Breaking Ice With the Russians – The Second World War – part 1

The story of how the PEI Steamers Earl Grey and Minto ended up in Russia during the First World War has already been told in these postings.  This chapter tells how the experience was repeated almost thirty years later with the CGS Montcalm, a frequent visitor to Charlottetown. 

In the 1920s and 1930s the Charlottetown Agency of the Department of Marine and Fisheries was a busy spot. Prior to Confederation it had been an important base for the Royal Navy’s hydrographic service under Admiral Bayfield and as the main port in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence it gradually expanded its operations so that a high proportion of the lighthouse and buoy servicing for locations in Newfoundland,  Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia  was conducted by vessels operating out of Charlottetown. 

By 1925 the PEI agency had responsibility for 59 light stations, 195 other lights, 6 lifesaving stations and two rocket brigades. Buoys serviced by government steamers included 13 bell buoys, 8 whistle buoys as well as a number of gas, conical, cask, spar and beacon buoys. In addition more than 2000 other aids to navigation were managed under contracts.   

Some of the vessels were permanently attached to the Charlottetown Agency. These included the Brant, the Stanley, and the Aranmore. In other cases vessels paid regular visits to the Prince Edward Island port as part of a rotation of services. This was the case with the CGS (Canadian Government Steamer) Montcalm which had an interesting history both before and after it was an annual visitor to Charlottetown.   


C.G.S. Montcalm ca. 1920

The Montcalm had been built in Scotland in 1904. She was only the fourth icebreaker built for the Dominion. The Stanley and the Minto were still in service while the Northern Light had long since been broken up. Unlike the other vessels which had been specifically assigned to the passage between Prince Edward Island and the Mainland, the Montcalm was slated for other duties. 


Montcalm shortly after launch.

To some extent her design reflected this. The Stanley and Minto were both designed to carry large numbers of passengers as well as freight and mails for Prince Edward Island. They had a fixed route and were not necessarily expected to be breaking the ice for other vessels. The Montcalm, although equipped to carry passengers and government officials was built for smashing ice to clear jams and guide other vessels. In this respect the ship had more in common with Baltic icebreakers than the two Canadian vessels.    

Ever since the days of Edwin Sewell and the Northern Light it had long been conceded that keeping open the passage down the St. Lawrence from Quebec to the Atlantic was an impossible task.  While the river flow and tidal movement below Quebec broke up the ice and created shifting openings of clear water from time to time, above Quebec, where the river narrowed and there were no tidal changes the river was often frozen solid from shore to shore. Moreover the ice jams, especially those at Cap Rouge just west of the city, usually resulted in significant flooding in areas above Quebec.   

This was the problem for which the Montcalm was engineered. In addition to flood control, it was hoped that the presence of an icebreaker to keep ice moving at the times of freeze-up and spring thaw might also add a few weeks to the already short shipping season at Quebec. 

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The Montcalm reflected modern ice-breaker design. At 245 feet and displacing 1,350 tons it was larger and stronger than its predecessors. Moreover, it carried two sets of triple-expansion engines powering twin screws so that loss of a propeller blade, a frequent problem with ice-breaking ships, would not be fatal to its mission.  With a double strength plating and reinforced frames as well as specially strengthened steel for framing and stringer it was built to the highest Lloyds insurance standards for ice navigation. A prominent visible feature of the vessel was the “crow’s nest” on the foremast which was used to survey the icefields and help plot a course.  While not a passenger vessel per se the Montcalm had a mahogany paneled saloon with an ornamental skylight, staterooms for guests, and a ladies cabin with attached lavatory.    

The vessel was built in a remarkably short time. The order was received at the shipyard on 24 June 1904 and the ship was launched in late October and completed on 12 November. By the time the ice had set in at Quebec at the end of 1904 the Montcalm was already on station.  Initial reports were good with vessel keeping ice on the move through the narrow passage in spite of jams extending 20 feet in  the air and grounding on the bottom. However where surface ice was ten feet thick the Montcalm broke several of her propeller blades and the trial was halted for the winter. The following winter saw more success but it was judged that the effort expended was not commensurate with the effort and the attempt to keep the ice moving was abandoned for that year. However by attacking the jammed ice earlier in the spring some two weeks were added to the period when the river was opened between Quebec and Montreal. 

Over the next several years the Montcalm was employed above Quebec to attack the jams but also below the city and in most years made trips to supply settlements along the North Shore of the St Lawrence. Early in the spring of 1906 the icebreaker cruised the Cabot Strait providing information on the location of icefields by Marconi wireless and transferring mails between ocean vessels and North Sydney. 

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Lady Grey and Montcalm working in the St. Lawrence River, March 1911

Late in 1906 the Montcalm was joined in the St. Lawrence River service by the new,  slightly smaller 172 foot Lady Grey and the two vessels often worked together for the next two decades. In 1922 they were joined by the Canadian-built vessel which on its launch in 1915 as the J.D. Hazen had, like the PEI steamers Minto and Earl Grey, been sold to the Imperial Russian Government and renamed the Mikula Selianinovoch. On return to Canadian service the vessel retained the name Mikula. (The full story of the Mikula is told in an article by George Bolotenko found here).  By 1932 these had been joined by three new Canadian-built icebreakers, the Saurel, the N.B. McLean and the Bellechase

Montcalm BNQA seasonal pattern developed which saw the Montcalm working near Quebec for the winter and escorting vessels leaving the port early in spring. The ship then took up station in the Cabot Strait reporting on ice conditions in the Gulf . Once the ice season had ended, usually early in May, the Montcalm worked with the Agencies at Quebec and Charlottetown and the Sub-Agency at North Sydney on the lighthouse and buoy service.  In the summer of 1928 the Montcalm was in the Arctic as part of a mission the ensure a safe route for Hudson’s Bay shipping.   

It was this latter activity which brought the Montcalm to Charlottetown on a seasonal basis around mid-May each year.  The Montcalm picked up and then placed the larger buoys throughout the Gulf, a task which usually took about a month and then it moved on to lighthouse supply and maintenance until return to Quebec for the winter. In 1941 the responsibility for the Montcalm was moved from the Quebec Agency to the Halifax Agency and bringing the connection with the St. Lawrence River icebreaking operations to an end. The vessel took on additional activities regarding buoy and lighthouse work on the East Coast. The following year it was noted that the Montcalm had provided assistance in transporting materials connected to the war effort to the Labrador coast and Newfoundland.

By this time the Montcalm was almost forty years old and they had been hard years for the vessel, spent battling ice in the poorest of conditions. The day of the coal fired steamship was coming to an end, displaced by oil, and in some cases by diesel engines. But there was a surprise in store for the Montcalm. In 1942 the ship re-crossed the Atlantic, bound for the Soviet Union where the ship spent another dozen years, most of it working in the ice. 

That story is part two of the life of the CGS Montcalm and will appear in this space shortly.   



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