The steamship service between the mainland and les Iles-de-la-Magdalene was established after confederation. Although the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence lacked the promise of “continuous steam communication” that Prince Edward Island had obtained as a term of Confederation, the interprovincial steamer route received a subsidy from the Dominion government. The Magdalen Islands were a part of the Province of Quebec but the nearest mainland port was Pictou and since the route ran right past Souris, the P.E.I. town was a regular port of call. The steamers provided access for goods and passengers and several Souris businesses, especially merchants Matthew and MacLean, did a good business with the Islands.
Beginning in 1874 a series of shipping companies and vessels, some more efficient than others, received the contract. The one on the run for the longest period was the S.S. Lovat.
In 1921 a company called the Magdalen Transports Limited won the tendered contract. One of the owners of the enterprise was William Fraser of Pictou and in 1923 he incorporated a new company, the Lovat Steamship Company Limited which took over the responsibilities for the service. Fraser had a steamer, the Lovat, built especially for the Magdalen run. The new ship was launched in April 1924 and arrived in Halifax in July. She had been built on the Clyde by Bow, McLachlan & Co. at their Paisley Yard. She was 175 feet long by 29 feet wide, drew 19.7 feet and was 441 register tons. Her coal-fired, three-cylinder engine generated 141 horsepower and drove a single screw propeller.
Her initial schedule provided for twice-weekly round trips between Pictou and the Magdalen Islands, calling at Souris each way and a weekly trip between Pictou and Charlottetown as well. The schedule was linked to rail service with the ship departing Pictou after the arrival of the evening train, reaching Souris in time to meet the Eastern Train from Charlottetown, and arriving at Grindstone at an early morning hour. She called at the ports at Amherst, Grindstone and Entry Islands although with the passage of time improvements in communication within the Island group meant fewer stops. Over her tenure on the run she also put into Halifax and Cape Breton ports.
After a series of barely satisfactory (and often unsatisfactory) vessels the Lovat received excellent reviews and was popular with her passengers. The ship had a large cargo capacity and was capable of carrying up to five automobiles as deck cargo. The Charlottetown Guardian hailed the ship as “one of the finest” to ever run on the service:
A personal inspection of the vessel can alone do justice to her beautiful interior and luxurious appointments, which class the Lovat as a passenger boat of the most comfortable type. A commodious salon off the main deck has immediately below it has the large and roomy first class dining saloon, beautifully finished in mahogany and oak. Corridors lead to fifteen first class staterooms which have accommodation for forty passengers. Further forward are the second class cabins with accommodation for fifty-five passengers, and the second class dining saloon.
The name Lovat came from the Chieftain name of the Fraser clan and the ship carried a large scotch thistle on her funnel as an identifier and first class cabins were decorated with Scottish pictures.
In 1945 the Lovat Steam Ship Company was acquired by the Magdalen Islands Transportation Company, a subsidiary of the Clarke Steamship Company and her registry port was changed to Montreal. The ship was sold for $150,000 to the new company and the vessel’s name was changed to S.S. Magdalen. As a Clarke steamship the livery of the vessel was changed. The thistle symbol was removed and the funnel was repainted as a black funnel with four white bands. Owing to changing transportation patterns for shippers and an increase in air travel for passengers the route was changed to include Charlottetown rather than Souris. The ship operated under the Clarke banner until its last voyage to Pictou in December of 1960. She was broken up in Sydney Nova Scotia and she was replaced by Clarke’s diesel-powered S.S. North Gaspe. The Lovat/Magdalen, which had been in service for thirty-six years, was the last coal-fired steamship to operate in the region. The subsidized steamer service was later replaced with a passenger and vehicle ferry between Souris and Grindstone.
More about the Magdalen Island steamers can be found in Byron Clark’s excellent volume The Pictou-Magdalen Islands Run 1874-1960, The Days of the Coal-Burners, published by the author 2018. Information about Clarke Steamships services to both the Magdalen Islands and Prince Edward Island can be found in Kevin Griffin’s history of the company found here.