The toasts are drunk (and so are the toasters)
In late December 1898 there was excitement on the Charlottetown waterfront with the arrival of the Canadian Steamship Company’s vessel the S. S. Gaspesia. Stories about the ship had been appearing on the front page of the Guardian during the month and when she finally crept into the port in 22 December there was palpable excitement. A dinner was arranged at the Victoria Hotel where toast after toast was drunk to the success of the new venture which was sure to put P.E.I. back on the economic rails. The city was going to be a key port in a new trans-Atlantic shipping venture. It was reason enough for a celebration and celebrate they did.
Alas, like so many economic development dreams, it was not to come true. We seem to be conditioned by stories of the Cunard Line, Canadian Pacific and the Allen Shipping line to think that Atlantic shipping was always a success. This is the story of a failure.
A passage to where?
The Canadian Steamship Company was an attempt by Britain’s Great Western Railway to get in on the trans-Atlantic trade. The primary port of departure for North America was usually Liverpool and steamship lines such as the Allen Line and Canadian Pacific went from there to Montreal and Halifax. However the Great Western Railway did not connect with that port and was squeezed out of the market. One of the other problems was that the St. Lawrence river froze over in the winter and even the established lines had to have an alternate port. Both St. John and Halifax were used. The Great Western did have access to the deep water port of Milford Haven in western Wales. The problem was where to locate the North America end of the line.
In a move that might have come from nothing more than casual perusal of a map, the company selected Paspebiac on the south coast of the Gaspe peninsula. Paspebiac was a fishing village of fewer than 500 souls although it did have a good deep water harbour and a large export trade in fish. The branch line of the Atlantic and Lake Superior Railway ran through the town and connected at Matapedia with the Intercolonial Railway running to Quebec and Montreal. Located on the Bay of Chaleur the port was reputed to be free of the ice jams that blocked the St. Lawrence. Moreover by terminating at Paspebiac some 150 miles could be shaved off the passage distance. Somehow this, combined with the western location of Milford Haven was computed to cut two days off the passage time.
With the terminals selected the next matter was a ship. Canadian Steamships selected the S.S. Galicia recently put on the market by Liverpool’s Pacific Steam Navigation Company which had a large fleet serving routes between Great Britain and South America. The Galicia was 25 years old, having been launched in 1873. She was 3800 tons and 384 feet in length. She had a 2 cylinder 600 horsepower engine driving a single propeller. She looked her age with and old-fashioned design of sailing masts and yards and an impressive bowsprit and figurehead. A first-class vessel when built, she was probably worn out but the reduced distance could mask the fact that she did not have the speed of the more modern ships used by her competitors. The owners changed her name to the Gaspasia. They were sure she would do the job but she had never sailed in ice.
The experiment begins …The service commenced with great fanfare on 23 November 1898 with officials of the Great Western Railway traveling down from London for the occasion. The Pall Mall Gazette reported “a mild state of excitement ” in the town. School children were given the day off to celebrate the new service. The ship had an easy passage the Bay of Chaleur and left there on her return via Charlottetown but before she reached the Island capital she fetched up on the reef off Rice Point. Although she easily got off on the next tide without having to be towed it did not bode well for the ship’s luck. In addition to being delayed, the ship’s arrival port had to be shifted from Milford Haven to Liverpool as the cargo of 400 sheep and 150 head of cattle required a slaughter house and the facility in Milford Haven was still under construction. The captain was later charged with cruelty to animals for failing to provide adequate accommodation for the livestock.
On 11 January she had departed on her second trip from Milford Haven with cargo and 100 passengers. The following day local press carried reports that the steamship line had acquired two additional ships from the North German Lloyd Line so that a weekly schedule could be maintained. The Gaspesia sailed through the Gulf of St. Lawrence to load at Paspebiac and then headed for Newfoundland where St. John’s had been substituted for iced-in Charlottetown as a port of call. Inexperience or poor planning saw the vessel try to go to the south of the Magdalen Islands and not around the north of the archipelago. By 3 February the Gaspasia was stuck fast in the ice which threatened to carry her into the shallows around the Islands. Although she occasionally found open water there were no leads running out of the ice pack. On 25 February her rudder-head broke and she was completely at the mercy of the drifting ice. Although not far from the Islands there was no way she could be aided, although some fishermen did make their way across the ice to visit the ship and bring much appreciated tea and sugar. While there were only three passengers aboard there was a crew of more than seventy and supplies were soon in short supply. An early message from the ship said she had ample coal and supplies for thirty days and luckily she had a consignment of poultry in the cargo which could supplement the provisions. However the thirty days soon passed. Before her ordeal ended she was to be in the ice for over nine weeks, not getting free until 11 April and only then with the assistance of a sealing steamer which had been sent to her aid. With damaged plates, an inoperable rudder and six feet of water in her forehold she crept slowly to St. John’s.
The ice delay caused problems back in Milford Haven. Although it was reported that a chartered ship, the S.S. Werra, would be put on the route that does not seem to have happened. In February some 50 German, Russian and Polish Jews emigrants who were awaiting passage on the ship became frustrated with the delays and the inadequacy of their shore accommodation and rioted threatening to strangle the local officer of the company.
Even after reaching St. John’s the Gaspesia’s problems were far from over. She was arrested in an Admiralty Court dispute on the value of the claim by the Baring sealing vessel, Kite, that eventually got her out of the ice and assisted her to St. John’s. After two months lying in the Newfoundland port she was sold at auction and then re-acquired by Canadian Steamships. She seems never to have gone back on the Milford Haven – Paspebiac route. In September of 1899 she was damaged in a storm off Glace Bay and after making her way back across the Atlantic was taken out of service. Her age, the ice and storm damage and the fact that the route was clearly a failure combined to bring her life to an end. Following her return to Liverpool the Gaspesia sailed to Genoa Italy with a cargo of coal and following her arrival in the Italian port she was broken up.
As you were
The Canadian Steamship Company failed to prosper, the purchase of two additional steamers was never completed, and after the sale of its only ship it was never heard from again. Creditors had brought a bankruptcy action in the British courts but most were bought off with the issuance of shares in the Atlantic and Lake Superior Railroad company. That was not a happy arrangement as shortly afterwards the railway encountered financial difficulties and was absorbed by another company. The Gaspe rail line was rarely profitable. Milford Haven never developed as a trans-Atlantic liner port and Paspebiac returned to its sleepy existence as a Gaspe fishing village. The dream of winter steamers in the Gulf was haunted by the Gaspesia’s nine weeks in the ice. Charlottetown’s brief flirtation as a port of call on the Atlantic ferry was over.
The name Gaspesia shows up again later in Charlottetown’s history. In 1922 the Clarke Steamship Company purchased a 1909 German vessel that had been the subject of war reparations and put her into service on routes which included Charlottetown. Her story is told in K.C. Griffin’s history of the Clark Steamship Company .
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