A winter crossing on the Stanley – 1890

Canadian Government Steamer “Stanley”. Warwick Bros & Rutter postcard #1694.

Following the unsatisfactory performance over a dozen years of the Dominion’s first ice breaker the Northern Light, the arrival of the C.G.S. Stanley promised relief and a serious attempt to address the goal of “continuous steam communication” across Northumberland Strait. The arrival of the new vessel in time for the 1888-1889 winter was accompanied by lighter than usual ice conditions. The Stanley made almost four times the number of trips that the Northern Light had been able to provide the previous year. Passages were relatively smooth the following winter as well and it looked as if the much-dreaded trip to the mainland on the winter steamer or the even more uncomfortable alternative of the ice boats at the Capes was a thing of the past.

CGS Stanley steaming through heavy ice. Note the iceboat hanging from the davits.

It is in this context that the following account of an early winter trip from Charlottetown to Quebec in 1890 is set. Although the journey involved four different rail lines with changes at Georgetown, Pictou, Stellarton, Truro and Levis as well as the steamer passage, it seemed as if this was simply a matter of routine, marred only by the usual irritations suffered by the usual passengers.  The account of the December trip was published in the Montreal Gazette for December 13 1890 over the name “Lorainne”. Only the section dealing with the trip from Charlottetown to Pictou is reprinted here. This trip without incident, taken so early in the season, was followed by a winter of exceptionally severe conditions and it was soon clear that the Island transportation problems had not been solved. That however, was in the un-knowable future for our contented traveller.

It was about 10 0’clock on a bitter night when the hotel sleigh drove round to the door, and we took our seat by the side of a timid lady, who seemed nervous about everything, and about her trunks in particular. Our drive to the railway station occupied not more than three minutes, and there was the mail express, steaming and snorting, all impatient to be off to Georgetown, the winter port of the province. Late and cold as it was the station was full of people. A rosy-cheeked Irish girl was going off to Boston and her “sisters and cousins and aunts” were grouped round the carriage giving her a hearty send-off. The other passengers were a couple of clergymen, the aforesaid timid lady, and a pretty Pictou girl attended by several gentlemen friends. Arrived at Georgetown it was, for all of us except the timid lady, but the work of a moment to get ourselves and our baggage on board of the Stanley. She, after the manner of her kind, had lost her trunk or misplaced it which gave her the same sorrow and trouble. From the bad air of the train and the bleak air of the wharf, to the clean, cosy Stanley, what change! After a few words with the agreeable and obliging purser, Mr. Dominick Ryan, so well-known to the travelling public of the summer season by reason of his long tenure of office on the steamer St. Lawrence, we were shown to our cabin by another old friend of the route.— the steward – named Smith. Smith is a good Catholic, and many a time has come to the rescue of some one of his coreligionists who on a Wednesday in advent would wistfully consign himself to a dinner of herbs, having per force of conscience been obliged to decline the “stalled ox,” when suddenly a plate of boiled herring would be popped down before him with a whisper of “waiter’s dinner, sir.” A well-known Catholic priest told me having been travelling for some time, he had lost count of the days of the week, and at breakfast on the St. Lawrence, was plunging his knife into succulent steak, when presto! lo!  the plate was whisked away replaced by one of codfish, with a whisper of “Friday,” Sir.

The cabin which was allotted to us on the Stanley was not only cosy, but beautiful in all its appointments. Rich carpet and curtains, a luxurious sofa, two berths, furnished with spring mattresses, eider down spreads, a cabinet de toilette, chairs, foot stools, curtains, in fact every possible luxury. In this charming boudoir, we were supplied with hot lemonade for supper and soon slept most comfortably.

Next morning early, we were awakened by a grating sound against the outer wall of our apartment, and dressing quickly, went on deck to see the Stanley cutting through the ice. Fields of ice over six inches thick lay all around us, but the iron vessel with her powerful machinery cut through it as if it were wax. The air was keen and cold, so that like Sir Joseph Porter, we were glad to go below, where breakfast awaited us. A good breakfast too, beefsteak, sausages, Irish stew, in the consumption of which we were aided by the parsons above mentioned. Nearing Pictou the view on deck was fine. The ice which was at least ten inches thick was bushed and teams with their bells jingling were being driven merrily along. The drivees thereof were far from being such picturesque figures as their brethren, the habitants of Quebec. The farmer “down below” has no distinctive appearance. His coats follow the fashion when new and when old are patched with something more modern. His cap has a square crown, and ears which turn down and tie under his chin. His boots are of a heterogeneous class. He knows not of toque or sash or bottes sauvages. He knows naught, moreover of the time honored carriole. His sleigh is a farm sled with posts stuck in and boards built round if needed. For the rest, his tobacco has pretty much the same flavor as that of the habitant. Fortunately no whiff of that pungent weed reached us from the sleighs that glided along between the rows of spruce trees, parallel to our course. Between us and the sleighs were boys skating – some indeed, so close as to be within hail of the steamer. Steadily we cleft our way amid a shower of feathery snow flakes that betokened the breaking of the “cold snap.” Through piled ice, through flat ice, ice stationary and ice floating, the Stanley moved with equal placidity making Pictou wharf before noon.

 

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