The last iceboat on the Strait

When the S.S. Prince Edward Island began service between the Capes in 1917 it looked as if the iceboat days were over. The new railcar ferry certainly met expectations with its comfortable interior and fast crossings. It seemed as if the unreliable days of the winter steamers such as the Northern Light, Stanley, Minto and Earl Grey were finally at an end. Each of those boats had promised more than they delivered and although each had been better and more reliable than the one that it had replaced the ice was still a formidable foe.

Until the S.S. P.E.I. began service, each of the new steamers seemed unable to cope with the many winters when severe ice jammed the strait and rafted the floes into ridges sometimes exceeding twenty feet. While many crossings had been routine there were a few that created major problems for travellers resulting from being stuck in the ice for days, weeks, and even on a few occasions for more than a month. The winter steamers carried Capes-style iceboats because there was a frequent need to transport mails and passengers to shore when the vessels became jammed in the ice. Because of the unreliability of the steamers, iceboats at the Capes were kept in readiness and were often called into service. Better a cold, uncomfortable, and possibly dangerous day on the ice in an open boat taking four, eight or ten hours than stuck off Pictou or Cape Bear for a week or more.

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S.S. Stanley in Charlottetown Harbour showing iceboats on davits. A.W. Mitchell Photo. Public Archives and Records Office.

The S.S. P.E.I. changed the expectations and although sometimes delayed by heavy ice it was unusual that the new steamer was trapped for any length of time. However, as security and in remembrance of earlier times the Prince Edward Island was equipped with iceboats as had been the older steamers. By 1925 it was beginning to look as if that precaution was excessive.

That changed in March. It had been a winter of heavy ice but the carferry was able to make slow progress through the ice until early in the month. On a Saturday morning the ship left Port Borden and made good time until it neared Cape Tormentine when it became good and truly stuck in rafted ice jamming up near the Tormentine Reef. Walter O’Brien remembered the trip well. He had been working as fireman and that winter had worked for six weeks without a day off to get ashore or have a haircut, paid a hundred dollars a month. As a fireman he shoveled coal and raked fires on four hour shifts, often with just a snack of bread between watches and little time to wash or shave and always with not enough sleep.


S.S. P.E.I.  at Borden showing iceboat carried at stern. ca. 1918 Detail from Louson postcard for Carter & Co.. Image courtesy of Phil Culhane

With the vessel stuck off Tormentine, coal began to run low and had to be shifted from the reserve bunkers and carried to the stoke holds to keep the steam up and the engines running day and night. Captain J.L. Read kept the engines constantly running ahead and astern to keep the ship from being pinched by the ice but was unable to make any progress towards port. O’Brien remembered the ice surrounding the ship as soot-stained from the black coal-smoke from the four funnels. By Tuesday afternoon of the following week, with food on the ship beginning to run out, Captain Read ordered the iceboat to be lowered and directed that the passengers be taken to shore with crew members hauling the passengers’ luggage in the iceboat. Office A.B. Paquet (later to be Captain Paquet), armed with a pike pole for safety, guided them across the ice to the Cape. Scarcely had the last of them reached the Tormentine shore than the wind and tide changed. The ice was finally lifted and within an hour the Prince Edward Island had safely tied up to the ferry terminal. The trip from pier to pier had taken seventy-six hours. Quickly taking on the waiting Island-bound passengers and rail cars stuck at Tormentine for for up to three days, the steamer made the passage back to Borden in an hour.

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Charlottetown Guardian 7 August 1926 p. 8

Notwithstanding this last small service for the iceboat, the following year tenders were called by Canadian National Railways for the dispersal of the fleet. Advertised for sale were ten iceboats at Cape Traverse, five at Cape Tormentine and three at Pictou. The last group had been used prior to 1917 and were frequently called for in relation to the steamers plying between Georgetown and Pictou. All were to be sold together with oars, rowlocks, leather straps, boathooks, handles , telescopes, sails, ropes, foghorns, bailers and spars. It is not clear where the boats ended up but some may have ended up being used for the iceboat across Charlottetown Harbour to Rocky Point or for the service from Cariboo to Pictou Island.

1 thought on “The last iceboat on the Strait

  1. Allison Nelson

    Great post Harry! Been home sick with Covid so catching up on your blog has been my entertainment for some long quarantine hours. Much better now.

    Allison Nelson


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