Seven Miles to Open Water

Laidup 4

Being laid up in the ice was a costly proposition for any skipper. Public Archives and Records Office. David Sterling Album accession 3218 (detail)

Today with climate change it is difficult to understand the preoccupation with the time of the ice closure in Charlottetown Harbour. The end to navigation meant the effective closure of the Island to outside travel. The winter ice-boats and the next to useless steamers maintained a fiction of contact, but when the ice set in commerce pretty well stopped. Normally this would be in mid-December but some years the season could extend into early January.  The winter of 1880–1881 was unusual in the other direction. Hard frosts and early winter storms meant that the estuaries of the Island began to freeze up before the end of November. 

For famers and shippers this was cause for major concern. There was little enough time between harvest and freeze up to prepare produce for shipping and get it to the sailing vessels that came up the Island’s rivers to load at the many wharves serving the Island’s farmers. As colder weather approached feverish efforts were made to ensure that as many ships as possible escaped the grasp of the ice. I have noted the results of this concern in a posting here. A loaded ship frozen in meant that crops such as oats would not get to market until spring. For potatoes it meant the loss of the crop for the produce could not survive the winter and was unsaleable. Even for farmers who were lucky enough to get their produce shipped before the freeze up it was a problem as the entire district suffered when a cargo failed to make the deadline as there was less cash in the community.

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Detail from Lot 65, 1880 Meacham’s Atlas showing Eliott River from McEwans Wharf to Charlottetown Harbour

On the West River McEwan’s Wharf, or Westville (now New Dominion) was a busy spot. It had a store and a steam-powered, grist, saw and shingle mill. The wharf was on the steamer route and served communities extending as far as Canoe Cove and the entire southern part of Lot 65. 

In late November 1880 the 190 ton schooner Neva from Bayfield, Nova Scotia was loading at the wharf when the weather turned, and by the 24th it was frozen in with a partial cargo of 6,000 bushels of potatoes aboard bound for the Boston market, worth about $1,500. By the end of the month it was clear that the ice was here to stay and was already five to seven inches thick – enough to support a horse – all the way down to the Three Tides where the tide and river currents kept the ice from forming until later in the winter. 

Faced with the loss of the cargo the whole community, led by Angus MacDonald and David McEwan, began the almost impossible task of cutting a channel through the ice to take the Neva to open water. Working with horses and hand tools in the freezing weather with a biting north-west wind it took three days to move the schooner through the ice the seven miles from McEwan’s to the Three Tides. Although only a few farmers had produce aboard the ship, this was an effort of the entire community in a cooperative recognition of the rural need to help one-another. The work, done “manfully and gratuitously” by thirty to forty of those from the district saw the Neva finally reach the Three Tides on the 3rd of December. Once in open water she immediately set sail for the still-open harbour of Georgetown where she took on the balance of cargo for New England.  The vessel passed through the Strait of Canso heading south on the 13th of December.   

Late in December the Charlottetown Examiner published a letter from James Keay, Captain of the schooner Neva . In it he thanked all those who had assisted in the successful effort to rescue his ship from the ice.  She had come through the ordeal unscathed, “the trifling scratching of her paint being of little consequence.” He praised the character of the men of the West River: “their industrious habits being worthy of imitation, they have shown in this instance, and I believe it is characteristic of them, a real sympathy for me in distress, exhibiting a most laudable effort to save valuable property.”  The Neva had been lucky in 1880 and continued to trade in the region until 1889 when she was wrecked off Cape George, not far from her home port. 


1 thought on “Seven Miles to Open Water

  1. Laura Beach

    What a wonderful and timely message you send with “Seven Miles to Open Water.” Let’s indeed work together to resolve our problems, including the current potato impasse. Keep up your great work.


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