“One of the Finest Harbours in the World” – Charlottetown in 1860

 

Detail of 1845 Chart of Charlottetown Harbour showing navigation features noted in Sailing Directions.

In  conjunction with charts, Sailing Directions were one of the most important aids to navigation in the 19th century and they continue to be useful to sailors. The Sailing Directions or “Pilots”  provided instructions as to the best ways to approach a harbour and warned of dangers that might be encountered. The earliest Directions for Prince Edward Island date from about 1810 but were much improved following the hydrographic surveys of Admiral Henry Bayfield. He was the author of the authoritative guide which was published in many editions and still is the basis of the guides used today.  The following excerpt is from the 4th edition Bayfield’s St. Lawrence Pilot, Comprising Sailing Directions for the Gulf and River, published for the Admiralty in 1860. [a fathom is 6 feet and a cable is 1/10 of a nautical mile or 608 feet]

Charlottetown Harbour is 4 ½  cables wide at entrance between the cliffs of Blockhouse and Sea Trout points; but shallow water, extending from both shores, reduces the navigable width of the Channel, reckoning from the depth of 3 fathoms, to about  2 ¼ cables; and as the shoals are very steep, it would require to be well buoyed before a ship of large draught could beat in or out with safety. Cliffs of red sandstone 10 to 30 feet high, form the shores on either side, the land rising gradually from them in undulations, and being partly cultivated and partly wooded. An old blockhouse and signal post stand on Blockhouse point, the west point of entrance. The next point of cliff on the west side of entrance is Alchorn point, and at the distance of half a mile from the blockhouse are the remains of Amherst fort, on the hill, 93 feet above high water. On the same side, north of Alchorn point, is Warren cove, and lastly, Canseau point, with its white beacon, 1 ¼ miles from the blockhouse. Canseau shoal extends off Canseau point to the distance of 3 ½ cables, and will be cleared by keeping the blockhouse just open, clear of Alchorn point; observing that the extremes of the cliff of Blockhouse and Alchorn points in one, lead over the point of the shoal in 16 feet at low water.

On the opposite or eastern side of the entrance, and less than a mile within Sea Trout point, is Battery point, with its shoal; the latter running out 2 cables, and having on its extreme point a buoy moored in 3 fathoms at low water. Outside that depth, on either side, the water deepens abruptly, and there are 13 fathoms in the middle of the channel. The red beacon and Scotch church tower at Charlottetown, clear the shoal off Battery point in 10 fathoms, and at the distance of 120 yards.  Within the harbour, in addition to the flats of mud and weeds extending off shore, there is the Middle Ground, with 17 least water, and for the situation of which the seaman is referred to the plan of the harbour; it may be well, however, to notice that the white beacon on Canseau point and McKinnon’s log house in line, lead through midway between it, and the flat of the southern shore.

Immediately within Canseau and Battery points which are the inner points of entrance, the channel expands into one of the finest harbours in the world, having depth and space sufficient for any number and description of vessels. In sailing in, York river will be seen running in to the northward; the Hillsborough river stretching away to the E.N.E. far as the eye can reach; and Elliot river running in to the westward. The confluence of the streams of these three rivers, between Canseau shoal and the mouth of York river, form the Three Tides, where there is excellent anchorage, used occasionally by laden vessels preparing for sea, the usual anchorage being off the wharves of the town, where the channel is 2 ¾  cables wide, and carries nearly 10 fathoms water.. Of the three rivers which unite in the harbour, the Hillsborough is the largest, being navigable for vessels of the largest draught to the distance of 7 or 8 miles, and for small vessels 14 miles above, where there is a bridge 2 miles from the head of the river. There is portage of less than a mile across, from the Hillsborough near its head to Savage harbour on the north coast of the island. York river, the smallest of the three, is crossed by Poplar island bridge, 2 ¾  miles from its mouth. Elliot river may be ascended 4 or 5 miles by large vessels, and 9 or 10 by small craft and boats. The shores of all three rivers are settled, and the country generally fertile.

Charlottetown, which is now a city, is advantageously situated on the northern bank of the Hillsborough river, a short distance within its entrance, and at the point where the deep water approaches nearest to the shore; its wharves, however, still requiring to be 240 yards long to reach the edge of the channel. The city is extremely well laid out, with spacious squares and wide streets at right angles; but these are as yet thinly occupied by houses of the rapidly increasing population. The new Provincial building, occupying the centre of the principal square is the only stone erection in the place. The houses, with the exception of 9 or 10 which are of brick, are all of wood; and so also are the churches and the chapels. The Scotch church, with its square white tower, will easily be distinguished, being the most to the westward, and appearing with the red beacon (used with it as a leading mark, and standing close to the on the left side of the city. Still farther to the left will be seen the Government house, by itself, and distinguished by its colonnade.

No part of the city exceeds in elevation 50 feet above the sea at high water but the land rises gradually behind it to the height of 150 feet at the distance of 1 ½ miles, and is well cultivated, whilst yet sufficient wood has been preserved to give to the country an agreeable and park-like appearance.

The site of Charlottetown, as the capital of the island, and the seat of the provincial government and legislature, appears to have been extremely well chosen, whether in regard to its almost central position, its extensive inland communication by means of the rivers which unite their streams before it; or the superiority of its harbour, which possesses, moreover, the important advantage of having the greatest rise of tide in the Gulf anywhere below Cape Chatte, with the exception of Campbelltown in the Restigouche, which is inaccessible to vessels of large draught. All kinds of supplies may be obtained at Charlottetown, but water only from wells with pumps, which are numerous in the town. In the year 1856, 619 vessels (35,931 tons burthen) entered inwards, and 603 vessels (42,365 tons) cleared outwards; in the same year the total value of imports amounted to 182,499l., and of exports to 54,090l. In 1858 the population was about 8,000.

Although primarily for navigation purposes, the Sailing Directions also could contain useful information about changing shore facilities and landmarks. The 1891 American edition of the Sailing Directions contained the following information about Charlottetown:

The Provincial building occupies the center of the public square, and is flanked on either side by the law courts and post-office, both substantial brick structures. The market house, a large wooden building, with a belfry at the west end containing the fire alarm, is situated west of the post-office, while St. Paul’s Church, a wooden building with a spire, occupies the east end of the square. The new Presbyterian Church, a handsome stone building, is situated at the NW. end of the town, and a convent, built of brick with a small belfry at the top, is conspicuous from the harbor. The Roman Catholic Cathedral, a wooden building with a large gilt cross at the top of the spire, and Bishop’s palace, of stone, near it, also show prominently. The lunatic asylum, a fine building of stone with a high tower, stands just north of Falcon Point. The railway station is at the east end of the town, and may be known by the wharf in connection with it, on which stand large chocolate-colored warehouses. St. Dunstan College, a Roman Catholic seminary, built of brick, stands on a hill 150 feet high, 11/2 miles to the northward of the town. The telegraph station is situated in Queen street, which runs northward from Queens Wharf, and is in connection with the Anglo-American Telegraph Company.

Sailing Directions continue to be published to this day and are a part of the suite of navigation tools available to sailors.

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7 thoughts on ““One of the Finest Harbours in the World” – Charlottetown in 1860

  1. CLIVE CUMORE

    Just a great story of sailing in and out of Charlottetown in the 1850s. Population 8000.

    Reply
  2. Vic Douse

    Excellent as all for your posts are I have been looking for wording for a project for years, perhaps you can help. I am try to say "We sailed into Charlottetown Harbour  Through / into / by Blockhouse???" The quote from bellow would work "between the cliffs of Blockhouse and Sea Trout points" As I do not sail, I was wonder what people say colloquially. Thank you for your time and consideration. Vic Douse 

    Reply
  3. Norah Henry

    Thanks Harry for a great history lesson of our charming city. Keep them coming please.Norah

    Reply
  4. Percy Simmonds

    You may find this interesting…Bayfield and Victoria inset

    *Beinn Mara Boats* 272 Keppoch Rd Stratford, PE C1B 2J6 Contact 902 394 5551

    Reply

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