From the distance of more than a century it is difficult to understand the titanic struggles related to prohibition of the sale of alcohol which seem to have been an undercurrent of the politics of Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s. And while one may search the local press in vain for letters to the editor advocating drink, the opposite is not the case. In the 1890s Prince Edward Island was subject to Dominion legislation, the Canada Temperance Act, (known as the Scott Act after its author) which provided a “local option” following petition and plebiscite for prohibition on a county level. The three counties were ostensibly “dry” but Charlottetown switched several times from “wet” to “dry” and back again and there was a constant battle in press on the subject. It seemed that what ever the political stripe of the government in power their stance it was unsatisfactory for the temperance advocates. Almost every event and activity was under scrutiny and subject to complaint for the presence of alcohol. Such was the case with activities surrounding the launch of the new ferry Hillsborough in July of 1894.
By the mid-1890s the days of wooden ships was drawing to an end and launchings were becoming rare events. Added to the fact that almost any activity could be used as an excuse for an excursion, the launch of the new ferry steamer became the central event for a “MAMMOTH PICNIC” at Mount Stewart.
The new ferry was being built to replace the aging Elfin and to supplement the Southport. Although not known at the time she was destined for use in Charlottetown Harbour for more than forty years – initially on the Southport crossing and later to Rocky Point. Like her predecessors she was a side paddle wheel steam boat. She was constructed by Pisquid shipbuilder Angus MacDonald with boilers and engine later installed in Charlottetown by MacKinnon and MacLean. The 225 ton steamer was 105 feet long and had a beam of 25 feet. The steam engine provided thirty and a half horsepower. Like both the Elfin and the Southport she had paddle wheels on either side of the hull. She was double-ended with helm positions at either end of the vessel. She was, in fact, the latest thing in ferry boats.
Her launch was the excuse for a festive event. The Southport made a special trip up the river with excursionists and the Prince Edward Island Railway provided cheap fares across the system to take the curious to Mount Stewart for the day’s activities. Once there, the grounds had a picnic with “delicacies of the season”, games and amusements as well as the launch ceremony. Given the predominance in the advertising “TEA INCLUDED” appears to have been a significant drawing card. The 1st class refreshment saloons reference did not mean that strong drink was on order but merely that tea and a “lunch” would be available.
But a dark cloud was to be cast over the day by the presence of alcohol. Not, as one might suppose, by bootleg rum or local shine shared out behind the horse barn but by a far more insidious and public threat to morality perpetrated by a juvenile as willing tool of the government. The following indignant letter to the Daily Examiner’s editor lays out the charge:
What will our friends in the Liberal party say to the following choice item which appeared in yesterday’s Patriot? Referring to the launch of the new ferry steamer at Mount Stewart, where the Scott Act is supposed to be the law on the land, the Patriot says:
“At 1:15 little Miss Commiskey, daughter of Mr. Speaker Commiskey, Fort Augustus, christened the steamer the “Hillsborough” by breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow.”
As a friend of temperance, I regard it as extremely unfortunate, and especially at this particular time, that the present Local Government, or any member thereof, should sanction the purchase of liquor for any such purpose. What is the natural inference?
For the author of the letter the natural inference must have been that by 1:16 on the 21st of July 1894 the entire Mount Stewart audience would be dead drunk on champagne fumes caused by little Miss Commiskey at the behest of the evil minds of the Liberal party. While we may laugh today it is worth noting that the tradition of using political correctness as a stick with which to beat the current government remains a strong one in our community.