Tugging and Towing – The Story of the William Aitken


The William Aitken. This may be a builder’s photo as the rocky shore locates the picture in Nova Scotia. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

While it is easy to imagine the romance of the sea when looking at a picture of a full-rigged ship or a proud steamer it is harder to do so when faced with a tugboat. These vessels however were an essential part of Charlottetown harbour activity for more than a hundred years beginning at the mid-point of the 19th century.

Tugs did much more than simply pull barges or push steamers into place at the dock. They were an essential of the nautical infrastructure of the harbour and the Strait.  One of the best known of the 19th and 20th century tugs was the William Aitken.

The William Aitken was built in Yarmouth Nova Scotia by George W. Johnson, of the Burrell Johnson Iron works who supplied the engines for a number of other boats associated with Prince Edward Island including the Harland, the Magdalen and the tug Islander. The wooden vessel was launched in 1887 and the registration was changed to Charlottetown two years later but she was probably operating from Charlottetown from the year of her launch.  As tugs go the William Aitken was a decent size; 81 feet long, 18 feet wide and had a gross tonnage of 75 tons.  She was powered by a compound steam engine which generated 70 horsepower giving her a speed of about 9 knots. She had a deckhouse with the engine room, galley and dining room and an elevated wheelhouse. Below decks was a cabin with 12 berths and a hold with a freight capacity of 40 tons.

Screen Shot 01-26-18 at 07.36 PMIt is not entirely clear where the name came from. The owners of the ship were the Batt brothers, William H., George E. and Frank C. Batt but there is not clear connection to the Aitken family. A William Henry Aitken was a prominent businessman in Charlottetown at the time and the tug may have been named for him.  Compounding the mystery is the name of an earlier tug owned by the Batt Brothers. The Henry Aitken was another wooden tug which was built in Charlottetown in 1874. Somewhat smaller at 60 feet and 38 tons she was broken up and taken off the register in 1889 so it is likely that the William Aitken was her replacement. The Guardian, ever ready to award accolades noted in 1891 that the vessel was “not surpassed by any tug-boat in the Maritime Provinces for power” although it is hard to imaging that the ports of Halifax and Saint John would not have bigger boats.

Tug in Charlottetown Harbour. Detail from 1878 birds eye view of Charlottetown.

Tug in Charlottetown Harbour. Detail from 1878 birds eye view of Charlottetown. This could be the Henry Aitken.

The William Aitken arrived in the harbour at the close of the age of sail but there were still a large number of schooners serving the port, especially when handling bulk cargo such as produce, lumber, coal and limestone. Few of these sailing vessels had auxiliary engines so tugs were often needed to bring them into the wharves.  Tugs and other steamers were also used to get sailing vessels up and down the narrow rivers leading from the harbour. Ships launched in Mt. Stewart and area were often towed to Charlottetown for completion and fitting out.  In addition, it was not unusual for sail vessels to be towed to and from the harbour mouth when faced with unfavourable tides or winds. The building of the Hillsborough Bridge meant that tugs were needed more than ever as negotiating the narrow gap of the swing span was very difficult for a large vessel under sail. The William Aitken was not alone in the harbour. In 1900 for instance, the fleet of small towing vessels included the May Queen, the T.A. Stewart, and the Fred M. Batt in addition to the Aitken. Even the harbour ferries were occasionally pressed into service towing ships from the wharves to the open water.

However the span of duties of the William Aitken went far beyond the tugging and towing. In its life it was more of a general purpose vessel and was often referred to as a “steamer” rather than a “tug”.  She was a general salvage vessel towing a disabled ship from Canso to the marine slip in Pictou in 1892, freeing a coal schooner from the ice at Governor’s Island in 1898, floating the barge Grandee off the sands of Miscouche a year later.  In 1905 she was in the Magdalen Islands assisting a vessel ashore on the sands. In 1918 she hauled another coal schooner off the rocks at Governor’s Island and in 1920 freed the schooner Minnie Mae from the shore at Murphy’s Point just inside the harbour. In 1898 she was handling small cargos taking 3000 bushels of oats from Summerside to Charlottetown. The next year saw her taking 120 barrels of oysters from Summerside to Cape Traverse and in 1901 she sailed to Sydney carrying a large boiler built by Bruce Stewart & Co.  She had a contract to tow a timber raft from Pugwash with material for the Hillsborough Bridge in the same year. In 1912 she was employed by the Anglo-American Telegraph Company to try to fix a break in the undersea cable between the Capes.  In 1918 it was the William Aitken that towed the Columbus replica Santa Maria from Charlottetown to Montreal on its way back to Chicago.  She was often contracted to the Dominion government for marine duties such as retrieving navigation buoys that had broken loose from their moorings.   When in late 1912 the ferry Hillsborough had to be taken off the route for repairs it was the William Aitken that provided service until the ice closed the route in mid-January.

After 1910 much of her work was in connection with the Dominion Government dredges. These “works on a barge” had to be shifted from harbour to harbour and the William Aitken was kept busy with these transits and also served as a tender moving scows and barges for the dredging activity.

The William Aitken with an excursion party aboard, probably somewhere up the Hllsborough River

The William Aitken with an excursion party aboard, probably somewhere up the Hillsborough River. The only concession to passenger safety seems to be a single life ring on the upper railing. It is interesting to note that this photo shows sails bent to the two masts, which are not even shown on the earlier picture.

Throughout the period the tug, like most of the other steamers in the harbour was available for charter for excursion trips and many church and social groups were carried off to tea parties and socials with the thrill of an “ocean voyage” across the harbour or up one of the rivers. The William Aitken was allowed by the steamboat inspectors to carry 40 passengers.

As a utilitarian vessel, the William Aitken was seldom mentioned except bare facts in reference to her work but at least once she did cause a journalist to rise to what, in the Daily Examiner at least, passed for eloquence. Wednesday December 16 1896:

On Monday morning the report was telephoned from Fort Augustus that the East River was free of ice as far up as Hickey’s wharf, and that from there to Haggarty’s the ice was thin and of no solidity.  Relying on the truth of this report the tug “William Aitken” left here for the purpose of towing down the schooner “FOAM” frozen in at Haggarty’s wharf.

Unfortunately the report of the condition of the river was not justified by facts, for when the mouth of Johnston’s River was reached the ice was found solid and in abundance.  From there to Haggarty’s wharf the ice was firm and solid; in many places as much as five inches thick.  Not withstanding this state of affairs the tug battled nobly with the ice.  She pushed through it and crushed it down while it ground under her with a sound resembling the grumbling of thunder.  Now and again when the ice of a firmer and more unyielding composition was met, the noble boat straining with all her might, would force herself up on it, crush it for a foot or so in front of her, then leap at it almost as a tiger would spring on it’s prey.

This, if I may term it, “struggle of giants” was maintained all the way from Johnston’s River to Haggarty’s wharf, a distance of about five miles.  In all the long and fierce combat the tug never stopped.  True, her speed was often reduced to a very low rate but still she was always forcing her way ahead.

She got the vessel and brought her to Town safe and unharmed.  It can with truth be said that there is not another boat in the lower Provinces, with the exception of the Stanley, that could force the ice as the William Aitken did on Monday.  The ice was bound solid between the two shores of the river.  It was not as would be the case in an open sea where was room to push the ice out of the way.  Here there was no chance to do anything of the kind, everything was jammed solid.

Captain Batt had interests in a number of other vessels during the period including the Amherst, a 35-year-old steamer half again as big as the William Aitken that he acquired in 1912. The tug itself is seldom referenced after 1920. Batt died in 1925 and three years later the registry was closed on the William Aitken “deemed unseaworthy, dismantled and broken up in Charlottetown…”

I am indebted to Ron Smith for the reference to the William Aitken and her ice breaking on the Hillsborough in 1896.


5 thoughts on “Tugging and Towing – The Story of the William Aitken

  1. Joan Falsetto

    My late father , Weldon Taylor, was a pilot in the Charlottetown Harbor in the forties and fifties I believe. He formerly lived on St. Peters Island, then Nine Mile Creek.

  2. Joan Falsetto

    , My late father, Weldon Taylor, was a pilot in the Charlottetown Harbor in the forties and fifties I believe. He formerly lived on St Peters Island, then Nine Mile Creek.

  3. Pingback: Home port of Georgetown – the Three Rivers Steamship Company | Sailstrait

  4. Pingback: Henry Aitken to the rescue | Sailstrait

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