What had fourteen egg spoons, two paddles and over one hundred owners?
In 1842 Prince Edward Island was set to leap into the modern age. For far to long it had depended on either the winds or the kindness of strangers to provide the vital link with the rest of North American and with the Mother Country. It was time to Islanders to become masters (or at least crew members) of their own fate. A group of the leading merchants lobbied for legislation and at the spring sitting of the Legislature “An Act for the Incorporation of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company” was passed. The legislation was one of the first acts in the colony to make used of the joint stock concept and limited liability for the owners so that their assets outside their investment would be protected in case of failure. But how could failure occur? The need was clear. Northumberland Strait needed reliable transportation and Georgetown, Pictou, Charlottetown, Bedeque and Miramichi were all growing communities linked by the Strait.
Merchants, politicians, publicans and even clergy flocked to the company office to make their investments. The leading merchants all signed up. Not just in Charlottetown but across the Island. The company owners came from Bedeque, Malpeque, Princetown, North River, Covehead, Tryon, St. Eleanors, Stanhope, Port Hill, Morrell. and to make sure that the general populace did not lose out the Government of the Colony took 150 of the 450 shares on offer. With the exception of one shareholder in St. John’s and one in England this was an all-P.E.I. company.
Since 1833 the Strait had been served by the Cape Breton, a steamer owned first by Pictou’s General Mining Association and later by Joseph Cunard and by the smaller Nova Scotia-built Pocahontas but neither appear to have been satisfactory. And besides they were owned off-Island!
If you are going to have a steam navigation company the first thing you need is a boat. Luckily Francis Longworth was going to England on other business and agreed to keep a look-out for one. He found one in the port of Liverpool.
The St. George paddle steamer was just over ten years old and had an excellent service record. The “large and elegant” steamer had been launched with much fanfare and before a large crowd of spectators from the Wilson and Sons yard at Cornhill, now part of Liverpool, on 21 November 1831. She was built for the St. George Steam packet Company which had an active service between Liverpool and Irish ports such as Dublin and Cork. The single deck vessel had displacement of 157 tons and was 135 feet long by 20 in breadth. The engines were built by Fawcett Preston & Co. of Liverpool. Its primary use was on the 120 nautical mile Liverpool to Dublin passage across the Irish Sea which took 18 – 20 hours. The company added to its fleet throughout the 1830s and early 1840s with larger vessels and routes between the Uni9ted Kingdom and Europe. In 1838 the company’s ship the Sirius was the first steamer to cross the Atlantic. Faced with losses it was later reformed as the City of Cork Steam Ship Company. When Francis Longworth was searching for a vessel for the newly formed Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company in 1842 the St. George was on the market. It was quickly purchased and the vessel was scheduled to leave Liverpool for St. John’s and Charlottetown on 9 July the same year, stopping at Cork for passengers.
The St. George, “cheered by the multitude,” arrived in Charlottetown on 14 August 1842 and was almost immediately pressed into service with the first trip to Pictou just a week later. Those who took the trips on the St. George were amazed at the luxury that the vessel provided. A partial list of the steward’s supplies gives a hint of how well-outfitted the ship was: 41 plated forks, 2 sauce ladles, 1 pair sugar tongs, 16 mattresses, 49 hair pillows, 36 feather pillows, 35 counterpanes, 8 crumb cloths, 77 sheets, 62 towels, 29 blankets etc. etc. etc..
The Company had been set up with the assurances (incorporated into the incorporation act) that it would make regular stops at Georgetown and the rising town of Bedeque, the latter to be a stop on the regular semi-monthly trips to Miramichi which community was otherwise somewhat isolated from the main population of New Brunswick.
Within a year problems of managing the company with the government being a large minority shareholder began to emerge. Georgetown had generated insufficient business either in passengers and freight to warrant continued service except at a great loss. At Miramichi “the almost total abandonment of the timber and lumber trade” had resulted in a reduction in the demand for trips to that port. Business at Bedeque was no better and an 1845 report noted that on one trip into the port “the only thing in the shape of freight procured was a basket containing hens eggs”. More significantly the hoped-for subsidies from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had not been forthcoming and the company had no guarantees that they ever would be paid. The main problem was that the St. George was too big for the modest demands of the Strait communities and was too expensive to operate. It was also the wrong sort of ship as the majority of the business was in passengers and only about one-sixth of the revenue from freight.
In 1843 the legislation was changed so that the company could abandon the Georgetown route. The Government bought out the shares of the Georgetown investors as well as the remaining unsold shares bring their investment up to over 40% of the company. It was suggested that the company could buy another smaller boat to serve the Georgetown route but that never happened. A year later, the attempt to regulate routes was completely abandoned and the Company was empowered to decide their routes and schedules to be “most beneficial and advantageous for the interests of this Colony; and of the Shareholders”.
After limping through the 1844 shipping season with increased losses the Company came back to the Legislature pleading that with the St. George “the present traffic is scarcely sufficient to bear the expense of maintaining the vessel on station and she is altogether unproductive of profit to the shareholders and it is advisable that vessel be sold.” Since the government still held a large proportion the shares it was allowed that these could be sold at a loss and any proceeds used to acquire a smaller and more suitable ship.
Service was continued through 1845 at a continuing loss and with the increasing age of the ship and the need for major repairs fast approaching the need to get rid of the St. George became acute. A search was begun for a smaller, faster ship which could be operated for less but nothing was found. By October 1845 the St. George had been sold to Quebec interests and left Charlottetown for the last time at the end of that month.
Although the Colonial Government advertised for a steamer to take the route it appears to have continued to be serviced by sailing vessels until 1849 when the Rose, a much smaller and perhaps more appropriate ship made its way across the Atlantic.
The constraints placed by government ownership on the effective operation of the Steam Navigation Company by requiring specific routes and schedules were certainly not the only challenge that the Company faced but they hardly contributed to success. It would not be the last time that government participation in a public/private partnership would lead to failure.
As for the St. George it lasted in Quebec only until 1850 when it was sold to become a towboat in Newfoundland. In January 1852 it left St. John’s for Cork, Ireland and was never heard from again.
Note: An expanded history of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company is available as a detailed research paper which can be found here.
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It would not be the last time that government participation in a public/private partnership would lead to failure. Looks like some lessons are never learned by the PEI Government.
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