Displayed on one of the earliest charts of Northumberland Strait has the words “Fogs are rare here.” Entire seasons can go by without reports of dense fog and the area is in direct contrast to the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia where heavy fog is an ever-present danger.
For Captain MacLean of the steamer Heather Belle his return trip from Brush Wharf Orwell to Charlottetown had begun at 4:50 on the already dark evening of 12 November 1891. It was therefore an unpleasant surprise when fog closed in as the ship was steering towards the harbour mouth after rounding the Bell Buoy (as Fitzroy Rock Buoy was then known.) Heading for the Black Buoy, now called Spithead, he was forced to slow in the dense fog and try to find his position by sounding the reef. He left the Black Buoy to port and steered north-east towards Blockhouse, sounding his whistle the whole time.
At the same time the Pickford and Black Steamer Fastnet under command of Captain Hopkins was passing through the harbour entrance after leaving the dock at Charlottetown heading for Halifax with passengers and cargo. The 145 foot screw steamer Fastnet had been built in Glasgow in 1878 for the Clyde Shipping Company for service in South West Ireland and had been bought by Pickford and Black for the Charlottetown run earlier in 1891. The Fastnet encountered the fog bank at about 6:30 after it had passed the Blockhouse light at the entrance to Charlottetown Harbour and reduced its speed to three and a half knots running against the incoming tide.
After a few minutes after passing the Black Buoy the Heather Belle’s crew picked up the sound of another steam whistle which the Captain correctly identified as the Pickford and Black steamer Fastnet leaving the harbour. He steered slightly to starboard to keep the Heather Belle to the correct side of the channel and assumed from the signals that the Fastnet was taking the same action. The time was about 6:40.
Suddenly the masthead and starboard light of the Fastnet appeared out of the fog. The Captain called for the engines to be put hard astern and tried to turn the vessel to port to avoid collision. The Heather Belle was nearly at a standstill when the Fastnet struck her near the port bow and water began pouring in. Although there was limited damage to the Fastnet, the Heather Belle was in serious trouble. She was quickly made fast to the starboard side of the Fastnet and they both proceeded at full speed to the harbour entrance with the Heather Belle filling with water. The fifteen passengers and the crew scrambled onto the Fastnet. As the water steadily rose the paddle steamer’s stokers raked out the boiler of the paddle steamer to prevent an explosion and the ship steadily settled into the water. They got within 800 yards of the Blockhouse when the steamers separated and the Heather Bell drifted off into the dark fog and disappeared. The Fastnet was so close to the shore that the voice of the Blockhouse lightkeeper could be plainly heard although nothing was visible in the fog. The Fastnet shortly afterwards went aground on the sands of Cumberland Cove and a crew rowed to Charlottetown to report the accident. The passengers from both steamers were brought ashore by the steam-tug Frank Batt and the tug returned the next day to get the Fastnet afloat.
There was no loss of life or injury and the freight load was slight. However, the Heather Belle was uninsured. Its owners, the Inland Steam Navigation Company, had been in business for eight years but the boat, at least parts of it, was older. The original Heather Belle had been launched in 1862 from the James Duncan Shipyard in Charlottetown. The 108 foot boat was built of wood with engines from Todd and McGregor of Glasgow. She served on regular steamer routes in the Bay but by 1882 she was showing her age. The owners searched for a vessel to replace the Heather Belle and even looked to the States for a new vessel but could not find one suitable. They then contracted with James White in Mount Stewart to build a new ship. The new Heather Belle was only slightly longer at 120 feet but was wider and so had greater carrying capacity. Although built with a single main passenger cabin she had room aboard for 500 people. She was framed in juniper and had diagonal iron straps fastened before being planked. She had stringers of pitch pine.
Launched in June 1883 she was towed to Charlottetown for finishing. In order to save money the Todd and McGregor engine, which had already served for more than twenty years, was rebuilt and put into the new hull along with a new boiler built in Saint John. The hulk of the old boat was sold as scrap for $20 and by mid-June had been dismantled . The steamer was also under new ownership. In 1883 the Inland Steam Navigation Company had been incorporated with capital stock of $25,000. The principal owners were John Hughes, William Welsh, Lemuel Cambridge Owen, Daniel Todvin, James Turner and John MacMillan.
Following the sinking, flotsam and parts of the deckhouse washed ashore near Keppoch at the harbour mouth, but the sunken wreck of the Heather Belle was not found for several days. It was eventually located off Cumberland Farm, not far from where the Fastnet had gone aground on the night of the sinking. Divers were brought over from Halifax but attempts to raise the steamer were frustrated by poor weather and by the fact that the hull began to break up when it had been moved no more than 500 feet. The attempt was abandoned in mid-December 1891. The following year new attempts to raise the wreck proved too difficult and its remains may still lie beneath the sands off the cliffs at Cumberland.
Within a few days of the sinking the Inland Steamship Company had restored the service to the mainland using the steamer M.A. Starr, a Halifax ship which was leased for the remainder of the season. The M.A. Starr dated back to 1855 when it was launched as H.M.S. Delight, an Albacore Class gunboat designed for use in the Crimean War. It had been decommissioned and sold mercantile in 1867. The following year the Inland Steam Navigation Company acquired the paddle steamer Jacques Cartier which ran on the route until it was wrecked on the Nova Scotia shore.
Meanwhile, court proceedings had been heard in Admiralty Court with both parties claiming damages from the other. After a lengthy hearing before Chief Justice W.W. Sullivan, with the assistance of F.W. Hyndman as a nautical assessor, it was found that both vessels were traveling at an excessive speed without taking enough consideration for the fog and that they had both failed to set a course which would ensure they were in opposite sides of the channel. Under the admiralty law principles each wrong-doer was obliged to pay half the damages of the other. The total loss of the Heather Belle was assessed at just over $18,000 while the repairs to the Fastnet were set at $2,800. Court costs were borne equally.
The Fastnet continued to call at Charlottetown through 1897. The next year she was sent around Cape Horn with a party of gold seekers bound for the Yukon. The vessel was sold to a company in British Columbia and again to a Mexican firm in 1898 when she was re-named the Alamo. In 1909 she was wrecked on Tortuga Island in the Gulf of Mexico.
The P.E.I. Public Archives and Records Office has the Admiralty Court case records in R.G.6 which include transcripts of the evidence. The Exchequer Court Reports Vol. 3 pp.40-56 contain the judgment in the case. The account of the collision as well as the subsequent search for the wreck can be found in the Daily Patriot for the relevant dates. Details of the several ships named can be found in the Mercantile Naval Lists, most easily accessed through the on-line holdings of Memorial University’s Maritime History Project.