Seventeen years after the opening of the Confederation Bridge it is still possible to go by sea to the mainland. The Wood Islands ferry, which many forecast would whither and die continues to be a viable alternative for those going to Nova Scotia and is a preferred and quicker route from Prince Edward Island to Cape Breton and Newfoundland.
The survival of the service certainly warrants a history and Marian Bruce’s new book Saltwater Road [a great title] provides a fascinating look at several aspects of the link between southern Prince Edward Island and Pictou County. We are warned by the sub-title – Tales of Travel on the Northumberland Strait – and by Fred Hyndman’s introduction that this is not a history of the ferry service. Instead, writes Hyndman,
The historic data is certainly here, but Marian Bruce has transformed it into an engaging story – an important narrative in the life of the people of eastern Prince Edward Island and their neighbours in Pictou County, Nova Scotia – into which the ferry service has imposed itself and around which the story pivots.
This is more like a community history with boats. There are some fascinating stories and here Bruce shows her skill (as she did with her recent book Old Dan) in getting people to talk in a way that more traditional historians seem unable to master. The subject matter in the book ranges over life on Pictou Island, the industrial past of Pictou, love stories that cross the Strait, work and family on the boats and piers and tales of the phantom ship. To my eyes the book seems a little weighted with much more about the Nova Scotia end of the ferry run and not enough about Wood Islands. The story is told in snippets and is an interesting one but one must go back and forth to follow the narrative of how the ferry service came to be and how it changed over the years.
Yes, there is some context but it is incomplete. A two-page listing of boats that crossed between the Island and the mainland is selective and misses several important entries. There is an appendix listing the 1941 shareholders of the company but it would be nice to know who these men were and what their connection to the Strait would have been. Only R.E. Mutch warrants any details but others on the list were also of interest. Wentworth N. MacDonald, for example, was a Sydney businessman who through the Margree Steamship Company had experience in managing an interprovincial steamer line and was owner of the S.S. Constance on the Charlotetown-Pictou route in the 1920s and who must have contributed much to Northumberland Ferries. There is also little mention of the passengers. Almost every Islander has some remembrance of these boats and the trip and they must have their own stories but we hear little from them. As someone who began crossing from Wood Islands as a child in the 1950s I share a sense of ownership with the experience with all other passengers. I also share the experience of missing the last boat at Caribou and hurtling up the Sunrise Trail to try to get to Cape Tormentine.
Like a local history parts of this book seem written only for the participants. Bruce has recognized that these folks have a unique and shared perspective and they have been given a voice and she allows them to share their experiences. The community, however, is closely defined and while there was a “family” feeling about the operation it sometimes seems to exclude those not member of the group. Perhaps the picture is so idyllic I regret not being in it.
The volume is exceptionally well laid-out and designer Joan Sinclair deserves the credit she gets. Marian Bruce has unearthed a fine collection of casual and formal photos to go with the tales of travel. This is a valuable addition to the Northumberland Strait book shelf but there are still a few more tales of travel left to tell.
Marian Bruce. Saltwater Road. 2014. 125 p. $25.00