Surveyors in the Gulph – Margaretha Stevenson Comes to Charlottetown

Margaretha Stevenson3

The Margaretha Stevenson on the ways at the foot of Great George Street in the early 1860s. Today the Colonial Building and the brick house at the corner of Water street remain, as well as part of the stone foundation for the warehouse which now makes up part of the garden wall.

Not Launched from Prince Edward’s Isle

The photo is a dramatic one. Against the background of the early 1860s Great George Street and the Charlottetown waterfront a ship, completely rigged, stands ready to be launched. But the picture is not what it seems…

The trim little vessel was not built in a Charlottetown ship yard, nor anywhere else on the Island. Indeed surprisingly for a country rich in timber and with a shipbuilding tradition, the ship was not even built in Canada but in a shipyard on the distant Firth of Clyde in Scotland.  The other surprise is that the vessel was a steamship. Although sporting the rig of a topsail schooner the ship was registered in Glasgow, its first port, as an iron screw steamer.

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Detail of the Margaretha Stevenson showing the propeller at the stern of the vessel. Also clear is the topsail schooner rig and the relatively small size of the ship.

The topsail schooner was a popular rig for P,.E.I.-built ships, many of which were sold in the United Kingdom.  Its blend of square and fore-and-aft rigging allowed for good manoeuvrability with a smaller crew and it was often used on coastal vessels.  However, in a closer view a three-bladed propeller can be seen and in a later view of the ship (seen below) the funnel for the steam engine can be spotted. In addition it would have been highly unusual for a vessel to be launched fully rigged. A more logical explanation is that the ship has been hauled out of the water for re-fit or repairs.

The ship is the Margaretha Stevenson and her presence in the port of Charlottetown is part of a significant chapter in the history of the harbour. It was a time when Prince Edward Island was at the centre of production of nautical charts detailing the east coast. For more than forty years the port was an important component  of the British Admiralty’s plan for charting the world.

The Survey of the Gulph

It begins in Quebec in 1841 when Captain (later Admiral) Henry Wolsey Bayfield was nearing the completion of his charting of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. Seeking a better site from which to continue the survey of the Gulf and Newfoundland he moved his establishment to Charlottetown.  Although engaged in surveying the coasts between the break-up and freeze-up during the winter months in Charlottetown the surveyors returned each fall to offices in Charlottetown to plot the soundings and observations of the previous season. After preparing  the plans and charts they were forwarded to the Admiralty Hydrographic Office in London to be engraved.

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Admiral Henry Wolsey Bayfield in later years

Bayfield, having overall responsibility, insisted on accuracy of location and name, good style, and the best scale for each chart. His staff gradually increased to include three assistant surveyors, a draughtsman, and a medical officer. While on survey duties his assistants customarily went off in surveying boats for a few days or weeks to work on a survey while Bayfield laboured elsewhere, but he was always in command. His surveyors were provided with detailed  instructions and they were required to report to him in person or by letter on a regular basis. He set a high standard which he expected his men to follow. He was impatient with carelessness, inaccuracy, or indolence, but he showed appreciation for good work and did not hesitate to recommend his assistants for promotions.

By 1848 Bayfield and assistants had completed the surveys of Prince Edward Island, Northumberland Strait, part of Gaspe, and Cape Breton and he moved the work on to other areas including the Halifax area and Sable Island before retiring in 1856. In retirement he was promoted Vice-Admiral, Rear-Admiral and finally Admiral in 1867. He died in Charlottetown in 1885.

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Captain (later Admiral) John Orlebar

Bayfield was succeeded in the survey work by Captain John Orlebar who had been his assistant since 1836 and has credit for many of the P.E.I. charts, including Charlottetown Harbour and the Hillsborough River. Once Orlebar had taken command of the survey the attention of the Admiralty shifted to Newfoundland and Orlebar was directed to take his survey crew each year to northern waters although the headquarters remained in Charlottetown until 1863 when it was removed to St. John’s.  In the 1860s the survey team  included a number of Islanders including Frederick W, Hyndman who had joined the Royal Navy a few years earlier. Hyndman is noted as assistant on a number of Newfoundland charts created during the period.  Orlebar initially used the steamer Lady Le Marchant for his Newfoundland work but in 1860 the Admiralty chartered the Margaretha Stevenson which may have been built specifically for the purpose. In 1864-65 the vessel helped survey the route and assisted the Great Eastern in the laying of the Atlantic cable.

The Story of the Ship

The Margaretha Stevenson was not large ship but was very effective for getting into small harbours along the coast.  The 114 ton vessel was 110 feet long and 18 feet wide and drew 10 feet. Launched from the yard of William Denny & Bros. at Dumbarton Scotland in April 1860 she crossed the Atlantic later in the season under sail. Her 2 cylinder, 28 horsepower engine had been put in place in Scotland but was not used during the crossing.  It is possible that the photo above may have been taken at the time of the arrival of the ship in Charlottetown when the engines were made operational.  The registered owners up to 1869 were members of the Stevenson family of Quebec.  William Stevenson was a merchant there who had business connections to Prince Edward Island and was a correspondent of James Peake. In 1846 he bought the steamer St. George from the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company and also owned the Pocahontas, another of the vessels which linked Charlottetown and Pictou. Stevenson was also owner of several of the vessels used by Capt. Bayfield in the survey, all of which were called the Gulnare and one of which was built in Charlottetown.

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Margaretha Stevenson caught in ice while owned by the Moise Company 1867. Note the funnel and the diminutive size of the ship – Arthur Henderson Photo McCord Museum

In 1869 the Margaretha Stevenson was sold to W.M. Molson, a member of the Quebec brewing and banking family, and her survey duties came to an end. The vessel was used in connection with a venture called the Moisie River Iron Company, formed to exploit magnetic ore discovered near Sept Iles on the Quebec North Shore.  The ship later passed through the hands of a number of other owners and was primarily used as a passenger and freight carrier for the service along the North Shore of the St. Lawrence between Montreal and Anticosti and Quebec and Natashquan. In 1879 the owners changed name of the vessel to the Otter. Passenger accommodation was expanded and in 1886 the small ship was licensed for 125 passengers  but it is hard to imagine that many on board in safety. The registry was closed after the vessel was wrecked near Riviere-du-Loup in dense fog in November 1898.

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2 thoughts on “Surveyors in the Gulph – Margaretha Stevenson Comes to Charlottetown

  1. Pingback: Charting a river that time would forget | Sailstrait

  2. Pingback: Gulnare – A Significant Name in Canadian Marine History | Sailstrait

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