Although commercial steamboats had been to great extent developed in North America beginning with Robert Fulton’s Clermont, by the 1830s the technology was world-wide. Even in Charlottetown the steam boat was the coming thing and in 1832 the first of the revolutionary vessels, the steamer Pocahontas, began a regular service between that port and Pictou in Nova Scotia.
However it was the appearance of a new vessel the following year that gave Islanders a real glimpse into the future of transportation. In mid August 1833 a vessel that had been built on the banks of the Thames the same year sailed, or rather steamed, through the channel at the harbour’s mouth. The vessel was called the Cape Breton and her voyage across the ocean is the first known passage of a vessel equipped with steam engines across the North Atlantic.
The steamer Cape Breton had been built by Benjamin Wallis & Company at a shipyard in Blackwall on the Thames and was launched early in 1833. She was a schooner rigged paddle vessel 104 ft long and with a beam of just under 21 feet. Her registration particulars described her as having one deck, one funnel, three masts, a standing bowsprit, a square, stern and a bird figurehead. Her engines were 35 horse power each and were probably side levers, each comprising a single cylinder with the associated transmission mechanism, an early engine design. Her service speed was rated at only 6 knots.
She began her voyage in London and she arrived at Plymouth in the south of England on 4 June 1833, “damaged and leaky”, but on 20 June, she sailed from Plymouth, arriving at Sydney, Nova Scotia on 4 August 1833, 44 days later. During her pioneer North Atlantic voyage her engines would have been used intermittently when conditions suited and the rest of the time she would have sailed under her schooner rig. This was the normal practice with early steam ships. A fortnight later the Cape Breton made her first voyage from Pictou to Charlottetown.
The Cape Breton, like the smaller, North American-built Pocahontas was owned by the General Mining Association of London which had major mineral concessions and controlled most of the mining in Nova Scotia. On her record trip across the Atlantic she carried a cargo for the Company’s mines at Sydney and at Stellarton near Pictou. In addition to its coal interest the General Mining Association was also involved in other development in the area.
In the 1830s Miramichi was a major timber port and the whole area was being rapidly developed. Ships regularly sailed direct from Miramichi to the United Kingdom and linking the New Brunswick port to other developing areas of the Northumberland Strait provided passenger and freight service in the region. The Cape Breton and the Pocahontas both traveled the route from Pictou to Charlottetown to Miramichi and return.
In June 1835 the Cape Breton sailed back across the Atlantic to England, arriving at Plymouth on 2nd August. She was damaged in a gale on her return passage to Nova Scotia but soon was once again a regular visitor to Charlottetown providing a packet service carrying the mails and passengers. In 1838, she was sold to Joseph Cunard, brother of the founder of the Cunard Line. By this time her attractiveness may have paled. In August of 1840 Sir George Seymour on his visit to the Island described her as “a small & short & particularly dirty steam Vessell.” At the end of the 1840 sailing season she returned England, where her engines were removed and she became a fully-rigged sailing ship. She continued in trade until she was lost at sea in May 1857.
The service gap caused by the return of the Cape Breton to England in 1840 and her subsequent replacement by the unsatisfactory Pocahontas provided an opportunity for the newly-incorporated Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company to place the steamer St. George on the route in 1842.
The historic first crossing of the North Atlantic by the steam-powered Cape Breton has been recognized as one of the top 100 events in the history of Great Britain and the sea and a special medal (pictured above) has been struck the recognize the event.