One of the supposed main attractions of 19th century Prince Edward Island for visitors was the availability of “salt water bathing.” The much-touted health benefits of the activity featured highly in the advertising for the resort hotels along the Island shores and Charlottetown’s boosters were soon decrying the fact that in spite of the harbour waters lapping at the edge of the city little had been done to capitalize on the advantage. Although some of the waterfront houses such as that of Owen Connolly had private facilities they were not available for the public. In 1877 Summerside already had a privately operated bath house and the Patriot worried that the western town was laughing at the capital for its lack of initiative. It must have struck a nerve as later that year the city corporation erected a breast work and “rough bathing house” on the bank at Victoria Park. The issue did not seem to be one of access to the water so much as the question of proper bathing attire as this item from the Patriot of 27 June 1878 suggests:
On Saturday evening the police discovered a heap of clothes on one of the wharves, and seeing no owner near took charge of them and carried them to the station. A few minutes later three angry, naked and ridiculous looking bathers might have been seen running up the wharf in an undignified manner, and taking refuge in a store to escape the loudly express admiration of numerous spectators. The police subsequently discovered them to be the owners of the clothes and handed them over to them, receiving in return numerous blessings for their vigilance in looking after the clothes which might otherwise have been stolen.
For the next quarter century there is little mention of harbour bathing clothed or naked but in 1900 a correspondent re-opened the question of a suitable facility. Stating that the ramshackle structures at the park would be condemned on sight he urged a public facility available to the citizens which would, like those in American cities, have disinfection for bathrooms and for bathing suits. The matter was raised at city council and referred to a committee. In 1904 it was supported by the Mayor. Some sort of building was available by 1905 and the Guardian noted that proper facilities might cause visitors to stay longer in the city and not fleeing to the country hotels. The Tourist Association also weighted in with their support. It would certainly not be the last time the lobby group argued that public money spent on facilities would be quickly repaid through tourist spending in the city. What was wanted was “a place where a sea bath can be had at any hour without waiting – some attractive, clean, accessible place, with proper depth of water and suitable dressing-rooms…” There is, however, little indication that the population served expanded beyond residents of the City.
In 1907 the council took decisive action. The City Surveyor presented a plan for a bathing house with eight apartments furnished with locks to ensure privacy, and investment of $100 was approved. Hasty action was called for as one writer complained that the existing facilities should be burnt, being too filthy to describe.
Building the facilities was one thing, managing them another. An item from the Guardian shows one element of the problem. “Many boys were impelled by the warm weather and the agreeable temperature of the water yesterday to go swimming at Victoria Park. It seems a pity that the little chaps had to undress themselves in the open when the bathing houses might be used. It is “swimmin’ time” now and the facilities for bathing at the park should be available to the public.”
The following year the Guardian again reported on the propensity of the “small boy element of the population” who presented ” a startling exhibition of the “altogether”” when interrupted in their bathing by a policemen, causing the boys to run like “pre-Adamites” through the streets to places of refuge. Clearly there remained entertainment value in swimming from the city’s wharves whether or not proper changing facilities were available. The city wharves continued to have their faithful patrons well into the mid-20th century.
Throughout much of this period the Hillsboro Boating Club had provided a swimming area at the Prince Street Ferry Wharf. Several attempts were made to include swimming events in regattas held in the harbour, not always with success. With the decline of the fortunes of the Boating Club it very much looked as if the downtown swimming site might be lost. A blueprint was drawn up in 1926 with a scheme for a yachting, boating and swimming facility with plenty of room for mooring boats. [The location is not noted in the reports but could well have been at the site later occupied by the Charlottetown Yacht Club at Lord’s wharf.]
In 1918 Victoria Park had lost its monopoly as the sole approved public bathing site when the city negotiated with the Dominion Government for a dollar a year lease of a part of the Kensington rifle range just east of the Hillsborough Bridge. This was to be a second location for bathing houses and the site became known as Kensington Beach. Unlike Victoria Park which was still being recommended for its tourist potential, the primary audience for Kensington Beach was the residents of the eastern part of the city.
The next year saw tenders called for new bathing houses to be erected at Brighton Road and the Kensington Range. This appears to be the first mention of the Brighton Road site, near where the current swimming pool lies, and was different from Victoria Park.
In 1921 a request was received from the Rotary Club for permission to erect a boy’s bathing house at Victoria Park. The structure at Kensington Beach was reported to be in unsatisfactory condition and the Brighton building was not being kept up. There were obviously issues at the eastern end of town as well. In 1924 John Burns, the gateman at the Hillsborough Bridge, was sworn as a constable with extra duties to prevent vandalism at the nearby bathing houses. Later that year it was noted that vandalism had deceased and the biggest problem was that the facility was now too small to accommodate the many east end users. The next year tenders were called for the erection of an additional building.
For the next twenty years the condition and maintenance of the bath houses at both locations was a headache for the City Council. New buildings were noted on several occasions but there were repeated complaints about vandalism, dilapidated facilities and “bad behavior”, especially at Kensington beach. In 1945 the Province purchased the Rifle Range property. Premier Jones soon weighed in noting that the city had not done a very good job of keeping the property up. The city had turned the adjacent area into the city dump. The next year it was announced that a new bathing house would be built at the end of Brighton Road and that the ones facing the harbour entrance would be refurbished. There were now three buildings at Kensington Range and these were to be moved several hundred yards east towards the cove and away from the road and rail line. In 1948 it was announced that the Red Cross would build new bath houses at Brighton Beach and Kensington Beach. The Kensington Beach had become a popular spot but in 1951 the site was abandoned, owing, according to the city report, to increased industrial activity in the area. A contributing factor may have been the growth of the municipal dump just outside the city limits, quite close to the bathing beach. The Red Cross bathing hut at Kensington was offered for sale and in 1952 was moved to the cannons at Victoria Park to serve as a “ladies only” building. In 1956 two large rafts, complete with diving boards were anchored off the Park.
However a shadow was cast over the future of salt-water bathing in Charlottetown Harbour by the pollution levels discovered in several places. At the time the city had no sewage treatment and drains discharged directly into the harbour. In 1957 pollution forced an end to the supervised swimming at Brighton Beach and the activity was moved to the Victoria Park driveway site and at the wading pool. In 1962 all swimming areas except for Victoria Park were posted for pollution. And it was not long after that announcement that all facilities except those at the park pool were removed. One of the few remaining traces of the once-busy recreational activity at the eastern side 0of the city is a short street off Kensington Road dead-ending at the provincial public works equipment yard called Beach Street.
The promise of delightful salt water bathing in Charlottetown Harbour has not returned. Even with the improvement in water quality through reduced industrial activity on the harbour and with the building of a treatment plant it is unusual to find swimmers in the Charlottetown side of the harbour waters. As city councillors had suggested a century ago tourists and residents alike now simply travel to beaches on both the north and south shores of the Island, ignoring a resource close at hand.