activity. Drill nights were Mondays and Thursdays.  The building proved to be unsatisfactory after a number of years and in 1935 the Sims building on the corner of Kent and Hillsborough Streets was leased from the province and renovated for use of the RCNVR.  Originally built as a furniture factory the building had been used as a cold storage and pork packing plant and most recently been used as quarters for the male residents of Falconwood Hospital after that structure  was destroyed by fire in 1931. The renovations saw the third floor converted for caretaker’s quarters and the first two floors fitted for use of the naval reserve with club rooms provided for the Army and Navy Club which had been founded as an officers club in 1932. The RCNVR moved into the building in the summer of 1935.

George Buntain had been promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1931 and served as commanding officer until 1935 when Lieutenant Commander John Joseph Connolly, who had been an officer in the half company for a number of years succeeded him.  He, in turn was succeeded by Lieutenant Commander Ken Birtwistle in 1940.

The status of the half company changed in 1941. Previous to that time it was not considered a formal “vessel” of the Royal Canadian Navy but with the commissioning of H.M.C.S. Queen Charlotte in that year a new chapter in the history of the unit opened. That story will be told in a future posting on this site.