Included in the Fred Small Collection of photos is a small and faded snapshot, not well composed and not very clear. It is one of a number of pictures in the Collection featuring the Roamer, Mac Irwin’s motor cruiser. Three members of the crew are sitting in the cockpit. It appears to have been taken sometime in the 1920s but the location is not immediately clear.
The boat is tied to both sides of what is called in PEI a “run” where a river runs out to the sea. There are several runs still in use in PEI as fishing harbours on otherwise hostile shores. Upstream and to the right in the photo is a small schooner and above it what appears to be a bridge across the run. This would block the upper reaches of the river to boats. The run does not appear to be a busy one although other small boats may be out of sight as the wharf appears to hook to the right. A shed is located at the end of the bridge and shadows suggest other buildings to the right of the wharf. The sun on the water in the photo indicates that the run lies approximately east to west.
In the 1920s Mac Irwin took the Roamer on a number of cruises along PEI’s coast and across to Nova Scotia. Other photos show the boat at Pinette and at Murray River. It is doubtful if he visited harbours on the north side of the Island where many of the runs are located. So the mystery remains – where is this? Answering the question is made more difficult by the fact that many small wharves and harbours have been abandoned and the passage of ninety years or so has changed the shape of the land.
So, leaving Charlottetown where would the Roamer have gone? There is nothing resembling the pictured harbour to the west of Hillsborough Bay. We know from other photos that Irwin took the boat east. There are few stopping places on the route to Murray Harbour. Wood Islands, which is now used as a stopping place was undeveloped as the ferry port was not dredged until the late 1930s and the shallow fishing harbour was at the east end of the islet. There is no real shelter for small craft along the soft underbelly of the Island and the runs up the east coast of the province face in the wrong direction.
The answer must be the wharf at Belle River. The 1935 aerial photo at the left shows how the harbour matches up with the photo (the orientation of the photo has north to the left). The run is present. The bridge and the building at its north end can be spotted. Even the fact that the harbour area hooks to the right fits in with the Roamer photo. It would also be a reasonable place to stop before making the long, harbourless trip around the south coast and around Cape Bear before the shelter of Murray Harbour is reached.
However the 1935 photo also contains clues as to why the harbour is no longer visited by cruising boats. Offshore faint outlines of the sandbars can be seen and the flow of Belle River appears to be ineffectual in carving a channel. Even in 1935 this would have been a difficult harbour to enter at all but the highest tides.
In 1974 this was still a practical port and more than a dozen buildings lined both sides of the run. However, it was not long after that that the use of the harbour dwindled and although the lobster plant continued to run but with trucked in lobster. By 1990 (seen to the right) much of the south side of the run had crumbled and the north finger pier had been breached.
However it was not until 2011 that the wharf was officially decommissioned as a Department of Fisheries and Oceans wharf. The only part of the wharves still in use is a processing plant at the harbour owned by Belle River Enterprises and which still processes lobster. Increasingly also the firm is a major processor of Rock Crab but none of the products processed are landed at Belle River.
As seen in Google Earth in 2010 the run has been completely filled in by the shifting sands from the north-south longshore drift. All structures on the north side of the run have disappeared. The river appears much reduced in volume and now discharges south into the Gulf through a breach in the wall of the run.
Photos from the 1950s show that the harbour was still in use. At least seven lobster boats appear to be fishing out of the port and a lobster factory can be seen on the south side of the run. In the photo looking toward the west fish shacks and huts used for seasonal accommodation for fishermen and factory workers can be seen on both the north and south sides of the run.
I visited the site in the spring of 2014 to confirm that this was indeed the run pictured in the photo in the Fred Small collection. It was a cold end-of-April day with a north-west breeze. Just slightly above zero and an occasional hint of sun. Although I had been to Belle River within the last two years I was completely unprepared for what I found. Apparently “decommissioning” by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans means destroying any hint that the run could be used. The bridge, which, to be fair, was closed and unsafe, had been completely removed as had any remaining pilings and walkways. Instead the shores of the river had been armoured with imported stone. As it was at the top of a very high tide when I arrived the tidal river was quite full and one could be fooled into thinking that it was still a viable destination. Having been there at low tide I know that this is not the case. Compare the first photo in the series with the eighty-year old image at the top of this posting. Note how the channel empties to the south over a very shallow bar instead of out into the Strait. Click on any image to see all the photos.
It is all a far cry from the bustling harbour that existed for many years. Contrast the barren scene above with this post card from about 1912.