An almost forgotten part of the “continuous steam communication” which was a commitment in the agreement under which P.E.I. agreed to become part of the Dominion of Canada was the role played by the summer steamers. The winter service was the responsibility of the Department of Marine and Fisheries. However, as long as the harbours were not iced in, subsidized private vessels provided the essential service of linking the province with Canada.
The Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company was Island-owned and operated and the pride of the fleet was the S.S. Northumberland which had been built for the company by Wigham, Richardson & Co. at their Neptune Works at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1891. Launched early in the year she had her sea trials in May and crossed the Atlantic soon afterwards. Equipped with two of the latest triple-expansion engines she was designed to maintain a continuous speed of 15 1/2 knots. Designed for the accommodation of a large number of passengers on the main deck with a 120 foot salon. In the after part of the ship there was a ladies lounge. In addition there were a number of staterooms and and smoking room. For two and a half decades the 2,500 horsepower steamer shuttled the 52-mile route between Charlottetown and Pictou or on the shorter Summerside to Pointe du Chene route. She was joined in 1895 by the S.S. Princess. When that boat was sold in 1906 the S.S. Empress was paired with the Northumberland on the Straits service. Ownership of the steamer changed over the period, perhaps in relation to cash flow issues for the company. Title passed from the Company to John Ings, L.C. Owen and William Richards (who were also shareholders in the Steam Navigation Company) in 1892 and then back to the Company in 1906.
The completion of the government- owned rail ferry S.S. Prince Edward Island resulted in a big change for the Company. For a year or so the S.S. Northumberland shared the service out of Charlottetown with the new boat but the 1917 completion of the terminal facilities at Carleton Point, later named Port Borden, meant that the Pictou route had lost its edge. The Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company abandoned the service and was later wound up. The S.S. Northumberland was sold to the Government of Canada in 1916 and operated on the Charlottetown to Pictou by the Canadian National Railway until after the 1919 season when the vessel was moved to Lake Ontario for the Great Lakes Port Dalhousie and Toronto service. Refitted as an excursion steamer she had accommodation for 1,050 day passengers and operated until 1949 when she was destroyed by fire just before the beginning of the season.
The departure of the Northumberland from the Strait did not mean the end of the Pictou run. In 1921 the S.S. Constance, owned by Bruce Stewart and Company, served on the route while the $8,000 subsidy in 1922 and 1923 was awarded to the wooden steamer S.S. Magdelen. Both boats were judged unsatisfactory by the Charlottetown Board of Trade A more stable arrangement was reached when the S.S. Hochelaga took over the route in 1924.