From Fine Scotch to Ice-cold Vodka – the Several Lives of the S.S. Minto

Throughout the 1890s the issue of “continuous steam communication” with the mainland which had been one of the confederation pledges continued to be a problem for Prince Edward Island. Although there had been some relief provided by the S.S. Stanley in 1888 Islanders still needed, and wanted more and in 1899 a larger, more powerful and technologically advanced vessel was provided by the Dominion government.

The Minto, named for Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, 4th Earl of Minto and 8th Governor-General of Canada, was launched on 12 July 1899 from the Camperdown Yard of Gourlay and Brothers, Dundee, Scotland. The 255 foot vessel had a displacement of 1,100 tons and was specially designed for ice conditions found in Northumberland Strait. She had large trimming tanks for and aft which allowed for the lowering of the stern and raising of the cut-away bow to cause the ship to ride atop the ice and crush it. Staterooms at the forward end of the deck-house allowed for about thirty passengers in cabins with additional space in a large saloon paneled in polished oak. Officers was also quartered in the deck-house with deck crew and engineers at the fore and aft of the main deck.  With steam heat and electric lights throughout it was easily the most modern ship on the Strait. An Islander who visited the yard, Wm. H. Clark, described the ship as “almost perfect in its arrangement for the comfort of passengers.” In an apparently unadvertised capacity the vessel was described as a fast unarmed cruiser which could, in times of war, be equipped with four six-pound Hotchkiss quick-firing guns.

Pre-launch drawing of the Minto. Note the guns on the bow and stern of the vessel

Pre-launch drawing of the Minto. Note the guns on the bow and stern of the vessel

Soon after her arrival in Charlottetown she was fitted with two ice-boats similar to those used at the Capes crossing for use in the unlikely event that the vessel became stuck in the ice. In some years they were frequently resorted to. The Minto did not replace the older Stanley but supplemented the service. The existence of two boats was seized on by the community of Summerside to press for service between that town and the terminus of the railway at Cape Tormentine. Merchant R. T. Holman was particularly vocal in advocating for the route to be used and for several years it was tried but in most years build up of ice in Bedeque Bay meant that  as the winter progressed the routing moved. In the early winter the Stanley tried to run between Summerside and Cape Tormentine and the Minto from Charlottetown to Pictou but as the ice built up the two vessels would run between Georgetown and Pictou.

Minto4

Minto in ice. Note the Capes-type iceboat on the stern davits

The winter of 1902-1903 was especially difficult and both vessels were caught in the ice for lengthy periods. The Stanley was frozen in a pan and drifted with the tides for 66 days. She was found by the Minto 26 miles east of Pictou Island but in trying to free her the Minto broke a propeller blade and was imprisoned as well.  In the winter of 1905 the harbour of Pictou became blocked with ice and the two ships were unable break through. It was a disaster for the island farm community which, owing to a poor crop had been forced to import hay from the mainland.  While the ice boats at the Capes could keep up with passengers and mail all freight had to wait on the dock at Pictou until the ice drifted off-shore.

The Minto was a favoured subject for a number of postcards and photographs. Click on any image for a slide show.

When released from its annual winter crossing duties the Minto was used for a variety of Department of Marine and Fisheries duties including lighthouse maintenance and fisheries patrols. In 1915 she was part of a contingent of vessels sent to Hudson’s Bay to survey the area in preparation for the development of Churchill Manitoba as a major grain shipping port.

On her return from Hudson’s Bay, like the Earl Grey before her, she was bought by Russian Imperial Government to aid in the war effort keeping the Barents Sea open for shipping. She was renamed Ivan Susanin by the Russians.  Ivan Susanin was a Russian folk hero who was reported to have saved the life of the Tsar in 1613  and is the subject of an opera by Glinka.

Unlike the Earl Grey which remained a Canadian naval vessel until handed over to the Russians the Minto crossed the Atlantic under a Russian flag but with a Canadian crew of 52 under command of Captain John Read. On 28 November 1915 she sailed from North Sydney and after a passage of 17 days on 15th December 1915 the Minto arrived in Alexanderovsk (now Polarynj), near Murmansk, Russia. After taking on board bunkers she proceeded to Arkhangelsk. Some 35 miles from Arkhangelsk the ice became very thick and the ship could not enter Arkhangelsk, A Russian crew was brought out and relieved the Canadian crew, the trip to shore across the ice took more as 20 hours by sleds and in a temperature of minus 35 degree Celsius many crew members were severely frostbitten on their arrival in Arkhangelsk. A detailed account of the voyage to Russia can be found in the Spring/Summer 1988 issue of The Island Magazine

The ships of the arctic fleet led a confused existence with the several changes in government and administration in Arkhangelsk with White Russian forces and revolutionary forces clashing during and after the Great War but by 1920 the Susanin was a unit of the Soviet Naval Forces of the North Sea.

Ivan Susanin (left) with unidentified warship in Russian waters

Ivan Susanin (left) with unidentified warship in Russian waters

Dreyer21921 saw the transfer of the Ivan Susanin to commercial activities. The previous year it had been  re-named the Leytenant Dreyer. I have not been able to learn who Dreyer was and why the ship was named for him. Perhaps one of my Russian readers could find this information. At some later date she seems to have carried the name Skuratov. The ship itself was lost in 1922 off the Kanin Peninsula in the Barents Sea near the tiny community of Indiga (not off the coast of Norway as some accounts have it). In 1933 Pravda carried a small item stating that EPRON, the state salvage organization, which had raised many ships sunk in Soviet waters, would be carrying out a new job in the north; the raising of the Ivan Susanin from its resting place on the floor of the East Barents Sea. The icebreaker however does not appear on the list of recovered vessels and the attempt may have been abandoned.  The name has been re-used for an icebreaker used by the Russian military which was launched in Leningrad 1973 and which is now part of the Pacific Fleet.

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