Between the Steam Navigation Wharf (which had carried the names of Reddin’s Wharf and Pope’s Wharf) and the Ferry Wharf at the end of Prince Street lies a property of some significance to the history of Prince Edward Island. Here the foreshore stood at the foot of a high embankment and the waters were relatively shallow so that any wharf would have to be quite long to reach the channel. Instead of a wharf the property became the site of one of the few shipyards on the waterfront.
The Duncan shipyard saw the building of a number of ships but most of the vessels owned by James Duncan were built elsewhere and closer to the raw materials required, many in the Mt. Stewart area. However the Duncan shipyard was the site of the building of the largest ship ever launched on Prince Edward Island, the Ethel, which displaced 1795 tons when she slid down the ways and promptly went aground in June 1858. Luckily the 205 foot ship had to wait only until the next spring tides before she was freed.
Andrew Duncan and James Duncan (who may have been brothers) were both involved in shipbuilding in the 1840s. Andrew had a shipyard in Elliot River and was one of the Directors of the Steam Navigation Company. Their firm A.& J. Duncan & Co., which also included James Duncan Mason who may have been another relation, was dissolved in 1855 and reconstituted as Duncan, Mason & Co. with Robert Robinson Hodgson as a new partner. One of their first projects was the building of a large 3 1/2 story brick store on the corner of Dorchester and Queen Streets which still stands.
For the next two decades the firm reaped the benefits of the wood, wind and water economy building and selling or managing dozens of vessels. James Duncan became a member of the Island’s Council and participated in a wide range of civic activities. Shipbuilding in PEI reached a peak in the late 1860s but leveled off and was relatively steady at a lower level through to the mid 1870s. However Island builders had difficulty matching their output with the market and prices and production dropped after 1875. In 1878 only 35 vessels were built in the Island and about half were sent to Great Britain for sale. By the end of 1879 only 10 of these had sold and at unfavourable prices. James Duncan and Co. were caught with large debts and ships they were unable to sell at other than a loss.
In October 18978 the Merchant’s Bank of Prince Edward Island pushed Duncan & Co. into bankruptcy and a loss of confidence in the bank, which was one of Duncan’s largest creditors, meant it almost went under as well, saved only by investment from other Island banks. There were many significant losses. Two creditors were each owed more than $100,000; Sir James Malcolm who was Duncan’s British agent was owed $119,000, and the Merchants Bank was owed $146,000 (3.1 million and 3.8 million respectively in todays funds) Another 17 companies were owed more than $1000 each and many others faced losses at lesser amounts. For small businesses even a slight loss could tip them from profit to loss. The Duncan bankruptcy had a ripple effect as the effects spread across the community. The total amount of liabilities of bankrupt firms on Prince Edward Island more than doubled over the previous year. Duncan & Co. was soon wound up but the assets brought in far less than was needed and the settlement was only 32 cents on each dollar owed. Carvell Bros., who had not been a major Duncan creditor, suspended their operations blaming the failure of many of their customers but they were able to re-open their doors by the end of 1879. Two of the Island’s marine insurance companies stopped writing new policies and crossed their fingers that they would have no major claims which would bankrupt them and luckily both survived.
James Duncan was briefly jailed and his assets were seized by creditors and liquidated. These assets which included several ships, the Duncan shipyard property, and the Duncan property on Water Street including the contents were all sold for the benefit of creditors. Much of the property was purchased by Captain Ronald McMillan who built a coal depot on the shipyard site.
Several of the Duncan properties still stand; the large brick double store on the corner of Queen and Dorchester Streets, Duncan’s residence at the corner of Prince Street and Water and the large building (now apartments) next door to the west which had originally been the store of Messrs. Waters & Birnie and which was likely built in the early 1820s. It was also the site of the Phoenix foundry. The foundry and a blacksmith forge were still on the property in 1873 and were likely used in conjunction with the shipyard. Other than the two residences traces of the estate and shipyard have disappeared under the Confederation Landing Park. James Duncan left Prince Edward Island soon after the bankruptcy and died in Scotland in 1889.