Little Engines that Couldn’t: The First Icebreakers on the Strait


Screen Shot 12-04-18 at 06.47 PMThe engravings are dramatic with the little, strangely shaped steamer charging through the ice-pack unimpeded by the floes reaching to the decks.  The reality was much different and reflected the asymmetrical expectations of the promise made when Canada joined Prince Edward Island in 1873. “Continuous steam communication” for Islanders was  a real need but for the Canadians it was treated (at least in the early years) as aspirational rather than actionable.  The story of the first two steamers did not bode well for the Island’s treatment in the confederation deal.

Canada seemed to think that the winter ice was a mere inconvenience and their first attempt to deal with the matter was to contract out the winter service as they had done with the summer steamers. The first ship on the route was the Albert, built in Hopewell, New Brunswick in 1872. The small vessel, only 92 feet long with a beam of 27 feet and tonnage of 194  was powered by an engine from the Burrill Johnson Iron Works in Yarmouth , Nova Scotia. This firm was to supply engines for a number of Maritime-built steamers including others crossing to P.E.I.  The ship may have been a stout little steamer but there is nothing to suggest that she had any specific ice reinforcement or design. The experience of ice vessels was that they had to simply survive the crushing forces. That was the case with Newfoundland sealers and the arctic exploration vessels. They were designed to be frozen in and left the until the ice let them go. Any thought of actually breaking or cutting through the ice was foreign to the design.

Never-the-less in 1873 the Dominion contracted with James King, a Halifax ship-owner to use his vessel, the Albert, to make regular winter crossings after the Steam Navigation ships had been laid up for the winter.  King’s ship was used on summer services in the region including the link to the Magdalen Islands but even there its utility was questionable. One American visitor traveling on the Albert in the summer season to the Magdalen Islands had this to say about the boat:

The Albert proved to be, without exception, the most clumsy and dangerous craft I ever stepped foot on, considering the dangerous nature of the waters she navigates.

In 1876 the experiment with the Albert came to an end as it had failed miserably to deal with the ice of the Strait.  Instead the government purchased a ship that seemingly had been designed for the ice. Quebec builder Edmund W. Sewell had experience with ice having studied the ice on the St. Lawrence since the 1850s. He believed that with the right design for an “ice breaker” steamers would be able to reach Quebec from the Atlantic year-round.

Northern LightHis design had several interesting features – some of which feature in ice-breakers to this day.  Rather than trying to cut through the ice like a knife the Sewell design was designed to crush the ice by riding up on it and smashing it with the weight of the ship and its powerful engines.  The ship was wedge-shaped with a very shallow bow and a deep stern. The latter feature ensured that the propeller was well-below the ice and protected while the bow rode on top of the ice and crushed it as the ship moved forward.  The cross-section of the ship also showed a wedge shape which also contributed to the idea that the ship would ride up on the ice and use its weight to crush the ice.  The design was experimental but the Dominion felt it held the solution and they bought the Northern Light and kept it in operation for a dozen years.  Sewell’s ship had been designed for the St. Lawrence River with a high tidal range and river currents which kept the ice moving and broken. By contrast the ice in Northumberland Strait tended to be in large pans which rafted and created pressure ridges up to 5 metres high as the floes were jammed between the Island and the mainland. There was also an additional problem with the design. As the sole contact with the mainland the Northern Light was expected to carry large amounts and freight and many passengers throughout the winter. Loading freight made the bow of the boat ride much lower in the water and rather than ride up on the ice the ship simply battered it head on. Even when the ship did ride up it would often fail to break the thick ice and the crew had to use screw jacks and ice saws to back it into the water.  The voyage could be long and terrifying. A British naval officer who was trapped in the ice on the Northern Light for almost a month described his experience:

On the 28th a movement of the ice caused the ship to be heavily nipped, the field on one side remaining stationary, while that on the other kept pressing against the side. Remembering that the ice was quite a foot thick and was being forced on the ship by the movement of a field extending as far as the eye could reach, some idea may be formed of the Strain to which the vessel was subjected. The beams kept up a dismal creaking and bent up in some cases a couple of inches, and the ice cracked with frequent loud reports, as, unable to force the ship, it gave to the weight behind it and piled in big blocks alongside. The awful part of this nipping is the feeling of utter helplessness with which you see it. Nothing you can do with any human assistance appears likely to help, and there you stand, watching as calmly as you may the struggle between this natural force and that you have to pit against it; you know either you must give way or the ice must, and you anxiously wonder which it is to be. However, after about an hour of this, the running ceased, the beams gradually resumed their normal positions, and all of us breathed freely once more, thankful to that Providence which had rescued us.

Except in the mildest of winters the Northern Light stayed in port for much of the ice season and was the source of constant complaint from Islanders but it stayed in service until 1888 when the unrepairable ship was replaced by the D.G.S. Stanley.

northern-light-canada-stampThe end of the Northern Light, like that of so many steamships was inglorious.  Last used in the Strait crossing in 1887 she was sold by the Dominion Government in 1890  and seems to have disappeared from the record until  June 1892 when a note appeared in the St. John Telegraph under the title “The Mighty Fallen” informing readers that at one of the city wharves the machinery was being removed from the vessel in preparation to her being turned into a coal barge. A year later the engine-less hulk was burned on the beach at Carleton, across the river from St. John to recover the iron in the hull.


9 thoughts on “Little Engines that Couldn’t: The First Icebreakers on the Strait

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