Bruce Stewart and the Imperials

Today the foot of Great George Street is anything but industrial.  With bars and “shoppes” infused with the same stench of pot-pourri that assaults the visitors nostrils from Key West to Nain it is a sanitized waterfront that has effectively removed any hint of the dirt and smells and noise of an area where things were actually made, rather than just “marketed.”

A hundred years ago it was one of the busiest sections of the waterfront – with hardly a tourist to be seen. There were sash and door factories, woodworking shops, foundries, and machine shops. At the heart of the city’s industrial complex was Bruce Stewart & Co. and in 1915 Bruce Stewart was riding wave of success with their star product – the imperial gasoline engine.

Bruce Stewart Gasoline Engine. Guardian 25 August 1909 p. 4

Bruce Stewart Gasoline Engine. Guardian 25 August 1909 p. 4

Bruce Stewart and Company was founded in 1893 when Bruce Stewart, who had trained as a machinist and worked at the MacKinnon & MacLean foundry, partnered with Andrew McNair who had come to the Island as engineer on the Steam Navigation Company’s Northumberland. The operation they created was a foundry and machine shop and they soon moved into the construction of steam engines and heavy equipment. Their engines were shipped all across Canada. Among the early projects was the construction of the engine for the S.S. Brant  and they continued to be involved with ship construction and repairs into the 1950s. Many of the Bruce Stewart stationary engines were used in the small canning and cheese factories on the Island as well as on Island farms.  After 1900 there was increased interest from these customers in alternatives to steam power.

BS engine 1909001

Gasoline engines were a new technology at the turn of the twentieth century. They were simple machines and a host of engine builders soon sprang up all over the continent. Bruce Stewart & Co. became agents for Fairbanks engines and they saw competition from local manufacturers in St. John, Lunenburg, Bridgewater and Amherst who advertised in Island papers. However the Charlottetown firm decided that engines were a reasonable extension of their foundry and machine shop business and in August 1908 they invited the Charlottetown press to view the first gasoline engine built in the province – an eight horsepower machine.The following spring they announced that they had embarked on the manufacture of marine engines. Developed using the design of an American engineer the three models proposed were a 4 horsepower single cylinder, 8 horsepower double cylinder and 12 horsepower triple cylinder. By August of that year the “Imperial Motors” were on the market. The first of these machines to be advertised, “the acme of perfection,”  was a 2 1/2 to 3 hp marine model.  At the P.E.I. exhibition in September a display featured engines with 4, 8, 12, 20 and 24 horsepower. The largest of these would have been stationary engines for use on farms, cheese factories, mills and other industrial uses. In 1917 the firm was manufacturing seven models ranging from 4 to 30 horsepower, the largest models being suitable for “schooners, tow boats and heavy working boats.”

Harbour seem from the foot of Great George Street. The launches are tied up in front of Bruce Stewart & Co. and may be several of the

Harbour seen from the foot of Great George Street. The launches are tied up in front of Bruce Stewart & Co. and may be several of the “Imperial” launches owned by Stewart.

Bruce Stewart was able to capitalize on (or perhaps created) the increased interest in motor boats.  He had a number of launches called the Imperial and seems to have used them as test beds for the marine engines.  Prior to the Great War there was considerable interest in motor boat racing and Stewart campaigned the Imperial whenever possible. In 1910 the Imperial II took the McKelvie Cup which had been offered for excellence in motorboat racing. That fact was used by the company in advertising for several years. Imperial engines were frequently noted in stories concerning the launch of many of the pleasure motor boats sailing in Charlottetown harbour.

In spite of a crowded market the Imperial motors were a success. By 1912 the engines were being distributed across the Maritimes, Quebec, Newfoundland and even to Prince Rupert B.C.  A 1917 advertisement included testimonials from buyers in the Maritimes as well as one from Auckland New Zealand. That year the Gaspe fishing supply company of Robin, Jones and Whitman placed an order for 110 of the engines.

Guardian 30 April 1936 p. 9

Guardian 30 April 1936 p. 9

Bruce Stewart and Company knew the importance of advertising and produced a steady stream of illustrations and catalogues of their engines, published testimonials, used displays at exhibitions and, as noted above, used the Imperial motor launches as advertising vehicles. Over the years the Company used several slogans for the Imperial. In 1909 it was “The Acme of Perfection.” In the 1940s it was referred to as “The Bulldog of the Sea.” The most remarkable ad was the one in 1936 which seemed to emulate the interest in the writing of William Henry Drummond with its use of dialect, an attempt which today might be seen as just a tad politically incorrect.

Lower Great George Street ca. 1910. Bruce Stewart Plant to the right,. C.G. Hennessey Collection

Lower Great George Street ca. 1900. Bruce Stewart Plant to the right,. C.G. Hennessey Collection

In 1931 the Company announced the launch of a new “make and brake engine.” but in reality it was a change only to the ignition system and in other respects the engine was similar to the original 1909 design. Bruce Stewart died in 1930 but by then the company was incorporated and continued under a management team. Like other firms Bruce Stewart and Company saw a reduction of business during the depression but production of the Imperials never ceased. A gasoline engine had, by this time, become an essential requirement for the fishing industry but it still represented a significant investment. In 1937 a 5 hp Imperial purchased directly from the factory cost$128.00, a significant sum at mid-depression.  The outbreak of war in 1939 saw a huge increase in the Bruce Stewart workforce with the firm engaged in war production and ship repair.  Remarkably, in spite of a general downturn of work for the company after the war, the interest in the simple engines continued apparently unabated.  The firm expected to produce over five hundred Imperial Gasoline engines in 1946.  Demand continued to be heavy and in 1952 orders received suggested that the engine division would be working to capacity for the following year.

BS map001

Plan of the Bruce Stewart factory site 1917. Detail from Goad Insurance Atlas.

The company suffered a major fire in 1946 which destroyed many of the buildings housing the factory. Luckily the brick building housing the machine shop was spared and the company was soon back in operation. The majority of the shares in Bruce Stewart and Company had been purchased by Ferguson Industries of Pictou in 1951 with little change in the products manufactured. However by the time that the company was re-organized as Charlottetown Marine Industries in 1957 production of imperial Engines was a thing of the past.  The increased size of fishing boats was no doubt a factor but probably what made the Imperial line obsolescent was the increased availability of cheap used automobile engines. The Imperial design was more than forty years old and although simple it had failed to keep up with developments in the field.

It is unusual for a technology to continue to be produced relatively unchanged for more than forty years, especially in an area such as engines where so many advances were being made. The Imperial marine engine had a reputation for dependability but it was quickly swept away by the new engines. Today only a few of the thousands of Imperial engines produced have survived, cherished by collectors who in some cases have painstakingly restored them to working condition. The wharf-side factory site, which contributed so much to the economy of the city is now a parking lot and a park, neither of which contain any reference to the business conducted there for almost eighty years.

16 thoughts on “Bruce Stewart and the Imperials

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    1. allan blatch

      my grandfather,allie mutch,lived at 132 water street and worked for bruce stewarts and travelled the island selling those engines to farmers and fishermen.i still have one of his daily journals where he documents his daily father ,frank blatch after he left the airforce in trenton ont moved the family back to the newly made apartment upstairs at 132 water street and became a foreman for the company having been trained as a machinist in the RCAF.
      i can rember many visits to the shop. the company did a lot of work for the railroad also and as dad became well known to the engineers and firemen my brother and i became familiar with them also and were never kicked out of the roundhouse when we went to play in the engines.

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  10. W Bruce Stewart

    Very interesting reading! Happy to learn something about my greatuncle and namesake!

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