Until well into the 20th century the harbour of Charlottetown could hardly be considered a safe place. Newspapers frequently carried sad stories of citizens coming to their death on the waterfront. It was a time when few knew how to swim. Some sailors considered it beneath their dignity to learn and life jackets and even life boats were scorned. Even the wharves posed a hazard as they were often poorly built and they deteriorated quickly. Complaints of broken boards and holes in decking were one of the staples of editorial comment. Until the 1880s they were completely unlit and not a few folks blundered off the edges in darkness.
The whole waterfront was a playground for children with constant activity which attracted the curious. On the other end of the spectrum the waterfront was, even during the time of prohibition, a refuge for inebriates and most of the city’s taverns, and later bootleggers, were close to water street. It was not unusual for bodies to be found in the water after late night drinking. The level of activity on the wharves was one reason why the death toll was not higher and many an heroic rescue took place south of Water Street.
Spring was a difficult time. The bushed ice roads from Southport and up the East and West Rivers had been highways but as they melted there was could be weeks between the last safe crossing and the first ferry steamer. The ice did not melt evenly and soft spots could develop on ice roads that were otherwise safe. Both foot passengers and farmers with teams could go through the ice trying to get to the city. When the ice began to break up in the spring small boys (and some not so small), although warned not to, would walk out on the breaking ice and dare each other to jump from floating ice cake to floating ice cake until invariably one fell in or began floating toward the harbour mouth on the outgoing tide. Whereupon a rescue effort had to be mounted. This was so common that it was one of the harbingers of spring. In April 1899, for example, the Charlottetown Daily Examiner wrote “More Signs – The boys have commenced sailing on ice cakes in the dock between The Steam Navigation and Poole & Lewis’ wharves.” Even if it did not result in a tragedy boys could often be seen in the spring of the year returning to their homes from a day on the ice with frozen pants walking as if they were dressed in stovepipes. Government Pond served as a training ground as the ice broke up but the lure of the harbour was strong and had a magnetic draw for the adventurous. It was called “stumping” and was a Charlottetown rite of passage into the 1960s.
Although not a story of stumping ice cakes, the following report of a rescue from the ice was typical of the all too common stories of the late nineteenth century – with one interesting twist.
A sad-looking object, seeking perhaps the necessaries of life, aimlessly wandered to [the] Steam Navigation Wharf this morning. The ice had yesterday melted from the upper part of the dock, but owing to the cold snap last night, a thick scum covered the deep water there. By curiosity, no doubt, he was attracted to the edge of the wharf. He stood upon the stringer, and by some mishap fell in. Death stared him in the face as he struggled in the water. In vain he endeavored to break the ice which surrounded him and regain the wharf , but seeing no chance of escape or assistance he set up a heart rending cry, which was heard over the neighborhood. A few individuals rushed to the agonizing scene but were powerless to render assistance with imperiling their own existence. With remarkable presence of mind they set to work breaking the ice around him by throwing stones, deal ends, and iron upon it. By a random sling a piece of plank struck him upon the head and he sank beneath the tide, to the horror of those who endeavored to save him. In an instant he rose again and as he did a gallant young man sailed out on a cake of ice and rescued him from his perilous position. He was then carried to a house on the wharf. Restoratives were administered and in less than two hours he wagged his tail and looked as happy as any canine in the city.
Charlottetown Examiner 13 April 1880 p.3