For more than half a century the arrival and departure of the Boston Boat were regular occurrences on the Charlottetown waterfront. Although one could, by using a combination of Northumberland Strait Steamers and the rail lines across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, travel from Charlottetown to New England through Halifax, Saint John or Yarmouth the benefits of a direct, no-transfer passage were obvious.
The north-south coastal links between PEI and New England were, for most of the period, far stronger than any relationship with Quebec and Ontario and the trade and opportunity offered in the “Boston States” meant that many Islanders travelled back and forth on a regular basis and many families had links to Massachusetts.
One of the first companies to capitalize on this relationship was the Boston and Colonial Steamship Company which began a regular service in the 1860s and which operated as the Boston, Halifax and Prince Edward Island Steamship Line. Although this firm served the Island for more than twenty years it is its successor, the Plant Line, that is more often associated with the term “Boston Boat”
With round trip fares as little as $10.00 and little more than an overnight trip, Boston was much easier to reach than central Canada. The booming New England economy was a real draw for Islanders who developed a noticeable presence in Boston and communities such as Lynn. There were thousands of Islanders in New England. Some went for seasonal employment others put down roots and formed an expatriate community. It seemed that almost every Island household could boast of cousins in the Boston States and for those cousins a regular vacation back home was an important part of maintaining the connection. The Boston Boat was their link to the Island.
In 1892 Henry Bradley Plant had acquired control of the Boston, Halifax and Prince Edward Island Steamship Line. Plant had a large railroad and shipping conglomerate in Florida competing with Henry Flagler. Flagler operated on the east coast of Florida while the Plant lines serviced the west coast. They competed with one another on the service to Cuba. Meanwhile the Canada Atlantic Steamship Company had been formed in 1888 and commissioned the S.S. Halifax from the London and Glasgow Shipbuilding Company in Glasgow Scotland. This 250 foot vessel had a beam of 31 feet and her triple expansion engine provided 390 horsepower. The Halifax was to stay on the Charlottetown – Boston route until 1915. Initially cooperating with one another to reduce competition, the two shipping companies were combined early in 1893 to form the Canada Atlantic and Plant Steamship Company, usually referred to as the Plant Line.
Plant contributed his steamer Olivette that ran in the winter between Tampa, Key West and Havana to the enterprise. The Canadian service initially ran only between Boston and Halifax but was extended to Charlottetown when the English-built 1786 ton ship Florida joined the fleet. Most of the Plant vessels vessels ran to Charlottetown (usually via Port Hawkesbury), others served Sydney. The ships ran only in the summer season and were transferred to Florida and Cuba routes for the winter season.
In 1896 Plant ordered a new boat for the fleet. At 404 feet, La Grande Duchesse was larger than any other boat serving the port of Charlottetown. Luxurious accommodation was provided for 700 passengers and she was one of the first boats to be provided with telephone service for every stateroom. She was designed to travel between New York and Charleston in the winter and link with the Plant Railway system to Florida and Cuba. Her 6300 horsepower engines were expected to drive the vessel at 20 knots. Unfortunately the design was unsatisfactory and she did not perform as expected. Returned to the builders for modification she did not run to Charlottetown until June of 1899 and was sold out of the fleet soon after. Following a number of changes of name and ownership she was lost when sunk by a German submarine in 1918.
Henry Plant died in 1899 and the firm came under the control of Alonzo W. Perry and other Boston investors who continued the service to Charlottetown with the Halifax and the S.S. Beverly, a former 1600 ton fruit carrier re-named the A.W. Perry (after the president of the company), described by at least one writer as “a very inferior boat.” In 1906, the same summer that the A.W. Perry began service, the company also ran the 3300 ton, 350 foot, Pretoria, giving twice weekly service to the port. Over the years the Plant Line ran other boats to Charlottetown including the S.S. Aranmore which was later purchased by the Canadian Government and was for many years a frequent visitor to Charlottetown in her role as a Dominion Government buoy tender.
Increasing freight and passenger traffic on both the northern and Florida routes resulted in the company ordering two almost identical new ships, the Evangeline and the Yarmouth, from a Glasgow shipyard in 1912. The Evangeline was added to the Charlottetown – Boston service and was easily the most luxurious and fastest ship to cover the 660 mile route. She had 260 staterooms for her 580 passengers and carried a crew of 95. Like most of the other Plant Line ships, the Evangeline led a dual service existence sailing in southern waters in the winter and returning north each year like a migratory bird. The Plant Line ships were pioneers in the southern cruise trade which continues today. Kevin Griffin’s Cruise People website tells the story.
The outbreak of the Great War brought almost immediate changes. Traffic numbers plummeted, costs, especially for steam coal, climbed and by 1916 the submarine menace had become a real threat. At the end of that year the Plant Line announced the suspension of its Canadian services. The Evangeline was taken out of service and eventually sold to the French Government. The A.W. Perry had been wrecked at Chebucto Head owing to navigation errors in 1915. The Halifax had carried on until the end of the 1915 season and the next year came only as far as Halifax. In 1917 she was sold and disappeared with all hands on a voyage from the Azores in 1918.
The loss of the service was keenly felt although with the new Rail Car Ferry S.S. Prince Edward Island there were alternative all-land using routes using through train connections as well as continuing services to meet steamers at Halifax, Yarmouth and Saint John. However the business never returned to pre-war levels. It is perhaps telling that in her last trip in December of 1915 the Halifax carried her largest freight load ever -20,000 bushels of potatoes and turnips – but not a single outward passenger. The Charlottetown Board of Trade and individual merchants lobbied for a reinstatement of the service and as late as 1925 there were rumours that express passenger steamships would return to the Boston, Halifax, Hawkesbury and Charlottetown route. It was not to be. The Plant Line vessels had provided a level of luxuriousness and efficiency which was never to return to the harbour. Charlottetown’s Boston Boat was another casualty of the Great War.