The very short (and not particularly happy) story of P.E.I.’s Oyster Dredges

In 1913 an unfamiliar design of vessel appeared in P.E.I. waters. The motor-driven craft was of a type familiar in warmer American ports and had been  brought to the Island in an attempt to apply up-to-date technology to one of the province’s growing industries. Oyster fishermen on the Island had long used small boats and hand-operated oyster tongs. Was the application of a technology in use in the States going to revolutionize the Islands fishery?  The experiment would be watched with interest.

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Unidentified oyster dredge in Richmond Bay

Unlike many of the oyster areas in the United States the beds in Prince Edward Island waters did not see the widespread use of dredges. It was thought that the uncontrolled dredging of a commonly-held resource would not be for the general interest. In the late 19th century a battle was already shaping up regarding the dredging for mussel mud which had already destroyed substantial oyster beds. While the shell mud question remained open, legislation and regulations, beginning in 1896 and extended several times, prohibited the use of oyster dredges in public waters. However, with the introduction of leased bottom areas for beds beginning in 1913 several companies appear to have introduced dredges for use on their privately-held beds on a limited basis.  In April 1913, for example, a newspaper account relating to Bruce Stewart and Co. of Charlottetown noted that the firm had installed one of their gasoline engines as well as hoist and dredging apparatus in a 16-ton boat owned by one of the large oyster companies.  One company, the McNutt Malpeque Oyster Company, brought an American dredger north from Connecticut where it had been built in 1894. The vessel, the Hattie J., was actually registered in the name of a Charlottetown lawyer W.E. Bentley and merchant William Aitken. The vessel had been rebuilt in 1907 and had a gasoline engine. It was 38 feet long with displacement of about 19 tons.

Although it was reported that the vessel’s name had been changed to the Malpeque, this is not recorded in the registration. The Hattie J. was not alone, as a report on the oyster industry in September of the that year noted two gasoline oyster dredgers a work in the Malpeque area. Besides the McNutt company’s vessel, the Standard Cup Oyster Company was using the Bertha M. on its beds.   The Guardian reported that:

The boats are of the latest design, fully equipped for cleaning up the bottoms, planting and harvesting oysters, sweeping out starfish, the ancestral enemy of the oyster, and in short farming the oyster beds, for the farms under water are now being cultivated just as are the farms on the well-tilled uplands of the province. 

When it is said that these boats rake up the oyster harvest at the rate of 40 to 50 barrels an hour, and that already, this season, several hundred barrels have been shipped to the Montreal and Quebec markets, from the planting of last spring, an idea may be had of the almost unlimited development that is possible in the oyster business.

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Although not named this photograph from 1914, titled “oyster dredgers” is very likely the two vessels are the Hattie J. and the Bertha M.

In an overview of the industry published late in 1913 it was stated that with proper cultivation the oyster beds had the potential to yield 200 to 500 barrels an acre.  It had been hoped that oyster business would, like the Island’s fox fur industry at the same time, turn into a bonanza. By 1915  fifteen highly capitalized, publicly-traded oyster companies had been incorporated, although some of these did not actually get into production.  The two largest, the McNutt Malpeque Oyster Company and the Standard Cup Oyster Company both had dredges working their leased bottoms in Malpeque Bay.

The timing of the move was impossibly bad. In the summer of 1915 fishermen began to notice the impact of a previously unknown disease on the fishery. Some believed it had originated from American seed oysters which had been brought in to boost the stocks but the real cause has never been fully identified. It was a disaster and soon the problem had spread to beds across the province killing almost all of the province’s oysters. Within a few years the fishery had all but disappeared and it was to be decades before disease-resistant  strains of oysters emerged and the business began to return to the success it had been before the Great War. The dredges were turned to other purposes and technological advances ground to a halt. While recent years have seem major technological changes such as the growing of oysters in trays above the bottom, the day of the oyster dredger was gone, never to return.

For excellent coverage of the industry’s history seen Ed MacDonald’s chapter “Shell Games” in The Greater Gulf: Essays in the Environmental History of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, published in 2019.

“She’s a little beauty” – The steamer Premier of the Eastern Steamship Company

On a Saturday in late August 1891 a  crowd gathered at Connolly’s wharf to greet a vessel new to Charlottetown’s waterfront. The steamer Premier was a new vessel having been launched from a yard at Ayr in South-west Scotland a short time before. Captain Allen who had brought the ship out to Halifax told the Examiner newspaper that “she’s a little beauty and bound to become a favourite with the travelling public.”

He had reason for his optimism – at least as far as the passenger accommodation went. According to the Examiner:

The Premier has a beautifully-fitted-up saloon capable of seating twenty persons which is finished in English black walnut, bird’s eye maple and cardinal plush. Opening off are eleven staterooms, each six feet square, finished in cypress wood, and fitted with the best of bedding and linen. The rooms are fitted with two berths, but if only one is required the upper one folds up to the wall, similar to the Pullman car berths. A commodious and nicely fitted-out ladies cabin is situated in the after end of the saloon, on the starboard side. It contains four berths, wash-room etc., and is an excellent room for a family to occupy. There is also a cosy smoking and card room aft.

Cosy indeed, with cabins measuring about the same size as a queen-sized bed!

The vessel was relatively small, only 155 feet long with a tonnage of 354  and with a single deck extending the length of the vessel. With freight holds fore and aft the passenger accommodation was in the middle of the vessel, a design which reduced the discomfort to those aboard as it sliced through the waves.

The ship was owned by the Eastern Steamship company which was established in Halifax in 1891 and was incorporated under Dominion legislation the same year with capital stock of $60,000. The shares were primarily held by merchants and corporations in Halifax but in what obviously an attempt to attract business from the outports among the shareholders were merchants and others from outlying areas such as North Sydney, Canso, and Guysborough. The list also included owners from Prince Edward Island such as Charles E. Robertson, Fenton Newberry and Frederick W. Hyndman from Charlottetown, and Robert T. Holman and Joseph Read of Summerside.

The operational route of the Premier was a weekly service between Halifax and Summerside with stops along the Nova Scotia Eastern Shore; Sheet Harbour, Salmon River, Sonora, Sherbrooke, Isaac’s Harbour, Whitehead, Guysborough, Arichat, Canso, Mulgrave, Port Hawkesbury, Souris, and Charlottetown.  In an effort to compete with the railway the fare from Charlottetown to Summerside was only fifty cents. It operated on this route until close of navigation in late fall1891.  That winter saw the Premier chartered and placed on the route of the Canada Atlantic Steamship Company from Halifax to Boston, freeing up that firm’s vessel, the Halifax, for a Halifax to Bermuda service.  The following year, perhaps to reduce the number of stops at small ports, Eastern Steamships chartered another vessel, the much smaller S.S. Weymouth, owned by the Weymouth Steamship Company to visit the Eastern Shore ports while the Premier stopped only at Canso, Port Mulgrave, Port Hawkesbury, Souris, Charlottetown and Summerside, connecting with the Weymouth at Canso.

Timing for the launch of the new service may not have been ideal. The passage from Charlottetown to Halifax was a route with considerable competition. The Boston and Colonial Steamers had been on the route as part of their Charlottetown to Boston line and in 1892 they added the S.S. Britannia a luxurious vessel much larger than the Premier.  Competing with both, was the was the S.S. Halifax, of the Canada Atlantic Steamship Company, which had been on the route since 1888 and had also provided a route from Charlottetown to Halifax which carried on to Boston. In addition Pickford and Black’s steamer Fastnet, just slightly smaller than the Premier, was also on the Charlottetown to Halifax service with a number of stops at intermediate ports. Those longer distance weekly sailings, along with the daily combined steamer and rail connections via Pictou between Charlottetown and Halifax, provided by the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company, gave Island passengers and shippers a breadth of choice never before available.  The Steam Navigation Company’s old paddle steamer, the Princess of Wales was replaced by a brand-new vessel, the Northumberland, in the summer of 1891. All of these vessels meant that Islanders had several options for their Halifax travels.

Probably because of this competition the venture was not a success and in October 1892 the Premier was seized by the sheriff in Halifax on behalf of the ship’s mortgage holder and was sold at auction in January 1893 for substantially less than the cost of the vessel.  Later that year it was again sold to a Montreal-based shipper, Vipond and McBride, and was used in the fresh-fruit trade carrying bananas and other fruit from the Caribbean to New York and Montreal.  In 1901 it was fitted out as a salvage vessel and in June 1917 was wrecked off Sambro Nova Scotia.

Mr. Kemp’s Very Special Oyster Boat

The Island waters a century ago were still populated with steamers and the few remaining sailing vessels were becoming fewer and fewer. Aside from the regular visitors of companies such as the Quebec Steamship Company and the local Island Tug Company’s Harland the most frequent ships were those of the federal government. At the time the Marine and Fisheries Department still counted Charlottetown as one of their main bases. With responsibilities for much of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Northumberland Strait the lighthouse and buoy tenders such as the Brant and the Stanley were often to be found at the wharf near the foot of Great George Street. 

In the 1910s and 1920s they were joined in Charlottetown by another vessel which was attached to the fisheries part of the Department’s mandate – at least for the winter season when the waters around the Island were ice covered. During the rest of the year the vessel could be found in the bays and estuaries of the region This was a relatively small ship with a specialized purpose and was one of the earliest scientific research vessels operated by the Dominion government.

Oysters had been a part of the island economy since at least the 1820s when they were being shipped to Quebec and Nova Scotia but it was not until the late 1880s that they came under scrutiny by the Dominion government. In 1890 the government hired Ernest Kemp of Whitstable England to come to the Island and study the oyster industry.  Although he conducted research in all three of the maritime provinces most of his work was done in Prince Edward Island. Working in connection with a research station, originally located in Malpeque but later moved to Ellerslie, Kemp  examined the oysters and especially their cultivation, with the aim of increasing production and enhancing their economic value.

Beginning with leased boats or small vessels borrowed from other government operations he was soon recommending a specific vessel for oyster research and in 1901 was able to persuade the department to fund a vessel of his own design. Launched the following year in Yarmouth the 50-foot wooden vessel was named the Ostrea, the scientific name for oyster. The vessel does not appear to have been registered and few details and no images of the vessel have been located but it served as a platform for research across the region for several years.     

However, it obviously did not meet all the needs because in 1915 work on a new research vessel commenced at the government shipyard at Sorel Quebec. The new ship was considerable larger than the original Ostrea with an overall length of 85 feet, a width of 18 feet, and drawing 4 feet 9 inches.  It was composite construction with steel framing including 5 steel watertight bulkheads but having planking of rock elm, oak, and B.C. fir. The engine was supplied by the John Ingles Company of Toronto and the boiler was built at the shipyard. One major working improvement was a steam winch which was used to hoist the dredges, a job on the older boat done by hand.   Slight delays caused by a war-time shortage of materials delayed her delivery until mid-September 1916 when Capt. Kemp took command at Sorel and made way to Charlottetown where it was laid up for the winter. Kemp was well-pleased. “She is roomy and fitted with all modern conveniences and I am in hopes that much more effective work will be done in this one than in the former boat, which was much smaller.” One feature remarked on by the Charlottetown Guardian was a lifeboat with a “detachable gasoline engine”. This vessel too, was named the Ostrea but unlike the smaller boat was duly registered.  The first Ostrea was then offered for sale with the proviso that the new owner would be required to change the name of the vessel.

The second Ostrea (pictured above) continued to be in the Dominion government service until 1930 although after 1920 the oyster industry was decimated by disease and almost disappeared, not recovering for two decades. For several years in the late 1920s the vessel remained on the hard and was maintained by departmental staff. With the dramatic decline in the industry the size of the vessel and its operating expense may have been too much for the task at hand. In 1929 David R. Dodge, writing on the oyster culture on Prince Edward Island had complained that “the real needs are a proper oyster boat and a good-sized power tender…” which would allow for service on the small beds in the rivers, impossible with the current Ostrea.  The next year the vessel it was sold to J. Simon of Halifax. He later incorporated the Hochelaga Shipping and Towing Company and in 1935 the Ostrea was transferred to the company. In September 1934 while engaged in a salvage contract the Ostrea struck the end of an underwater portion of a pier in Port Morian Cape Breton. The damage appeared to be minor but about twenty minutes later, and after travelling about 3½ miles, the steamer sank. A legal action was commenced on the basis that the pier was a hazard to navigation and the federal government was found on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada to be liable for the loss.

A third vessel in the oyster service – unhelpfully named the Ostrea II – was built of wood in Tancook Island, Nova Scotia in 1930 and fitted with a semi-diesel engine. The vessel was registered in Charlottetown 1932 and was subsequently placed in service in Richmond Bay. It was described as a “small craft” and was smaller than both of predecessors having a length of 44 feet and gross tonnage of 33 tons. Its registration was transferred to Marine Industries Limited of Sorel Quebec late in 1945 and it was described as a “Wood Crude Oil Scow” at the time.  Although it was not taken off the registry until 1961 it is likely it had been broken up some years before that.

The several Ostreas may have been small vessels when compared with other ships in the fleet of the Dominion but they were the mainstay of oyster research for much of the first half of the 20th century. 

For an expanded paper with notes and more details click on this link.