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.

The last iceboat on the Strait

When the S.S. Prince Edward Island began service between the Capes in 1917 it looked as if the iceboat days were over. The new railcar ferry certainly met expectations with its comfortable interior and fast crossings. It seemed as if the unreliable days of the winter steamers such as the Northern Light, Stanley, Minto and Earl Grey were finally at an end. Each of those boats had promised more than they delivered and although each had been better and more reliable than the one that it had replaced the ice was still a formidable foe.

Until the S.S. P.E.I. began service, each of the new steamers seemed unable to cope with the many winters when severe ice jammed the strait and rafted the floes into ridges sometimes exceeding twenty feet. While many crossings had been routine there were a few that created major problems for travellers resulting from being stuck in the ice for days, weeks, and even on a few occasions for more than a month. The winter steamers carried Capes-style iceboats because there was a frequent need to transport mails and passengers to shore when the vessels became jammed in the ice. Because of the unreliability of the steamers, iceboats at the Capes were kept in readiness and were often called into service. Better a cold, uncomfortable, and possibly dangerous day on the ice in an open boat taking four, eight or ten hours than stuck off Pictou or Cape Bear for a week or more.

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S.S. Stanley in Charlottetown Harbour showing iceboats on davits. A.W. Mitchell Photo. Public Archives and Records Office.

The S.S. P.E.I. changed the expectations and although sometimes delayed by heavy ice it was unusual that the new steamer was trapped for any length of time. However, as security and in remembrance of earlier times the Prince Edward Island was equipped with iceboats as had been the older steamers. By 1925 it was beginning to look as if that precaution was excessive.

That changed in March. It had been a winter of heavy ice but the carferry was able to make slow progress through the ice until early in the month. On a Saturday morning the ship left Port Borden and made good time until it neared Cape Tormentine when it became good and truly stuck in rafted ice jamming up near the Tormentine Reef. Walter O’Brien remembered the trip well. He had been working as fireman and that winter had worked for six weeks without a day off to get ashore or have a haircut, paid a hundred dollars a month. As a fireman he shoveled coal and raked fires on four hour shifts, often with just a snack of bread between watches and little time to wash or shave and always with not enough sleep.


S.S. P.E.I.  at Borden showing iceboat carried at stern. ca. 1918 Detail from Louson postcard for Carter & Co.. Image courtesy of Phil Culhane

With the vessel stuck off Tormentine, coal began to run low and had to be shifted from the reserve bunkers and carried to the stoke holds to keep the steam up and the engines running day and night. Captain J.L. Read kept the engines constantly running ahead and astern to keep the ship from being pinched by the ice but was unable to make any progress towards port. O’Brien remembered the ice surrounding the ship as soot-stained from the black coal-smoke from the four funnels. By Tuesday afternoon of the following week, with food on the ship beginning to run out, Captain Read ordered the iceboat to be lowered and directed that the passengers be taken to shore with crew members hauling the passengers’ luggage in the iceboat. Office A.B. Paquet (later to be Captain Paquet), armed with a pike pole for safety, guided them across the ice to the Cape. Scarcely had the last of them reached the Tormentine shore than the wind and tide changed. The ice was finally lifted and within an hour the Prince Edward Island had safely tied up to the ferry terminal. The trip from pier to pier had taken seventy-six hours. Quickly taking on the waiting Island-bound passengers and rail cars stuck at Tormentine for for up to three days, the steamer made the passage back to Borden in an hour.

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Charlottetown Guardian 7 August 1926 p. 8

Notwithstanding this last small service for the iceboat, the following year tenders were called by Canadian National Railways for the dispersal of the fleet. Advertised for sale were ten iceboats at Cape Traverse, five at Cape Tormentine and three at Pictou. The last group had been used prior to 1917 and were frequently called for in relation to the steamers plying between Georgetown and Pictou. All were to be sold together with oars, rowlocks, leather straps, boathooks, handles , telescopes, sails, ropes, foghorns, bailers and spars. It is not clear where the boats ended up but some may have ended up being used for the iceboat across Charlottetown Harbour to Rocky Point or for the service from Cariboo to Pictou Island.

Crushed by ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: the sinking of the steamer Tunstall

There are few better indicators of the reality of climate change than the state of sea ice. While there can be some variation from year to year it is clear that there are significant changes over the last few years which have seen far less ice both in Island harbours and in the Strait and Gulf. This change is dramatically illustrated by the story of the S.S. Tunstall which was crushed in the ice off the Island’s north shore in May of 1884.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

The Tunstall was an iron screw steamer of modern design launched in 1879 from the shipyard of Shore Bros. in Sunderland. The cargo steamer was 230 feet long, 32 feet wide and a depth of over 17 feet. She was powered by a 2 cylinder steam engine which drove a single screw propeller. She made a number of trips across the North Atlantic and in European waters and by 1881 was being operated by the Black Diamond Steamship Company of Montreal. Normally she operated between Montreal and coal ports such as Cow Bay (now Port Morien) and Sydney in Cape Breton, and Pictou but when Montreal was closed by winter she also carried coal to New York, Havana and other southern ports. She carried a crew of 20 officers and men.

Tunstall 2

Early May 1884 found the vessel loading at Pictou with a cargo of coal bound for Montreal. She completed loading about noon on Saturday the 3rd of May and steamed without difficulty but encountered a large field of ice at East Point. The vessel turned and made its way up Northumberland Strait hoping to avoid the ice but by noon on the 4th encountered heavy ice at Cape Traverse. In hopes the ice might move out she anchored but after a day she turned to try the East Point route once more. It was not until Friday the 9th of May that the Tunstall was able to round East Point and in company with another steamer, the Benona. With plenty of open water between the shore-fast board ice and the “running” ice of the floes she began to steam up along the North Shore, and by nightfall both vessels were near Cape Turner. On Saturday the captain reported the weather as “dirty, blowing hard and thick” and the ice, being pushed by the wind began to drive down on the land. The Tunstall turned and found open water again near Little Rustico, the channel at the east end of Robinson’s Island. The ship remained in that area all night fighting the wind which had shifted to the north west and was blowing hard with heavy snow. The vessel kept moving to keep clear of the largest pan bearing down on the Tunstall. By 10 am on Sunday morning the ship was completely pinched in the ice and the engines were unable to provide any movement. The Benona was about a mile and half distant but was in clearer water. Within an hour the ice had pinched the ship so tightly that it began to list and the ice began to pile up over the rails on deck. Suddenly the pressure caused the plates on the starboard side of the ship to give way and water began pouring in. To find and stop the leak the crew began desperately to unload the cargo of coal over the side but they soon discovered that the hole in the ship was larger than they had feared, about 2 feet square. Although the hole was plugged with ice if the ice moved the water would be impossible to stop.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

Concluding that the ship was doomed the captain ordered the lifeboats lowered and dragged away from the ship on the ice. Refusing to do any more work to save the doomed vessel the crew left the ship and gathered near the lifeboats. As the now-helpless ship slowly filled with water the crew were able to land some of their valuables, clothing, and food. It was at this point that the only loss of life occurred. Two pigs aboard the vessel to supply fresh meat for the crew were slaughtered. The Tunstall sank, bow first, beneath the ice at about four o’clock in the afternoon of the 11th. Leaving the boats on the ice the crew struck out for the shore, walking across the ice in the increasingly bad weather. However they were compelled to return to the boats by the ferocity of the winds. Left with little shelter from the lifeboats in the teeth of the storm the crew spent the night on the ice. During the night the ice continued to drift eastwardly and in the morning the crew found themselves on the ice about six miles off the St. Peter’s Bay Lighthouse.

On Monday morning the officers and crew began to cross the floes to the shore. The St. Peter’s lightkeeper and another man came out on the ice with a boat to meet them and seventeen men were guided ashore. However, three of the crew, separated from the main body by open water, decided not to run the risk the dangerous crossing on the ice and lolly and turned back to the safety of the lifeboats. A rescue party from St. Peters and area was organized the following day and succeeded in bringing the men to shore in spite of thick fog in the area. A number of men from the community were later awarded $5 each for their heroic efforts to save the three crew. One of the boats left behind on the ice later drifted ashore at St. Margaret’s and was auctioned off to benefit the crew of the ship.

The Benona had spotted distress signals from the Tunstall and noted when she sank but was unable to offer assistance. She herself was trapped in the running ice and was being swept towards East Point into the Northumberland Strait. It was not until 19th of May before she was able to get free of the ice and continue on her voyage to Montreal.

In the haste to abandon the Tunstall the Captain had neglected to get a fix on the location where the ship had gone down and for many years the wreck was lost. In June 1884 it was reported that divers would be sent to the wrecksite to see if the ship could be raised but they were either unable to find the vessel or decided it was not worth salvaging and no salvage was attempted. However in the 1930s fishermen in the Covehead area had been complaining of fouled gear and lobsters with discoloration from coal and the wreck was eventually spotted off Covehead Harbour.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

Resting in about 70 to 80 feet of water it has become a popular spot for recreational divers. Several videos have been posted to YouTube and Vimeo, one of the best being that of Justin Pater and can be accessed by following this link  

It is interesting to compare this real-life account with that of a fictional sinking some twenty-years later in W. Albert Hickman’s The Sacrifice of the Shannon

The Rite of Passage: Crossing the Strait by Iceboat

Almost all visitor accounts of travel to Prince Edward Island in the 19th century included mention of the winter isolation and the iceboat service which was a unique experience.  However most travellers came or went in the summer so their accounts were second- hand. What is rarer are those who actually experienced the icy passage. While there were a number of dangerous and prolonged crossings in the more than 80 years that the system operated most were routine although still cold and exciting. On a good day some crossings were made in under four hours from shore to shore.

Iceboat Service from P.E.I. to Mainland. Haszard & Moore postcard. Author’s collection

One of the most interesting and detailed is that of Father Edward Osborne, an Anglican brother of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist which had a monastery in Boston.  Osborne came to the Island in a mission in January of 1883.   An excerpt from the diary kept on the trip appeared in the 8 March 1883 edition of the Examiner.  After detailing the trip from Amherst to Cape Tormentine and his frustration with a three-day wait for favourable weather at the Cape Father Osborne records with some relief that the boats finally set out for the Island.

After the drive over the board ice, all the boats were loaded, and we were ready to go at the word. Mrs. —– and little girl went in the Captain’s boat. I went with his son. We had five boats in all, ours being the heaviest with ten men including myself. Of course, Mrs. —– and little girl were packed in with bags, fur coats and hot bricks, not to move until we got over to the other side. I could have gone the same way if I had liked, and had paid a little extra; but am I not a man among my brethren? My place was third on the left of the boat, between two men passengers who had both crossed before. The man next behind me had a brother on the other side of our boat, who jokingly said that he did not think that his brother had ever followed a clergyman before – better for him if he had! Every man has a strong strap passed over his shoulder and under his arm. By this he pulls the boat along and is himself kept safe in case of accident; so with one hand on the boat we are to run along.

Crossing the Ice. P.E. Island. Real photo postcard. UPEI Collection.

It is curious as we stand waiting, to see the huge fields of ice drifting majestically past us, the great hummocks standing out sharp against the blue sky from ten to twenty feet high. The Captain and to men stand on heaps, watching for our chance. At last a huge ice field, a mile or more along – “Now boys if we are to take this field we must go” – and with a rush we are off. There are about ten or twelve feet of water with floating ice and slush between us and the solid field and as the boat crashes down into this I supposed all would get on board, and accordingly got in. But the men rushed on, stepping on the floating blocks, shouting and heaving, and in two minutes we were on the solid ice in front. We were now fairly off and settled down to our work, the boats were formed in line, the Captain leading and our boat second. The stem of each boat was kept close to the stern of the boat in front, so that we looked like some enormous reptile winding its way along over the silent snow. The work was heavy, for the snow on the ice-field was fully eighteen inches deep, and through this we had to plod dragging our boats with their burdens.

Crossing at the Capes, Prince Edward Island, PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation. Earl Taylor collection.

Very little was said by anyone, so that the stillness in the quite morning air was striking. We were soon warm, and in fact too warm. In half an hour from starting every man had an icicle from each end of his moustache, while I had a little circle of them around the edge of my fur cap.  The men made me put my boots under my trousers and tie the trousers down. By this means all snow was prevented from getting into the tops of my boots, and if I happened to slip into water the thick trousers I wore would throw it off. I got over thus quite dry.

Our ice-field was not all smooth; in many places the ice was overshot, that is, one sheet over another. These were concealed under the snow and before we knew it we might stumble and slip over them. Sometimes there were holes ever so deep, into which you might sink in snow and water to your waist. We got over our first field without mishap. The there was a short space of blue water to be crossed to the next field. As we neared the edge the word was given “straps off,” and we threw then off into the boats. Then accelerating the speed of the boat she crashed down into the water and we all jumped in hastily and were soon rowing on. We had to repeat this several times. In some places the water had a very thin coating of ice, through which we easily rowed the oars, leaving a mark like a V in the ice on either side. Sometimes the ice was just too thick to row in, and then we had to break the way. This was done by rolling the boat rapidly and striking the ice in front with an oar or boathook. In one instance two of the men got over the bows of the boat, and jumped up and down smashing the ice with their feet. This was very curious to see, and looked very dangerous. They kept fast hold of the boat, and kept their straps on, and no harm happened. While they did this the others pulled the boat by means of boathooks. These hooks were of curious shape, like two spuds put opposite ways. Then hooked spud was struck into the ice so as to get a purchase to pull on. It was very funny to see the boats going thus, the six hooks in each boat striking rhythmically together. After the first start, our boat was the leading boat all the way, so we had the honour and toil of breaking the way for the others. The men were very civil to me addressing me as “Reverence,” whenever we came to any hard place it was always, “In with your Reverence,” and then I jumped into the boat and they followed. Now and then the ice was very rough and in great hillocks, and the boats had to be dragged up and down, bumping and crashing. This was very thicklish [sic] work for the hillocks were often only piles of loose lumps of ice. And on these we had to step. Sometimes they gave way under us and then we had to look very sharp, for we might slip under the boat and strain an ankle or break a leg.  Where the ice was thin or indeed where we dragged the boat in water, we ourselves stepping on floating lumps, the sensation was very curious when you found your footing sinking beneath you. There was nothing for it then but to hold onto the boat and jump or step to the next piece. Indeed, we had to keep our eyes open and our wits about us all the time.

Striking Board Ice. Warwick and Rutter Postcard #2669. This image is from a Cyrus Lewis photograph dated from about 1895.

About 12 we halted for ten minutes in the middle of an ice field, and eat the little refreshments we had brought with us and took a drink of water from the bung-hole of the little keg with which each boat was provided. At this halt the passengers exchanged greetings and experiences, and all paid a visit to Mrs. —– and the little girl, in the captain’s boat. This was the only pause we made, pressing on all the rest of the time.

About one we passed the party going in the opposite direction, about one-quarter of a mile south of us, with only one boat. They raised a hat on an oar as a signal, which we returned. Towards the end of our journey we had some long stretches of water, on which the boats raced one another. Near the further shore we came to what seemed to me to be the most exciting and dangerous of all. This was the thin ice, which the day before was “lolly,” and was now about three inches thick. It was glassy on the surface; but when broken – and it broke easily – it looked like the almond icing of wedding cake. This was thick enough to bear a man, but not enough to bear the boats if they stood still. The boats now kept far apart so as to distribute the weight and we started at a run skimming over the thin ice. Oftentimes the boat would break in and then we had to lift her if we could, and if not drag her on, crashing and breaking the ice as she went, the water flowing over our boots. The men hurried on but kept quite calm, so that it did not seem as if there was any real danger and I do not know that there was except that we might have all smashed in together and got a ducking. Only one man of our boat got really wet. One of the other boats fared much worse.

Crossing to Prince Edward In Winter. Taylor’s Bookstore postcard. UPEI collection. Although several cards show boats with small sails they were not often used during the crossing as conditions were seldom right.

The last half mile we rowed in clear water until we reached the beach ice again and then there was one strong and heavy pull over bumps and hillocks and we were safe ashore.

The full account from Osborne’s diary can be found here.  It includes other details of the trip such as the extended stay in Cape Tormentine.  Other accounts of the iceboat crossing can be found from earlier Sailstrait postings can be found here and here