Dredging up the Past

During the winter of 1872-1873 the final negotiations took place between Prince Edward Island and Canada on terms by which the colony could become part of the Dominion.  There were some big items on the table. The Prince Edward Island Railway was threatening to bankrupt the colony. The long standing issue of absentee landlords could only be resolved by a major injection of funds to permit compulsory purchase of the estates. The vexing question of “continuous steam communication” had to be resolved. But there were also a few lesser items on the colony’s shopping list.

Near the bottom of the list was the steam dredge. The harbours of Prince Edward Island, then as now, were subject to a high level of siltation which had been exacerbated by the  clearing of land and increased erosion and run-off. Some of the rivers which were home to shipbuilding had reduced capacity for launches and the wharves across the Island frequently had to be extended to meet the channel. The appearance of larger steamers in Island harbours made the dredging a priority.

In 1872 the colony committed to the construction of a steam dredge at a cost of $22,000, about $500,000 in current dollars, but it had not yet been launched. Because the responsibility for marine and fisheries would be vested in the Dominion government, Canada agreed to take the dredge off the colony’s hands, and presumably with it the responsibility for keeping the province’s harbours dredged.

The Steam Dredge Prince Edward was soon a fixture in the harbours and rivers of the Island. As one of the most visible signs of Canada’s involvement with the province it was often the focus of political interest with questions about dredging plans and crew employment in the House of Commons and Senate. As the vessel served the entire province the appearance of the Prince Edward, with attendant barges and tugs was closely watched. Modifications in the years following launch meant that the crew were housed aboard, a pattern that was continued with almost all of the dredges which operated in Prince Edward Island and so the vessels (or more properly barges as they had no means of propulsion) served as a home for the crew during the dredging season.

The Prince Edward was the island’s sole dredge until 1904 and the fleet gradually grew larger. In 1916 four dredges operated out of the DPW base at the foot of Great George Street in Charlottetown. Together with their scows and the tugs, they constituted a little fleet which scattered to duties around the Island, across the strait and even to the Magdalen Islands in the summer but which generally returned to Charlottetown as the season ended.  The dredges were a major source of work for Bruce Stewart and Company for they required constant repair, maintenance and improvement. The dredges and scows were periodically hauled from the water for winter work to be done. The shore just west of the Marine and Fisheries Wharf served as a haul-out area.

By 1912 the hull of the Prince Edward was, according to its captain “fit for nothing but scrap” and the dredge was so low in the water that the decks were awash. A pontoon was designed to be placed under the vessel to raise its waterline. Hauling the dredge for his repair became an event in itself as the Guardian reported on 16 December 1912.

There was no small excitement the last few days down along the waterfront where preparations were being made to haul out the old dredge “Prince Edward.” Dredge Inspector MacDonald planned and superintended the job and Angus DesRoches was foreman. This dredge just got through digging at Mount Stewart, just a week ago and was towed to Charlottetown where she was dismantled and the main crane, weighing fifteen tons, was landed safe on Pownal wharf. The dredge was hauled out Saturday and is now blocked up on dry land. The hauling out, which used to be accomplished by horse capstans and winches, was this time performed by taking the tackle through her hull and on to her main hoisting drum and it can be said that she steamed up on dry land to get repaired. The part of the work most admired by the large crowd of spectators was the wonderful ease by which the big undertaking was accomplished and plans were skillfully made…… It is understood that the tugs “Rona” and “Islander” as well as the ferry boat “Hillsborough” are also going to be hauled out in this dock. This is as it ought to be, instead of having this work done on the slip in Pictou, have it performed by Prince Edward Island workmen in Prince Edward Island.  

Three years later the dredge was again hauled and it was found that the planking of the pontoon had suffered from ship worms which were halted only after reaching the layer of poisoned tar paper inside the planking.

By this time the dredge had seen more than forty years of service. By 1920 the names of the dredges seem to have disappeared from the records replaced by numbers. The Prince Edward became Dredge 11.  Its fate is no doubt buried in the records of the Department of Public Works but it seems to have disappeared from the scene not long afterwards. Although the DPW dredge fleet remained a part of the Charlottetown Harbour scene for a further fifty years the dredges, scows and tugs have now all disappeared.

While the Prince Edward still floated it was one of the few physical reminders of the bargain struck between the nearly bankrupt colony and the Dominion of Canada. It can be argued that by taking over the Prince Edward the Dominion was also committing to a confederation promise of maintaining the harbours of the province for shipping purposes. However, unlike the issue of “continuous steam communication,” the province has failed to hold the Dominion to its obligations and the Island’s ports and small fishing harbours wage a constant fight against shifting sands with little assistance and less success.

As a service vessel the Prince Edward was hardly photogenic and I have not been able to find any illustrations of the dredge. I would be most appreciative of learning if its appearance has been captured.
















2 thoughts on “Dredging up the Past

  1. larrymuffin

    Fascinating story, this summer I had a few conversation with friends about the big cruise ships who come into Charlottetown Harbour and how the lack of dredging limits the size of the ships. I was told that the Queen Mary 2 could not enter the harbour because it is too shallow. There is hope that if federal funding was available the harbour could be dredged and more ships could come in but we would also have to improve our docking facilities all of which would require a substantial investment.


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