There are few accounts of winter travel to Prince Edward Island but for those that were published a consistent theme is the iceboat crossing to or from the province. Seldom routine and often dangerous, the crossing was not for the faint of heart. Lives and limbs had been lost when weather, tides and waves conspired to force crews and passengers to spend the night on the Strait with only the slight protection of an upturned iceboat.(1)
The following account dates from April 1876 and is part of a letter published in the Democratic Advocate in Westminster Maryland by an unidentified correspondent who had spent much of the winter on the Island, apparently as an agent for the Taylor Manufacturing Company which was based in Westminster. The company built portable steam engines for use with sawmilling and working operations running circular saws, planers and band saws. He reported that 15 of the engines had been put in operation over the winter and that they were having a beneficial impact on the construction costs for shipyards, The account includes a testimonial from shipbuilder James Yeo.
In 1876 communication for the mails and passengers was supposed to have been provided by a contracted steamer, the SS Albert. The Albert, however was not up to the task and so the iceboat service, which had existed since at least the 1830s was the fallback.
On March 2d, we started to cross the Northumberland Strait, which from Cape Travers on the Island to Cape Tormentine on the New Brunswick coast is 9 miles across. These straits are filled at all times from December to March with floating fields of ice, in many instances, acres in size. Waited till Sunday, (which by the way they call fine day to cross) and started. The crossing is made in a common boat, some 15 feet long, made as light as possible, with runners on bottom, so as to haul it on the ice. Each boat has its captain, and 3 men, with places for passengers; each man is harnessed to the boat by means of a strap over the shoulders and breast so in case the ice is bad he can only go through the length of strap; it does not save from a complete wetting, but saves from drowning. This Sunday was not, unfortunately not one of the good days. We left board ice, that is, ice that always stays on each shore, at 9 0’clock in the morning, two boats and 20 passengers, and found no ice bergs but thin ice, which in salt water means very unreliable stuff. Now passengers are taken across at $2.50 a piece, from $5 to $20 for baggage if in much bulk, and they are required to pull, haul and shove the boat along, to work same as boatmen; while if detained a week waiting as your correspondent was, it means from $20 to $30, besides hard work to get over. The first man that took a bath a got the laugh, but before noon the laugh was general, as there were but few who had not had the pleasure of taking a wistful look, with chin just over the gunwale of the boat. At 2 p. m. we were scarcely 4 miles from shore, the wind was starting up, our captains consulted, and decided to turn the boats back for the same shore. We started with the pleasent [sic] news that it looked very bad, and unless we worked very hard we must stay out that night. It had the desired affect. Such shoving and hauling with boat hooks I never wish to participate in again. At 6.30 we struck board ice, completely exhausted, with the whole thing to be done over again. Tuesday we took another prospecting tour on the gulf; out four hours and gave up. Wednesday we started again, came over in fine shape, much open water and struck large bergs of ice with pinnacles higher than church steeples, then flat fields of ice, then lanes of water. The day was cold but no one wore coats or vests, they all had business that kept them warm without extra clothing, and all were very happy to be once more on the main land. Forty miles staging brought us to the Intercolonial Railroad where we took cars, which carried us to a land where travel not so difficult in winter. About May 10th ice will disappear, and steamers and the ships and vessels will begin to trade with Island.
Even after improved winter steamers were introduced they too, proved unable to cope with the ice of Northumberland Strait. Up until about 1920 the winter steamers carried iceboats so that passengers could be transported to land if the boat became stuck in the ice floes. It was not until the arrival of the SS Prince Edward Island in 1915 that the service became dependable and the iceboats finally stopped running after the completion of port facilities at Port Borden and Cape Tormentine.
(1) An earlier and more detailed account of the crossing can be found in B.W.A. Sleigh’s Pine Forests and Hacmatack Clearings . The section dealing with the “The Icy Passage” can be found in The Island Magazine #1, Fall-Winter 1976 p.23-29.