A Puzzle at the foot of Queen Street

Some parts of Charlottetown are blessed with an abundance of historical images. The streets surrounding Queen’s Square are the subject of a large number of drawings, photographs and postcards, many from the viewpoint provided by the public buildings on the square. Other sections of the city are less well provided for. This is particularly true for the waterfront with no public buildings and the unsightly confusion of warehouses, workshops wharves and shops.

A drawing by Charlottetown artist Robert Harris is therefore a welcome addition to the iconography of the waterfront. Harris is best know as a portrait painter but the collection at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery also contains scores, if not hundreds, of small oils and landscape sketches. One of these (probably dating from the 1870s) shows the east side of the foot of Queen Street where it meets the waters of the harbour.

Queen St. Charlottetown by Robert Harris. Collection of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery

At first glance this seems obviously to be the block between King Street and Water with the large brick building at the corner and two similar buildings between it and the building on the corner of King Street.  A wharf (Bourke’s Wharf in the 1860 and later Peake’s Wharf No.2) can be seen south on the buildings and a slip with open access to the harbour where the street met the water.  A stroll down Queen would seem to confirm this.

Postcard view of Charlottetown waterfront ca. 1960 (detail)

The area in the sketch seems to look much as it did sixty years ago as can be seen in the detail from a postcard in the early 1960s with the familiar buildings in place. The exception is the southern mansard roofed building which was the site of Percy Vail’s Oyster Shop, a well known eatery. That building was destroyed by fire in 1976 and the gap remains unfilled except by an unattractive parking lot.

Closer examination of the Harris sketch however, raises a number of questions.  The drawing shows the  water lapping very close to the southern-most building. In fact there appear to be no room for Water Street at all. The buildings, with the exception of the three story block seem to be set well back from the street line which is not how the block looks now.

The most detailed and, for some purposes, useful  views of the area are not from photos or drawings but from plans of the city which show, in great detail, the buildings lining the streets. There are a number of these which show the lower Queen Street area.

Plan of City of Charlottetown 1863 (detail). Lake Map

One of the earliest of these is an inset in the 1863 topographical map of Prince Edward Island by D.J. Lake. Commonly referred to as the “Lake Map.”  This is a fine resource but need to be used with caution.  Firstly it gives only the footprints of the buildings with no indication of their height and secondly the cartographer seems more concerned with the neatness of the layout than with accurate depiction of the realities on the ground. For example he shows the wharves as exactly at right angles from the street grid when in reality things were a little more messy. Rather than being located right in the middle of Queen Street the Queen’s Wharf lay on the west side of the street allowance and was at a slight angle to the street.

The next image comes from the 1878 bird’s eye view of Charlottetown. This view is, unfortunately from the south west and does not show the street from the same perspective as the Harris drawing.  While seeming to be somewhat primitive close examination of the view and comparison with photographs shows that the drawing is remarkably accurate. Rooflines, window placement and out-buildings are all precise.

Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878 (detail)

This view, some 15 years later than the Lake map, shows both the King-Water block and also the block below Water Street.  It is clear from this that the water’s edge at the foot of Queen is a full block south of Water street and that another street called Peake Street (later Lower Water Street), now long gone, intersected with Queen north of the wharf. Below this there is a collection of smaller warehouses and workshops including a three-story structure on the wharf.  The accuracy of the bird’s eye view is confirmed to some extent by the plan in the 1880 Meacham’s Atlas.

Plan of Charlottetown 1880 (detail) Meacham’s Atlas.

The Atlas plan again shows the distance between Water Street and the water which is at odds with the Harris sketch if it is of the King-Water block. However none of these resources aligns completely with the view on the sketch. Since we do not have a date for the sketch it is difficult to compare the views with precision. Further we may have to allow for artistic license which could allowed Harris to manipulate the scene for visual effect.

If the sketch dates from 1863 or before then the block in the Harris sketch cannot be between King and Water as there were gaps between houses and an empty lot.  By 1878 this had been filled in and the block has largely taken the appearance in still holds.

However, the 1878 and 1880 views hold the key as does closer examination of the sketch itself. At the extreme left of the sketch a rough drawing of a tall building appears. This is almost certainly the present brick structure on the north east corner of Water and Queen. What we have then in the sketch is the block between Water and Peake or Lower Water. There are three buildings, stores with dwellings above, which fit with the 1878 view and the 1880 plan.  Then comes Lower Water street and across that street we have a three story warehouse or shop.  Neither the view or the plan show any setback for the buildings on the street. What appears to be a set-back requires another explanation. We can see the side of the three-story building only because running between it and the three houses is the opening for Lower Water. This too is consistent with the view and plan.  What throws the viewer off is the assumption that what is seen is a single block. Now it becomes clear that the three story building is located on the south-east corner of Lower Water and Queen Streets, very close to the water’s edge. The buildings in this area survived into the late 1930’s, when the DeBlois wholesale operation (visible in the 1960s postcard) was constructed sweeping the last of them away.

So with the exception of a shadowy presence on the edge of the Harris sketch every building shown has now disappeared. Small wonder it can be difficult to see what is not there. As with many historical images we must resist the temptation to make the view fit what we see today and we must find other clues in order to see what is no longer there.

 

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