One of Prince Edward Island’s myths is that with the decline of wooden shipbuilding in the 1860s the province suddenly became a mercantile backwater. There were small schooners servicing smaller ports, especially where rails did not run, well into the mid-20th century but with few exceptions such as the Ocean Steamships S.S. Prince Edward and the Steam Navigation Company’s S.S. Summerside, Islanders failed to embrace the change from wood and wind to iron, steel and steam.
Like most generalizations this has a good deal of truth in it. However, there were exceptions and the experience of the S.S. William is an example of Islanders bucking the trend. The steamer William, unlike local coastal boats like the Harland, City of London, and Electra was not a regular visitor to outports and did not possess a faithful following of farmers and excursionists. She was part of a larger fleet of tramp steamers which went where there were cargos and carried anything that would pay the bills. For some she was simply a tired old steamer but for others she was as essential as rail cars and tractor trailers are today, carrying cargos of produce and cattle away from the Island and bringing back the coal and general goods that the Island needed.
The William was a small ship as steamers go, just 120 feet long and 20 wide and registered at 210 tons. And she was well used before she came to the Island. Built on the Tyne in 1876 she was a coal carrier sailing out of Bristol. After a dozen years in the British Isles she was “sold foreign” and came to Prince Edward Island. Her new owners were Donald Farquharson a Charlottetown merchant and MLA (and later premier) and Captain Ronald McMillan who had a coal yard on the Charlottetown waterfront as well as West River connections.
She reached the Island in May 1888 and was immediately put into service. Unlike the arrival of new passenger steamers the new vessel in the harbour attracted little notice as she began an irregular service. In 1888 she visited Boston carrying potatoes, Cow Bay (now Port Merion) Cape Breton picking up coal for the Island, Pictou, Mulgrave and other small ports including Pownal. She solicited freight shipments to Boston or Montreal or cattle bound for St. John’s Newfoundland. Coming to the Island she usually had general goods or coal. 1889 trips included a delivery of 60 head of cattle from Stanley Bridge to St. Pierre and Newfoundland, shipments of coal from Sydney to Stanley Bridge, potatoes and produce to Boston and New York, and at least one trip to Montreal with general cargo.
Without surviving records it is difficult to know if the venture was profitable. Clearly one of the partners in the business had concerns. In May 1890 evidence was heard in Chancery Court where Donald Farquharson brought an action against Capt. Ronald McMillan, the managing partner, claiming that the steamer had not been managed in a careful and prudent manner and asking that the court appoint a new manager and have the accounts reviewed and disallow expenses. The court however found that there had been no mis-management. The action obviously suggested the lack of a harmonious partnership. The year had not been kind to the William as she required a new boiler and only weeks later she struck hard on Tormentine Reef on a voyage with coal from Sydney to Miramichi and had to be beached to prevent her from sinking. That may have ended her work for the season as she was hauled up on the hard in Charlottetown for extensive repairs including replacement of several broken hull plates and re-riveting of the ship from stem to stern, a job which kept eleven men employed for the whole winter. These were serious financial issues and led late in the year to an Admiralty Court action by the crew for unpaid wages. This resulted to a seizure and sale of the vessel. By early December ownership was in the hands of Captain Ronald McMillan and his brother Hugh from New Haven.
Re-launched in April of 1891 she returned to itinerant voyages to and from the Island with potatoes, produce coal and what ever other cargo she could secure. In June she carried 7,300 cases of lobster to New York, the largest shipment ever made by a single shipper. The end of that year was also the end of the McMillan Brothers William. The William was lost on the rocky shores of St. Pierre on 28 December and one unfortunate seaman lost his life. Seven others were saved by St. Pierre fishermen who were later rewarded for their actions by the Government of Canada – $3.00 each for 15 fishermen.
The experience with the William did not necessarily serve as a cautionary tale. The steamer was not Farquharson’s only shipping venture. In 1889 he had purchased a Clyde-built vessel, the 150 foot iron screw steamer Coila and it seems to have operated in competition with McMillan through 1891. The Coila was lost off Cuba in 1896. After that there seems to have been little appetite on the Island for coastal vessel operations. Tramp steamers would come and go from Charlottetown harbour for decades to come but they would be owned and registered elsewhere.