Pownal Wharf: The Pier that Moved

Today we tend to think of wharves as public facilities, owned and operated for the public good with major investment from the state. However, until well into the Twentieth Century the opposite was true. Wharves were, by and large, privately owned. They were built on water lots which were associated with shore front property and which extended into the harbour.  The exceptions existed where water lots did not. The extensions of the public streets to the channel were public lands and it was there that the government of the colony of Prince Edward Island had the ability to invest in the commercial success of the community.

A New Wharf for the Growing Town

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Charlottetown waterfront in 1842 prior to the building of the Pownal Wharf. Detail from George Wright’s Chart of Charlottetown Harbour

The first of these was the Queen’s wharf but by the 1840s this was inadequate for the increasing business in the port.  To the east was Great George Street but there was a steep haul from the shore to the top of the knoll and businesses had tended to be developed on the western part of the waterfront where the ground was flatter.  West of Pownal Street the waterfront land was still owned by the Imperial crown and was held by the Ordnance Department. In 1843 there was still disagreement as to the best site for the next public wharf with some advocating for the foot of Prince Street or Great George Street. The advantages advanced for the Pownal street location included a reduced distance from the bank to the channel and hence reduced cost, the reduced distance to the harbour mouth and the existence of existing commercial buildings on Pownal Street. A a year later the Palladium newspaper noted the construction of a “lengthy and substantial wharf at the foot of Pownal Street. “This wharf, from the great facility of approach, and the safety of loading and unloading it possesses, has as many, if not more advantages than the Queen’s Wharf to commend it to a general preference.” In 1847 the ordnance lot south of water street and west of Pownal Street was sold to James Purdie by the crown and it was noted at the time that the angle of the Pownal wharf caused it to encroach slightly on this property. The pier seems to have strayed to the west.

The Rose at Pownal Wharf ca. 1849 from a painting by George Hubbard in the collection of the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation

The Rose at Pownal Wharf ca. 1849 from a painting by George Hubbard in the collection of the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation

The Wharf Moves West

Five years later, in October 1852, the Island was hit by a massive storm which wrecked dozens of ships and heavily damaged the new public wharf. The schooner Ellen, owned by William Sneeston had been lying at the east side of the wharf was driven right through the wharf destroying three blocks of cribwork and the connecting bridges and shifting the structure even further to the west and on to the adjacent water lot owned by James Purdie. Although re-built the alignment of the wharf to the west was to cause difficulties later on.

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Chart showing Charlottetown wharves about 1860. This fails to show the angle of Pownal Wharf which was to cause problems a decade later.

Maintaining the wooden wharves was a continuing problem. In 1864 there were reports of people and even horses breaking through the planking. The condition of the wharf was a constant irritant for the City.

Two major legal cases in 1870 and 1871 tested the rights concerning the wharf. Pownal Street had been used by travellers crossing the ice from the West River and even after the building of the wharf they traveled along the west side of the wharf to join the land.  The Ordnance property and the water lot had passed from Purdie to merchant J.S. Carvell who tried to block use of the passageway and to take control of the encroaching wharf. The City contended that a right of way had been established but the court ruled that no right existed and that Carvell was entitled to ownership of a portion of the wharf which was on his water lot. This effectively meant that the west side of the wharf could not be used for public purposes.

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Western section of the waterfront in 1863. Detail from Lake Map. Note how the structure veers to the west rather than in line with Pownal Street.

The location of the wharf made it ideal as a viewing area for the yacht races in the harbour and in 1878 the Hillsboro Boating Club petitioned to the city to be allowed to build a grandstand on the wharf to view aquatic activities.  If it was allowed it did not last long for there is no mention of it in the extensive coverage of the wharf in the following year.

1879 was perhaps the finest year in the history of Pownal Wharf. It had been selected as the landing spot for the vice-regal visit of the Marquis of Lorne and Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. Besides renovations which included an addition to the west side of the wharf and planking the wharf to level it up with an extension at the end of the wharf, it was the site of two decorative arches erected by the City Corporation, one at the end of the wharf and one opposite Rankin House at the head of the wharf. The structure at the end of the wharf had three Moorish arches sheltering landing stairs enabling the vice-regal party to enter the city. The dirt and debris normally found on the wharf was removed and an unsightly weed-covered lot at the head of the wharf was screened from view by a whitewashed fence.  Whitewash also covered the dilapidated barrel factory and its broken windows had been boarded up.

Pownal Wharf 1880. From Meacham's Atlas

Pownal Wharf 1880. From Meacham’s Atlas. At this time there appear to be no buildings on the wharf.

Earlier that year the wharf had briefly been the landing-place for the Rocky Point Ferry when the city rented it to the Province for $324.00 per year but the arrangement was short-lived as the government was soon complaining that the landing slip was inadequate and the ferry was shifted to Prince Street. In 1880 the total revenue from the wharf was only $140 and the City offered the lease for the wharf for five years with the possibility of purchase. By this time there were a dozen several other wharves and harbour traffic was beginning to decline. There appears to have been limited interest but it is known that the Carvell firm did have control of the wharf early in the 20th century.  Although newspapers report the occasional schooner unloading at the wharf  it was hardly a bustling place and much of the traffic seems to have consisted of stone for the crushing plant as the city streets became macadamized.

Decline and Fail

In 1900 a stone crushing shed was erected on the wharf and afterwards the city operated a works yard on Pownal Wharf, a use which continued into the 1970s.  The wharf was also home to a several warehouses and coal yards  For a number of years in the early 1900s it was also used for winter storage for several harbour vessels such as the dredge Prince Edward, tugs Rona and Islander and the ferry Hillsboro which would be hauled onto the wharf using horse winches.

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Pownal Wharf 1917 from Charlottetown Fire Insurance Atlas

Air photos from the mid-1930s show a collection of warehouses on the wharf but only small pleasure craft are tied up to the pilings. 1936 saw 15 men working to re-build the old city wharf and they put down new foundations to give the wharf a width of 52 feet.  The area around the wharf was to be dredged so that a depth of six feet of water would abut the wharf at low tide. The commercial potential of the wharf had almost disappeared by this time and the Guardian noted the new focus. “”This will no doubt great interest in boating and will be a place where visiting yachts can be moored and looked after properly, with good landing facilities and the proper protection that visiting pleasure yachts should get.” Soon after that the Charlottetown Yacht Club developed plans for the new club house at the head of the adjoining Lord’s wharf.  Pownal Wharf continued to deteriorate and ceased to be a harbour facility. Gradually the timbers rotted away leaving only the rock cribs which had anchored the wharf in place.

After the Second World War there was a brief flurry of interest in Pownal wharf as the possible site for a new naval barracks for the city. Fred Large, himself an ex-navy man and Attorney General of the province urged the Board of Trade to press for a new facility but when it was finally built it was on the nearby Paoli’s Wharf.

In 1964 the City had had enough. Repairs to the wharf would cost them at lest $15,000 (about $115,000 in today’s dollars) and a timely approach from the Charlottetown Yacht Club resulted in a motion to convey the wharf to the club on completion of repairs by the Club volunteers . A proviso on the agreement, which continues to this day, is that if use of the facility by the yacht club would cease, the property would revert to the City.

What was left of the old wharf provided at least one bit of amusement for the Yacht Club verandah gang for several years.  A large rock pile remained just under the water off the stub of the wharf and it was the source of sadistic amusement to watch as speeding motorboaters unfamiliar with the obstacle learned what happened when their outboards encountered the unforgiving rock.   Today the rock pile has been dredged out of existence and fingers in the Club’s marina float where the Pownal Wharf once stood.

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4 thoughts on “Pownal Wharf: The Pier that Moved

  1. rona878

    Hi Harry,

    First of all want to compliment you on your quality blog ‘Sailstrait’, and thank you for including me in your list of recipients.

    The waters you sail and the harbour you moor in are very near and dear to my heart. As a very active member of the Charlottetown Yacht Club from the mid-50s to the mid-70s – Club Commodore in 1964 – I am so familiar with many of the situations and individuals you refer to during that era.

    Re a recent post on the removal of the rock pile at Lord’s wharf, ‘The Pier that moved’ it is interesting to note we did that during my tenure as Commodore when another member and I took advantage of the dredge ‘Delver’ working at the coast Guard Wharf and visited KC Irving in Saint John, convincing him to contribute $28,000. to the club for a number of improvements, including the old wharf removal, in exchange for a gas pump at the end of the wharf for a period of years – I have all the details in a file somewhere?

    I also knew well as good friends, Mac Irwin, Hal Bourke, Fred Small, etc., and it was Mac, one day at his Print Shop when I was getting an edition of ‘The Flapping Jib’ published (I started it c. 1958) who gave me a picture he had taken of the ‘Hillsborough Boat Club’ that I eventually gave to the Archives.

    I was also one of the original 16 Charter graduates of the PEI Chapter of the ‘Canadian Power Squadron (now Blue Heron) in 1961. Only two or three of us left.

    By 1975 my love of golf, my traveling as a competitive shotgunner and the fact that we built a home on the water gradually eroded my Yacht Club life.

    I have some photos and slides taken at the Club, one during WWII when the airmen posted here had swimming meets at the club.

    Drop in some time for a cup of coffee and see if there is anything I have that might be of interest to you.

    Regards,

    Ron Atkinson

    sailstrait posted: “Today we tend to think of wharves as public facilities, owned and operated for the public good with major investment from the state. However, until well into the Twentieth Century the opposite was true. Wharves were, by and large, privately owned. They we”

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Charlottetown Yacht Club – A History in Five Photos | Sailstrait

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