Sailing through the ice from Pictou to Wood Islands

The winter passage to Prince Edward Island was the subject of several drawings and engravings. This example come from Harpers New Monthly Magazine in 1877.

The winter passage of the mail and passengers between Prince Edward Island and the Mainland is one of the most interesting transportation stories in the history of the Island. There are a number of detailed accounts and published reports of the the crossing appeared frequently in books, newspapers and magazines. See for example this account from 1876.  The iceboat service is commemorated as a National Historic Event by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada with a plaque at Cape Traverse.

But the “crossing at the Capes”  was not the only winter route and other places had stories to tell of the icy passage.

The letter to the editor published in the 22 April 1884 issue of the Daily Patriot was titled by the editor “An Adventure” and although it attracted no editorial comment  it told a tale which was a close encounter with disaster.  One wonders if the events were so commonplace to have lost their newsworthiness.

The route from Pictou to Wood Islands had been used by the Island government for the winter mails as early as 1828 but was later abandoned in favour of the shorter route at the Capes. There were still sporadic crossings when conditions were favourable.  Pictou was joined by rail to Halifax in 1860, at a time when overland routes to Cape Tormentine took considerably more travelling time. This changed with the extension of rails to both Cape Traverse and Cape Tormentine and there were few winter crossings from Pictou late in the 19th century except on the Canadian Government steamers.

Detail of 1879 chart of Northumberland Strait showing section from Pictou to Wood Islands

On 19 April 1884 a small open sailboat left Pictou for Prince Edward Island. It appears to have been an ordinary sailing craft without the double runners on the bottom of the craft and the tin covered hull to aid in propelling the boat across the ice like a sleigh.  Aboard were three crew member and four passengers.  The passengers were merchant James Paton of the Charlottetown of W.A. Weeks & Co.  who was returning from a buying trip in England; Nelson Rattenbury of Carvell Bros; H.J. McDonald; and a Mr. Fitzpatrick. They were obviously anxious to get to the Island and unwilling to take the long route by rail up the Northumberland shore to Sackville and from there transfer to sleighs to Cape Tormentine, across the Strait by the iceboat service and then overland to Emerald and by the PEI Railway to Charlottetown. April had come late to Northumberland Strait that year. The passage at Canso was blocked by ice and the first Boston boat of the year was delayed for more than a week. The PEI Steam Navigation Company steamers were tied up for much of the month waiting for their first trip across and the ice-strengthened Northern Light reported a great deal of ice on the route between Pictou and Georgetown. A steamer with a cargo of coal trying to work its way from Pictou up Northumberland strait was turned back by the ice jams at Cape Traverse.

Never the less Captain Laughlin Patterson, pilot Angus Smith and James Stewart felt confident that they would be able to find open water across to P.E.I.. They had been informed by residents of Pictou Island that there was no ice in the Strait. They were so confident in fact, that they did not leave Pictou until 1 p.m. on the Saturday afternoon with, as Captain Patterson later wrote, “a fair prospect of crossing the straits.”  About half way across they encountered an obstacle – not only the expected ice pans but a thick ice fog (fog caused by warmer air over the cold ice and water) – and they soon found themselves surrounded by a dense field of ice. They quickly exhausted themselves trying to extricate the heavy 18 foot boat from the clutches of the ice and with night falling they decided to haul the boat up on a pan of ice and spend the night as best they could.

Although they did not suffer the extreme cold of mid-winter the weather was far from favourable as it rained heavily through the night and by Sunday morning the fog had returned as thick as ever. As they had no compass they could not determine which way to go. At four o’clock in the afternoon the fog began to dissipate and they spotted Wood Islands some distance off. A  lighthouse had been built there and had been operation since 1876.It was one of the few landmarks on the low lying shore. Knowing they would not be able to continue hauling the boat and reach shore without spending another night on the ice the party concluded to set off on foot the four or five miles to the shore. The route proved to be over very bad ice and in several places they had to cross open water on small ice cakes that would carry only a few men at a time.

They left the boat with all their baggage on the ice in hopes that it would be spotted from the shore and a rescue party sent out to meet them. But as the daylight was soon gone those on the shore, who had spotted the abandoned boat before night fell, decided they could not safely mount a rescue until daylight on Monday. In the meantime, the passengers and crew were finally able to reach land at the Wood Islands Lighthouse in the dark. Cold and wet they were taken to houses in the Wood Islands area to be fed and rested.

On Monday morning the abandoned boat was again  spotted from the shore and a party of men, McMillans all (whose descendants still live in the area), went out on the ice with their own boat and succeeded in bring the Pictou boat and baggage back to shore. By this time it had drifted to spot four miles off Belle River. The passengers had hired a team and were well on their way to Charlottetown by this time so the baggage trunks and effects were sent on later.

The letter from the appreciative Pictou crew thanking  the people of Wood Islands for their humane and hospitable care appeared in the 26 April 1884 issue of Charlottetown’s Daily Patriot newspaper.

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