Too Big for Success – The Paddle Steamer St. George

Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Advertiser 2 July 1842

Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Advertiser 2 July 1842

What had fourteen egg spoons, two paddles and over one hundred owners?

In 1842 Prince Edward Island was set to leap into the modern age. For far to long it had depended on either the winds or the kindness of strangers to provide the vital link with the rest of North American and with the Mother Country. It was time to Islanders to become masters (or at least crew members) of their own fate. A group of the leading merchants lobbied for legislation and at the spring sitting of the Legislature “An Act for the Incorporation of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company” was passed.  The legislation was one of the first acts in the colony to make used of the joint stock concept and limited liability for the owners so that their assets outside their investment would be protected in case of failure.  But how could failure occur? The need was clear. Northumberland Strait needed reliable transportation and Georgetown, Pictou, Charlottetown, Bedeque and Miramichi were all growing communities linked by the Strait.

Merchants, politicians, publicans and even clergy flocked to the company office to make their investments.  The leading merchants all signed up. Not just in Charlottetown but across the Island. The company owners came from Bedeque, Malpeque, Princetown, North River, Covehead, Tryon, St. Eleanors, Stanhope, Port Hill, Morrell. and to make sure that the general populace did not lose out the Government of the Colony took 150 of the 450 shares on offer. With the exception of one shareholder in St. John’s and one in England this was an all-P.E.I. company.

Since 1833 the Strait had been served by the Cape Breton, a steamer owned first by Pictou’s General Mining Association and later by Joseph Cunard and by the smaller Nova Scotia-built Pocahontas but neither appear to have been satisfactory. And besides they were owned off-Island!

If you are going to have a steam navigation company the first thing you need is a boat. Luckily Francis Longworth was going to England on other business and agreed to keep a look-out for one. He found one in the port of Liverpool.

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This is not the St. George but is a vessel of similar size which was also operated in the Irish sea. The St. George would have looked much like this.

The St. George paddle steamer was just over ten years old and had an excellent service record. The  “large and elegant” steamer had been launched with much fanfare and before a large crowd of spectators from the Wilson and Sons yard at Cornhill, now part of Liverpool, on 21 November 1831. She was built for the St. George Steam packet Company which had an active service between Liverpool and Irish ports such as Dublin and Cork. The single deck vessel had displacement of 157 tons and was 135 feet long by 20 in breadth. The engines were built by Fawcett Preston & Co. of Liverpool. Its primary use was on the 120 nautical mile Liverpool to Dublin passage across the Irish Sea which took 18 – 20 hours.  The company added to its fleet throughout the 1830s and early 1840s with larger vessels and routes between the Uni9ted Kingdom and Europe. In 1838 the company’s ship the Sirius was the first steamer to cross the Atlantic.  Faced with losses it was later reformed as the City of Cork Steam Ship Company.  When Francis Longworth was searching for a vessel for the newly formed Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company in 1842 the St. George was on the market.  It was quickly purchased and the vessel was scheduled to leave Liverpool for St. John’s and Charlottetown on 9 July the same year, stopping at Cork for passengers.

The St. George,  “cheered  by the multitude,” arrived in Charlottetown on 14 August 1842 and was almost immediately pressed into service with the first trip to Pictou just a week later. Those who took the trips on the St. George were amazed at the luxury that the vessel provided. A partial list of the steward’s supplies gives a hint of how well-outfitted the ship was:  41 plated forks, 2 sauce ladles, 1 pair sugar tongs, 16 mattresses, 49 hair pillows, 36 feather pillows, 35 counterpanes, 8 crumb cloths, 77 sheets, 62 towels, 29 blankets etc. etc. etc..

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Islander 17 May 1844

The Company had been set up with the assurances (incorporated into the incorporation act) that it would make regular stops at Georgetown and the rising town of Bedeque, the latter to be a stop on the regular semi-monthly trips to Miramichi which community was otherwise somewhat isolated from the main population of New Brunswick.

 

Within a year problems of managing the company with the government being a large minority shareholder began to emerge.  Georgetown had generated insufficient business either in passengers and freight to warrant continued service except at a great loss. At Miramichi “the almost total abandonment of the timber and lumber trade” had resulted in a reduction in the demand for trips to that port.  Business at Bedeque was no better and an 1845 report noted that on one trip into the port “the only thing in the shape of freight procured was a basket containing hens eggs”.    More significantly the hoped-for subsidies from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had not been forthcoming and the company had no guarantees that they ever would be paid.  The main problem was that the St. George was too big for the modest demands of the Strait communities and was too expensive to operate.  It was also the wrong sort of ship as the majority of the business was in passengers and only about one-sixth of the revenue from freight.

In 1843 the legislation was changed so that the company could abandon the Georgetown route. The Government bought out the shares of the Georgetown investors as well as the remaining unsold shares bring their investment up to over 40% of the company. It was suggested that the company could buy another smaller boat to serve the Georgetown route but that never happened.   A year later, the attempt to regulate routes was completely abandoned and the Company was empowered to decide their routes and schedules to be “most beneficial and advantageous for the interests of this Colony; and of the Shareholders”.

After limping through the 1844 shipping season with increased losses the Company came back to the Legislature pleading that with the St. George “the present traffic is scarcely sufficient to bear the expense of maintaining the vessel on station and she is altogether unproductive of profit to the shareholders and it is advisable that vessel be sold.” Since the government still held a large proportion the shares it was allowed that these could be sold at a loss and any proceeds used to acquire a smaller and more suitable ship.

Service was continued through 1845 at a continuing loss and with the increasing age of the ship and the need for major repairs fast approaching the need to get rid of the St. George became acute.  A search was begun for a smaller, faster ship which could be operated for less but nothing was found.   By October 1845 the St. George had been sold to Quebec interests and left Charlottetown for the last time at the end of that month.

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Islander 4 April 1846

Although the Colonial Government advertised for a steamer to take the route it appears to have continued to be serviced by sailing vessels until 1849 when the Rose, a much smaller and perhaps more appropriate ship made its  way across the Atlantic.

The constraints placed by government ownership on the effective operation of the Steam Navigation Company  by requiring specific routes and schedules were certainly not the only challenge that the Company faced but they hardly contributed to success. It would not be the last time that government participation in a public/private partnership would lead to failure.
As for the St. George it lasted in Quebec only until 1850 when it was sold to become a towboat in Newfoundland.  In January 1852 it left St. John’s for Cork, Ireland and was never heard from again.

 

 

A Narrow Escape in Charlottetown Harbour – 1843

Charlottetown harbour was – and continues to be – a dangerous place. For 250 years there have been reports of men falling from ships, boats overturning in high winds, children slipping from their play on the wharves, fishermen tangling in nets, teams and their owners crashing through the thin spring ice and men and boys who simply failed to return from the sea.. For most of the period the water was not the place of play that it has become in the last century. It was a place of peril and one had to respect the power of the water. Few of those who went out on the waters could actually swim. Today, thanks to organizations such as the Red Cross, almost all children are introduced to the water through swimming lessons. It was not always so.
Drownings were common and in the 19th century press they were hardly noted unless the victim was of high standing. It was not unusual for would-be rescuers to have to watch helplessly as none of them could swim to help a victim.

The exception was the rare but happy story of the narrow escape. Now that was news!  Even so it sometimes required a bit of a nudge for the newspapers to print something positive as far as the harbour was concerned. In June 1843 a correspondent signed as “Witness” sent the following to the Islander newspaper.

Sir: – On Monday the 19th inst. at ten a.m. the wind blowing fresh from the N.W., two of the Campbells of Nine Mile Creek, with their sister, left the Queens Wharf in a sail boat, without ballast, homeward bound, when a little below the three tides, the boat upset.

Morning News and Semi-Weekly Advertiser 14 October 1843 p. 43

Morning News and Semi-Weekly Advertiser 14 October 1843 p. 43

A few minutes after the Campbells left, Capt. Hubbard, in his superior boat Charles, left the wharf also, with Captain Cumberland and his lady; intending to land them at Ringwood, but having a boat in tow, proceeded rather tardily. When about half way to the place of the accident, Capt. Cumberland observed that he expected the Campbells would sooner or later be drowned in consequence of their impudence; and the words were scarcely out of his mouth when over went the boat. It was then as Capt. Hubbard observed to the writer of this letter, that Capt. Cumberland, with the presence of mind that ever characterizes that gentleman, deliberately and irresistibly played the man, instantly sprang into the boat then in tow, taking with him Capt. Hubbard’s son Edward; and saying “Now Hubbard, my dear fellow, which will be there first, you or I?”

1845 chart showing Cumberland's residence at Ringwood (lower left) and Three Tides (top)

1845 chart showing Cumberland’s residence at Ringwood (lower left) and Three Tides (top)

By this Capt. C. and Edward seated each with elastic oar in hand, plied with every nerve braced, determined to lead before the Charles; which being relieved from her after tow, glided like lightning through the water. Mrs. Cumberland, who, after the first shock at the sight of the upset boat, was all emotion to render herself useful on the trying occasion, eagerly eliciting instruction from the intrepid Captain Hubbard whose active skill  and wonted firmness enabled him calmly and deliberately to arrange  his anchor, cable and every line for bearing down on the objects before him without coming in contact so as  to frighten the Campbells or weaken the hold which they had on the boat, which was lying on her side.

In two or three minutes the Charles was under the lea of the upset boat, with the anchor let go . One of the poor fellows holding on cried out “Don’t run us down, Sir.” “Fear nothing! Hold on! you are all saved!” vociferated the master of the Charles, when the upset boat, her masts and sails, and the three persons drifted down on the Charles. Capt. Cumberland that instant coming up , as it were, disregarding the danger his own intrepidity exposed him to, with the aid of Capt. Hubbard, took up the poor suffers, who especially the poor girl, were all but exhausted after having the water flowing over them every moment for near half an hour – they themselves being to leaward. –  One of the lads indeed had but one hand holding by the boat, while his other arm was around his sister, but for which she must have been drowned, as she never had hold of the boat at all.

Now, Mr. Editor, does not such praiseworthy conduct deserve more than a passing remark. How often may Capt. Hubbard be in situations similar to the above, when as was the case that day, he may lose a whole day’s wages of himself, two men and a boat, a loss Capt. Hubbard is ill able to sustain.

                                                                                                       Witness 

The Three Tides is the area in Charlottetown Harbour where the waters of the three rivers, Hillsborough, York and Eliot meet. That coupled with the tidal flows make for unpredictable currents. Although well-recognized locally the name appears on no chart. Ringwood House stood on the west side of Warren Cove across the creek from Fort Amherst. Colonel H. Bentenik Cumberland was a retired British officer who acquired an estate which included most of the land in south-east lot 65, This extended from approximately Canoe Cove to the Harbour Mouth