From his house just above the village of Pownal Nathaniel Gay had a fine view out over the low shores of Crown Point and out into Pownal Bay towards Governors Island. On Tuesday morning 28 September 1875 after a night in which the wind blew particularly hard he spotted a vessel stranded on the reef running east from the Island. What made the sight more urgent was that he was able to see men clinging to the rigging as the gale force winds from the West North West tore at the grounded ship.
There was nothing he could do from the shore and the few boats which might be found at Pownal Wharf or along the shore were too small to be of any assistance so he headed along the Georgetown Road towards Charlottetown seven miles to the ferry at Southport where he likely would have had to wait for a boat. He crossed the Hillsborough River and raised the alarm with officials in the city. Luckily the tug Henry Aitken was tied to the dock and its owner William Batt readily agreed to attempt to get to the wreck although seas were running high and the gale blowing full force. The Henry Aitken was an almost new vessel having been built by William H. Batt and launched in the fall of 1874. However as it sat at dockside the tug was low on coal and lacked a boat suitable to get to the wreck which was in shallow waters which the Henry Aitken could not safely enter. Coaling of the steamer began immediately and enquiries were made for a boat. Both the Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company were in dock at the time but there was confusion about a lifeboat as the captain of the passenger steamer was concerned about an unknown crew manning the lifeboat. In the delay a boat was secured from Peake Bros. Five volunteers came forward from those on the wharf at the time and together with the tug’s Captain Robertson, Frank Batt, William Batt, Richard Hayes and Nathaniel Gay set out on their dangerous mission. It was now three o’clock, Many hours having passed without an update on the shipwrecked crew, while Nathaniel Gay made his way to town and the time it took for coaling and preparation. No one was certain that the crew of the stricken vessel had been able to stay aboard, or if the vessel was still afloat.
The Henry Aitken was 60 feet long and displaced 38 tons and she had a powerful engine but even she struggled with the conditions. As they left the limited shelter of the harbour waves broke over the tug and water poured through the hatches. Captain Robertson kept two pumps steadily at work and still had to resort to bailing to keep the waters from quenching the fires. The lifeboat in tow was swamped three times by the seas and had to be recovered and emptied. The Henry Aitken approached as close as the captain dared and the lifeboat was launched. The volunteers pulled towards the wreck with alacrity and were able to haul aboard the crew of the schooner who had been lashed to the rigging to prevent being swept into the raging seas.
As with many small coasting vessels there was a small crew with only four aboard; Edward Walsh, the master, two crew, Alex Hamilton and Patrick Kirwin, and a ship’s boy George Wood. All were exhausted, especially the boy, from having been exposed on the endangered ship without shelter but they began to recover once aboard the tug, which immediately began its return to the safety of the harbour, reaching the wharf about seven in the evening. The vessel was the Mary Kate bound inwards from Cape Breton with a cargo of limestone. She was little different from the dozens of small vessels which kept Charlottetown supplied with bulk cargos such as limestone and coal and carried away Island produce to nearby ports. The name was common and there were several Mary Kates that visited Charlottetown in the early 1870s. One was owned in Charlottetown by W.W. Lord and D. Miller but it is not clear if this was the one which came to grief on Governors Reef.
The report of the incident in the Patriot newspaper concluded; “Too much cannot be said in praise of the brave men who risked their lives on that wild evening to succor their fellow-creatures in distress and we trust that they may receive a substantial reward for their gallant conduct.”
The storm was not the disaster that other storms such as the August gale of 1873* had been but several vessels were reported ashore in Egmont Bay and near Seacow Head and on the Nova Scotia shore.
The following year the Dominion government paid William Batt a reward of $150 for the use of the tug and hire of eight men to rescue the crew of the Mary Kate while the government also paid to clothe the shipwrecked sailors and pay their passage home. The Henry Aitken continued to provide tug and steamer services in the harbour of Charlottetown and in Northumberland Strait until 1889 when she was broken up and taken off the shipping register.
*An excellent account of storms during the period can be found in Ed MacDonald’s “The August Gale and the Arc of Memory on Prince Edward Island” in The Island Magazine Number 56 Fall/Winter 2004