Scotia and Scotia II helped link New Brunswick and P.E.I.


Steam Rail Ferry Scotia, probably on sea trials 1901. Photo: Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums #467156

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.


Builders model of the S.S. Scotia showing the double propellers. Photo: Tyne and Wear Museum #467154

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


Photo showing both Scotia 1 (left) and Scotia 2 (right) ca. 1930. Note that Scotia 1 now has only 2 funnels

Photo showing both Scotia 1 (left) and Scotia 2 (right) ca. 1930. Note that Scotia 1 now has only 2 funnels

Scotia II

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.

McCord v5540

Scotia II Builder’s photo 1914. Note the two stacks and forward bridge position. Photo: McCord Museum #5540


Dock at Mulgrave showing both Scotia I and Scotia II. Ca. 1930

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.

Stern of the Scotia II. Neither of these vessels was double ended although they both had fore and aft propellers.

Stern of the Scotia II. Neither of these vessels was double ended although they both had fore and aft propellers. Photo:

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.

Scotia II onb the Canso Gut route prior to the opening of the Canso Causeway in 1955. Photo:

Scotia II on the Canso route prior to the opening of the Canso Causeway in 1955. Photo:

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.


Scotia II in Welland Canal on her way to the Windsor-Detroit ferry route. Photo

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.


9 thoughts on “Scotia and Scotia II helped link New Brunswick and P.E.I.

  1. Bob Henry

    I can remember being stationed in the RCAF in Chatham and making the trip home to Charlottetown every two weeks. Lined up on the breakwater in Cape Tormentine in the Summer rush trying to figure if I’d get stuck on the Scotia 2. I made the trip twice, once in heavy weather where my VW bug got a good soaking. Enjoying the stories.

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  4. Charlie OLIVER

    Having been born in 1955, I didn’t ever see the Scotia II crossing between Cape Breton and MULGRAVE on mainland. My grandfather worked as an engineer on the Scotia II and I grew up a few hundred feet from the POINT TUPPER ferry dock. During 1975 and 1976, I was working in SARNIA, Ontario. During the summer of one of those two years, from the office window, I was scanning the St Clair River with a high powered camera lens. I saw a ferry, bridge and funnels intact, tied up on the Canadian side of the river. When I zoomed in on her name, much to my surprise, I saw it was the “Scotia II”. I can’t recall if the name was across her bridge or on her hull. I made enquiries as to her intended fate and was told she was awaiting the removal of her engine(s) and superstructure and would be used as a barge to carry rail cars between SARNIA and PORT HURON, Michigan.

    Other than taking a photo and giving it to my father “back home”, I didn’t make any effort to follow her journey from that point on, although, a few years back, sometime after the 50th anniversary of the Canso Causeway, I did a bit more research and found information on the internet suggesting she was scrapped either at WINDSOR or HAMILTON, Ontario.

  5. Steve

    Scotia I was most likely being used in the mid-late 1950s to support construction of the Quebec, North Shore & Labrador Railway and the Cartier Railway by moving locomotives and rolling stock from Matane QC to Port Cartier QC and Sept Iles QC as well as possibly to the captive industrial trackage being built to serve a pulp mill and aluminum smelter in Baie Comeau QC. I’ve never determined if the vessel remained self-powered or was used as a barge during this time in the lower St Lawrence. And I’m also unsure if it was under charter by another company or used directly by St John Tugboat Co. Ltd. It would be interesting to know the actual location of the wreck off Port Cartier and have a definitive date for the sinking.

    Scotia II remained in CN ownership after 1968 and, as you stated, was moved under its own power to the Detroit River service. There are photos of it during this transit while underway in the seaway and in Lake Ontario. It was subsequently moved to the St Clair River service where in its final years throughout the 1980s and early 1990s it was used as a non-powered barge to move oversize rail cars (e.g. modern hi-cube boxcars, autoracks etc.) which could not fit through the ca.1891 St Clair Tunnel between Sarnia, Ontario and Port Huron, Michigan. After this tunnel was replaced in 1995 by the Paul M. Tellier Tunnel, the Scotia II was declared surplus and sold to McKeil Marine. It was scrapped by McKeil in Hamilton, Ontario in 2004.

    Interestingly, the Borden – Cape Tormentine service wouldn’t have had the benefit of using Scotia I and Scotia II as relief vessels had the massive proposed cantilever bridge over the Strait of Canso been built in the early 1900s to support burgeoning rail traffic to and from Cape Breton Island’s coal mines and steel mills; there were two steel mills on Sydney Harbour prior to the First World War at both Sydney and Sydney Mines. This structure would most likely have surpassed the Firth of Forth and the Quebec bridges but of a similar design. But the federal government / Intercolonial Railway ended up ordering Scotia II in 1915 instead.

    1. sailstrait Post author

      Thank you for the additional information of the fate of the two vessels. It would be interesting to see if photos of either ship in their later service exist. I was not aware of the bridge proposal for Canso Strait. One of the great “might have beens” of an era when so many great engineering projects attested to the confidence Canadians has in the promise of the 20th century.

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  7. Fenton MacSwain

    I worked on the Scotia ll in the early sixties as a fireman & water tender. also on the SS PEI as a fireman, water tender, and oiler.

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