In 1878 Panoramic Views of both Summerside and Charlottetown were published. The views gave an accurate depiction of the two Island communities and highlighted the commercial and industrial progress being made. Because of the perspective view the largest items on the sheets are the paddlewheel steamers then proudly plying Island waters – the Princess of Wales (mislabeled in the drawing as the Prince of Wales) in Summerside Harbour and the St. Lawrence in Charlottetown Harbour. Also seen in Charlottetown Harbour lithograph was the smaller Heather Belle.
These three boats constituted the fleet of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company which had been organized in 1863 and was incorporated the following year to take over the contract for service between the colony of Prince Edward Island and the mainland from a New Brunswick company operating the Westmorland. The company was capitalized at £20,000 and shares were held mostly by Island shipbuilders, lawyers and capitalists
The company started operations with the Heather Belle and a new steamer called the Princess of Wales which had been built in Carleton New Brunswick and launched early in 1864. Newspaper advertisements in February said service would begin in April 1864 but in May she was still in Saint John being outfitted The vessel finally arrived in Charlottetown in June and went into service immediately. At 192 feet and almost 1000 tons she was considerably larger than the Westmorland and there were some fears that she was too large for the trade. However the editor of the Islander noted that the Island had much to draw visitors “…and if its attractions can be made known to the many thousands who yearly leave the cities of the United States in search of a pleasant retreat, for some months at least, a steamer quite as large as the “Princess of Wales” will be required to convey to our shores the thousands of tourists who will visit us.” The two steamers each had a weekly route with the Princess of Wales visiting Pictou, Port Hood, Summerside and Shediac from the home port of Charlottetown and the Heather Belle traveling to Pictou , Murray Harbour, Georgetown and Souris.
The Princess of Wales was joined in 1868 by another steamer, the St. Lawrence. This paddle wheeler had been built in Mystic, Connecticut in 1863 and used as a blockade runner during the American civil war under the name General Whiting. Whiting was a general in the Confederate States Army who was captured and later died a prisoner. Under ownership of the Consolidated Steamship Company the General Whiting made at least four successful passages between Nassau and the Southern States and survived the war. Between 1866 and 1868 she was lying in Saint John and probably had been re-built to increase her accommodation. At 201 feet in length and 33 feet in width she was just slightly larger than the Princess of Wales. With a nominal power of 250 horsepower it was claimed she could have an average speed of 10 knots but also be “light on fuel.” Both the Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence carried about 25 crew members.
By 1869 the Steam Navigation Company was running its vessels on several routes: The Princess of Wales and St. Lawrence visited Pictou, Cape Breton, Georgetown, Souris, Summerside and Shediac from Charlottetown on a regular weekly schedule, while the Heather Belle served Mount Stewart, Port Selkirk (Orwell) and Crapaud (Victoria). In the early years the steamers also provided service to Miramichi and Richibucto.
The 1869 season was not a good one of the company. In early August the two steamers collided at night off Seacow Head. The St. Lawrence was holed below the waterline and was saved only by being towed to shoal water by the Princess of Wales, which had also been damaged in the collision. Although the Princess of Wales resumed service the next day the St. Lawrence required extensive repair. She was patched in Summerside and then towed to Pictou to be put on the marine slip for an overhaul.
Confederation in 1873 was good for the company. Although they had lost much of the Charlottetown to Summerside traffic through the building of the Prince Edward Island Railway, they benefitted from a 20-year $10,000 annual subsidy which was part of the Dominion’s commitment to furnish “continuous steam communication” and the railway links between Island towns and villages made the strait crossing routes more lucrative. In 1876 the company appears to have also have had at least one sailing vessel in their fleet. They are noted as owners of a 46 ton schooner, the Alexander, which had been built in Belfast in 1860. In 1884 the Princess of Wales was substantially re-built with new steel boilers, more efficient but lighter and smaller, which allowed expansion of the passengers area to accommodate an additional 100 in the main saloon, as well as increased capacity on the freight deck. The company was re-incorporated in 1890 under Dominion legislation as the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company, this time with $400,000 in capital stock. John Ings, L.C. Owen, and William Richards, all of whom had been connected with the shipbuilding and ship-owning activities were the first directors.
In the 1890’s, with improved rail connections the routes of the steamers were simplified. One vessel made daily trips from Charlottetown to Pictou to connect with the Halifax train, the other ran from Summerside to Pointe du Chene to meet the train from Saint John with connections to Boston. In 1895 the subsidy was renewed and continued to be paid until the S.S. Prince Edward Island was launched in 1915. Over the years the fleet had changed. The Heather Belle had been sunk in fog in 1891 and by that time the other wooden paddle steamers were almost thirty years old and feeling their age. In 1893 the St. Lawrence had suffered from a broken shaft which kept her off the routes for about six weeks and required leasing of a replacement. The Princess of Wales had been the first of the large side-wheelers to go – replaced by the iron steamer Northumberland in 1891. The St. Lawrence, described the same year by the American Counsel in Charlottetown as having “good accommodation for freight and passengers” was kept running until 1896 when the Princess arrived.
The last days of the Princess of Wales were inglorious. After being replaced by the shiny new S.S. Northumberland she was purchased by James Lantalum of St. John and partly broken up. However the hulk was left on the beach near the ferry slip in Charlottetown. In the winter of 1897 she was carried by the ice into the dredged channel and became a hazard to navigation. It was not until 1901 that a dispute about jurisdiction and costs was resolved and the wreck finally removed.
The St. Lawrence was likewise a far cry from her romantic past at the end of her days. Replaced by the S.S. Princess in 1896, her registry was closed in 1897 and her engine was transferred to the Victoria, a Saint John River steamer. By 1903 she was being used as a barge transporting cattle to waiting steamers in the port of Saint John. Her once spacious passenger accommodation had been replaced by stalls for cattle.
In 1907 the last artifacts of the Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence were put on the market. Auctioneer R.B. Norton was selling off surplus and unclaimed goods at the Steam Navigation Company warehouse. Included was the mahogany and walnut furniture from the two steamers; dining tables, chairs, washstands and sinks, 8 mahogany sofas, tables, arm chairs and “a large lot of stuff that cannot be classified. ”
The company itself did not last much longer. Although it seems to have been profitable to the end, the termination of the subsidy and the arrival of year-round ferry service certainly placed the company at a cross roads. After disposing of their ships the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company sold their wharf by tender and in August of 1916 the enterprise was wound up after a half-century of service. It was truly the end of an era.
NOTE: More on the panoramic views of Charlottetown and Summerside can be found in the Fall-Winter 1988 issue of The Island Magazine