Mr. Kemp’s Very Special Oyster Boat

The Island waters a century ago were still populated with steamers and the few remaining sailing vessels were becoming fewer and fewer. Aside from the regular visitors of companies such as the Quebec Steamship Company and the local Island Tug Company’s Harland the most frequent ships were those of the federal government. At the time the Marine and Fisheries Department still counted Charlottetown as one of their main bases. With responsibilities for much of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Northumberland Strait the lighthouse and buoy tenders such as the Brant and the Stanley were often to be found at the wharf near the foot of Great George Street. 

In the 1910s and 1920s they were joined in Charlottetown by another vessel which was attached to the fisheries part of the Department’s mandate – at least for the winter season when the waters around the Island were ice covered. During the rest of the year the vessel could be found in the bays and estuaries of the region This was a relatively small ship with a specialized purpose and was one of the earliest scientific research vessels operated by the Dominion government.

Oysters had been a part of the island economy since at least the 1820s when they were being shipped to Quebec and Nova Scotia but it was not until the late 1880s that they came under scrutiny by the Dominion government. In 1890 the government hired Ernest Kemp of Whitstable England to come to the Island and study the oyster industry.  Although he conducted research in all three of the maritime provinces most of his work was done in Prince Edward Island. Working in connection with a research station, originally located in Malpeque but later moved to Ellerslie, Kemp  examined the oysters and especially their cultivation, with the aim of increasing production and enhancing their economic value.

Beginning with leased boats or small vessels borrowed from other government operations he was soon recommending a specific vessel for oyster research and in 1901 was able to persuade the department to fund a vessel of his own design. Launched the following year in Yarmouth the 50-foot wooden vessel was named the Ostrea, the scientific name for oyster. The vessel does not appear to have been registered and few details and no images of the vessel have been located but it served as a platform for research across the region for several years.     

However, it obviously did not meet all the needs because in 1915 work on a new research vessel commenced at the government shipyard at Sorel Quebec. The new ship was considerable larger than the original Ostrea with an overall length of 85 feet, a width of 18 feet, and drawing 4 feet 9 inches.  It was composite construction with steel framing including 5 steel watertight bulkheads but having planking of rock elm, oak, and B.C. fir. The engine was supplied by the John Ingles Company of Toronto and the boiler was built at the shipyard. One major working improvement was a steam winch which was used to hoist the dredges, a job on the older boat done by hand.   Slight delays caused by a war-time shortage of materials delayed her delivery until mid-September 1916 when Capt. Kemp took command at Sorel and made way to Charlottetown where it was laid up for the winter. Kemp was well-pleased. “She is roomy and fitted with all modern conveniences and I am in hopes that much more effective work will be done in this one than in the former boat, which was much smaller.” One feature remarked on by the Charlottetown Guardian was a lifeboat with a “detachable gasoline engine”. This vessel too, was named the Ostrea but unlike the smaller boat was duly registered.  The first Ostrea was then offered for sale with the proviso that the new owner would be required to change the name of the vessel.

The second Ostrea (pictured above) continued to be in the Dominion government service until 1930 although after 1920 the oyster industry was decimated by disease and almost disappeared, not recovering for two decades. For several years in the late 1920s the vessel remained on the hard and was maintained by departmental staff. With the dramatic decline in the industry the size of the vessel and its operating expense may have been too much for the task at hand. In 1929 David R. Dodge, writing on the oyster culture on Prince Edward Island had complained that “the real needs are a proper oyster boat and a good-sized power tender…” which would allow for service on the small beds in the rivers, impossible with the current Ostrea.  The next year the vessel it was sold to J. Simon of Halifax. He later incorporated the Hochelaga Shipping and Towing Company and in 1935 the Ostrea was transferred to the company. In September 1934 while engaged in a salvage contract the Ostrea struck the end of an underwater portion of a pier in Port Morian Cape Breton. The damage appeared to be minor but about twenty minutes later, and after travelling about 3½ miles, the steamer sank. A legal action was commenced on the basis that the pier was a hazard to navigation and the federal government was found on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada to be liable for the loss.

A third vessel in the oyster service – unhelpfully named the Ostrea II – was built of wood in Tancook Island, Nova Scotia in 1930 and fitted with a semi-diesel engine. The vessel was registered in Charlottetown 1932 and was subsequently placed in service in Richmond Bay. It was described as a “small craft” and was smaller than both of predecessors having a length of 44 feet and gross tonnage of 33 tons. Its registration was transferred to Marine Industries Limited of Sorel Quebec late in 1945 and it was described as a “Wood Crude Oil Scow” at the time.  Although it was not taken off the registry until 1961 it is likely it had been broken up some years before that.

The several Ostreas may have been small vessels when compared with other ships in the fleet of the Dominion but they were the mainstay of oyster research for much of the first half of the 20th century. 

For an expanded paper with notes and more details click on this link.


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