With its separate first and second class facilities and luxury public area finishes the S.S. Prince Edward Island represented one end of a spectrum of passenger comfort. On the other end were two vessels which had made no pretence as to services to the travelling public – in fact as built they were not intended to have passengers at all.
The S.S. Scotia, like the Prince Edward Island, was built in the Low Walker Yard of Armstrong Whitworth but was launched thirteen years earlier, on 6 April 1901. It was fitted with screw propellers fore and aft and was driven by two triple-expansion engines giving a total of 292 horsepower. The double propeller configuration was intended to help with ice breaking but within the narrow confines of Canso Strait separating Cape Breton Island from the rest of Nova Scotia rather than the wider Northumberland Strait. In reality the vessel was a self-propelled barge with two parallel rail lines, each of which could accommodate three large passenger cars or a few more smaller freight cars. The rail cars were shunted onto the boat using a two-railed apron, a similar system to the one to be used by the rail ferry on the PEI run.
The vessel was 254 feel long and 47 feet wide but was hardly seaworthy enough for the North Atlantic crossing necessary to get it to its working port but it had to get there. For the crossing the low bulwarks were raised with wooden walls and the ends of the rail deck were closed off. It is probable that in addition to the filled bunkers the ship would have needed additional coal on deck to keep up the fires on the crossing.
Building the Scotia. Click on any image for slide show.
The 1901 Scotia was easily identifiable by its four stacks and mid-ship bridge. The 1500 ton ship was a car ferry (the cars in question being rail cars) and most of the cars carried were hauling freight or coal. However the vessel was also responsible for carrying the regular passenger trains and many of the surviving photos and post cards show passenger rail cars aboard. The rail passengers were not expected to leave their cars during the one-mile crossing so the ship had no facilities except for the crew and these were very limited. The characteristic funnel and bridge configuration was changed about 1920 and it became even more difficult to tell the ships apart.
Scotia gallery. Click on any image to enlarge
In October 1914 a similar vessel, the Scotia II, slid down the ways at the Armstrong Whitworth yard destined for the same Canso crossing. Although somewhat alike and sometimes confused the two vessels had one striking difference, at least until modifications were made to the Scotia in the 1920s. The Scotia II had only two stacks for its boilers and the bridge high over the bow of the ship was mirrored by a life-boat platform at the stern.
The Scotia II was almost thirty feet longer and a few feet wider than the Scotia and was able to carry eighteen 45-foot rail cars on three tracks significantly increasing its rail car capacity. Because the aprons had only two sets of tracks the switch for third track was on the ship. She was also more powerful with larger engines giving 454 horsepower to the 292 hp for the Scotia . She also drew a little more water with a draft of 18 feet.
Both of these vessels, although intended primarily for the Cape Breton crossing began appearing in Island waters even before the opening of the Borden Cape Tormentine service. Initially used for hauling equipment and rock for construction the role changed after the service became regular. The S.S. Prince Edward Island required regular servicing in dry dock (usually in Halifax) at least once each year and one of the Scotias replaced her. In 1918 for example the Scotia was travelling between the two terminals but owing to differences in the shape of the ships meant that she could not dock in the regular manner and goods had to be transferred by hand-trucks as had been done when the SS P.E.I. docked in Charlottetown and Pictou from 1915 to 1917. As the freight traffic increased the Scotia began to supplement the service provided the Prince Edward Island. In the summer of 1925 when the re-building of the rail bed to accommodate the wider standard gauge was in full swing the Scotia I was in constant use to carry rail cars with ballast for improving the bed of the wider right of way.
The Scotias were regularly employed whenever the Prince Edward Island went to dry dock or for repairs until the launch of the S.S. Charlottetown in 1931 when the Prince Edward Island became the back-up vessel. When the newer vessel sank after hitting a reef ten years later the system reverted to using the Prince Edward Island and the Scotia.
Passage on the Scotia was no treat. In 1943 while the S.S. P.E.I. was in dry dock passengers returning to the mainland from Old Home Week activities by rail sat for 16 hours waiting for winds to subside. In the meantime auto travellers had their cars loaded onto flat cars and sent aboard the Scotia but several had their windscreens smashed and cowlings torn away by the force of the waves. In addition the funnel of the ship was damaged during the trip. Even at the best of times the Scotia was spartan. Intended for rail traffic only there was no decking, only the bare rails on the deck. It was not until 1958 that a deck was added so that some trucks could be driven on to the ship. Even then auto traffic was restricted as the passenger license was limited to 12 persons.
A major change to the service came in 1955 with the opening of the Canso Causeway. The ferries between Mulgrave and Point Tupper were no longer needed. The Scotia (which had been re-named Scotia 1 in 1920) was disposed of. In 1957 it was owned by the Saint John Tugboat Company and it was wrecked at Port Cartier, Quebec in September 1959. The Scotia II became a permanent part of the Borden fleet. Originally serving as a back-up vessel with increasing traffic it became a constant summer fixture on the crossing. A full deck was finally installed and the ship was used for both rail and automobile traffic.
The Scotia II had been significantly refitted in 1956 at a cost which grew from an estimate of $50,000 to almost a quarter of a million. The major change was made to the bow to better provide for the rails. Although the boilers and engines were in good shape the electrical and other systems were replaced and changes made to the accommodations to bring them up to standard. Of course the accommodations referred to were for the crew. No provision was made for passengers. In later years a tiny ticket office and washrooms were wedged into the sides of the ship.
After being made redundant by the building of new ferries such as the Confederation and the John Hamilton Grey in the 1960s the Scotia II was moved to Ontario late in 1968 where it was used between Windsor and Detroit by Canadian National Railways. In 1994 the completion of a new rail tunnel under the river meant the end of rail ferries but I have been unable to learn the fate of the Scotia II.
The two ships were never intended to be used on the crossing to Prince Edward Island but from the time that the terminals were built until the mid 1960s they were indeed a part of the Island’s lifeline to the mainland. The Scotia ran for 58 years and the Scotia II for at least 53 years and possibly as many as 79 years. Not bad for a couple of coal-fired self-propelled barges!
Note 1: My first job with CN Marine was in the summer of 1965 on the Scotia II where I was taken an as deck crew. The vessel was one of the last to still run on coal with the coal being dumped into the bunkers through hatches on the deck. Loaded rail cars were simply run onto the boat, the hatches opened and the coal dropped through the deck. As can be imagined the result of the efficient operation was a thin layer of coal dust all over the ship and those members of the crew who were forced to work that shift. Luckily within a few days I was asked to work as Assistant Purser and I moved on to the S.S. Prince Edward Island.