The day the Steamers Stopped: Mainland Cut-off Again!

Princess of Wales in Summerside Harbour 1878. Detail From Panoramic View of Summerside

The last few weeks of the shipping season in 1883 looked to be business as normal for those using the steamers of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company. Merchants were rushing to get the last shipments of goods and supplies to the Island before the ice set in.  After that they would have to rely on the undependable services of the Northern Light, the icebreaker that the Dominion Government promised would bring and end to the Island’s seasonal isolation (or more likely “ice-olation”) but had utterly failed in the task. Island-bound winter orders began to build up at the railheads at Pictou and Point du Chene. On the Island side schooners and steamers were rushed to load with produce bound for market before they became iced-in at Island ports. Fall was a busy shipping season for paddle steamers Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence, the veteran ships of the Steam Navigation fleet.

Paddle steamer St. Lawrence in Charlottetown Harbour 1878. Detail from Panoramic View of Charlottetown.

Passengers too, began to worry about getting to and from the Island. If the steamer service stopped the alternative of an ice-boat crossing was an un-attractive and dangerous alternative.

Then, on 29 October 1883 all plans unraveled as news hit the Island that the steamer service provided by the aging paddle-steamers Princess of Wales and St. Lawrence would be suspended. The mainland would be cut off again!   The cause was not severe winter weather nor mechanical problems with the steamers, rather it was by order of an official of the Dominion Government.

In 1882 the Steamboat Inspection Act had been amended to include Prince Edward Island. This legislation required safety inspections but it had not been operable on the Island as no inspector had been appointed for the area, but the following year, albeit late in August the Maritime Provinces inspector, a Mr. Coker, crossed on the steamer from Shediac to Summerside and returned from Charlottetown to Pictou.  Based on this short visit to the boats he ordered that they cease operations as of the end of October.

Initially it was understood that the order referred only to the carrying of passengers and that the freight operations could continue. The Northern Light was pressed into service two months earlier than normal to carry passengers and mail with three round-trips a week between Charlottetown and Pictou.  However, within a few days the ban was extended to any voyages of the paddle steamers, not just for passenger service.

There was however, one bit of good news. Earlier in the year the Steam Navigation Company had taken delivery of new boat for the fleet. The SS Summerside  was not designed or fitted out as a passenger vessel although there had been speculation that capacity would be added. Never the less passengers were taken aboard and must have missed the saloons, staterooms and dining facilities of the paddle steamers. The biggest job for the steamer was to keep up the flow of freight between Summerside and the rail head at Point du Chene.

Northern Light. Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly 1887.

The Dominion Government had an obligation under the terms of the Island’s entry into confederation to provide continuous steam communication across the Strait and in addition to the winter steamer Northern Light they moved quickly to add the steamer tug Napoleon III, a Canadian government steamer primarily engaged in lighthouse tending  onto the freight route between Charlottetown and Pictou.  This ship too had limited passenger capacity but the four boats were able to avoid what could have been a crippling blow to the Island’s economy.  By mid-November the Napoleon III was sailing between Charlottetown and Pictou while the Northern Light carried passengers and freight between Georgetown and Pictou.

Government Steamer Napoleon III. Helped in a pinch – but not very much. Image from Confederation Centre Art Gallery collection.

However there were still problems. The Napoleon III did not have the capacity of the Steam Navigation boats and within a day traffic was backed up. On 11 November a dozen rail cars worth of freight had been left on the Pictou docks.  The Examiner noted that if freight “cannot be carried to this port, serious loss to our merchants will be involved.” A few days later the Summerside had to have her propeller, damaged in a gale, replaced which caused further disruption.

The ice closed the port of Summerside early. By the first of December the S.S. Summerside had been moved to the Charlottetown Pictou route. The Napoleon III’s last trip was on 3 December  and it was announced that the last trip across the Strait by the SS Summerside would take place on 19 December.  Twelve days earlier she had carried an important cargo – two new boilers for the Steam Navigation Company Steamers.

The incident provided an additional excuse for the newspapers in the province to exchange a lengthy series of salvos debating what was either the high-handed inexcusable actions of the Dominion Government in cancelling the registration of the two Company paddle-steamers, or the admirable concern with the safety of the public in taking reasonable measures to prevent the use of unsafe vessels. What is strangely lacking is any sort of response from the Company itself.  Aside from a single advertisement regarding revised schedules the PEI Steam Navigation Company had nothing to say.

Given that silence there may have been something in the concerns of the Steamboat Inspector. In 1883 the Princess of Wales had had 19 years of service on the route and the St. Lawrence had been built even earlier. Although the Company appears to have had maintained the vessels over the period they had not had a major re-fit.

However, faced with revoked certificates the Company made major investments in their boats.  As noted above, new boilers arrived before freeze-up and the winter was spent with shipwrights swarming over the steamers. When put back in service in the spring of 1884 the two boats had not just been re-fitted and re-painted they had, in the words of the Patriot newspaper been “re-constructed”

It was well that the investment had been made. A year later the Summerside went on the rocks at Fogo Island. The two old wooden paddle steamers continued to serve the Island for many years. The Prince of Wales was replaced in 1891  and the St. Lawrence, after more than thirty years service, was finally broken up in 1896.


3 thoughts on “The day the Steamers Stopped: Mainland Cut-off Again!

  1. Chris Mears

    I find this fascinating almost to the point of overwhelming to relate to the Island during this era. My interest in the railway only introduces a fraction of this story.

    One winter at low tide, my daughter and I walked out as far as we could from Cape Traverse. Standing there at the water’s edge and far enough from land and the modern convenience of our car we were both consumed with trying to imagine what it must have been like to keep going toward the Strait and the mainland. Your post here adds to that fascination with layers describing the conditions of travel. It’s hard to imagine accommodations on the ferries. I vividly recall my ferry boat trips but that was during Marine Atlantic in the 1980’s and far removed from state rooms and steam engines.

    Your posts always add one more layer of intrigue and fascination. I love it.


    1. sailstrait Post author

      I was fortunate enough to have worked on the last of the old-time steam-driven ferries, the SS Prince Edward Island. Unlike the most recent boats which had all the ambience of sea-going bus stations this really had the flavour of a miniature ocean liner with a proper dining room and a smoking lounge. But even it was a shadow if its former self. Before the vehicle deck was added in the 1930s it also had a separate first-class lounge for railway passengers with first class tickets. Very de-luxe! After the conversion to accommodate autos all that was left was a stairway earmarked for first-class passengers at the stern of the vessel which ended in a blank wall.

      1. Chris Mears

        That sounds amazing and equally hard to relate to. I remember Steve Hunter sharing photos of the SS Prince Edward Island and it really did look like the superior way to cross the Strait. I like your bus shelter description and laughed, just a little, because the ferries in my era were the difference between the summer and winter boats. But even that’s fleeting with one summer boat now in Northumberland’s service.

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