The decade prior to the beginning of the Great War was not an especially good one for the economy of the Island but you might hardly know it in Charlottetown Harbour. While shipbuilding was almost at an end on the Island there were still dozens of coastal schooners that visited the port carrying coal and wood and other bulk cargos and taking away the Island’s produce. But they were hardly the main act. In many ways it was the golden age of the steamer. Charlottetown was a stop for several steamship lines linking the Island with Sydney, Montreal, St. John’s and other ports. There was a direct connection with Halifax and Boston through the Plant Line. The Island Steam Navigation Company had boats such as the Empress and the Northumberland crossing to Pictou and Pointe de Chene. Local coastal boats including the Harland linked Charlottetown with Victoria and Orwell and the ferries criss-crossed the harbour and ventured up the rivers. The Department of Marine and Fisheries had a strong presence and even the humble government dredges added to the activity of the waterfront.
But the most dramatic visitors to the port were the occasional visits by the ships of the world’s navies. The period was one of great rivalry between the European powers and showing the flag was more than just a phrase. England’s Royal Navy came and went more frequently than others with the most impressive visit from the floatilla of Prince Louis of Battenburg in 1905. The German Cruiser Bremen visited in 1911. In the years between these two visits the French Navy was in the harbour twice. Unlike the Germans, the French still had a vested interest in the area with the colony of St.Pierre and Miquelon serving as an anchor for the French fishing fleet and a claim on the bounty of the Grand Banks.
The first French visitor was the 308 foot 2nd class cruiser Chasseloup-Laubat in July of 1906. The vessel was by then twelve years old and with its plough bow and pronounced tumblehome curve of the sides was of a design that was quickly disappearing. The Guardian opined that with her three funnels and “dangerous looking ram tacked on to her bow, gives her quite a fighting air.” Not, of course, as threatening as the “grim and trim look of the men o’ war of the British Navy.” There were also other differences. There seemed to be a more relaxed atmosphere on board, less severe discipline. The Guardian writer was also fascinated by the appearance of “quite a farm on board, the livestock being required for feeding the men.” The on-board menu was a contrast to the Royal Navy which still included bully beef and rum.
The next year a more modern vessel of the Dupliex class came through the harbour mouth. The Kleber was completed in 1904 and the changes in vessel design in the eleven years between the vessels were obvious. The Kleber was very much a modern cruiser with a “credibly neat and clean appearance” while the Chasseloup-Laubat was dated. There was also considerable difference in size with the Kleber being 426 feet long, requiring a crew of 531 to the older ship’s 339. Still, the armaments on the two vessels were similar. The Guardian’s writer seemed more impressed with the quality of the ship’s band than the ship itself.
At sunset every night a very pretty ceremony was observed. Punctually as the sun went down a gun was fired and the bugle and drum sounded a call. Thereupon the flags came down, while the ship’s band played the time-honored short salutation with which the ceremony is always accompanied. The followed the first bar of the Marsellaise, while every sailor uncovered and listened with bare head until the tune was played through and was followed by God Save the King. The caps were resumed and the sailors went on with their usual skylarking.
While they may have impressed the residents of Charlottetown neither vessel made much of a contribution to the war effort once it began in 1914. The Chasseloup-Laubat had been removed from active service and was turned into an accommodation ship in 1911. It eventually ended up as part of a breakwater and harbour facility in Mauritania. The Kelber saw service but had little impact. She was stranded and re-floated under Turkish gunfire off Gallipoli in May 1915. Two months later she collided with a British cargo vessel. She was sunk by a submarine-laid mine off the harbour of Brest in June 1917.
Following the war in 1918 there was a significant reduction in the navies of the world. The small Canadian fleet had almost disappeared, the Germans had been defeated and many of the French and English ships were scrapped. Courtesy visits to Charlottetown did not rank high on the priorities of a changing world.