The Albatross Arrives
Charlottetown had rarely seen such enthusiasm. The arrival of the steamer Albatross in July of 1852 heralded the beginning of a new era of communication with the Island capital being linked with bi-monthly sailings with both New York and Quebec. The ship itself was one of the largest and most powerful which had ever visited the city. Built in Philadelphia the previous year by Wm. Cramp & Sons and described as “magnificent” the 1100 ton vessel boasted 250 horsepower and first class accommodation for 120 first class passengers. When she visited Quebec the local newspaper described her as “Long, narrow high out of the water, exceedingly sharp at the bow, rounded stern, rather wall-sided.”
It was a bold experiment as little was known about the amount of traffic that could be expected. An earlier routing for the Albatross between Philadelphia and Charleston had failed because the expected business never materialized. However the Quebec plan was not short on one essential element – publicity. The main proponent of the new route was one Burrows Wilcocks Arthur Sleigh who apparently had the ability to charm the most cautious investor and to create dreams out of nothing.
The Rise and Fall of a Dreamer
Sleigh ([pronounced “Slee”) was born in Quebec thanks to his father’s short-lived residency there and spent several years in the British Army serving in the West Indies, Canada and Nova Scotia. He sold his commission in 1848 and retired with the rank of Captain. From then on he appears to have lived by his wits and other people’s money. From 1848 to 1851 he was floating a scheme for the Halifax and Quebec Railroad and another the establishment of a settlement in New Brunswick for retired army and naval officers. An investigation found that the land had never been purchased and that Sleigh had declared bankruptcy a few months earlier. That did not prevent him from moving on to several new schemes. He made a down payment to purchase the 70,000 acre Worrell estate in Kings County and visited the Island in March of 1852 travelling by ice boat across the strait. While on the Island he announced the formation of a new steamship line which would include Charlottetown as a stop on the New York – Quebec route.
One of the biggest promoters of the new line was the American Counsel in Pictou, Major Norton who, in some reports, was the originator of the scheme. New York newspapers wrote of the great wealth of extensive landownership of Captain Sleigh who took over the enterprise from Norton and proceeded to expand the vision to include the possibility of additional ships on the line. The International Journal wrote of Sleigh “No man in the colonies has a deeper interest at stake there than Captain Sleigh.” In this telling the land held by Sleigh had swelled to 100,000 acres of the best agricultural land. The Albatross touched at Charlottetown on its way to Quebec in mid-July and while the steamer was in port Sleigh announced the formation of the Bank of Charlottetown. On the return of the Albatross from Quebec Sleigh was the guest of honour at a grand banquet with Hon Charles Hensley in the chair held in the colony’s House of Assembly. One hundred and three of the leading gentlemen of the colony heaped praise on Sleigh for his initiative. Additional honours included the naming of Sleigh as a Justice of the Peace and an appointment as Lieutenant-Colonel of the 2nd Kings County Regiment of Militia.
Alas, the progress and prospects of Prince Edward Island did not immediately improve. After two round trips the voyages of the Albatross between New York and Quebec were cancelled and the ship was seized by creditors. Sleigh probably didn’t own the ship anyway. He ended up in jail on Halifax. He never completed his purchase of the Worrell estate. The Bank of Charlottetown issued a few banknotes in New York now highly praised by collectors but otherwise worthless. On the Island the worthies backed quickly away from their association with Sleigh and a nasty bit of name-calling resulted from a map published which included Sleigh’s name among the land proprietors. He was stripped of his militia post but Sleigh thereafter refereed to himself as Colonel Sleigh. He returned to England and published a self-inflating book of his time in Canada under the title Pine Forests and Hackmatack Clearings which included several rather unflattering descriptions of the Island and its people.
The Flight of the Albatross is Halted
And what of the Albatross? With the failure of the New York – Quebec venture still fresh the owners turned to other possibilities. The gold fields of Australia looked promising and in late August of 1852 an advertisement appeared headed “Steam for Australia.” The Albatross would head for Melbourne in late September with an added deck to accommodate 491 passengers in 30 private cabins and curtained berths on the saloon deck at only $200 per berth. Improvements would “render her one of the finest vessels that has ever sailed for the Golden Regions of Australia.” The notice was signed by the owner, sporting his newly awarded rank as Colonel Sleigh.
Perhaps the uptake was not as good as had been hoped but instead of Australia the Albatross was next spotted on the route between New York and Vera Cruz, Mexico where she connected with the land route to Acapulco which was a port of call for the Panama-San Francisco steamers. Because the ship had been owned in Sleigh’s name and the registration transferred to a British registry an act of Congress was required to re-register the ship as an American vessel, owned by Sleigh’s one-time agent/partner Simeon Draper. However the Albatross was not destined to last long. On 18 April 1853 a strong cross-current carried the ship off her course and she piled up on the Cabezas Reef, some 26 miles from the port of Vera Cruz. Although the passengers were saved the ship slipped into deeper water and was a total loss. She carried a wide cargo of dreams with her to the bottom.
As for Sleigh the Albatross was a mere ripple in the pond of his life. In 1855 he and others founded the Daily Telegraph newspaper in London. He bought out his partners a few months later and sold the paper in 1857. It was destined to become one of the leading newspapers of the United kingdom and is still published. It is perhaps Sleigh’s sole legacy. He ran unsuccessfully for Parliament on a number of occasions and was in and out of Bankruptcy Court. In 1861 he set up the fraudulent British Columbia Overland Transit Company to “help” those trying to get to the goldfields. In 1869 he died at age 48.
Harry Baglole’s article “The Icy Passage” in the Island Magazine for Fall/Winter 1976 outlines Sleigh’s career and has an excerpt from Pine Forests and Hackmatack Clearings. P.B. Waite’s work on Sleigh in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography has more details but George William Newkey-Burden’s 2011 PhD thesis on Sleigh and the Daily Telegraph contains much new information.