On 11 June 1911 Charlottetown welcomed a type of vessel that had never visited the port before. In the years before the Great War the city was certainly familiar with the periodic visits from vessels of the leading naval powers. Ships from France, Germany and the United Kingdom had all been in the harbour but the 1911 visit was different.
It was the first visit to Charlottetown of a ship from Canada’s Naval Service. The force had been created only one year earlier and was not to become the Royal Canadian Navy until it received Royal sanction in August 1911. The decision to create a separate navy rather than simply contributing to the cost of the Royal Navy was a controversial one and was one of the many small steps to establishing Canadian sovereignty. The Navy League of Canada had been much involved in the discussions leading to the decision of SIr Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government to introduce the Naval Service Bill in the Canadian Parliament.
The infant navy was hardly distinguishable from the Royal Navy most of its officers and men had seen British naval experience and the ranks, uniforms and traditions were those of the Senior Service. Even the vessels were British.
The first two ships were cast-offs from the Royal Navy which was constantly building larger, more powerful and faster ships as it was in an arms race with Germany. H.M.S Rainbow and H.M.S. Niobe became H.M.C.S. Rainbow and H.M.C.S. Niobe. The Rainbow was destined for the West Coast while the Niobe came to Halifax as the first ship in Canada’s Atlantic Navy.
The Niobe had been built by Vickers in England in 1897 and commissioned a year later as one of a number of Diadem class of protected cruisers. The 11,000 ton warship was over 460 feet long and 69 feet wide. With a four-cylinder triple-expansion engine she could generate over 16,000 horsepower Her top speed when launched was 20 knots. The vessel mounted a total of sixteen 6-inch guns, four on the upper decks and six on each side of the ship. She carried a crew of 760 men. The Niobe saw service in the Boer War as an escort vessel and was refitted in 1908. The Canadian government had requested destroyers with which to start their navy but the cruiser was what was available at the time.
On her Sunday arrival in Charlottetown which followed a visit to Quebec the Niobe anchored off Rocky Point, offering, as the Guardian stated “a good but distant view” of the “trim dog of war”. Unlike other naval visits this was very much a working voyage. She was not initially open to visitors and the usual ceremonial aspects of her time in Charlottetown were postponed. Early on Monday morning the men of the Niobe began the dirty work of transferring and trimming 1,000 tons of coal from the collier S.S. Morien to the cruiser. Buntain, Bell & Co. of Charlottetown had won the contract for supplying the ship with coal. Following a day of washing up the Niobe left Charlottetown for a planned two or three days of gun practise in Northumberland Strait and in the Gulf. The ship returned to Charlottetown late on Friday and anchored off the Marine Wharf. Saturday afternoon saw a close competition at the rifle range between the visitors and a Charlottetown team won by the sailors. Visitors to the ship were received on Sunday and she sailed for gun practise again on Monday, Returning to Charlottetown later in the week she finally left Island waters after spending another weekend in the harbour. It was her first and only call at Charlottetown.
Niobe’s later experiences in Canadian waters were not happy ones. At the end of July 1911 she ran up on a reef near Cape Sable Nova Scotia and was very nearly lost. She spent the next six months in dry-dock in Halifax and was then laid up, effectively rotting at her berth when her crew were transferred to the Rainbow in the Pacific naval base at Esquimalt in 1913. On the outbreak of war in 1914 she was ordered back into service. After being engaged in escort voyages she returned to Halifax where she was found to be in serious disrepair. She was paid off in September 1915 and never put to sea again, becoming a stationary depot ship. She was damaged in the Halifax explosion. In 1920 the Niobe was sold for scrap and was dismantled in Philadelphia two years later.
This was not the last time that the Canadian navy consisted of only two ships. For a later chapter of the story click here.