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.

An Oyster with any other name would taste as sweet…

Scientists will insist that the common oyster found in Prince Edward Island bays and inlets is of the same species as other oysters found all up and down the Eastern Seaboard north of the Carolinas. In fact, Prince Edward Island is pretty near the northernmost part of the range of Crossostrea virginica. Today we call it the Malpeque oyster. Or rather, on Prince Edward Island we call it the Malpeque oyster. It carries different names in different places   Even here it was not always thus, and in fact naming it as the “Malpeque” is a comparatively recent act.

That is not to say that the naming has ceased and in fact, in an attempt to distinguish, and more importantly, to market, the Malpeque oyster a plethora of allegedly unique varieties have appeared on the market. Most are named for the areas, such as Raspberry Point, Colville Bay and Salutation Cove. A Boston oyster website  names twenty different PEI oysters – all purporting to have a different combination of taste, texture, and finish. The are perhaps as many again that aren’t on that list.

What creates this diversity has been neatly captured in the invented concept of “meroir,” mirroring the “terroir” of grapes and other terrestrial treats. The meroir reflects the differences in salinity, depth and temperature which vary from place to place across the Island. It’s clever marketing and any oyster lover will tell you the differences are real – there are very striking taste distinguishing the Crossostrea virginica from different places.

A bit (actually quite a bit) of history

Oysters have been a seasonal staple on Prince Edward Island for centuries, if not millennia. Shell middens mark thousands of years of indigenous occupation and early European settlers were quick to realize that Island waters had resources free for the taking. Early visitors noted the great quantities of oysters. In 1806 John Stewart, the first to comment on the Island’s historical geography, described oyster beds acres in extent and noted “They are preferred to any other American oysters by all Europeans who have eaten them.”  Two decades later John McGregor considered them the finest in North America and “equally as delicious as those taken on English shores.” But oysters had, by this time proven to be too popular, not only were they eaten and shipped in great quantities but the shells were burnt for lime to make mortar and enrich the soil. In 1825 export and burning were banned for seven years, after which exports – mostly to Quebec were resumed. Owing to food shortages the ban was reenacted in 1840 and the ban stayed in place for another seven years. At the time Joseph Pope claimed that the measure was needed as without it the oysters would shortly be extirpated from Island waters. [For a posting related to the smuggling of oysters at this time click here]

Consumption was, however, permitted for Islanders and Abraham Gesner, in his commentary on the Island’s geology (and much else besides), wrote of harvesting by simply driving carts into the water at low tide and loading them with oysters.  Scarcity soon became an issue across the region.  A report on the New Brunswick fishery called for regulations to prevent fishing through the ice and during the spawning season to prevent the destruction of the best quality oysters.

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Quebec Morning Chronicle and Commercial Shipping Gazette 30 November 1860 p.2

It was widely accepted during the 1850s that the best oysters were Bedeque oysters. In fact the Malpeque oyster, at least as a named variety, seems to have barely existed. The Bedeque oysters were canned experimentally in 1857 and by the 1860’s Quebec newspapers were noting the arrival of Bedeque oysters – superior in quality to any yet seen in Quebec. During this period the main competitors in the Quebec market for Prince Edward Island exporters were the Caraquette and Buctouche oysters from New Brunswick. Reference to Malpeque or Malpek  oysters began to appear in Quebec publications only in the 1850s.

Regulation of the fishery began in 1864 with a season closed to fishing during the summer months and a ban on shipping for a similar period.  Later amendments to this legislation made provision for areas on the seabed to be leased to private individuals for breeding and fishing of oysters. By this time the oyster beds of nearby Shediac had all but been destroyed through lack of management of the fishery and there was concern that same thing could happen on the Island.

What’s in a name – Finest Pope’s Narrows Oysters

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Quebec Morning Chronicle 31 October 1888 p.2

It appears that there was very limited uptake on the offer to lease oyster bottoms but in 1872 Judge William Henry Pope secured a fifty-acre plot and began a program of planting seed oysters on what had previously been a barren bottom at Lennox Passage between Squirrel Creek and Lennox Island, an area known as “The Narrows.” However it appears that the venture soon came under the ownership of his brother, James College Pope. At this time the focus of the oyster industry had shifted away from Bedeque Bay but oysters found elsewhere were often identified as Bedeque Oysters. That soon changed. In 1874 a Montreal newspaper was advertising “hand-picked oysters from the celebrated beds of the Hon James Pope, Prince Edward Island.” Through the late 1870s the identity of the oysters became more specific.

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Location of Pope’s oyster operation near the Narrows. Capt. Bayfield in his 1845 chart of Richmond Bay notes that the channel was completely blocked by oyster beds. Detail from Bayfield 1845 chart.

With the completion of the Intercolonial Railway in 1876 Pope’s oysters began to arrive in the Quebec markets by rail. An American writer noted in 1878 the “Bedeque oysters from Richmond Bay are already famous and are shipped in large quantities to Great Britain and other parts of the Dominion.”  In 1878 the Montreal Herald noted the arrival of “Celebrated Narrows Oysters, from the beds of the Hon. James Pope.”  It was not until the 1880s when the term Malpeque began to commonly appear in oyster advertisements “Oysters- Pope’s, Narrows and Malpeques.”  A report in 1881 stated that Bedeque Bay was now oysterless but the industry was thriving in Richmond Bay. However by the mid 1880s a decline in quality and quantity was noted in Richmond Bay with one saving grace “there is at the Narrows a preserve secured from the provincial government by the late Hon. Judge Pope and now in possession of Mr. John Richards   . . . The result is that notwithstanding the increasing demand there is for the famous “Narrows oysters” the supply continues to increase.”  A later Montreal report stated that owing to the quality of the farmed oysters  “. .  . all the oysters that came from Malpeque are now, “Pope’s oysters,” no matter who exports them.”   This is borne out by an advertisement in 1888 from Quebec’s Belvidere Club offering “Finest Pope’s Narrows Oysters constantly on hand.” By the mid-1890s however, the references to oysters became more generic.

The term Malpeque Oyster does not appear in P.E.I. advertisements until the 1890s when it began to crowd out references to Richmond Bay and Bedeque oysters. Within the Island there were occasional  advertisements that noted Pownal Oysters or North River Oysters  or Curtain Island Oysters but these identifiers did not travel well and by the early 1900s the Malpeque Oyster had come to be the dominant name for the product.  Almost disappearing because of oyster disease in the 1920s the fishery rebuilt slowly and after the Second World War became one of the Island’s hallmark industries. In the end, the name may not matter that much. After all an oyster is an oyster is an oyster, and the Prince Island Island oyster is still among the best in the world.

The Montcalm in Russian Waters: From the Murmansk Run to the Gulags

As noted in my previous posting (found here), the 1904 Canadian icebreaker Montcalm was one of the pioneer vessels fighting ice in the St. Lawrence River and Gulf, as well as originating the spring ice patrols in Cabot Strait.  In the 1920s and 1930s Canada expanded its ice fighting capability with several new and larger vessels and the Montcalm was relegated to less trying duties.     

Pronchishchev white sea ca 1951 coll Lemachko BV

Pronchishchev in the White Sea ca. 1951. Photo collection B.V. Lemachko

In June 1941 the Soviet Union was invaded by German troops.  Suddenly, as had been the case in 1915, the transportation route through the northern seas to Murmansk and Arkangelsk which had rail connections to Moscow, became essential to move supplies and equipment.  In order to keep the northern ports open the Soviets, who already had a a large fleet of icebreakers, requested additional assistance. As part of the response Canada, at the request of Great Britain, declared the Montcalm surplus and presented it as a gift to the Soviet Union.  

Montcalm port 21 MArch 1942 Imp war mus A9316 - Copy

Montcalm at Greenock 21 March 1942. Armaments can be seen on the stern and bow of the icebreaker. Imperial War Museum photo A9316

Prior to crossing the Atlantic the Montcalm was provided with minimal defensive equipment: three 12 pound guns, four 20mm guns, and eight 12.7 mm machine guns.  The old icebreaker required three attempts to successfully reach Murmansk. Initially departing on 20 January, mechanical difficulties and suffocating smoke produced by the vessels’ ancient coal-fired boilers caused two returns to Halifax. The third attempt was successful and the Montcalm finally crossed the Atlantic as part of Convoy SC72 which arrived in Liverpool on 17 March. By 21 March 1942 the Montcalm was in Greenock Scotland and joined Murmansk-bound convoy PQ15 which left Iceland 26 April. This convoy contained 26 vessels including the Soviet icebreaker Krassin which had sailed from Seattle, where it had undergone refit, through the Panama Canal to Iceland. The convoy had a substantial naval support fleet with some 45 naval vessels covering various parts of the northern passage. However, some of these were many miles distant from the convoy.  Owing to the proximity of German aircraft and naval units in Norway the Murmansk Run was an extremely difficult and dangerous route. This was exacerbated in spring and summer with longer daylight hours. On 28 April the convoy was spotted by German reconnaissance aircraft some 200 miles off the northwest coast of Norway. For the next week the convoy faced constant danger from submarines, German surface vessels and Norway-based dive bombers with  attacks on three successive days. On 2 May the convoy was attacked by 6 German JU 88 bombers but without loss to the ships.  On 3 May while passing the northern tip of Norway in the early morning hours 6 Heinkel 111 torpedo bombers attacked, sinking 3 ships and killing 70 seamen.  Late the same day another attack damaged one ship before the German aircraft were driven off by Soviet air cover. The following day, 4 May, Soviet destroyers made contact with convoy and on the next day Soviet and British patrol vessels joined the convoy and reached Murmansk.


Propaganda poster – Canadian War Museum CWM 19880069-838

The voyage of the Montcalm was memorialized by the Canadian Government in one of the war posters prepared by the Department of Defense. The Montcalm’s captain, Fred S. Slocombe, a civilian employed by the Department of Transport as Examiner of Masters and Mates,  was named as a member of the civil division of the Order of the British Empire for his services to the merchant marine. This was one of the few public acknowledgements of the important role of the Merchant Navy, whose members faced the same dangers as naval personnel but were not recognized as veterans until long after the end of the war.    


Pronchishchev in the Northern Dvina River ca. 1950. Photo collection B.V. Lemachko

The Montcalm was operated by the Russians as part of the paramilitary fleet for the duration of what was described by the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War providing transportation in the region and supply of polar stations in the Northern Basin. Right up until almost the end of the war these waters continued to be subject from attack from German submarines and surface vessels. The Montcalm had several close calls including in 1942 when the vessel just missed an encounter with the German heavy cruiser “Admiral Scheer.”  In the summer of 1942 the forehold and fo’csle of the Montcalm were filled with bunks and that year some 848 people of all ages were carried to remote communities involved with extraction of war resources.  Not all of the passengers travelled willingly as the tiny communities on the shores and rivers of Siberia leading to the Arctic Ocean were locations of great sorrow and hardship. 


Pronchichchev near an icefield at an unidentified location ca. 1950

Contrary to the normal practice which saw all Allied ship transfers renamed immediately, while in Soviet service the vessel retained the name Montcalm until November 1947 when it was renamed the Pronchichchev to honour Vasli  Pronchichchev (1702-1736) a Russian arctic explorer who explored much of the Taymyr Peninsula, the northernmost part of of the mainland of Eurasia.  The vessel was operated by the Northern Arctic Shipping Company and later the Murmansk Arctic Shipping Company until September 1954 when it was added to the Northern Fleet of the Soviet Navy. Re-named again as vessel PKZ-61 the ship served for several years as a floating barracks. In April 1957 it was removed from the naval list and scrapped. 

Screen Shot 02-19-23 at 06.57 PMThe history of the Montcalm in Russian polar waters is the subject of a volume, unfortunately available only in Russian, by noted marine historian Oleg Khimanych which details the social history of the vessel. Titled “Montcalm – Arctic Ark” the book, through extensive archival documents and more importantly interviews and reminiscences of officers, crew and passengers, describes how the Montcalm became the embodiment of war-time life in the Soviet Arctic. As one reviewer describing the volume noted “from the summer of 1942 it became the only passenger ship n the Soviet Arctic. Sometimes it took hundreds of people on a voyage, and these people in conditions of war, often in ice storms, in any bad weather, lived and got sick, died and were born on board the steamer. And they often starved – both during the war and for one year after it . . .  Montcalm carried polar winterers and builders, sailors and port workers along the Northern Sea Route, But there were also special settlers and prisoners.” Among other ports the Montcalm served the port of Dudinka which was connected to the Norilsk mining area, location of a number of gulag camps from the mid-1930s to 1956. During the period some 16,000 prisoners and workers died at the camps connected with the Norilsk operations. 

For a dozen years the Montcalm was a constant presence in the Soviet Union’s Western Arctic seas. During the war and in the immediate post-war period it became a symbol of the region’s growth and resilience.  

I am heavily indebted to researcher Peter Veselov of Arkangelsk who has provided many links and photos related to the history of the Montcalm while in service in the U.S.S.R.    


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.