Crossing at the Capes in 1863

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 story of the winter mail boats is one of the unique aspects of PEI history. The ice boats served as the main winter conveyance from the mid-1820s until 1917 when the “efficient steam communication” promised in the Confederation agreement was finally put in place. The ice boat service is often noted by visitors and writers as a curiosity but few of them actually visited the Island in winter and their accounts are often brief and second-hand.

During the 80 to 90 years the ice boats ran the methods and equipment used were much the same. The type of boat used evolved quite early, the ice runners being the most important modification. In the mid-1880s the service was taken out of the hands of private contractors and became a government-operated service with increased safety measures put in place. However at times there was competition for the crews having the mail contract and “opposition iceboats” provided an alternative service.

The following account, written for readers of the Fifeshire Journal published in Kirkaldy Scotland, is more detailed and realistic, especially as to the different types of ice encountered.

Iceboats at board ice ca. 1895. Cyrus Lewis Photo – New Brunswick Museum collection

Now sir perhaps your respected readers would like to know the way in which we obtain our mails in winter, for the navigation closes upon us generally in December, and remains so until the end of April, consequently the shortest route by which the mails can come is via Cape Tormentine (in New Brunswick), to Cape Traverse, the north-west part of our island, distance nine miles. The process of getting them across the straits is as follows: — The boats are about twelve feet long, five feet beam, and eighteen inches deep; they are fitted with two runners, about three feet long, one on each side of the keel; they are built as strong and light as it is possible to put the materials together, and thinned [sic] on the outside to prevent abrasion by the ice. The crew consists of four men, they, with four passengers and a little luggage, are all the boat can carry with safety. Each boat is fitted up with eight straps, four on each side, by which the boat is hauled along, or an unfortunate fellow who breaks through the ice is saved from a watery grave. There is generally about half a mile of ground ice along the shore, over which all hands, passengers and crew, having buckled on their straps, turn to and haul over the boat containing the luggage and mails. They then, perhaps, come to some shell ice, formed by the preceding night’s heavy frost. This is too strong to pull through with oars, so a man is placed in the bow of the boat to break it with his feet, while the others are busy with their ice hooks and pikes, and work their way foot by foot. Perhaps the next thing is a channel of open water, and what a relief that is; you sit down and rest yourself and fancy that you are going at a rate of twenty miles and hour, as the willing crew bend their backs to the oars; but this does not last very long; for slower and slower goes the boat. At last, in spite of the most strenuous exertions of the crew, not an inch further can they get. They are now in another class of ice, and is called lolly; it is made by the grinding o the ice cakes together, and is about the consistency of the ice with which you make “Sherry Cobler,” but you can’t get through it so easily. Pikes and hooks are now of little use, all you can do is to clear the bow of the boat as well as you can, and, using the oars paddle fashion, work your way inch by inch, waiting for a chance to catch hold of a small cake of ice, over that you go, and into the lolly again. All this time you are drifting with the tide, at the rate of three knots an hour. The boats are often in the lolly from three to five hours, and finding it impossible to get through, have to return to the side from whence they started. With the small boats they are obliged to cross the straits, it is impossible to rig up any contrivance by which they would be enabled to get through the lolly faster than they do at present.  Well, when you get through you come to ice broken and piled up in all directions. Over this you have to drag the boat, and I can assure you it requires a vast amount of exertion to get it over some of the hillocks. Then there is broken ice, where you have to bridge over from cake to cake, taking care not to get a dip between them. This part of the work is very dangerous, as in some cases it is almost impossible to tell which is sound and which is rotten. Then more lolly and shell ice, until you reach the ground ice. A passenger has not only the privilege of not only paying for but of working his passage. The present contractors, Messrs. Irving & Warren, are, I believe, active, careful, and intelligent men, and most certainly deserve better payment than they at present get for their arduous and dangerous services — how dangerous it would be useless for me to say. I am informed they receive 16 dols., or about £3 sterling, for each trip with a mail; for a trip without a mail they get no pay; and it very often happens that, on account of boisterous weather, they are unable to cross for a whole week. There they are frozen four to eight hours in an open boat, aye, and sometimes longer, with wet feet and clothes; no chance to light a fire to boil a cup of that which “cheers but not inebriates;” no chance to shield themselves from the chill blasts of winter, or even to change their wet stockings and boots. Such then is the exceedingly hazardous duty to which these men are exposed, and their payment is certainly not over the mark, but if anything rather under it; however, they seem perfectly contented with their small pittance, and do their work like true Americans.

Fifeshire Journal 28 May 1863 p.7

Burrows Arthur Wilcock Sleigh had written an account found here some ten years earlier which provided even more details. For another account a few years after the Fifeshire Journal story  see this page.

2 thoughts on “Crossing at the Capes in 1863

  1. Pingback: The Rite of Passage: Crossing the Strait by Iceboat | Sailstrait

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