Author Archives: sailstrait

About sailstrait

I am an archivist, historian and small boat sailor. Over the years have built several small boats, the most recent of which was a Medway Skiff. Since 2011 I have been skipper of "Ebony", a 1982 Halman 20. I sail in Northumberland Strait between Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Member of the Charlottetown Yacht Club, PEI Sailing Association and the Northumberland Strait Yachting Association. I have also an interest in the history of the Charlottetown Yacht Club, Charlottetown Harbour, Northumberland Strait and the vessels that have sailed there over the years.

Henry Aitken to the rescue

From his house just above the village of Pownal Nathaniel Gay had a fine view out over the low shores of Crown Point and out into Pownal Bay towards Governors Island. On Tuesday morning 28 September 1875 after a night in which the wind blew particularly hard he spotted a vessel stranded on the reef running east from the Island. What made the sight more urgent was that he was able to see men clinging to the rigging as the gale force winds from the West North West tore at the grounded ship.

Chart of Governors Island and Pownal Bay 1869. To reach the Mary Kate on the east reef of the Island the Henry Aitken would have had to go around the Island to the south to avoid the Squaw Point reef.

There was nothing he could do from the shore and the few boats which might be found at Pownal Wharf or along the shore were too small to be of any assistance so he headed along the Georgetown Road towards Charlottetown seven miles to the ferry at Southport where he likely would have had to wait for a boat. He crossed the Hillsborough River and raised the alarm with officials in the city.  Luckily the tug Henry Aitken  was tied to the dock and its owner William Batt readily agreed to attempt to get to the wreck although seas were running high and the gale blowing full force.  The Henry Aitken was an almost new vessel having been built by William H. Batt and launched in the fall of 1874. However as it sat at dockside the tug was low on coal and lacked a boat suitable to get to the wreck which was in shallow waters which the Henry Aitken could not safely enter. Coaling of the steamer began immediately and enquiries were made for a boat.  Both the Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company were in dock at the time but there was confusion about a lifeboat as the captain of the passenger steamer was concerned about an unknown crew manning the lifeboat. In the delay a boat was secured from Peake Bros.  Five volunteers came forward from those on the wharf at the time and together with the tug’s Captain Robertson, Frank Batt, William Batt, Richard Hayes and Nathaniel Gay  set out on their dangerous mission.  It was now three o’clock, Many hours having passed without an update on the shipwrecked crew, while Nathaniel Gay made his way to town and the time it took for coaling and preparation. No one was certain that the crew of the stricken vessel had been able to stay aboard, or if the vessel was still afloat.

The Henry Aitken was 60 feet long and displaced 38 tons and she had a powerful engine but even she struggled with the conditions. As they left the limited shelter of the harbour waves broke over the tug and water poured through the hatches. Captain Robertson kept two pumps steadily at work and still had to resort to bailing to keep the waters from quenching the fires. The lifeboat in tow was swamped three times by the seas and had to be recovered and emptied. The Henry Aitken approached as close as the captain dared and the lifeboat was launched. The volunteers pulled towards the wreck with alacrity and were able to haul aboard the crew of the schooner who had been lashed to the rigging to prevent being swept into the raging seas.

As with many small coasting vessels there was a small crew with only four aboard; Edward Walsh, the master, two crew, Alex Hamilton and Patrick Kirwin, and a ship’s boy George Wood. All were exhausted, especially the boy, from having been exposed on the endangered ship without shelter but they began to recover once aboard the tug, which immediately began its return to the safety of the harbour, reaching the wharf about seven in the evening. The vessel was the Mary Kate bound inwards from Cape Breton with a cargo of limestone. She was little different from the dozens of small vessels which kept Charlottetown supplied with bulk cargos such as limestone and coal and carried away Island produce to nearby ports.  The name was common and there were several Mary Kates that visited Charlottetown in the early 1870s. One was owned in Charlottetown by W.W. Lord and D. Miller but it is not clear if this was the one which came to grief on Governors Reef.

The report of the incident in the Patriot newspaper concluded; “Too much cannot be said in praise of the brave men who risked their lives on that wild evening to succor their fellow-creatures in distress and we trust that they may receive a substantial reward for their gallant conduct.”

The storm was not the disaster that other storms such as the August gale of 1873* had been but several vessels were reported ashore in Egmont Bay and near Seacow Head and on the Nova Scotia shore.

The following year the Dominion government paid William Batt a reward of $150 for the use of the tug and hire of eight men to rescue the crew of the Mary Kate while the government also paid to clothe the shipwrecked sailors and pay their passage home. The Henry Aitken continued to provide tug and steamer services in the harbour of Charlottetown and in Northumberland Strait until 1889 when she was broken up and taken off the shipping register.

*An excellent account of storms during the period can be found in Ed MacDonald’s “The August Gale and the Arc of Memory on Prince Edward Island” in The Island Magazine Number 56 Fall/Winter 2004


Cape Traverse and the winter steamer Petrel

A look at the map will show that the shortest distance from Prince Edward Island to the mainland is between Cape Traverse and Cape Tormentine.  The Capes route was the site of the undersea telegraph cable and the winter iceboat service. However the steamer services took longer routes between Summerside and Shediac, and Charlottetown and Pictou. The building of branch rail lines between Sackville and Cape Tormentine and Countyline (Emerald Junction)  in the 1880s added to the attractiveness of the nine mile, one hour crossing as opposed to a four hour crossing between other ports.

Cape Traverse from the beach looking north about 1900. Rail cars can be seen on the wharf. The station and Alex Strang’s Lansdowne Hotel are on the east side of the photo. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 2353/492

Cape Traverse in 1880 showing wharf

A pier had been built at Cape Traverse (more properly Traverse Cove) by the 1860s and had been extended several times to increase the depth of water at its outer end and the railway ran down right onto the wharf. Although much of the community was along the road to Bedeque just to the north, development during the 1880s would be at the harbour especially after 1884 when the branch line railway to the Prince Edward Island Railway main line was completed and a station and engine house were built and a 24 room hotel built across from the station.

Advertisement for Lansdowne Hotel. Frederick’s P.E.I. Directory 1889-90

In the 1890s pressure was on the Dominion government to increase the quality of the winter steamer service. Ever since the winter steamers and iceboat service had begun operations there were those who held that a steam vessel could travel the Strait even in mid-winter as several observers, including several of the ice boat captains maintained that open water was frequently encountered in the crossing at the Capes. Even if the ships might not be able to go from port to port they might be employed to cross between the board ice which held fast to either shore. With the building of piers at both Cape Traverse and Cape Tormentine this was increasingly held out as an attractive alternative to the usual winter steamer route between Georgetown and Pictou. The lack of water at both Cape Traverse and Cape Tormentine made it almost impossible for the large ice steamers the Minto and the Stanley to stop at either location except in the most ideal of circumstances.

In 1896 the Ministry of Marine and Fisheries was prevailed upon to make a practical trial of the idea. At the time Louis Henry Davies of Charlottetown was Minister and the decision may have been a desperate measure to show that the government of the day was at least doing something in response to increasing demands for improved winter communications. A steel screw steamer, the Petrel, was leased for the winter of 1896-1897 to make steamer crossings at the Capes. The Petrel was 129 feet long and displaced 346 tons. She had been built as a tug and towboat in 1892 at Collins Bay, near Kingston Ontario, and in 1895 was owned by the Collins Bay Rafting and Forwarding Company. In spite of her small size she still drew nine and a half feet, making docking at Cape Traverse problematic. A compounding issue was that her engines were reported to be only twenty-five horsepower giving almost no ice handling capacity. At the time of the acquisition by the Government she was described as having “fair accommodation for passengers.” Her only adaption to the conditions of Northumberland Strait was to carry on her decks a couple of iceboats so that if detained by pack ice passengers and mails could be sent ashore. Before beginning service she was sent to Pictou to have additional sheathing fitted and the local newspaper there commented that “She does not look like a boat that will give satisfactory service.” Several sources state that there was no pier at Cape Traverse and that she would have to dock at board ice.

She was placed in service in mid-December 1896, initially scheduled to run between Cape Tormentine and Summerside to which port she made three round trips early in December, but was very soon the route was moved to Cape Traverse where she was expected to cross for the rest of the winter. However it was not long before the practicality of the steamer route was tested and found wanting. On one of her first trips the Petrel had to return to Cape Tormentine as the board ice on the Cape Traverse side was not strong enough for her to land her passengers. By 26 December it was reported that the Petrel’s steering gear and sheathing had been badly damaged by the ice and that she was imprisoned by the ice at the pier at Cape Tormentine and might not be able to resume work. The Petrel was soon subject to editorial ridicule, some of which was occasioned by political posturing. She was mocked for not being able to deal with ice which was too weak to carry passengers. The Examiner observed that as soon as experienced persons had seen her on her arrival from Lake Ontario they recognized that the ship would never do at all and suspicion was widespread that she had simply been leased from her Ontario owners as a political favour. The only benefit from her having been stranded in Cape Tormentine was that “she cannot again be carried to and fro in the straits at the mercy of the elements or go to the bottom with all on board.”

Due to fortuitous ice conditions early in the month she was able to make seven round trips on the Capes route, all before 15 January, but could not make not a single additional trip until 17 April. To add insult to injury, within the following week, on a voyage from Cape Tormentine to Summerside she encountered some drift ice and broke her propeller shaft, thus bringing the less than glorious performance to an end. Her total service amounted to transport of seven mails and 43 passengers over the six months of her charter. With her passenger fare revenue of only $86 the cost of more than $15,000 for the winter’s non-service was condemned as extravagant.  She was returned to her owners on Lake Ontario and the experiment, although lauded by the government as a success was not repeated.   The Petrel stood as a symbol of the failure of the government to fully address the winter navigation issue for several years. This was to cause a further problem when the unsatisfactory vessel was confused by politicians and the press with a different vessel of the same name which served in the area as a Dominion Government patrol vessel and during the Great War as H.M.C.S Petrel.

Although the clamor for more powerful steamers and improved wharves to provide winter service at the Capes continued into the twentieth century there appear to have been no further attempts to improve the facilities at Cape Traverse. For several years one of the Dominion ice steamers would run in early winter from Summerside to Cape Tormentine but after about a month that route would ice up and the steamer would be shifted to the Georgetown to Pictou route.

In 1912 the fate of Cape Traverse as a major port was sealed by the decision that the most practical route for the Capes crossing of the proposed car ferry steamer would be from Carleton Head to Cape Tormentine. The shallow sandy bay of Cape Traverse was trumped by deep water and even though the new route required significant engineering works it was still preferred over investment in an existing, but impractical alternative. A new branch line was constructed to run to Port Borden from a junction near Carleton and using, in part, labour from German prisoners of war was upgraded to carry a third rail so that standard gauge trains could run on it. Trains continued to run on the branch line to both Port Borden and Cape Traverse up to the end of 1917. A new schedule which took effect on 21 February makes no mention of service to Cape Traverse. The rails were taken up soon afterwards.

Air photo of Traverse Cove about 1935. The wharf has deteriorated to a significant degree and has been shortened although remains can be seen in deeper water. The photo clearly shows the sandbars and shallow water which made the port unsustainable.

Over the next decades the winds and tides and sands ate away at the nearly half mile wharf at Cape Traverse which continued to harbour a few resident fishermen into the 1970s. Today only a small rockpile extending into Northumberland Strait hints at the hamlet’s glory days as a port. The rail line was diverted to the new terminal at Port Borden and the part of the line from Carleton to Cape Traverse was abandoned. Today one can hardly trace its route through the fields and fence lines. At Port Borden a new town was laid out according to best urban design principles and soon grew to accommodate ferry and railway employees and local businesses. In some cases houses and buildings were hauled from Cape Traverse to the new townsite. The sands of Traverse Cove are visited today by few other than the local residents and owners of cottages in a subdivision which has sprung up near the former village.

A more detailed copy of this article which includes sources and references can be found here .

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Oar Wars – Rowing Rivalry on Charlottetown Harbour

Detail from Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878

Among the dozens of harbour craft visible in the 1878 Panoramic View of Charlottetown is a shadowy figure seen near the steamer St. Lawrence. It is obviously a single scull rowing boat and its presence is a reminder of the popularity of rowing in late 19th century Prince Edward Island.

Beginning with the surprise win in the world championships in Paris by an amateur team from Saint John in 1867 the sport of rowing soon became one of the most popular sports in Canada. The “Paris Crew” was the inspiration for the founding of dozens of rowing clubs across the new Dominion and induced hundreds, if not thousands, of Canadians to take up the sport.  One of the first Canadian international sports heroes was a rower, Ned Hanlan of Toronto, who took and held world championships and whose every exploit was avidly followed by both national and local newspapers.

In Prince Edward Island the Hillsboro Boating Club (HBC) built on a tradition of the Charlottetown Regatta Club which had held regattas stretching back half a century  when the sport of rowing was mainly carried out with ungainly ships’ boats and gigs. When it was founded in the early 1870s the HBC racing fleet included purpose built racing boats; single sculls and two and four-oared shells.

Daily Examiner 21 August 1879

But it was not only the club boats which were seen on the harbour. Several individuals kept rowing boats for exercise and sport and in 1878 a group of four young oarsmen purchased a shell which had been used by a championship team from Halifax.  In early years competition was often the result of challenges issued and accepted with considerable money riding on the results. By 1886 the Hillsborough Boating Club was not the only one on the waterfront. The South End Boating Club was to prove to be a serious rival – at least for a short time. The club appears to have been founded earlier that year and soon had club rooms on Lower Water Street, a street which has now disappeared but which ran between Great George and Queen at the head of the wharves. Reading between the lines it appears that the South End Club was more of a workingman’s club than was the HBC.  In July 1886 the club had purchased a four-oared shell built by N. Logan and Sons of Saint John, 39 feet in length and weighing 106 pounds and in August added another similar craft formerly belonging to the Halifax Boating Club to their holdings.

One of the major promotors and long-time presidents of the Club was John Joy who operated, among other businesses, the Old London Oyster House located on Water Street near thre bonded warehouse. He had competed in harbour rowing events in the 1870s and in 1888 commissioned gold and silver medals to be awarded to the successful competitors in regattas in Charlottetown.

In a report on the annual general meeting on the club in 1889 an account was given of the club activities and benefits.

No more health giving recreation can be conceived, and none more pleasant when once experienced than to launch off morning or evening in the summer months, and be relieved of the smoke and dust of the city for an hour or two. Besides boats of all descriptions the latest approved apatrtenances may be found at trhe club rooms; Indian clubs, dumb-bells and all that may be desired fior muscular development.

A successful picnic was held on the West River with a brass band in attendance. In addition to rowing events a sports day was held with track and field activities. A year later the club was a reported to be in an excellent financial position and had inducted seven new members. Plans were made for an act of incorporation. A club fund-raiser was a moonlight excursion on the steamer St. Lawrence with the Artillery Brigade Band in attendance. A first class violinist had been hired to furnish music for dancing.

Later in the summer of 1890 a match was arranged between the Hillsboro Bating Club and the South End Boating Club. The No. 1 crews of both clubs were to row for a purse of $100 (a not inconsiderable sum worth just under $3000 today) –  $50 put up by each club. The race was to begin off Connolly’s wharf between 4 and 8 pm. At 4:30 with wind and tides favourable the judges ordered the race to be run. The South End club quickly appeared on the start line but one of the Hillsboro crew refused to row until after he had had his tea. The South End team retired to their clubhouse. At 6 pm the reticent Hillsboro crew member took his place in the boat and rowed to the start line and announced his readiness to have the race start. The South Enders declined to row at that time stating that the judges had set a time for the start and that Hillsboro failed to participate. The judges ruled the race forfeit and Hillsboro was ordered to pay $10 to the South End Boating Club.

Later that year the South End club purchased another 40 foot four-oared shell built of Spanish cedar with sliding seats. She was built in Carleton New Brunswick and cost the Club $150, over $4200 adjusted for inflation to todays costs.  The club’s crews participated in a regatta at Pictou  and hosted a regatta in Charlottetown in October. There were ten events, two sailing races and eight rowing heats including classed for four-oared shells, four-oared lapstrake gig boats, double sculls, single sculls, and several races reserved for boys (as opposed to men – ladies did not race). At the main event, the four-oared shells, the South End crew were bested by a team from New Glasgow.

A commentary in the Examiner congratulated the club.

Good wholesome, manly sport is obtained upon the water by those who like it – and their name is legion.  We possess a sheet of water, in which to engage in aquatic sports, second to none in America. The youngest men amongst us who are engaged in the promotion of these sports deserve credit and encouragement. They have for several years past worked bravely under adverse circumstances, and they have triumphed over many difficulties They are evidently made of the stuff which constitutes a nation’s chief resource in troublous [sic] times.

The sixth annual report in 1891 noted the club’s history. It had grown from a beginning with thirteen members to more than fifty, from two second-hand single sculls to a large fleet and from a lean-to shed to a commodious club house and from nothing to assets in boats, oars and club furniture of almost $1000.  The meeting noted however that notwithstanding these successes there was still a lack of interest by the general public in aquatics. That year the Club tried to broaden its appeal. They decided to mount a “Grand Athletic Tournmant and Stallion Race”  at the Charlottetown Driving Park with all sorts of athletic sports such as might be found at the Caledonial Club Games along with a hose reel race between firemen and club members, a one-mile trot between two well-known horses and a dance at the Lyceum Hall. The event included everything but rowing. In advertising the Club was re-branded as the South End Boating and Athletic Club and this attempt to make it more of a sports club may have signaled a beginning to the rapid demise of the organization.  The athletic tournament was not a success and the Examiner noted “a small attendance.”

A very unusual event took place in January 1892. Without a hint of global warming the harbour remained free of ice well into January and on 12 January a four-oared race took place with shells from both the Hillsboro and South End clubs participating. With a crowd of spectators at Connolly’s Wharf three boats were at the starting line. The two mile course, to a turning buoy and back was completed in about thirteen minutes and it appears the South End crew was the winner. After the event crews and friends adjourned to the South End Boat House for refreshments, instrumental and vocal entertainment and speeches. The reception ended at 5:00 pm – perhaps called early for tea.

The winter race was one of the last reported activities of the South End Boat Club. Later that year there was a fund-raising lottery for a double scull racing boat and then a long silence. Rowing had lost its allure

Five year later the club had disbanded and all its boats were offered at auction as can be seen by the following advertisement.

Daily Examiner 19 May 1897

If you enjoyed reading this article you might consider subscribing to the Sailstrait blog to be alerted to any new postings. Simply click on the subscribe button near the top of the article. More than 340 blog posts on related subjects have appeared since 2013 and they are all searchable. You can browse by date or search by keywords. Enjoy the history.