Pickford and Black’s PEI steamer service 1888-1912

The Murphy Hospitality Group (MHG) of Charlottetown has recently re-branded one of their Halifax  restaurants as Pickford & Black. The change makes some sense as the restaurant, located in Halifax’s Historic Properties, is actually on the Pickford & Black wharf. It may also make sense as it seems to distance the operation from the Murphy / Gahan brand which appears on an inordinate number of restaurants in Charlottetown and others in Halifax and Moncton.

Pickford and Black house flag

However, Pickford and Black resonates not just with Halifax as it also boasted a connection more than a century ago with Prince Edward Island when the shipping firm operated steamers providing freight and passenger service between Summerside and Charlottetown and Halifax.  The firm was established in Halifax in 1875 as a ship chandlery and hardware firm and the following year purchased Seaton’s wharf on the Halifax waterfront which soon became known as the Pickford and Black Wharf. They took early advantage of the transition from sail to steam and aggressively developed a fleet.

Beginning in 1887 the firm expanded into the steamship business and became best-known for their services between  Halifax and Caribbean islands including Bermuda, Turks, St. Croix, St. Kitts, Antigua,  Trinidad, Demerara,  Jamaica, and Cuba. The first vessels acquired were former Cunard steamers Alpha and Beta which had been on the trans-Atlantic run.  The following year Pickford & Black set up the Halifax and Prince Edward Island Steamship Company. One of their first purchases was a 270 ton steamer, the Princess Beatrice, for a weekly service along the Eastern Shore, through the Strait of Canso and calling at ports in Prince Edward Island. This was a route which had been used by the Fishwick steamer M. A. Starr until the firm was drawn into the Pickford and Black operations.  The Princess Beatrice, and the later Pickford and Black boats, called at several intermediate ports including Summerside, Souris, Port Hood, Port Hastings, Port Hawkesbury , Arichat, Canso, Isaacs Harbour, Salmon River, Sonora and Sheet Harbour.  The Princess Beatrice was unfortunately wrecked in her second year of operation near Isaac’s Harbour in September 1890.

Fastnet at the Pickford and Black Wharf, Halifax

She was replaced the following year by the Fastnet, a 145 foot screw steamer which had been built in Glasgow in 1878 for the Clyde Shipping Company for service in South West Ireland and had been bought by Pickford and Black for the Charlottetown run. During her first year of operation the Fastnet collided in fog with the Heather Belle which resulted in the sinking of the latter vessel. The Fastnet continued to call at Charlottetown through 1897. Discovery of gold in the Yukon Territory in 1896 created a market  for vessels to accommodated the rush of travellers to the north and in 1898 the Fastnet she was sent around Cape Horn with a party of gold seekers bound for the Yukon. The vessel was sold to a company in British Columbia and again to a Mexican firm in 1898 when she was re-named the Alamo.  In 1909 she was wrecked on Tortuga Island in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pickford and Black advertisement. Charlottetown Guardian 20 July 1898

Meanwhile the City of Ghent, which had been sailing from Halifax to a number of eastern mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton ports as well as Souris since 1892 became the only Pickford and Black connection between the Island ports of Summerside and Charlottetown, and Halifax.  The City of Ghent had been built in 1871 in Grimsby and the little iron vessel had limited passenger capacity but a large cargo space not unlike the fishing vessels built in that port. She was originally used on a run from Grimsby to Ghent in Belgium.  At 135 feet with a displacement of 198 tons she was even smaller than the Fastnet. An advantage for some of the smaller ports was that she drew less then ten feet.  She was refurbished by Pickford and Black to carry twenty first class and ten second class passengers with large staterooms and modern improvements including a “handsome little saloon.” It is unlikely that the passenger service would have been of great interest for Prince Edward Islanders who had daily service to Pictou and Shediac but it would have been a boon to those in the smaller ports in Nova Scotia with no access to rail service and indifferent roads. The City of Ghent had a “shrill and peculiar hyena whistle” which echoed in the harbours of Summerside, Charlottetown and Souris whenever she arrived and left.

By 1900 Pickford and Black were the second largest ship owners on the Atlantic Provinces. While most of their fleet serviced the Caribbean they established several feeder service including the ones to Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island which were able to direct West Indies traffic from coastal areas through Halifax to southern ports. Much of the cargo reflected a century-old triangular trade – saltfish and produce shipped out and rum, molasses and salt on the return.

In 1912, after operating to Island ports since 1888, Pickford and Black ended their service when they were unable to find a suitable replacement ship for the City of Ghent. She was sold to Captain Beattie of Pictou. He ran her as a tramp steamer through the Gulf area and Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast for a year or so but she was laid up and offered for sale and lay idle for three years in Halifax until 1916. Remarkably in the scramble for vessels in the early years of the Great War the City of Ghent, then 45 years old, sold for £700 more than her cost when she was launched.  Sent to England with a cargo of lumber she was employed carrying cargos of coke for the allied forces through the port of Rouen until she was sunk by a German submarine in September 1916.

Pickford and Black continued to maintain links with the West Indies for many years. They also became agents for several leading marine insurance underwriters and European steamship lines. The company continues today under the name of F.K. Warren Limited.

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