The Carferry meets the Car: The S.S. P.E.I. and the auto

When I was young in the 1950s any ferry trip was an exciting journey, but even more so if we caught the Prince Edward Island. In those care-free days of hands-off parenting we seemed to have the run of the ship while our elders relaxed in the lounge or restaurant. We were up and down ladders and companionways, poked our heads into the engine room and visited all sorts of places which today would strike fear into the hearts of the ship’s insurers (and our parents if they had known). Near the stern of the S.S.Prince Edward Island we discovered a mysterious pair of stairways which went up into nothing but a blank steel wall.  On an engraved plaque over the arched entry-way to the stairs and very nearly obscured by dozens of coats of paint could be seen the legend “Second Class Passengers.”   It was one of the few remnants of the two class system of accommodation around which the ship had been built. What was lost was destroyed to suit the automobile.


SS PEI in 1960s with a full load of autos.

Almost as long as it was operating the ferry service the railway never seemed to ‘get” the automobile. For them cars, and later trucks, were simply another commodity to be loaded onto rail cars and shunted aboard the ferry.  The passenger service was designed to handle folks descending from the steps of a passenger car or sleeper with the assistance of a porter or conductor.  How one clambered down from an auto atop a flatcar was not a question that needed to be addressed. When goods began to arrive on trucks the railway saw it as competition and the rates charged for trucks continued to be an irritant for many years. However by the 1920s it was clear that the auto was here to stay and had to be grudgingly dealt with.

In 1931, with the launch of the S.S. Charlottetown the S.S. Prince Edward Island became obsolete. The new, larger, and even grander ferry had something that the P.E.I. lacked – dedicated services for automobiles. The rail deck was larger than on the older ship but the chief innovation was a circular drive around the upper deck so that cars could be driven on and off. Elaborate ramp systems at Port Borden and Cape Tormentine which could be raised and lowered dealt with the tidal changes.

CN007219 (2)

SS PEI before 1938. An auto aboard a flat car is visible on the rail deck.

The Prince Edward Island was demoted to a back-up function, taking over from the Charlottetown for the six weeks or so that the Charlottetown was in dry-dock or supplementing the newer ferry for busy periods such as Old Home Week. On both the older boat and the new ferry automobiles and trucks which did not fit on the auto deck still had to be loaded on to flat-cars to be moved onto the ferry. This was fine as long as there were only three of four round tips each day and there was lots of time for shunting.  With each passing year the volume of automobiles carried and it was clear that using flat cars was limited as a solution to the problem.

Stern of the SS PEI ca. 1917. Note the absence of the docking station.

Stern of the SS PEI ca. 1917. Note the absence of the docking station.

Over the years a number of changes had been made to the S.S. P.E.I.  Early in its service the upper decks had been extend to better enclose the stern and to provide space for a small deckhouse with controls for the officers backing to vessel into the dock. However the general appearance of the ship remained the same. In the spring of 1938 the decision was taken to add auto capacity to the S.S. P.E.I. This was to make a big difference in the look of the ship. Aft of the funnels the second class facilities and officers quarters were torn off the stern of the boat to create an auto deck but lacking the circular deck lay-out of the Charlottetown it was the bane of drivers who sometimes had difficulty backing their vehicles into the tight spaces allocated. While the Charlottetown could accommodate 44 cars the P.E.I. had space for only about 40 vehicles.

SS Charlottetown

S.S. Charlottetown ca. 1935. Note the auto ramp allowing vehicles to drive up to the auto deck.

In 1941 the situation suddenly changed as the Charlottetown sank off Nova Scotia and the Prince Edward Island was once again the only year-round vessel linking the Island with the mainland. With half of the passenger facilities eliminated to make for the automobile deck and the realization that under war conditions the S.S. Charlottetown was not likely to be replaced until the conclusion of hostilities it was apparent that more changes to the Prince Edward Island were warranted. This was heightened by the steamer’s use in winter conditions which meant that passengers could be on the vessel for many hours while it negotiated heavy ice. In November 1941 a contract was given to Bruce Stewart and Company for the construction of a new deck-house for the ferry. However for some reason the work was actually done when the ship was in dry-dock in Lauzon Quebec in July 1942. During the re-fit the Scotia II took over the route  The deck house was created above the auto deck and provided a lounge area of about thirty feet wide by sixty feet long.  At the same time officers quarters which had also been lost were replaced on the upper deck. In spite of the fact that a number of years elapsed between the building of the auto deck in 1938 and the deckhouse in 1942 I have not been able to find a picture showing the ship in this period.

Over the winter of 1941-42 Bruce Stewart’s workers were in the midst of converting the boilers from coal burning to oil burning. The old bunkers were being cut away and replaced with oil tanks. The work was being done in Borden and it was expected that the work would not interfere with regular crossings. After two of the boilers had been converted the work was halted owing for the need to conserve oil for war efforts and for several years the ferry operated with two oil-fired boilers and four still using coal.

S.S. P.E.I. ca. 1960 running without any autos aboard. It can be clearly seen that everything aft of the funnels was removed to provide parking for cars. Compare this to the original design at

S.S. P.E.I. ca. 1960 running without any autos aboard. It can be clearly seen that everything aft of the funnels was removed to provide parking for cars. Compare this to the original design at

Even with the new auto deck the Prince Edward Island could not keep up with the demand for auto space and plans were developed in 1942 to plank part of the rail deck between the tracks so that trucks and additional autos could be carried if there was not a full load of rail cars aboard. This seems to have been a temporary solution as in 1946 the Guardian reported that autos loaded on flat cars would be used to address the high volume of autos associated with Old Home week.  In 1948, after the Abegweit came into operation the rail deck of the S.S. P.E.I. was planked for about 75 feet from the stern so that large trucks and more autos could be carried without having to load them on rail cars. Even the new Abegweit (with room for 100 cars on the auto deck) was designed with the lower deck reserved for rail use only. However, after a year in operation the deck was planked about half-way from the stern to accommodate trucks. Eventually the planking was extended to cover the entire rail deck. By the 1950s transfer of autos to flat cars was ended.

Each of the changes made to accommodate the auto seemed to take away from the steamship atmosphere of the S.S. Prince Edward Island but for as long as I was able to sail on her she was still my favourite of the P.E.I. ferries.


6 thoughts on “The Carferry meets the Car: The S.S. P.E.I. and the auto

  1. Reg Porter

    The SS Prince Edward Island was also my favourite of all the ferries. If my memory serves me right the dining room had mahogany Ionic columns supporting the centre of the space and the chairs were industrial Louis XVI in style.

  2. sailstrait Post author

    Have a look at the photos of the building of the SS PEI I posted on the 3 September blog. There are a number of pictures of the interior, including several shots of the dining room which was pretty well unchanged right through to the end of the service. A description in 1915 says “The floor is of oak parquet artistically arranged while the framing and panelling throughout is of solid oak handsomely carved. The ceiling is decorated with painted panel moldings”.

    1. Bill McCracken

      As a child in the 1950’s, I remember the steam ferry was smother than the MV Abegweit’s Diesel engines!

  3. Pingback: The Steam Ferry Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown | Sailstrait

  4. Pingback: The Unhappy Afterlife of the S.S. Prince Edward Island | Sailstrait

  5. Mike Johnston

    I never noticed the story about how a U boat took a shot at it but the torpedo went under the ship because of its shallow hull?


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