In yet another connection between Prince Edward Island and the Civil War, the steamer Commerce was the first of many vessels* trading to Prince Edward Island which had begun life on one side or the other of the Union blockade of the southern states. She was built in England on the river Tees by the firm of Backhouse and Dixon and launched, carrying the name Pet, in October 1862. In all probability she was designed specifically for blockade running. A relatively small vessel, 141 feet long and 20 wide, she had engines which gave her a top speed of 11 1/2 knots. Although not the name on her ownership papers she was the property of the Manchester firm of Alexander Collie & Co. who owned more than fifteen blockade runners, many of which were to be eventually seized by the Union forces.
The Pet arrived in Nassau Bahamas, the main port for blockade runners, in early 1863 and was one of 28 new vessels noted by the U.S. Consul that season. The Consul calculated that each of these vessels could make a profit of $119,000 per trip which meant that the full cost of building the Pet was covered by a single round-trip. A good blockade captain could be paid $7,000 in gold for each round trip. She was a very successful commercial blockade-runner and made between fifteen and twenty trips over the next year. However, in February 1864 she was intercepted on her way from Nassau to Wilmington, Delaware by the U.S.S. Montgomery. She was close enough to shore to land her passengers and pilot before the navy boarding party could stop them. The crew were captured but as British nationals were later released.
As a prize of war the Pet was sent to Boston to be auctioned off and in April 1864 she was purchased by Franklyn Snow of Boston for $35,500. The new owner changed her name to the Commerce and she began a new life as the first of the Boston Boats shuttling between Charlottetown and Boston under the name of the Boston and Colonial Steamship Company. On her arrival in Halifax one newspaper there described her as a gentlemen’s yacht but noted her appearance had been spoiled by the addition of increased accommodation although the writer did concede that her cabins were “nicely fitted”. She arrived in Charlottetown in late May accompanied by her owner who, according to the Islander, “made himself most agreeably acquainted with the many citizens of Charlottetown.”
Beginning with a bi-weekly service, the Commerce, ex Pet, was joined in early August by a larger vessel, the steamer Franconia. This ship was American-built, and at 179 feet, was considerably larger than the Commerce. Her arrival at Charlottetown seems to have been accorded more coverage than that of the Commerce, perhaps because owner Franklyn Snow provided an excursion to Point Prim for, as the Islander stated, “all the world and his wife” and most of the leading politicians of the colony provided entertainment for the captive audience in the form of speeches praising the enterprise. George Coles noted this was the first attempt at providing regular service since the visits of the Albatross more than twenty years earlier. The addition of the Franconia to the Boston and Colonial fleet meant that Charlottetown would have regular weekly service to Boston with each of the vessels leaving their respective ports every Monday and arriving on Friday.
The provision of regular service was a major advancement for the colony. Previously shippers had to take advantage of what ever opportunity presented itself, often not knowing when a ship would arrive until it appeared in the harbor. This was especially welcome for shippers of perishable goods such as oysters, eggs, meat and produce which could go directly to market in Boston or Halifax. While an alternative route using the ships of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company and several Canadian and American rail lines was available, the cargo would have to be handled several times as it had to be transferred from ship to wagon or rail several times. Another advantage was speed. The steamers could reach their port within four days, including stops at Pictou, Canso, and Halifax. Sailing vessels could take much longer. The direct service also suited passengers who could make the trip for as little as eight dollars – with additional cost for cabins and meals.
The question of the day was whether or not the trade would support the venture. The Islander’s editor noted that “The Americans have been, and are, our best customers” and suggested that by inducing the American fishing fleet, which annually visited Island waters, to harvest the herring and ship their catches on the fast steamers rather than having to return to their ports, could provide additional trade.
An added concern was that the Boston service would have a negative impact on the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company which had just made a major investment in a new vessel, the Princess of Wales. However, at the close of navigation the Islander was able to report that the Boston run had been “well patronized” and that the receipts for the Steam Navigation Company had not fallen off.
That year, navigation closed on December 21st with the Franconia being the last vessel to work its way through the harbour ice to the open channel. She carried some 12,500 bushels of oats, 150 sheep and a quantity of poultry as well as other goods.
The following year the Commerce returned but the Franconia did not. She was replaced on the run by the Greyhound. By 1870 the Franconia had become the property of the Maine Steamship Co. and was used on their Portland to New York route for many years. For the next half-century the Boston Boat was a vital part of the Island’s communication system. During the period many vessels and several companies served on the route and they both responded to, and helped forge, the close linkages between the Island and the Boston States.