More than you ever wanted to know about the S.S. Northern Light, Canada’s first icebreaker

Some time ago I wrote a posting about the earliest winter steamers that served Prince Edward Island in the years immediately following Confederation.  That post,  “The little engines that couldn’t ”  started me on an extensive research project on the steamer Northern Light which operated from 1876 until 1888.  The results of the research were turned into a paper on the history of the vessel and her designer, E.W. Sewell,  which was accepted for publication by the Canadian Nautical Research Society (CNRS) and has now been published in their peer-reviewed journal The Northern Mariner  vol. 29 #4. The article, with the title “‘A Marine Nondescript’ Canada’s First Icebreaker” also appears in the on-line edition of  the Northern Mariner and can be viewed here. The article is presented in PDF format and so you must have Adobe Acrobat Reader or some other program capable of reading PDF files. The article is quite large and so may take time to download.

An additional posting concerning the Northern Light, which contains an ode to the vessel can be found here.

In the course of the research on the Northern Light article I undertook a search for images of the ship. Although I was unable to find a photograph, the interest in the unusual ship led to a large number of engravings being published in journals and books of the period and one stamp from Canada Post. I was not able to include all of them in The Northern Mariner article and have included them here to supplement the story told in the article. Click on any image to enlarge and start slide show.


6 thoughts on “More than you ever wanted to know about the S.S. Northern Light, Canada’s first icebreaker

  1. Edward MacDonald


    Enjoying the latest posts. Love the engravings of the NL. I am reminded of the time, sorting through bric a brac in the attic story of B’field in my early days as contract editor, that I found the detritus of an exhibit that the Foundation had done on the Strait Crossing. The label for the Northern Light sketch by Bob Tuck was “The Light That Failed”! I thought at the time how clever that was, and I’m afraid it began my unfortunate penchant for punning subtitles in Island Magazine articles.

    Ed Edward MacDonald Department of History University of PEI

    1. sailstrait Post author

      I am afraid that we are dealing with two entirely different vessels with the same name. The subject of my research was the Northern Light built in Quebec and launched in 1876 so it could not possibly have been the one encountered by your ancestor in 1853.

      1. sailstrait Post author

        Here is a vessel that might well be the one for which you seek:
        This is a page from a book by Erik Heyl titled Early American Steamers published in 1953. Heyel states that the book’s drawings were made from photographs from a number of sources noted in the introduction, so there may be a photograph available in one of those institutions. As this volume was published in 1953 it is possible that the material is in the public domain and would not require the permission of the author in order to be reproduced.

      2. diannajackson351

        Thank you so much. Wow. I found something about that and emailed someone a out it. I think I will use the picture as it is marked public domain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.