Chasing Rum – The Conestoga comes to Charlottetown

There is a mythology surrounding the skirmishing around the breaches of prohibition in the waters of Prince Edward Island. Aside from Geoff Robinson’s excellent books centred around the Nellie J. Banks much of what we think we know about off-shore contests between runners and chasers is the result of second-hand importation from the American east coast and cross-lake experiences.

There was another side to the story and some of the characters in that story were familiar visitors to Charlottetown Harbour.

CGS Conestoga in Ch'tn (Gorham)

Customs Cruiser Conestoga in Charlottetown, probably in 1928.

I stumbled across the photo above on Donald Gorham’s excellent Flickr pages which has a whole album with over 500 photos dedicated to vessels of the Canadian Coast Guard.  While I recognized the location as Charlottetown’s Marine wharf the vessel was a mystery to me. It was identified by Gorham, who also provided some basic information, as CGS Conestoga.

It turns out that the Conestoga was not really a Coast Guard ship but belonged to one of the precursor agencies – the Canadian Preventive Service. The history of this organization can be found in D.J. McDougall’s 1995 contribution to the Northern Mariner . The service goes back to 1892 but its real work in the Atlantic area began with the adoption of prohibition by all provinces in the 1920s. Of course Prince Edward Island had adopted the measure much earlier but the province did not constitute a sufficient market to warrant extensive prohibition management needs. Prohibition in the United States, coupled with significant liquor shipping from St. Pierre and Miquelon soon made smuggling an attractive business and prevention became a major task. The Department of Customs and Excise stepped up activities in the early 1920s and in 1925 the fleet of patrol vessels was nearly doubled and in 1927 doubled again through purchasing and chartering to twenty-seven ships. One of these was the Constance and another the Hochelaga (about which I wrote in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of the The Island Magazine) Another vessel, which did not enter service until the spring of 1928 (chartered in that year and purchased in 1929) was the Pathfinder, renamed the Conestoga.


Pathfinder as launched. Note the single funnel.

The Pathfinder was designed by noted marine architect George Warrington and had been built as a private yacht at Racine Wisconsin in 1896 for millionaire businessman F.W. Morgan of Chicago. Morgan had made his fortune in bicycle and later automobile tires and was owner of the firm which became the United States Tire Company.

Pathfinder2The handsome steel-hulled yacht was 133 feet long by 18 feet wide and drew 10 feet.  Her 860 horsepower steam engine and comparatively light tonnage (58 tons) gave a speed of up to eighteen knots and the vessel competed in a number of races on the Great Lakes in her early years. With her distinctive cruiser bow and stern, and white finish, she could easily be mistaken for a vessel in the “White Fleet of the U.S. Navy. She had a sumptuous interior finished in mahogany and her fittings included a grand piano. She carried a crew of 12.

Patrhfinder Conestoga

Pathfinder after conversion to two funnels

In 1917 she was purchased by James Playfair of Midland Ontario, Playfair was a Toronto-born entrepreneur who had made his fortune in lumbering and shipping and owned transportation companies with thirty-eight steamships.  He may have re-powered the vessel because in contrast to the earliest photos the ship is shown with two funnels. Meanwhile on the East Coast the rum-running schooners were being replaced with fast motor launches and the  Canadian Preventive Service, which by this time was part of the Department of National Revenue, found itself need of boats which had the speed to intercept the smugglers and in 1927 the Conestoga was chartered from Playfair. It was purchased the following year.

The Conestoga cruised the Gulf of St Lawrence and Northumberland Strait making seizures and acting as a deterrent. Under the CPS the crew had been increased to 19 but unlike some of the patrol vessels the sole armaments were two rifles.  Along with other preventative vessels the Conestoga was in and out of Charlottetown Harbour over the next three years but the focus of the activities was changing. By 1931 all Canadian provinces except Prince Edward Island had abandoned prohibition and activities shifted to the lower St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic Coast, intercepting American-bound cargoes. In addition, responsibility for enforcement, which had been split between the CPS and the RCMP was consolidated with the RCMP taking over the fleet in early 1932. Thirty-two patrol boats and 246 officers and men were transferred to the RCMP marine section and the operational headquarters moved from Ottawa to Moncton. Citing operational costs several vessels including the Conestoga were offered for sale later that year but were laid up in Halifax for two years before being sold back to the previous owner. In 1934 the vessel, once again named Pathfinder, was owned by a Toronto company.  During WWII the Royal Canadian Navy used it as a training ship based in Hamilton Ontario. In 1949 she returned to Midland Ontario having been purchased by Roy T. French.  She appears to have been scrapped and was removed from the register by 1959.

Additional information on the Conestoga, as well as several other Preventative Service Vessels such as the Constance and the Margaret can be found in a 1989 article by David J. McDougall which appeared in the Canadian Nautical Research Society publication Argonauta found here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.