Author Archives: sailstrait

About sailstrait

I am an archivist, historian and small boat sailor. Since 2011 I have been skipper of "Ebony", a 1982 Halman Nordica 20. I sail in Northumberland Strait between Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. A long time interest in marine and maritime history of the region has resulted in number of publications as well as the less formal presentations in this blog series. In addition I am a member of the Charlottetown Yacht Club, PEI Sailing Association and the Northumberland Strait Yachting Association. I have a specific interest in the history of the Charlottetown Yacht Club, Charlottetown Harbour, Northumberland Strait and the vessels that have sailed there over the years.

“She’s a little beauty” – The steamer Premier of the Eastern Steamship Company

On a Saturday in late August 1891 a  crowd gathered at Connolly’s wharf to greet a vessel new to Charlottetown’s waterfront. The steamer Premier was a new vessel having been launched from a yard at Ayr in South-west Scotland a short time before. Captain Allen who had brought the ship out to Halifax told the Examiner newspaper that “she’s a little beauty and bound to become a favourite with the travelling public.”

He had reason for his optimism – at least as far as the passenger accommodation went. According to the Examiner:

The Premier has a beautifully-fitted-up saloon capable of seating twenty persons which is finished in English black walnut, bird’s eye maple and cardinal plush. Opening off are eleven staterooms, each six feet square, finished in cypress wood, and fitted with the best of bedding and linen. The rooms are fitted with two berths, but if only one is required the upper one folds up to the wall, similar to the Pullman car berths. A commodious and nicely fitted-out ladies cabin is situated in the after end of the saloon, on the starboard side. It contains four berths, wash-room etc., and is an excellent room for a family to occupy. There is also a cosy smoking and card room aft.

Cosy indeed, with cabins measuring about the same size as a queen-sized bed!

The vessel was relatively small, only 155 feet long with a tonnage of 354  and with a single deck extending the length of the vessel. With freight holds fore and aft the passenger accommodation was in the middle of the vessel, a design which reduced the discomfort to those aboard as it sliced through the waves.

The ship was owned by the Eastern Steamship company which was established in Halifax in 1891 and was incorporated under Dominion legislation the same year with capital stock of $60,000. The shares were primarily held by merchants and corporations in Halifax but in what obviously an attempt to attract business from the outports among the shareholders were merchants and others from outlying areas such as North Sydney, Canso, and Guysborough. The list also included owners from Prince Edward Island such as Charles E. Robertson, Fenton Newberry and Frederick W. Hyndman from Charlottetown, and Robert T. Holman and Joseph Read of Summerside.

The operational route of the Premier was a weekly service between Halifax and Summerside with stops along the Nova Scotia Eastern Shore; Sheet Harbour, Salmon River, Sonora, Sherbrooke, Isaac’s Harbour, Whitehead, Guysborough, Arichat, Canso, Mulgrave, Port Hawkesbury, Souris, and Charlottetown.  In an effort to compete with the railway the fare from Charlottetown to Summerside was only fifty cents. It operated on this route until close of navigation in late fall1891.  That winter saw the Premier chartered and placed on the route of the Canada Atlantic Steamship Company from Halifax to Boston, freeing up that firm’s vessel, the Halifax, for a Halifax to Bermuda service.  The following year, perhaps to reduce the number of stops at small ports, Eastern Steamships chartered another vessel, the much smaller S.S. Weymouth, owned by the Weymouth Steamship Company to visit the Eastern Shore ports while the Premier stopped only at Canso, Port Mulgrave, Port Hawkesbury, Souris, Charlottetown and Summerside, connecting with the Weymouth at Canso.

Timing for the launch of the new service may not have been ideal. The passage from Charlottetown to Halifax was a route with considerable competition. The Boston and Colonial Steamers had been on the route as part of their Charlottetown to Boston line and in 1892 they added the S.S. Britannia a luxurious vessel much larger than the Premier.  Competing with both, was the was the S.S. Halifax, of the Canada Atlantic Steamship Company, which had been on the route since 1888 and had also provided a route from Charlottetown to Halifax which carried on to Boston. In addition Pickford and Black’s steamer Fastnet, just slightly smaller than the Premier, was also on the Charlottetown to Halifax service with a number of stops at intermediate ports. Those longer distance weekly sailings, along with the daily combined steamer and rail connections via Pictou between Charlottetown and Halifax, provided by the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company, gave Island passengers and shippers a breadth of choice never before available.  The Steam Navigation Company’s old paddle steamer, the Princess of Wales was replaced by a brand-new vessel, the Northumberland, in the summer of 1891. All of these vessels meant that Islanders had several options for their Halifax travels.

Probably because of this competition the venture was not a success and in October 1892 the Premier was seized by the sheriff in Halifax on behalf of the ship’s mortgage holder and was sold at auction in January 1893 for substantially less than the cost of the vessel.  Later that year it was again sold to a Montreal-based shipper, Vipond and McBride, and was used in the fresh-fruit trade carrying bananas and other fruit from the Caribbean to New York and Montreal.  In 1901 it was fitted out as a salvage vessel and in June 1917 was wrecked off Sambro Nova Scotia.

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.

An 1890 trip from Charlottetown to Halifax on the S.S. Worcester

The Boston, Halifax, and Prince Edward Island Steamship Line’s S.S. Worcester in Charlottetown Harbour ca. 1893.

The steamship connection between Charlottetown and Boston (the Boston Boat) was begun in 1864, continued until the Great War, and was revived in the 1930s.  Although many steamers served the route the most famous were the vessels Worcester and its twin the Carroll, both from the civil war era, which for more than twenty-five years regularly made the passage back and forth between the Island and New England, stopping at Port Hawkesbury and Halifax.

Thousands of Islanders made the trip, many tasking the passage scores of times. Because it was such a common shared experience, accounts of the trip are rare. The following is a report from one “Viator” (Latin for traveller) published in the Charlottetown Examiner on 22 September 1890.  The delayed start from Charlottetown was on a Friday.

The early part of the lovely month of September is, to my mind, the ideal time for a holiday trip either by land or sea. Then it is that the weather is not sufficiently warm to be oppressive, nor so cold as to be unpleasant. … I went from Charlottetown to Boston of the steamer Worcester, of the Boston, Halifax and Prince Edward Island Steamship Line and made the journey from Boston to New York via Providence by rail…

Owing to the fact that some of the ship’s firemen had indulged rather freely in the exhilarating fluids so openly and unblushingly dispensed in the Scott Act city of Charlottetown and were consequently unable to satisfactorily discharge their duties, necessitating the engagement of new men, the Worcester was almost three hours late in leaving port on the occasion of my taking passage in her. …

As the steamer passed out by the Block House the decks were lined with passengers. Some were in groups conversing and here and there a couple could be seen sitting rather closely together, as is quite natural when people are leaving home and happen to be of the opposite sexes

Passing out by the Black Buoy the water now became rough, and from the Bell Buoy until Point Prim was reached the “old reliable” made things so interesting for the before mentioned groups and couples that within half an hour the decks were deserted save by a poor seasick passenger unable to get away from the lee rail, and a few veterans … who made themselves popular by assisting the others, especially the females, to less exposed quarters. After passing Point Prim the sea was more aft, and the steamer went along more gently and quickly before the wind, and all was quiet for the night when the writer retired.

By daylight the next morning the steamer was well in between Cape George Promontory and the Straits of Canso, and the passengers were afforded a magnificent view of one of the most picturesque sights to be seen in North America. The high land of Cape George trending away to the south-west lost itself among the fertile valleys of Antigonish, only to reappear again in greater elevation as it spread out before us and touched the water at Cape Porcupine, Straits of Canso. Then a small gap and the loftier hills of Cape Breton stretch themselves before our vision, varied here and there by sharply-defined and precipitous buffs, which seemed away in a blue distance to almost touch the heavens. Port Hood Island showed out as a clearly-marked spot to the left, while just a shadow on the water astern gave mute evidence of the one spot every man cherishes – “Our native land.” As it lies peaceful and quiet on the very verge of the horizon, one is reminded of the many souls that have left its shores, how few, alas, of whom return to enjoy the peace and tranquility they so much desired before “passing to that bourne whence no traveller returns.” But the breakfast bell cuts short one’s musings, and, fully alive to the importance of the occasion, I made my way in the direction of the dining saloon. While we were at breakfast the steamer was made fast to the wharf at Port Hawkesbury.

After breakfast and ascertaining that the steamer would have to await the arrival of the Sydney boat which was likely to be late owing to the fresh westerly wind prevailing and having Mr. Sawyer’s guarantee that we would not be left behind Capt. Bernard, Mr. Wright and myself started off to see the sites of Port Hawkesbury…..

Delayed by the late arrival of the connecting steamer from Sydney, Viator and several other passengers took a tour on the Canso Strait area which coincided with the passage of part of the Royal Navy’s North Atlantic Fleet on its way to Quebec. The description of this part of the trip has been omitted but can be found in the full newspaper account.

We also saw the Neptune with our Sydney passengers passing along so we dropped our inspection of the railways and warships and hastened back to our boatman who soon landed us on the Worcester… In the meantime, the Neptune had tied up to the wharf, and by noon the passengers and their baggage were transferred to the Worcester, and we were off again.  As the boat left the harbour we met a beautiful steam yacht flying the stars and stripes and as we went by both steamers dipped their flags with marine courtesy. Now all was life and animation aboard. Everyone was busily engaged admiring the rough scenery of “the Gut” — quite a change to most of our passengers from the low land and red clay of P.E. Island. … As the steamer passed down Chedabucto Bay we began to get evidence of the sea roll, and by the time she rounded Cape Canso and was fairly headed up the shore for Halifax, a good many of the now familiar faces had disappeared to be seen no more until our arrival in Halifax. The sea was not rough, but it kept up a constant motion not to be borne by new beginners. Still, however, there was quite a number of passengers around the decks till night, after which only a few couples kept possession of the benches until ten, at which hour the steward and stewardess made their rounds as usual and gathered in the stragglers. About four o’clock in the afternoon we passed the Carroll — the sister ship of this line — bound east. All the afternoon and evening Nova Scotia was a blue line off the fight hand side (perhaps I should say starboard side) and every hour or two we could make out a new lighthouse and after dark the lights.

Next morning when I came on deck there was every appearance of rain, and the steamer was abreast of Devil’s Island Light, with Chedabucto Head stretching out away across our bows. By nine o’clock we arrived at the wharf in Halifax. All hands are on deck again anxious for a run on shore after the tedium of seasickness, and soon the Worcester is almost deserted. As she has a large freight to take in for Boston the stevedores and crew are soon hard at work. While the loading is in progress the passengers start off to “do” the city.

Halifax was reached on Sunday morning. Viator toured the city and re-boarded the Worcester to complete the trip to Boston which was reached on Monday afternoon.