It is hard to appreciate how different Charlottetown’s harbour is today from the scene that would have greeted observers a century ago. With a dozen wharves still in operation and the Island almost wholly dependant on shipping for imports and exports the vessels were as important to commerce as is the tractor-trailer today.
However even by 1913 there had been a change from the days of wooden ships and iron men. Much of the commerce was being carried by steamers which connected the province with Sydney, Halifax, Boston and Montreal as well as carrying goods and passengers across the Strait to Pictou and Shediac. What was left for the aging fleet of wooden schooners was the high volume, low value bulk cargo such as limestone, wood, and especially coal. The same vessels carried away agricultural goods – potatoes, turnips, wheat, oats and livestock – to nearby ports and to Newfoundland. Higher value goods such as tinned lobster, oysters, eggs and the few manufactured goods usually went to more distant markets and they increasingly went by steamer.
Like many declines, the change was gradual. However once in a while an event occurred which moved perspective beyond the day-to-day. In late October 1913 the Island was visited by an extended period of unusually high winds and as time passed eyes began to turn toward the harbour. While not exactly a front page story, the Guardian felt that the phenomenon was worthy of note.
23 October 1913 – AN INTERESTING SPECTACLE – In the Charlottetown Harbour yesterday morning was witnessed a spectacle of great interest and of a like unequaled in recent years. The rough weather that has prevailed during the past week has caused a number of small and large sailing craft alike to seek shelter within the haven afforded by Charlottetown’s splendid harbour, and also there were a number of vessels that had discharged and loaded here that would not venture out in the heavy seas and high winds that were reported to be raging in the Strait. There was one vessel indeed which entered the harbour under bare poles, a condition in which she had driven before the wind for many hours previous to her seeking the shelter of Charlottetown. Thus there was quite a fleet anchored within the mouth of the harbour awaiting the abatement of the stormy weather outside. Yesterday’s fine weather gave them an opportunity they awaited. Taking immediate advantage of the fine spell, the whole fleet set sail early in the morning. There were between twenty and thirty of them and they made sail almost simultaneously; the scene of so many vessels sailing out of the harbour at practically the same time being exceptionally animated and interesting.
It was probably the last time that so much working sail was seen in the harbour although the schooners, and even some rigged ships continued to visit until the 1940s. The commonplace had become the interesting and then the unusual.
The future was also to be seen in the harbour of Charlottetown. In the same month when schooners sheltered from the wind the port saw a steady stream of regular steamers paying monthly or even weekly visits: Furness Lines’ Swansaea Trader, Black Diamond Shipping’s Morwenna, the Plant Line steamer A.W. Perry, the Cascapedia of the Quebec Steamship Line and the daily Northumberland owned by the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company. By the mid-point of the century working sail was completely gone.