It is not often that Northumberland Strait is the locale for literature. L.M. Montgomery did much to make the North Shore of the Island known to readers all over the world but the waters off the soft underbelly of the Island have had fewer champions and those who did write of the area have perhaps had less skill, achieved less notoriety, and have to great extent been forgotten.
Such is the case with W. Albert Hickman. One need not be embarrassed if the name is unfamiliar, for except in an unrelated area of marine technology Hickman has been mostly ignored by history and his later fame was achieved far from Maritime waters. He is a very real example of the “successful Maritimer abroad.”
He had a valid claim to his Maritime origins, having been born in Dorchester, New Brunswick and raised in the Pictou area. He studied at Harvard, specializing in marine engineering and worked as an inventor in the United States. Among his successes were the development of modern vessel design by embracing the idea that boats could be made to go faster with less power by utilizing air under the hulls to lift the boats. This led to the development of the world’s first high-speed torpedo boats and a remarkable craft which was probably the world’s first aircraft carrier. He was the first to make use of counter-rotating propellers and had patents in a wide range of hull improvements, many of which continue in use today.
He is best known for the invention of a boat he called the “Sea Sled” which in 1914 was described as “A new type of vessel, which promises to revolutionize water craft and which takes the same place on the water that the automobile does on land.” The boat had an inverted “vee” hull but differed from a catamaran in that it tapered to an almost flat stern. A full description of the sea sled design can be found here.
He was obviously more successful as an inventor than as a writer but in his early years Hickman was also a published author although his output was limited to one full-length novel, a novella and a number of short stories published in Canadian and American popular magazines. One of the these short stories, “The Goosander” features a Northumberland Strait location and characters from both Charlottetown and Pictou. This story is about a rivalry between a humble and rustic Pictou inventor with a background in marine engineering (all resemblances to the author must be purely coincidental) and summer residents of Charlottetown who are inspired by a race from Charlottetown to Pictou to determine the fastest steamboat on the Strait. It is a contest between the native Maritime ingenuity of Donald MacDonald and the slick Upper Canadian stock-market-following men “from away”, personified by one Montgomery Paul. The Island summer visitors are enchanted by Northumberland Strait. and that after seeing many spots all over the world said “there is, in all probability, no such summer climate as that of the Northumberland Strait and the southern light of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.” Paul’s fifty-foot yacht, the Niobe, is touted as the fastest boat on Northumberland Strait and to prove it Paul posts a thousand dollar prize for a race open to all comers. MacDonald’s entry, the Goosander, is a broken down former government launch used for general work around a lobster cannery. In rebuilding the craft he uses all sorts of surplus equipment and alters the design to something never before seen on the Strait. The race itself begins in Charlottetown Harbour in the presence of a fleet of spectators ranging from families of fishermen in tiny sloops to the steam yachts, ferries and steamers of the harbour pumping the atmosphere full of smoke, coal dust and ash. At the start line there are boats from Halifax, to Cape Breton, to the Bay of Chaleur; yachts, tugs, workboats and fishing craft. Steaming out the mouth of the harbour and around Point Prim the many contestants fight a rising sea and as the fleet stretches out many drop out or fall far behind the race leaders. The race has the expected number of dramatic incidents with broken equipment, on-the-fly repairs and the exchange of challenges and insults between vessels. Rounding Gull Rocks and MacDonald’s Reef the Niobe and Goosander both skippers jockey for the lead as they pass the Pictou lighthouse and headed up the harbour to the finish line……
Gosh, I wonder how this could possibly end?
There are echos of Hickman’s 1904 story, five years later with the arrival in Keppoch, of a Mahogany speedboat launch imported by broker and industrialist C.P. Larned of Detroit, the story of which which I posted here. There are lots of local references in the Goosander story as Hickman was certainly familiar with both Charlottetown and Pictou. He was a lecturer at the Summer School of Science, and annual training workshop for teachers held in Charlottetown in the early years of the 20th century. Incidentally, a goosander is a type of sea duck, very similar to the common merganser.
If you wish to read the Goosander story, which is an excellent example a certain period in Canadian literature, it can be found by following these links: part 1 Canadian Magazine Vol 24 No 1 pp 67-76 Nov 1904 part 2 Canadian Magazine Vol 24 No 2 pp 120-127 Dec 1904 .
A very interesting analysis of the story in the context of industrialization and regional identity can be found in a chapter titled “An ugly piled-up sea” by Caitlin Charman which appears in The Greater Gulf: Essays in the Environmental History of the Gulf of St. Lawrence published in 2019.
Hickman’s full-length novel, The Sacrifice of the Shannon , which is a love story centered around ice-breakers in the Strait and Gulf of St. Lawrence, also draws on his experiences in Maritime waters and will be the subject of a future posting.