Residents of Charlottetown may remember the Fairview or have heard of the Hillsborough. They were part of the provincial government’s navy of little ferries. The boats were owned by the colony and sailed by government employees or contracted out for operation. But it was not always so and ferries with less familiar names such as the Isla, the Arethusa, the Ora and the Ino were part of the harbour’s mid-19th century history. These were not government boats but were owned and operated by private businessmen.
The operation of ferries across the harbour was not always an expense for the government. Indeed, by legislation a monopoly on the service was created and the rights to the ferry operation was a revenue source for government. In 1832 for example the rent of the Hillsborough Ferry brought in £50 for the colony. Although the fares were regulated it was still seen as a profitable venture and the rights to the operation could be hotly contested.
In 1849 the exclusive right to operate the ferry was held by Thomas Boggs Tremain. His contract was to run for twenty years, provided he could supply a steam boat of at least twelve horsepower suitable for passengers, cattle and luggage as well as other (and presumably smaller and unpowered) boats for the passage of passengers and their luggage. The ferry was to cross once every half hour except when it made two trips each day to Canso (Rocky) Point – whenever the government got around to building a wharf there. Tremain had a long association with the ferry service, having been the proprietor of a horse-powered teamboat in the 1830s and 1840s. In compliance with the requirements of the act Tremain provided a 70 by 14 foot vessel called the Isla which had the necessary twelve horsepower engine imported from England. She had begun service in August of 1849. A notice stated the new steam ferry-boat would run between Charlottetown and Richmond. The latter name must have been a short-lived name for the area which came to be known as Southport in the mid-1850s. Tremain’s hold on the contract did not last long. In 1851 complaints were made to the government about the irregularity of the service and the condition of the boat. An investigation found that the complaints were well-founded and Tremain’s contact was cancelled. An ad appeared in the Haszards Gazette in August 1851 offering the Isla for sale.
An advertisement for a successor to Tremain received only one tender, from John Haszard, but he refused to sign unless the government provided docks and slips on both sides of the river which it declined to do. A debate in the legislature resulted in funds being allocated for improvements but by then Haszard’s offer had been withdrawn. It was only a few years later that the government made the necessary infrastructure investment in the Prince Street Ferry Wharf
The contract passed to John Roach Bourke who announced in February 1853 that he intended to place a steamer on the Charlottetown Ferry. An engine of about 20 horsepower had already been ordered in England and was to be shipped to A. Duncan & Co. to be placed in a new boat built in the Duncan yard. By mid-August the ferry was in operation and was described ay a writer in the Islander as “all but equal to a bridge across the river” and “a mere moving continuation of the highway, and like it, has no covering save the canopy of heaven.” However the newspaper noted that the next boat on the run (which would surely be needed in a year or so) would benefit from “some place which may afford a shelter from a passing shower….” Details concerning the vessel are scarce but it appears she was the Arethusa which was also advertised for excursions such as the Temperance Pic Nic at the picnic grounds at Block House Point. The fate of the Arethusa is not known but she was probably replaced by another boat after only a few years of service.
In 1856 the contract was held by Henry Pope Welsh, probably using a ferry called the Ora., However his exclusive right was contested by William Crilly Bourke, son of John Roach Bourke. His steamer, the Ino, was on the route from Charlottetown to Mount Stewart Bridge twice a week during 1856. In May of 1856 Bourke was using the ferry wharf at Minchin’s Point to take on passengers and was charged under the legislation. A trial in the Mayor’s Court gave the decision to the complainants and a charge of 82 shillings but in the Supreme Court it was overturned, among other reasons, on the technicality that the ferry was a boat, not a vessel, and the legislation referred to vessels only.
It is quite possible that by 1861 both the Ino and the Ora were both under Bourke ownership. A moonlight excursion in August of that year saw the two vessels gaily lit with lamps and fireworks fastened together for a trip up and down the river. It was reported in the Examiner that the participants had enjoyed themselves “by agreeable conversation, by promenading the decks, and by a liberal indulgence in the pleasures of the dance.”
By 1862 the Ino had become the property of William Aitken and others operating as the Georgetown Ferry Company. Fifty pounds had been voted by the government in aid of a ferry service “between Georgetown , Montague and adjacent rivers” but when the company sought the funds the fact that the boat was “not fit for the service” was held against it and the full grant was not given. Thus the Ino seems to have bene the first steam ferry at Georgetown. The boat did not continue in Georgetown for long and was later the subject of a lawsuit when then-owner James Pope attempted to sell it for use as a harbour ferry in Pictou.
1856 saw the building of the Ora in a Charlottetown shipyard of Clement White & Co. This ferry steamer was 73 tons and 73 feet in length by 17 feet wide. The original owner was Henry Pope Welsh but a year later a half interest in the ferry had been transferred to Charles Welsh and in 1861 he sold his interest to William Crilly Bourke who had formerly contested Welsh’s exclusive right to the ferry route. An inspection of the Ora in 1862 noted that the owners were Bourke and Welsh. This 1862 certificate, incidentally, is one of the few records that refers to the ferry between Charlottetown and Stratford, rather than Southport. The previous year the two had put another vessel into service in lieu of the additional sail-powered ferry and in a petition to the Legislative Council requested compensation for the increased costs. This boat was possibly the Experiment, a New Brunswick built craft which was larger than the Ino. By this time the ferry and steamer traffic was no more noteworthy than a passage down a city street and so we know even less about these vessels than those of earlier times. I have been able to find no photos or drawings of these little boats that linked the two sides of the harbour for a nearly forty-year period.
Why the arrangement for the private ownership of the ferries was changed is not known. It may be that the government, which received all of the complaints about the ferries, thought they might was well run them since they were going to be criticized anyway. It may be that the purchase of the Ora and the goodwill was a political favour. It may be that the Ora was getting old and had to be replaced and it was unlikely that anyone would invest the funds for a new boat. Or it may be that it was recognized that the ferry was a public utility and should be owned by the government. Whatever the reason in 1871 funds were appropriated by the legislature to purchase the ferry operation from the rights holders for the not insubstantial sum of £500 and an additional sum was allocated for the ferry Ora itself and all related “appurtenances”. The sum arrived at the following year for the purchase of the boat was $1462.31, decimal currency having been introduced in the interim.
The registry for the vessel was changed to the Government of Prince Edward Island in 1871. The Ora appears to have run until at least 1873 but her fate is not recorded. By then government had invested in a new vessel, the Elfin, which was to operate into the 20th century.