The Unhappy Afterlife of the S.S. Prince Edward Island

Whitby 1991

S.S. Prince Edward Island in Whitby Harbour 1991. Toronto Star photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive.

In 1968 the arrival of the new carferry John Hamilton Gray the railcar ferry S.S. Prince Edward Island was finally made redundant. Now this had happened before. In 1933 the S.S. Charlottetown was launched and the Prince Edward Island was relegated to stand-by back-up service, taking over when the Charlottetown was sent to its annual refit in drydock or on those rare occasions such as Old Home Week when traffic began to back up. It was on a trip to Saint John for re-fit in 1941 that the Charlottetown sank after hitting a reef on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.  The Prince Edward Island was once again lead boat with only the Canso Strait ferries Scotia and Scotia II available to take over for the Prince Edward Island’s own annual trips to re-fit. 

With the launch of the Abegweit (the real Abegweit, not the trumped up, banana- shaped,  seagoing bus station that replaced it) in 1947, the Prince Edward Island once again became the second boat, spending much of the year forlornly tied up either at the old slip in Tormentine or on the Borden side. Increasing auto, passenger, and rail traffic meant the Prince was more and more frequently called to assist in the summer and shoulder seasons so that for part of the year, at least, there was effectively a two-boat ferry service. 

As a child I was always delighted when we caught the Prince Edward Island as it was a much more interesting ship to explore. We, with the abridged parental responsibilities of the period, had the full run of the ship from bow to stern and from lifeboats to engine room. Everything, from engines to winches to the ventilation fans ran on steam and the ship had a peculiar atmosphere of condensing steam, even when the coal boilers were replaced by bunker-C oil tanks. A strange blocked off stairway near the stern spoke of another time aboard as it was labeled “First Class Passengers Only.” I was only later that I learned that this was from the days before the vessel was disfigured to create an auto deck from the handsome passenger lounge. 

In the flurry of changes in the later 1960s with new boats and new terminal facilities the Prince Edward Island disappeared from Northumberland Strait. The veteran vessel was moved the Halifax waiting for final disposition and although seen with a slight list its profile with the unusual four funnels was one of the sights of the Halifax waterfront that Islanders remarked on until 1971.

Halifax 1970 copyright Mac Mackay

The S.S. Prince Edward Island awaiting its fate. Halifax 1970. Photo – Shipfax. Copyright Mac Mckay

It was at that time that the vessel was acquired by McNamara Marine, a dredging and marine facilities concern with an operation base on Lake Ontario.  The company, which was established in 1954 had a shipyard and dry-dock  on the east side of Whitby Harbour. In 1972 McNamara was one of a consortium of companies that had successfully bid on a major dredging contract to deepen the waters near the Isle of Orleans, just downstream from  the city of Quebec, so that larger ocean-going vessels could access the port.

The companies assembled a fleet of bulk carrying lake boats to carry dredging spoils as well as a number of dredgers. The latter vessels were powered by powerful electric motors to handling the dredging. The Prince Edward Island became a sort of mother ship for the fleet. With her superstructure removed, six diesel generator sets, each producing 1,200 horsepower, provided power for the dredges. The mother ship also served as the receiver for the spoils which were piped to the vessel from the dredges and transferred to the lakers for dumping. With the completion of the Quebec project the vessel continued to be used by McNamara for other projects. One source suggests it was once towed to the Caribbean for use as a mobile generating station. However it ended up at the company dock in Whitby.  Sometime before the company was wound up in 1988 the ship (or what remained of it) to was sold to another owner. 

The now derelict hulk came with a host of problems. Two transformers still on board contained  500 gallons of cooling chemicals containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The transformers were in common use across the country but in the 1970s the chemical was found to be a dangerous source of cancer agents and its use was banned.  Aside from the problem of the unsightly hulk, the Town of Whitby was alarmed by the presence of the chemicals on the waterfront and in 1987 began a campaign to have the vessel and its contents removed. The wharf, however, was owned by the federal government and the vessel’s owner had continued to pay dockage so the Town’s efforts were stymied. 

In 1990 the Prince Edward Island sank causing additional concern but when it was refloated it was inspected by the Canadian Coast Guard which concluded that the ship was in “relatively good condition” and was safe to continue to be used for storage of the transformers. In the meantime the Town has been successful in its bid to have the wharf property transferred to the municipality and began proceedings to evict the vessel. It was removed by court order in June 1992 and appears to have been moved to Toronto.  It is possible that at a later date it was moved to St. Catherine’s but the exact location after 1992 has been hard to determine. 

Whitby 1987

S.S. Prince Edward Island in Whitby 1987. The graffiti message “adios” was not to be fulfilled for another five years. Toronto Star photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive


Whitby 1990 tpl

Bow view of the S.S. P.E.I. Three transformers filled with dangerous chemicals can be seen on the upper deck. Toronto Star Photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive

At this writing, more than a century since the launch of the once-proud ship, it has in all likelihood, been long since scrapped. I would be pleased to hear from anyone who can tell me more about the vessels fate. The ship beloved by Islanders was a vital link with Canada for more than half a century and it is a surprise to find that it existed in its much altered form for another 25 or more years. Today aside from memories and photographs little remains of the S.S. Prince Edward Island. Little, that is except for one  large artifact.          

wheelhouse_5

Wheelhouse of the S.S. Prince Edward Island at the National Museum of Science and Technology, Ottawa . Photo Paul Martin / Ingenium

At some time during the removal of the ship’s superstructure the entire wheelhouse and its equipment was removed. Today it is in the collection of Canada’s Museum of Science and Technology. The wheel, binnacle, telegraph and rudder indicator are the original equipment, installed during the ship’s building in 1914-1915 and are retained as artifacts of the age of steam.  

If you found this posting on the S.S. Prince Edward Island of interest you may want to look at other pages concerning the ship. These include a detailed examination of the building and launch of the vessel here, and to story of her conversion to accommodate automobiles which can be seen by clicking here.

I am grateful to researcher Gary Carroll who passed on information with two of the photos of the Prince at Whitby  which led to my quest to discover the fate of the vessel. 

4 thoughts on “The Unhappy Afterlife of the S.S. Prince Edward Island

  1. Steven

    The information I received is that the vessel remained in Whitby as you described, until the late 1980s or early 1990s, having been purchased by a local scrap dealer from Cartier-McNamara. The scrap dealer and the municipal council were at odds over the vessel remaining docked in Whitby Harbour. By the early 1990s (not sure on the exact date) the scrap dealer had it towed to Toronto to the west side of Toronto Island Airport where it was anchored off the seawall for a period (several weeks, possibly several months) but residents of this gentrifying waterfront area complained and the vessel was towed a final time into the inner harbour where it was docked near Cherry Street. Sometime in the mid-90s or maybe closer to 1996/1998 (can’t remember the date), it was vandalized as someone cut it adrift and it sank in the basin near Cherry Street. That was where it met its end, reportedly in either 1996 or 1998, as it was cut apart and scrapped from its final resting place in the basin instead of being refloated. I’m not sure if this was done by the owner, or if the Toronto Harbour Authority / Ports Canada took over. I thought that there were photos of it being scrapped which were provided to PARO or perhaps this was LAC but I’ve never seen them. I don’t see anything in the search results for either collection but I do recall finding reference to these photos during a previous search. Also, Scotia II met its end in 2004 in Hamilton Harbour where it was scrapped by its final owner, McKiel Marine after they purchased it from CN in 1994 (Scotia II being made redundant after the opening of the new St Clair Tunnel which allowed oversized rail cars). 2004 was a momentous year for the Borden ferries as the MV John Hamilton Gray and the MV Abegweit (1982 – formerly MV Straitway) were also scrapped that spring in Alang, India.

    Reply
    1. sailstrait Post author

      Thank you for this additional information which I will add directly to the text in a later edit. All too often these stories just peter out with a lack of documentation. It is nice to have closure on the story of the grand lady of the Strait.

      Reply
  2. Chris Mears

    I sure enjoyed this read and the updates. We moved to the Island in the early 1980’s so I never saw this ship in service and I wish I had. The photos I’ve seen of it are from its earliest periods of service and it is definitely of another era—an interesting thing to think of arriving on the Island after having travelled on something so beautiful (kind of an interesting contrast to the present day fourteen kilometre drive across the bridge).

    I’m off to go enjoy reading your posts on the Scotia and Scotia II. Those open deck ferries are so cool. That said, I recall what it was like to be on the Strait when there’s a roll and I can’t imagine what being on these particular boats must have been like in those conditions.

    Chris

    Reply
    1. gegdol

      Thank you for the interesting stories. They bring back memories of my summer jobs working on the “Prince” and the Abegweit for three summers as Purser’s assistant, Waiter, and Deckhand.
      My father, Maurice Lodge, was Chief Electrical Engineer on the Abegweit and also served on the Charlottetown and the Prince before the war. We lived in Sorel for a year or so where the Abegweit was built. I will always remember spending about a week 24/7 during the Christmas and New Years holidays of 1955 as a watchman on the Scotia tied up in Cape Tormentine. What a miserable time that was – living in a steel cabin with a smoky coal stove for heat plus numerous blankets reeking of coal dust. I would go to the Abegweit for meals and to meet my relief – it was a long wait.

      Some decades ago I believe it was the Toronto Star that had a picture of a very large cast iron part of the stern of the Prince being removed from Toronto harbourfront as part of a cleanup. It showed the part of the keel that covered the two stern propeller shafts.

      Graham Lodge

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.