Historians sometimes bemoan the apparent inability of P.E. Islanders to move from the success of Island wooden shipbuilding and trade to the new realities of steamships and iron. The failure of the Island’s Ocean Steamship Company in the 1880s is seen as the end of the province’s efforts to keep pace with changing technology. This analysis ignores the relatively successful attempts over an eighty-year period by the owners of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company (and its successor, the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company) to have Island control of intercolonial and interprovincial shipping.
It also ignores another initiative which saw success at the turn of the 19th century, an initiative which did not originate in the capital, Charlottetown, but from the eastern part of the province. The Three Rivers Steamship Company was incorporated by provincial statute in 1892 and successfully operated for a quarter of a century. Capitalized at only $20,000 several of the major owners and officer of the company had close ties to Kings county. Alexander Martin was a merchant in Valleyfield, Donald A. MacKinnon was a Georgetown lawyer later to serve as an MLA and MP and eventually becoming Lieutenant Governor, George Whiteman was a Montague merchant and shipper, G.A. Thompson a later president of the company, was a merchant with the firm of Poole and Thompson of Montague.
By mid-May of 1892 the Three Rivers Steamship Company was in operation. The steamer Electra, built in 1887 near Yarmouth, had been launched as a fish tug but was refitted a year later for passengers and freight and operated on the Nova Scotia coastal service before being purchased by the P.E.I. company for $7,500. She was small by steamer standards – 86 feet long by 17 feet wide and displacing only 111 gross tons. Her engine generated only about 25 horsepower. The steamer was a regular visitor to ports in south-eastern P.E.I. such as Montague, Georgetown and Murray Harbour linking them with Charlottetown and Pictou. Service to some ports such as Murray Harbour South and Annandale depended on the tide as the wharves were not accessible at low water.
Prior to the completion of the Hillsborough Bridge and the Murray Harbour Branch line in 1905 southern Kings county had no railway connections to the rest of the province and the branch line to Montague was not completed until 1906. Local schooner and steamer service continued in these areas long after the rest of the province and the locally based Three Rivers Steamship Company met a need for the area.
The company invested in new boilers for the ship early in 1900 but that fall experienced a close call in which the ship was nearly lost. In mid-October the Electra was returning to Georgetown from a trip to Pictou when she was caught in a major storm which caused damage all across King’s county. The ship took on so much water that the fires in her boilers were extinguished. Under her experienced captain the crew were able to rig canvas and the Electra made it into the port of Georgetown under sail. However before the end of the decade the amount of trade dictated that a newer and larger ship was required. The completion of the branch rail lines was providing a competitor for freight haulage but was also bringing new cargos and passengers to the Kings County ports. After being replaced the Electra was sold to Captain William A. Beattie of Pictou and continued to visit P.E.I. Posts. She was wrecked at Margaree Harbour Cape Breton in 1911.
In April of 1907 a new steamer was launched from the McGill Shipyard at Shelburne Nova Scotia for the New Burrell Johnson Iron Company of Yarmouth who were to install her machinery before turning her over to the Three Rivers Steamship Company. The Yarmouth company was also responsible for a several other vessels with P.E.I. connections including the tug William Aitken and the steamers Harland and Magdalen. The new wooden ship was christened the Enterprise. At 120 feet she was half again as long as the Electra with a beam of 25 feet and displaced 211 tons, almost twice that of the older ship. Her engines produced 42 horsepower and carried her at 12 knots.
On 1 July 1907 she began her service and one of her first trips was a one-day round trip excursion from Montague to Pictou calling at Lower Montague, Georgetown and Beach Point. As with other steamers and ferries of the period these excursions continued to be a regular feature and added to the popularity of the vessel. More important to her success however was the annual $6,000 Dominion subsidy owing to the interprovincial service she provided. Beginning in 1907 her route consisted of two round trips each week from Montague to Pictou calling at Georgetown and Murray Harbour and one round trip beginning at Montague calling at Georgetown, Souris, Port Hood, Port Hawkesbury and Port Mulgrave.
In 1908, her first full year of operation she made 98 round trips and carried over 1300 passengers and almost 3,400 tons of freight including 137 livestock. The return trip from the Montague to Pictou was $2.50 and the Cape Breton ports were a dollar more. In the years before the beginning of the Great War numbers for both passengers and freight increased. The Cape Breton stops were dropped before 1912 and in that year the ports served were Montague, Lower Montague, Georgetown, Beach Point, Pictou, Murray Harbour North, Murray Harbour South, and Charlottetown. Cardigan and Newport were added by 1914. While some of these ports saw almost daily service, others such as Cardigan and Charlottetown were visited only once per week.
In April of 1916 the Guardian reported that Three Rivers Steamship’s G.A. Thompson was travelling to Quebec and Halifax to try to find a replacement for the Enterprise which had been sold to parties in Newfoundland. Although the sale did not go through, at a meeting of the Charlottetown Board of Trade at the same time it was noted that the vessel was unlikely to be replaced. Thompson was obviously unsuccessful or abandoned the search for a new vessel as in 1917 the company once again had the Government of Canada contract and $6,000 subsidy. The ship made 84 round trips carrying 1500 passengers and almost 6,000 tons of freight. The subsidized service was at an end that year as in 1918 the subsidy was eliminated, probably reflecting that fact that the S.S. Prince Edward Island was now providing service across the strait. The Three Rivers Steamship Company appears to have been wound up and the Enterprise sold.
That however, was not the last that the Enterprise was seen in Prince Edward Island waters. In 1918 she appears to have been owned by the Western Steamship Company of Nova Scotia and was leased to J.A. Farquhar & Co. who had secured the contract for the service between Pictou and the Magdalen Islands, stopping at Souris. She was not a popular vessel on that run as it was believed that the ship would not be able to cope with the conditions in the Gulf and she was replaced the following year.
The Enterprise operated elsewhere in the Atlantic region for a number of years but in 1933 she was the property of W.N. MacDonald of Sydney and he developed a weekly service which saw the Enterprise sailing from Georgetown to Port Hawkesbury, Mulgrave, Isle Madame, Bras d’Or Lake Ports and Sydney. Promising the cheapest and fastest freight and passenger service between Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton the ship offered “the most delightful sail on the Atlantic Seaboard ” through the St. Peter’s Canal and lakes to Sydney. The round trip fare was $18.00 including stateroom and meals. The regular service was advertised again in 1934 but it is not clear if it continued after that. The ship was destroyed by fire in Cape Breton in 1936.
While trade between the Island and Cape Breton continued for many years there seem to have been no further attempts at a scheduled service. It continues to be a dream that occasionally recurs in the form of a proposal for a ferry between the two provinces. MacDonald had a continuing interest in Prince Edward Island shipping and was one of the principals connected with the creation of Northumberland ferries in 1939.