The maritime history of Pinette

The Pinette area is tucked neatly into the underside of the Point Prim peninsula but originally the name was used for a wider area. Today the name Belfast is applied to the general area, but earlier maps and writings refer to the Pinette Settlement which included Glashvin, Eldon, and North and South Pinette as well as the southern portion of Point Prim noted on some maps as Pinette Shore. It encompasses the watershed of the Pinette River which split into four branches east of what is now Pinette Bridge. EPSON MFP image Pinette Bridge ca. 1910. Postcard photo by Elliot J. Lumsden. The harbour at Pinette, although seeming attractive for marine activities on a map was not an easy one to negotiate. Although the Pinette estuaries reached deep into southern Queens County and provided waterfront access to a large amount of territory, the rivers narrowed quickly and became shallow as one moved upstream. The approaches from the sea were daunting for mariners. Captain Bayfield noted in his St. Lawrence Pilot that the Pinette River had

only 2 feet of water over its rocky and exceedingly dangerous bar. It is therefore fit only for small schooners, although it has from 3 to 4 1/2 fathoms in its narrow channel, which runs in several miles through flats of mud and weeds, dry at low water, and then divides into several shallow branches. The bar is nearly a mile out from the entrance, and the Pinette shoals reach to double that distance.

Bayfield -The St. Lawrence Pilot 1847

The area developed rather slowly. The main settlement was Pinette Mills where St. John’s Church was located. The main road was the one leading from Eldon to Wood Islands and it avoided the shoreline.  By the late 1830s however, this began to change. There is a reference in 1839 to Pinette Wharf and an allocation of £50 which was presumably for construction, but it is not clear just where this wharf might have been located. By 1841 the inhabitants of Pinette were petitioning the legislature for assistance in building a wharf near Campbell’s Point on the south side of the Pinette River in 1841. This is almost certainly where the present wharf and bridge are located. The next year, 1842, a road funding allocation references the new wharf at the south side of the Pinette River as well as a wharf at Eon’s Point. Eon’s Point, a name no longer in use, appears to have been at the end of the Portage Road and was on the north side of the north branch of the Pinette River. A new line of road connecting Pinette Harbour with the Wood Islands Road was laid out in 1842.  An 1844 petition from inhabitants from Pinette, Belfast, and Point Prim for an extension to the wharf at Eon’s Point seems to confirm its location on the north side of the river. The insignificance of the area is suggested by the lack of detail in Bayfield’s chart published in 1847 but dating from surveys a few years earlier. The area appears devoid of roads bridges and wharves, but this may simply have been a question of scale.
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Detail from Bayfield Chart 1847

It is clear that the two wharves increased maritime traffic. Previously, vessels had been loaded and unloaded by beaching them as the tide fell and moving goods to the boats by carts. In 1853 three buoys were placed, marking the channel leading up to the wharf which had been constructed at the south side of the Pinette River. In 1855 an officer with the impressive title of Collector of Customs and Navigation Laws and Collector of Excise for the port of Pinette was appointed. The following year another official post – Harbour and Ballast Master had been appointed for Pinette and a Wharfinger named for the wharf on the north side of Pinette Harbour. Another Wharfinger for the wharf on the south side of the harbour was appointed in 1859. In 1865 there were two significant developments. A bridge was finally planned to cross the south branch of the Pinette River, and a wharf was erected at McAulay’s Point, further down the north side of the river and closer to the mouth. This greater access to shipping facilities to the Point Prim farmers.  It is not clear when the bridge crossing the north branch of the Pinette was constructed.
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Examiner 20 March 1865 p.3 

The Pinette area was, like almost all coastal regions on P.E.I. the site of some shipbuilding activity but it was not a major ship building site.  In the sixty-year period when most yards were operational only 86 vessels were built in Pinette and surrounding area, eight of which were built in 1857, the busiest year. Only five of the vessels from the area were over 100 tons. The ships built were all small schooners built for the coasting trade such as carrying local produce to Newfoundland or elsewhere in the Northumberland Strait region. Unlike some areas no individuals were primarily identified as shipbuilders and it was clearly an occasional activity. It appears that the only steamer to regularly serve Pinette (and only for one year) was the steamer Eldon which was built at the port in 1887. It was a small vessel, only 49 feet long and displacing 38 tons. Operating on a route which was advertised to connect Charlottetown, Vernon Bridge, Pinette, Wood Islands, Little Sands, and Murray Harbour four days a week in 1888 by October of that year the vessel was criticized for irregular service and not maintaining the schedule. In early 1889 the Eldon was purchased by a group of Montague merchants and linked ports in eastern P.E.I. for several years before being sold to Nova Scotia interests in Port Hawkesbury. In the 1890s and early 1900s the provincial government subsidized a weekly sailing packet service between Pinette and Charlottetown during the season. For most of the period the contract was held by Captain Finlayson, a well-known skipper from Pinette, using a number of small schooners including the Julia, the Swallow and the North Star.  In 1898 some 2900 bushels of potatoes, 2400 bushels of oats and 104 bushels of turnips were shipped through Pinette with a total value of $1157. By the time Pinette became established as a port in the late 1840s, commercial activity for the area had already become centred in Pinette Mills, Eldon and Orwell Corner. As the road network gradually improved much of the local shipping moved to Halliday’s Wharf, near Eldon.  That port was served by steamers such as the Heather Belle, Jacques Cartier and the City of London and well into the twentieth century by the Harland. As the Lumsden postcard shown above illustrates, small schooners could still be seen at the turn of the century at Pinette, but these soon disappeared, replaced by much smaller fishing boats for which the narrow channel and shallow bar were less of a barrier.  As for so many other small ports the twentieth century was one in which the age of sail came quickly to a close. Today the Trans-Canada Highway speeds travellers through the area in seconds, crossing two bridges effortlessly and ignoring the area’s marine heritage. A glimpse of the port of Pinette today can be found here. Another posting shows the area in the 1930s

The unfulfilled promise of a Montreal to Charlottetown steamer connection

The mid-1850s were a period of optimism in Prince Edward Island. Population had increased, responsible government had been put in place, a free education act was in operation and in Charlottetown, the incorporated city had replaced the town.  In the harbour, communication with the mainland had become reliable with a steamer connecting with Pictou on a regular basis. There was a sail packet between Charlottetown and Boston. In 1857 there were even two competing ships on the route, the schooner Eglantine and the clipper brig Gelena, and in 1858 a new schooner, the Carrie M. Rich, 129 tons engendered the enthusiasm of the Examiner newspaper “We have never seen anything destined to walk the waters that appeared to us better calculated for her work than she is.”  There were also vessels that plied the direct route between Charlottetown and English ports. All looked positive on the communications front – with one exception.

The Island was less well-connected with Canada. In the early 1830s the Royal William, later to be one of the first vessels to cross the North Atlantic under steam power, made several stops in Charlottetown while operating between Pictou and Quebec. Another false start occurred in 1852 when the steamer Albatross, ostensibly owned by B.W.A. Sleigh made two voyages between New York and Quebec with a stop in Charlottetown but the attempt was unsuccessful, if not fraudulent.  Direct connection with Montreal was more of a problem as the shallow Lake St. Pierre in the St. Lawrence River between Quebec and Montreal had restricted passage to vessels drawing less than eleven feet. However, under the direction of the Montreal Harbour Commission a program of dredging had been begun, and by 1853 a channel had been deepened to 16 feet allowing direct passage of ships of up to 500 tons. This opened Montreal to the world, but not necessarily with Prince Edward Island  

While several steamship lines were established at this time to exploit the possibility of direct connection to England, the advantage of links to what at the time were called “the Lower Provinces” was also given attention. In 1858 the Montreal Gazette noted:

We are glad to observe, that our rising trade with the Lower Provinces is attracting attention. An effort is being made to obtain the advantages of direct steam communication … This could be efficiently secured by a line of three strong steamers adapted for steam navigation with good passenger accommodation and of sufficient power to make a weekly trip from Montreal to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and vice versa, touching at Riviere du Loup and Rimouski, and thus securing and accommodating the large Canadian travel to the watering places of the Lower St. Lawrence, then at Gaspe, affording outlet to the important trade of that district, and and next at ports in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia before arriving at the terminus of Prince Edward Island. Such a line would command a large and remunerative business. It would attract a tide of ocean pleasure travel and it would develop and build up our interprovincial trade.  Besides the passenger traffic, it would have down freights of flour and provisions, and return cargos of fish, sugar, and molasses. With the legitimate businesses that would speedily be developed, and subsidies from the Lower Provinces and Canada to foster it until self supporting, the interprovincial line would be a feeder in the ocean line of steamers, and would do much to advance the interests of all the provinces.   

The editorial opinion was picked up by other Montreal and Quebec newspapers and was re-printed in Charlottetown’s Islander, and the idea of Charlottetown as a terminus of interprovincial trade was no doubt attractive and would provoke the attention of Island merchants and shippers. However there was at the time little trade between the Island and Quebec, and the limited cargos of oats and other produce moving west, and even less from Canada to Prince Edward Island. Halifax and New England provided adequate outlets for Island surpluses and the Island’s merchants were serviced by direct shipment from the United Kingdom or New England. Moreover passenger traffic from Canada to the Island was slight at best, and Island family links with Montreal, later to increase significantly, were limited.    

The idea of a direct steamer service between Prince Edward Island and Montreal was not sufficiently attractive to attract the investment of the Montreal capitalists who were funding a number of new steamship lines such as the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company and the Canadian Steam Navigation Company. The former company, under the direction of Hugh Allan was the most successful, becoming known as the Allan Line and later as Canadian Pacific Steamships and it was for many years a serious competitor to the Cunard and White Star lines on the profitable North Atlantic route. 

Examiner 6 September 1869

In 1860 the steamer Lady Head, owned by the government of Canada and operated as the Royal Mail Line began a subsidized regular service between Quebec and the Maritimes but the terminus for the service was Pictou and the vessel only rarely stopped at Prince Edward Island.  Instead, the smaller cross-strait steamers such as the Westmorland, and later the ships of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company; the Saint Lawrence and the Princess of Wales provided connecting services for Island-bound passengers and freight at Pictou and Shediac.  It would be almost ten years after the Montreal Gazette writer wrote about the promise of direct steam communication between Prince Edward Island that it became a reality. The Quebec and Gulf Ports Steamship Company established a regular service in 1869 with vessels such as the Miramichi, and Secret, and later the Campana , Orinoco, and the Trinidad. links were considerably strengthened with the Island entering the confederation in 1873. Other passenger and freight lines provided service even after the Quebec-based company creased operation.  The steamer links would endure into the second half of the 20th century.        

The Restless Emigrant

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Haszard’s Gazette 16 November 1852 p.3

The most common story told of immigration to Prince Edward Island is one of a family from rural England, Scotland or Ireland who came on a packed immigrant ship to find a new life in a new land. Through hard work and good luck, they succeeded and founded family lines which helped create the Island population we have today. Much is missing from this line of narrative and when examined more closely Prince Edward Island did not always resemble the promised land that had been promoted. Some immigrants left for nearby colonies almost as soon as they had arrived. Others stuck it out for a few years but with a dearth of free land as was offered in other places, the Island was less attractive. For still others there was the lure of busy new cities such as Halifax, Montreal, or Toronto, or even Boston, New York, or the American west, where a good mind could be more of an asset than a strong back. For 19th century Islanders there were both “pulls” and “pushes.”  Some simply could not settle and their stay on the Island was brief.

The Island was advertised as a “good poor man’s country” but not all who came were poor men. There were others who seem to have ended up here and then left again for reasons unknown. There were many options open to them; South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, British Columbia … and they had options. Perhaps they had a little money, perhaps they knew someone who knew someone. Perhaps they simply picked one of the pink spots of the world map. For some, settlement on Prince Edward Island was part of a wanderlust which created no permeance and was simply a stop on the way.

Such may be the case for Dr. Henry Brougham Hillcoat who first appears in Prince Edward Island as a passenger on the steamer Rose on its regular trip from Pictou to Charlottetown on 30 October 1852.

Hillcoat, born in 1823, was the eldest son of a clergyman. In 1843 he married Cecelia Julianne O’Toole and the same year entered service with the army of the East India Company with the rank of Ensign, the lowest rank for a commissioned officer.  He served in a number of locations in India for the next six years, moving between regiments at his own request on a number of occasions but never attaining promotion.  During this period two children were born in India. In early 1849 his name was removed from the army list but it is not clear what the circumstances for this were. He and his family appear to have returned to England as a third and then fourth child was born, the latter in Gloucester in April 1849.

Following his return from India Hillcoat qualified as a doctor and became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons MRCS early in 1851. One source notes him as a M.R.C.S.E. or Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh but this appears to be a misunderstanding of the abbreviation for the Royal College of Surgeons of England (MRCS). Although armed with his new qualifications he did not elect to practise in England and was soon bound for new areas.

The family with four children arrived in New York on board the vessel Devonshire in April 1851. It is not clear how the next year was spent. In late October 1852 Hillcoat, presumably with his family, arrived in Charlottetown on board the steamer from Pictou.  Just over a week after his arrival the Doctor was advertising in the local press that he could be consulted at his residence, Newport Cottage, on the Princetown Road daily from 9 to 2, and that he would be happy to attend country calls day or night at as moderate rate.  Only a week later he had removed to the Crapaud area and a new advertisement stressed his “very moderate” terms with produce of all kinds and trade taken as payment when cash was unavailable.  He was remembered as only the second doctor in the district and one reminiscence was that he had a negro assistant who was studying medicine in hopes of going to India to work.

In September 1853 a fifth child was born to Henry and his wife Cecilia although strangely the place of birth is shown as Georgetown. By mid-January 1854 the mother was dead, possibly from complications of the birth, as the obituary mentions several months of intense suffering.  Only a few months later in September 1854, perhaps not surprisingly for a widower with five small children, the 31 year old Hillcoat re-married. His second wife, Hellen Gertrude Bell, was the daughter of Joseph Bell, a medical doctor living in St. Eleanor’s. She was eighteen at the time. Dr. Hillcoat had removed to Charlottetown by June of that year and was living in Keppoch House where he advertised consulting hours between 9 am and 2 pm.  Hillcoat purchased the Keppoch Estate on the east side of the entrance to Charlottetown Harbour and he warned of legal action against any persons taking away seaweed or trespassing on the premises. The property had been owned by Charlottetown merchant and shipbuilder James Duncan. The Keppoch farm was 232 acres and included a substantial house. The deed for the property was not executed until March 1855 and shows that Hillcoat had paid the not inconsiderable sum of £1,200 Island currency for the property.

Hillcoat’s young family continued to grow with son born in September 1855 and another in 1856. The final addition to the family was a son born in October 1857.

There is some evidence that Hillcoat was accumulating debts  by this time. Actions filed in the Island courts note non-payment of notes including two totaling more than £800 owing to a Liverpool merchant with the very Welsh name of John Thomas Thomas. One of the larger debts was not satisfied until the 1870s, long after Hillcoat had left the Island.

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Examiner 15 February 1858

By 1857 it appears that Hillcoat had resolved to quit the Island. In October he advertised this intention stating that he would leave for Port Nelson on South Island New Zealand the following July in a vessel called the Snow Drift and that he would have room for a few passengers. Although there was much in newspapers concerning the gold fields of Australia the valuable ore had also been found in New Zealand and several companies were advertising land available. There were several groups if Islanders that successfully voyaged to New Zealand at this time. Before leaving for the gold fields it appears that Hillcoat temporarily returned to England, for in April of 1858 he was to be found aboard the ship Majestic bound for Prince Edward Island. A fire aboard meant the loss of the ship with a close-call rescue of the crew and passengers at the last minute. The story of the fire aboard the Majestic is found here.

At the time of advertising, Dr. Hillcoat’s new ship had not yet been built but it was launched in April the following spring from the shipyard of R. Barker of Vernon River. In the summer of 1858, the brigantine left Charlottetown. It is not known if Hillcoat succeeded in finding any passengers willing to make a voyage half-way around the world in what was, even for the time, a very small vessel.

Notwithstanding the assertion of sailing direct to the gold diggings September of 1858 saw the Snow Drift in the harbour of Port Talbot, a port in southern Wales, near Swansea.  There the voyage came to a premature end owing to a disaster in the family.

While Hillcoat was writing in the cabin of the vessel which was planned to depart for Cadiz, one of his children asked to go to the boat to retrieve a model vessel he had left there. The lad unfortunately fell into the water trying to reach the model. His father hearing the child’s cries leapt into the water and although he was able to reach the child and the boy succeeded in reaching an oar held out to him. Hillcoat was not so lucky and was drowned leaving a widow and eight children. The large family was left with resources, their sole asset being the Snow Drift which, according to Welsh papers “had not paid its expenses.” Several of the news accounts noted a charitable fund being set up for the family.

It is probable that his widow and their younger children returned to Prince Edward Island and the Bell family while the older children were cared for by the Hillcoat family relatives in England.  Several of the former group were living on Prince Edward Island or in New Brunswick in 1881, as was their mother.  As well, several of the children of Henry and Cecilia eventually emigrated to Australia. Even without a lasting legacy the story of a restless doctor who travelled the Empire is part of Prince Edward’s Island’s story.

I am indebted to Welsh researcher Lynne Rees whose query about Hillcoat and Keppoch caused me to look more closely at the man and who added much to this story.