In the wood, wind and water economy the period between the fall and the freeze-up was one of the busiest times on the Charlottetown waterfront. Unlike today, when the milder winters and more powerful ships mean that the harbour is open – at least to ice-reinforced tankers which leave their wake of crumpled ice cakes – there was a finality to winter, a closure of the harbour which meant that the mainland was cut off again for several months.
Farmers had a only few short weeks to haul their produce to markets or risk missing the opportunity for sales. In the twentieth century the problem was alleviated by winter steamers and finally by the Borden rail ferry but in earlier years winter was a closing door. Between the harvest and the harbour closure crops had to be rushed to market and the many small ports on the Island hummed with activity. Today we think of the potato as being the quintessential P. E. I. crop but in earlier years the main export was oats. The humblest of the grains was the gasoline of the 19th century as both town and country were powered by horses and horses were powered by oats. The Island was fine oat-growing country and throughout the fall bushel bags were carried to coastal schooners and trans-Atlantic ships to go to market.
An early freeze-up could paralyze the shipments and throughout November and December farmers, merchants and mariners keep a keen eye on the thermometer. Shipping became a gamble and vessels waiting for a late cargo could be in port until spring – with or without empty holds.
In 1870 the Christmas season saw Charlottetown’s harbour still open and the Charlottetown Herald carried an extensive shipping report. A succession of ships had escaped to avoid the freeze-up. The ship New Dominion under Capt. Kickham had left for Europe with 52,000 bushels of oats on December 16th, The bark Undine, Capt. Balfour cleared Charlottetown with 32,000 bushels for Europe on the 21st. Merchant I.C. Hall sent a cargo of oats, potatoes and fish to Cuba with Capt. Mutch’s Island Home. Carvell Bros. saw the barque Candice, Capt. McDonald clear for Queenstown Ireland with 25,000 bushels of oats.
There was news on the telegraph that earlier shipments had safely arrived. Wm. Richards heard that two of his oat shipments, one from Summerside and another from Malpeque, had arrived safely in England. The brigantine Ravenwood, Capt. Gavin arrived in St. John’s three days after leaving the Island.
But there were still ships in the harbour desperate to get to the open sea. The steamer Heather Belle which also operated as a tug was kept busy bringing ships down the rivers to the harbour where they could begin their voyages under sail. She brought Lefurgy’s brig to the Three Tides to ride the currents and winds on the beginning of its trip. The steamer then went up the West River to McEwan’s wharf to take the brigantine Septimus with her cargo of grain for Europe in tow. The same evening the brigantine Paragon which had loaded oats at North River was towed to the sea by the steamer.
But not all the ships made their escape. Capt. Young’s brigantine Empress was frozen in at Pinette, still loaded with grain for Europe. At Crapaud Harbour a brigantine, the Sabrina with another Europe bound cargo, was reported aground. Shipping had stopped at Summerside and the ice had closed in on another brigantine, this one owned by Alex MacMillan, with a cargo of grain for Europe.
In Charlottetown the Herald closed the report with another local story.
The ship James Duncan, is the last of the fall fleet in port. She is nearly rigged, and has taken a considerable quantity of oats on board. We fear she is frozen in for the winter.
Once the harbour froze there was rarely a second chance. A thaw with rain might melt some snow but it would not clear the harbour of ice. Some desperate shippers hired labourers to cut a channel to tow their vessels to the open water at the Three Tides where it froze last but they were not always successful. The feverish activity at the wharves came to an end. Winter had set in.