Sailing to infectious melancholy: travelling by steamer from Charlottetown to Shediac in 1854.

I have an affection for cranky travellers, being one myself, but the travails of today seem slight when compared with those of our ancestors. Case in point are the observations of Isabella Lucy Bird when she left for New Brunswick following a lengthy stay in Prince Edward Island in 1854. She was one of several passengers on board the paddle steamer Lady Le Marchant (of which I have written here).

Haszard’s Gazette 12 July 1854 p.3

The boat left Charlottetown late at night, bound for Bedeque, which had not yet acquired the more common name of Summerside, and thence to Shediac. On leaving the Steam Navigation Company wharf in the darkness of a rainy night the steamer became entangled with a schooner, broke some of the piles on the wharf and smashed the bulwarks of a new brig. Once on their way up Northumberland Strait en route to Bedeque the passengers entertained one another with songs but in the gloomy atmosphere the mood soon changed.

…indefinable sensations of melancholy rendered the merriest of the party silent, and a perfect deluge of rain rendered a retreat into the lower regions a precautionary measure which even the boldest were content to adopt. Below, in addition to the close overpowering odour of cabins without any ventilation, the smell of the bilge-water was sufficient in itself to produce nausea. The dark den called the ladies’ cabin, which was by no means clean, was the sleeping abode of twelve people in various stages of discomfort, and two babies.

I spent a very comfortless four hours, and went on deck at dawn to find a thick fog, a heavy rain, the boards swimming with soot and water, and one man cowering at the wheel.  Most of the gentlemen, induced by the discomfort to be early risers, came up before we reached Bedeque, in oilskin caps, coats, and leggings, wearing that expression on their physiognomies peculiar to Anglo-Saxons in the rain. 

Isabella Lucy Bird in later life. Still scowling after seeing Shediac.

The Lady Le Marchant reached Bedeque and Isabella was safely ashore by six in the morning. There she parted from a colleague who had accompanied her on the trip up from Charlottetown and took a welcome break in the voyage, taking tea and drying her clothing, thankful of the reprieve.

Who, that has ever experienced the misiries of a voyage in a dirty, crowded, and ill-ventilated little steamer has also not appreciated the pleasurers of getting on land even for a few minutes? The consciousness of the absence of suffocating sensations, and of the comfort of a floor which does not move under the feet – of space, cleanliness, and warmth – soon produce an oblivion of all past miseries; but if the voyage has not terminated, and the relief is only temporary, it enhances the dread of future ones to such an extent that, when the captain came to the door to fetch me, I had to rouse all my energies before I could leave a blazing fire to battle with cold and rain again.

The wharf in Bedeque, more properly Green’s Wharf, which would become Summerside, was only a small one and unless the tide was full could not handle the Lady Le Marchant, small as she was. Passengers and goods had to be rowed back and forth. Isabella had to stand in the boat, her feet deep in water with a group of gentlemen with dripping umbrellas. Getting aboard the steamer brought little relief.

I went down to my miserable berth, and vainly tried to sleep, the discomfort and mismanagement which prevailed leading my thoughts by force of contrast to the order, cleanliness, and regularity of the inimitable line of steamers on the West Highland coast. Where ever the means of locomotion are concerned, these colonies are very far behind either the “old country” or their enterprising neighbours in Canada; and at present they do not appear conscious of the deficiencies which are sternly forced on a traveller’s observation.

The prospect which appeared through the door was not calculated to please, as it consisted of a low, dark, and suffocating cabin filled with men in suits of oilskin, existing in a steamy atmosphere, loaded with odours of india–rubber, tobacco and spirits. The stewardess was ill, and my companions were groaning; unheeded babies were crying…  My clothes were completely saturated.

They reached Shediac about noon and Isabella was of the opinion that it presented “every appearance of unhealthiness”.  In the early 1850s Shediac was still an important timber port visited by large numbers of British and European timber ships. However the harbour was shallow and the Lady LeMarchant was forced to anchor about two miles away from the landing place at Harrington’s Shore on the west side of the bay. There was little in the way of a village but the place was the end point of a stage line to “The Bend” (now Moncton) and from there steamers and other stages to Saint John could be had. Isabella was not impressed with Shediac:

Shediac Harbour. Detail from the Chart of Shediac Bay by H.W. Bayfield 1849. Note absence of wharves or a village on the current town site or at Pointe de Chene

Shediac had recently been visited by the cholera, and there was an infectious melancholy about its aspect, which, coupled with the fact that I was wet, cold, and weary … had a tendency to produce anything but a lively frame of mind. 

We and our baggage were unceremoniously trundled into two large boats, some of the gentlemen, I am sorry to say, forcing their way into the first, in order to secure for themselves places on the stage. 

As we were rowing to shore, the captain told us that our worst difficulty was yet to come – an insuperable one, he added, to corpulent persons. There was no landing place for boats, or indeed for anything at low water, and we had to climb up a wharf ten feet high, formed of huge round logs, placed a foot apart from each other, and slippery with sea grass.  It is really incredible that, at a place through which a considerable traffic passes, as being on the high road from Prince Edward Island to the United States, that should there be a more inconvenient landing-place than I ever saw at a Highland village.  

With a few years much had changed. In 1857 the European and North American Railway had been completed between Shediac and The Bend of the Peticodiac, as Moncton was known at the time. Three years later, just in time for the visit of the Prince of Wales, the tracks were extended to Saint John, and more importantly for Prince Edward Island, to Pointe du Chene where a wharf was built which could accommodate most steamers, even at low tide.

Isabella Lucy BIrd was undaunted by the travel in the Maritimes. She made an extensive trip through North America and published the results as The Englishwoman in America in 1856 and over the next forty years went on to be a world traveller with trips to the Rocky Mountains, Japan, India and Persia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and China. She was the first woman to be a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. She died in 1904.

Her travels on Prince Edward Island take up several chapters in The Englishwoman in America and provide a fascinating glimpse of the colony at mid-century. An on-line copy can be found here.     

 

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