The Dominion Government ice-breaking steamer Minto once served as the inspiration for a love story and adventure set in the frozen icefields of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In fact, if the author is to believed, the writing of the novel was actually begun aboard the Minto in the winter of 1902. Budding writer W. Albert Hickman used his experience aboard the vessel as the framework for for this first (and last) full length novel, The Sacrifice of the Shannon, which was published the following year.
Hickman, whose background is outlined in a previous posting concerning his Northumberland Strait short story Goosander (posted here), was a talented and well-educated young man with excellent connections among the Maritime elite centered around the town of Pictou. Although he was later to achieve renown as a marine engineer and designer Hickman’s early asperations were as a writer. He had a great interest in marine technology and the winter service between Prince Edward Island and the mainland provided two examples of developing ice-breaker design in the vessels Stanley (launched 1888) and Minto, (launched 1899) both named in honour of the Governor General of the Day.
The 1902 real-life drama of the Minto coming to the aid of the Stanley which had been trapped in a pan of ice in Northumberland Strait for sixty-six days was used as the basis for a dramatic situation in the novel when the modern advanced designed steamer Liffey rushes to try and save the slightly older Shannon both of which are owned by the Northumberland Steamship Company of Caribou, Nova Scotia. The fictional town of Caribou is a stand-in for Pictou where Hickman was living and many of the descriptions of the area are easily recognizable.
Also recognizable is the protagonist David Wilson who, with his quiet strength and experience as an inventor, naturalist, world traveler and very much a gentleman is probably as Hickman would himself would like to have been seen. While possessing all of the nineteenth century virtues, the hero is also a twentieth century man with an interest in science and engineering. Another main character is Captain Frederic Ashburn, an older and experienced veteran of ice navigation. The love interest is one Gertrude MacMicheal, a young free-spirited modern miss.
Among the liberties that Hickman takes is shifting the ownership of the icebreakers from the Dominion government to a private steamship company and increasing their commercial activity. He does however retain the icebreaking characteristics of the two ships with their powerful engines and a design that enabled them to break ice by riding up on the floes and crushing them with the weight of the ships. He also references the hull shape pioneered by William Sewell’s Northern Light which helped the vessel to be squeezed up out of the ice rather than be crushed by it, although ultimately the Shannon is defeated, then crushed, and finally sinks beneath the waves just after the crew is rescued by the Liffey in the nick of time.
The book is perhaps more interesting as an artifact of the era than as a timeless classic. Although based on real ships in real places the plot is somewhat tedious and fanciful, but perhaps not more so than many other novels of the period. Where it is interesting is in its depiction of the struggles of the men and vessels against the ice of Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There is in the novel a faith in the ability of technology to overcome the awesome power of nature, reflecting the confidence of early 20th century Canada. In his descriptions of the struggle between the ships and the conditions encountered in the frozen seas, Hickman is on firm ice (so to speak) and can write with some direct knowledge as he accompanied the Minto on at least one of her ice-breaking voyages between Pictou and Charlottetown and seems to have a good knowledge of the vessel operations. Both Captain Finlayson and Chief Engineer Ferguson of the Minto are are thanked in the introduction to the volume.
The depictions of the powerful effect of the moving floes of ice on the vessels are particularly vivid. Here, for example is Hickman’s description of a scene when the steamer Shannon is caught between two colliding floes or pans of ice:
There was a long, indescribable crash of clumpets grinding clumpets to lolly, a rush of iron ice mounting on ice mounting on ice ands crashing on steel, until pieces weighing tons came raining down on the Shannon’s deck and upper works. The pressure was fearful, and the boat’s starboard side at the number three compartment was being literally crushed in, while she was forced over to port until we could hardly hold our footing on the floor of the wheel-house. Just forward of the wheel-house to windward a big flat piece of board-ice stood up on edge for a moment, and then toppled over and smashed one of the boats to firewood. All the time the grinding of ice on ice was past the power of human words to tell, while loud above everything else we could hear the booming cracks of breaking clumpets.
The authenticity of description is enhanced by a number of photographs accompanying the publication which Hickman supplied to the New York publisher which were used in the 1903 first edition of book and as the basis of the cover of the volume. These were taken by Hickman himself and are of, and aboard, the Minto which was used as the model for the Liffey in the book.
One of these photos was subsequently used several years later as the basis for a postcard issued by a Pictou publisher.
With its nod to the nautical history of the area the book is an interesting artifact of the period and contains a lively picture of ice navigation at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Sacrifice of the Shannon has been republished and is available through booksellers but the first edition is available on-line at the Hathi Trust site found here Good quality first editions are also available at reasonable prices (some at less cost than the 2001 re-print) through a number of antiquarian booksellers.
Although Albert Hickman would go on to publish a novella and a number of short stories, The Sacrifice of the Shannon was his only lengthy work and his later fame was not in the literary world.