The Steam Ferry Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown

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S.S. P.E.I. preparing to leave Tyneside for Halifax. Note the temporary wooden barrier on the train deck erected for the Atlantic crossing. Photo from The Engineer.

The need

While many Prince Edward Islanders have distinct memories of travelling across the Strait on the SS PEI what is often forgotten is the fact that the ferry operated between Charlottetown and Pictou for almost two years before the completion of the ferry terminals at Port Borden and Cape Tormentine.

The S.S. Prince Edward Island was the first really successful vessel in a long series of attempts to provide reliable service through the ice-filled Northumberland Strait. Before the steamer shipping goods to the Island required at least three transfers which added significantly to the speed and effectiveness of efforts to get goods to the province. Goods traveled by rail to Nova Scotia or New Brunswick ports such as Pictou, Point de Chene or Cape Tormentine, were unloaded, and then moved onto a steamer for the trip across the Strait to Summerside, Cape Traverse, Charlottetown or Georgetown, and then re-loaded on to a  narrow gauge freight car of the Prince Edward Island Railway.

The improvements promised dealt not only with the ice delays but also with the shipping problems. The federal solution had three components; building of an icebreaker, creation of terminals at Cape Tormentine and  somewhere on the Island and finally the conversion of the narrow gauge PEI Railway to standard gauge.

View of SS PEI from Canadian Shipping and Marine Engineering

View of SS PEI from Canadian Shipping and Marine Engineering

The  design

The key lay in the ordering of an ice-breaking car ferry which could carry trains across the strait. The “car” in car ferry referred not to automobiles but rather to rail cars. Ice-breaking car ferries were being used effectively in the Baltic sea and Lake Michigan.  Armstrong Whitworth on the Tyne were at the forefront of icebreaking technology. They had pioneered the use of a design where the ship rode up above the ice to crush it with the ship’s weight.  The steamer Ermack (or Yermak) was the first with this feature but it was a pure icebreaker and not a  car ferry. Armstrong Whitworth also designed the SS Baikal  built in 1895 and transported to Russia in pieces to be assembled on the shores of the lake. This vessel had twin screws at the stern and the bow propeller to help the ship maneuver at the railway piers. In addition the bow screw destabilized the ice and made it easier to crush with the vessel’s weight. Armstrong Whitworth was also responsible for the design and building of the steam ferry Scotia which used similar technology on the run across the Gut of Canso linking Cape Breton with the rest of Nova Scotia.

Building the S.S. P.E.I. at the Armstrong Whitworth Low Walker Yard, River Tyne Newcastle March – October 1914. Clock on any image to begin slide show.

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SS PEI leaving dock ca. 1917 photo: SSTM/CN Collection Image # CN001622

The S.S. Prince Edward Island was launched on 5 October 1914 although fitting out was delayed owing to war needs until April 1915 and it was not until early July 1915 that the vessel arrived in Halifax for final preparation. The ship was 285 feet long, 52 feet wide and drew 21 feet.  It had three triple expansion engines; two at the aft of the boat driving propellers at the stern and one at the bow driving a single propeller, with a total of over 7000 horsepower.  On the rail deck there was space for a dozen full-sized, standard gauge rail cars on two parallel tracks.  Until the wider gauge was completed on the Island transfer of goods to narrow-gauge cars was required at a transfer shed in Borden.

Accommodation for the crew and engineers was provided in cabins on either side of the rail deck level. This level also contained the galley with a lift connected to pantries serving the dining room on the upper promenade deck. Officer’s and engineer’s quarters were located above the 2nd class accommodations. In all there were almost eighty officers and crew on the ship . The main passenger deck on the upper promenade level had two main sections; the forward deckhouse with the first class salon seating 38, a ladies room, smoking room, pantry and stateroom for the stewardess. The after deckhouse contained similar accommodation for second class passengers.  The dining room which seated 46 was a high-ceilinged room at the forward end of the promenade deck with oak parquet flooring and walls of solid oak carved panels.

Aboard the S.S. Prince Edward Island. Click on any image to begin slide show.

Although the Guardian had carried a full front-page story on the ship when it arrived in Halifax it was not until 13 December 1915 that residents of Charlottetown got a look at the S.S. P.E.I.  It was almost immediately put into service attacking the backlog of freight which had accumulated at Pictou. Because there were no rail-car loading facilities at either Charlottetown or Pictou all goods still had to be taken from the trains and loaded onto the ferry by hand.

S.S. P.E.I. leaving Borden

S.S. P.E.I. at Port Borden. A flatcar carrying autos is visible on the rail deck. A stern wheelhouse has been added to protect the crew while docking.

There was relief all round as the new ship was able to handle the ice throughout the winter season, usually better than the dedicated ice-breaking steamer Stanley which continued on the route between Pictou and Georgetown.  While the Guardian carried stories of the number of cars of freight and passengers on each trip it soon became so routine that the information ceased to be news. There were no doubt curious passengers who took the trip just to see the new boat but it was not until Victoria Day that there was a planned excursion.  With the band of the 105th Battalion aboard over 500 pleasure seekers took the day trip, some to see the horse races at New Glasgow. Still for the SS P.E.I. it was a working trip and seven carloads of freight were loaded at Pictou.

In the fall of 1916 the ferry went to Halifax for drydock and repainting in her war-time colour of steel grey.  In the meantime work had continued on the new terminals at Carleton Head (soon to be re- named Port Borden) and Cape Tormentine.  The new facilities were opened on 15 October 1917 and Charlottetown ceased to be the ferry’s working port.

I had to good fortune to briefly be a member of the crew of the Prince Edward Island in her later years. The story of how the design of  dowager of the Strait came to be ruined by the automobile and what happened to her in the end will be the subject of a future blog entry.

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