The story appeared under a gripping headline — PERILOUS TRIP – PARTY OF NINE WALK THIRTEEN MILES OVER ICE FROM IMPRISONED STEAMER. But was it what it seemed?
St. John, N.B. Feb.26 – Impelled by anxiety to reach their parents who were ill in Boston, two young women led a party of seven persons over 13 miles of ice floes from an imprisoned steamer to Pictou Island and thence to the mainland. The steamer Minto, which runs from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island became icebound on Monday. Among the 40 passengers on board were two young women of different families who had received word that parents were dying in Boston. When they realized the situation of the Minto they expressed determination to set out on foot. Another young woman and four young men also were willing to join in the undertaking.
The party left the steamer shortly before noon on Monday. The sun’s rays on the ice proved almost blinding, and after the party had struggled along on the ice for some miles, one of the young men sank down from exhaustion. The balance of the distance, however, was finally covered although the young women were obliged constantly to assist the exhausted man. They reached Pictou Island about 9 o’clock in the evening.
After passing the night on the island the balance of the journey was made to the mainland on Tuesday, where the Boston women caught the train. Members of the party belonging in St. John reached here today greatly exhausted.
The winter of 1902-1903 was an especially hard one for Prince Edward Island but with two sturdy Canadian Government Steamers providing passage to the mainland there was little anxiety. However, as ice in Northumberland Strait built up it became increasingly difficult for the steamers to negotiate the passage. The Stanley had been attempting to keep open a route from Summerside to Cape Tormentine while the Minto had what should have been the easier task of running between Georgetown and Pictou.
Early in January the Stanley became stuck in a floe off Seacow Head and would eventually remain imprisoned for 66 days as the ship was dragged by the ice east down the Strait. By the end of February the ship was located between Merigomish and Pictou Island and although passengers had been sent to shore on ice boats, the crew remained aboard. Coal was running low and without steam in the boilers any hope of being able to manoeuvre in the ice would disappear.
Meanwhile the Minto was having a difficult time getting in and out of Pictou as the same ice that held the Stanley was jammed into ridges which rose in places to a height of 15 feet. On 14 February the Minto left Pictou for Georgetown with orders to get as close to the Stanley as possible and she had aboard some 85 tons of coal to refuel the stranded vessel. She also had 54 passengers on board heading for the Island. They were warned by the Captain that there was considerable danger of a lengthy voyage as they had not only had to battle the ice for their own passage but also to aid the ice-bound Stanley. It was reported that ” They said they were willing to take their changes and looked forward to an interesting experience.” Stuck for more than a week in the ice, hardly moving, the mood changed from interesting to infuriating. A report of the trip noted that “After being out a while their good humor vanished, and there was much murmuring. One young woman went in to hysterics and a young man became insane chafing under the delay.”
Compounding the problems with the ice, the Minto lost one blade of her four-bladed propeller, severely limiting her ability to manoeuvre and reducing her speed. While the ship carried spare blades which could be bolted on the work required her to go on the marine slip at Pictou and could not be done at Georgetown.
It is at this point that the dramatic newspaper story above begins to unravel as a few of the details are questionable. What was reported in P.E.I. papers, based on reports from Pictou and later from the ship, was that faced with so many passengers on board, the Minto was running out of food. On the February 23, after 9 days aboard, the passengers were offered the opportunity to leave the ship and walk the 7 miles to Pictou Island accompanied by crew members who hauled their luggage in one of the iron runner-shod iceboats which were part of the Minto’s equipment. The journey to Pictou Island took about 4 hours. The group intended to continue their journey across the 14 mile Strait to High Bank or Wood Islands walking or using dories from the Pictou Island fishing fleet. However on reaching Pictou Island the plan changed and they decided to cross from Pictou Island to the mainland, some electing to take the train to Cape Tormenting and cross on the iceboats running at the Capes. On Tuesday 24 February the rest of the passengers, save six who elected to stay aboard, made the same journey on foot to Pictou. The following day the winds shifted and the Minto was freed to head for the relief of the Stanley. It took five hours to go a mile and then they reached a lead in the ice which enabled them to get within a mile of the Stanley. They unloaded 45 tons of coal on the ice to be dragged to the Stanley by her crew and then headed for Georgetown arriving the following day, after 12 days in the ice. It would be weeks before the Stanley was finally free.
A dramatic story in itself but what of the news re-printed above? Garbled at best and sensationalized at worst there are several puzzling details. The story appeared in the New London, Connecticut, Daily but there is no mention of the details in either the Island Patriot or the Guardian. If they were trying to reach parents who were ailing in Boston why were they aboard a steamer headed for Prince Edward Island? And as for “leading” the party it seems instead that the evacuation was under the direction of the crew of the Minto. The story in the Daily conveniently omits the information that a total of 47 passengers apparently made the transfer to shore without incident.
“The time when we were stuck on the ferry for [fill in the blank] hours/days” is part of the story-telling repertoire of almost every Islander of a certain age, however few tales can compare with the experience of those on the Minto in the winter of 1903 who, when faced with the choice between boredom and ice, took to the latter.