Category Archives: Charlottetown Harbour

The unfulfilled promise of a Montreal to Charlottetown steamer connection

The mid-1850s were a period of optimism in Prince Edward Island. Population had increased, responsible government had been put in place, a free education act was in operation and in Charlottetown, the incorporated city had replaced the town.  In the harbour, communication with the mainland had become reliable with a steamer connecting with Pictou on a regular basis. There was a sail packet between Charlottetown and Boston. In 1857 there were even two competing ships on the route, the schooner Eglantine and the clipper brig Gelena, and in 1858 a new schooner, the Carrie M. Rich, 129 tons engendered the enthusiasm of the Examiner newspaper “We have never seen anything destined to walk the waters that appeared to us better calculated for her work than she is.”  There were also vessels that plied the direct route between Charlottetown and English ports. All looked positive on the communications front – with one exception.

The Island was less well-connected with Canada. In the early 1830s the Royal William, later to be one of the first vessels to cross the North Atlantic under steam power, made several stops in Charlottetown while operating between Pictou and Quebec. Another false start occurred in 1852 when the steamer Albatross, ostensibly owned by B.W.A. Sleigh made two voyages between New York and Quebec with a stop in Charlottetown but the attempt was unsuccessful, if not fraudulent.  Direct connection with Montreal was more of a problem as the shallow Lake St. Pierre in the St. Lawrence River between Quebec and Montreal had restricted passage to vessels drawing less than eleven feet. However, under the direction of the Montreal Harbour Commission a program of dredging had been begun, and by 1853 a channel had been deepened to 16 feet allowing direct passage of ships of up to 500 tons. This opened Montreal to the world, but not necessarily with Prince Edward Island  

While several steamship lines were established at this time to exploit the possibility of direct connection to England, the advantage of links to what at the time were called “the Lower Provinces” was also given attention. In 1858 the Montreal Gazette noted:

We are glad to observe, that our rising trade with the Lower Provinces is attracting attention. An effort is being made to obtain the advantages of direct steam communication … This could be efficiently secured by a line of three strong steamers adapted for steam navigation with good passenger accommodation and of sufficient power to make a weekly trip from Montreal to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and vice versa, touching at Riviere du Loup and Rimouski, and thus securing and accommodating the large Canadian travel to the watering places of the Lower St. Lawrence, then at Gaspe, affording outlet to the important trade of that district, and and next at ports in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia before arriving at the terminus of Prince Edward Island. Such a line would command a large and remunerative business. It would attract a tide of ocean pleasure travel and it would develop and build up our interprovincial trade.  Besides the passenger traffic, it would have down freights of flour and provisions, and return cargos of fish, sugar, and molasses. With the legitimate businesses that would speedily be developed, and subsidies from the Lower Provinces and Canada to foster it until self supporting, the interprovincial line would be a feeder in the ocean line of steamers, and would do much to advance the interests of all the provinces.   

The editorial opinion was picked up by other Montreal and Quebec newspapers and was re-printed in Charlottetown’s Islander, and the idea of Charlottetown as a terminus of interprovincial trade was no doubt attractive and would provoke the attention of Island merchants and shippers. However there was at the time little trade between the Island and Quebec, and the limited cargos of oats and other produce moving west, and even less from Canada to Prince Edward Island. Halifax and New England provided adequate outlets for Island surpluses and the Island’s merchants were serviced by direct shipment from the United Kingdom or New England. Moreover passenger traffic from Canada to the Island was slight at best, and Island family links with Montreal, later to increase significantly, were limited.    

The idea of a direct steamer service between Prince Edward Island and Montreal was not sufficiently attractive to attract the investment of the Montreal capitalists who were funding a number of new steamship lines such as the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company and the Canadian Steam Navigation Company. The former company, under the direction of Hugh Allan was the most successful, becoming known as the Allan Line and later as Canadian Pacific Steamships and it was for many years a serious competitor to the Cunard and White Star lines on the profitable North Atlantic route. 

Examiner 6 September 1869

In 1860 the steamer Lady Head, owned by the government of Canada and operated as the Royal Mail Line began a subsidized regular service between Quebec and the Maritimes but the terminus for the service was Pictou and the vessel only rarely stopped at Prince Edward Island.  Instead, the smaller cross-strait steamers such as the Westmorland, and later the ships of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company; the Saint Lawrence and the Princess of Wales provided connecting services for Island-bound passengers and freight at Pictou and Shediac.  It would be almost ten years after the Montreal Gazette writer wrote about the promise of direct steam communication between Prince Edward Island that it became a reality. The Quebec and Gulf Ports Steamship Company established a regular service in 1869 with vessels such as the Miramichi, and Secret, and later the Campana , Orinoco, and the Trinidad. links were considerably strengthened with the Island entering the confederation in 1873. Other passenger and freight lines provided service even after the Quebec-based company creased operation.  The steamer links would endure into the second half of the 20th century.        

Fiction and Fact on Northumberland Strait: W. Albert Hickman’s “Goosander”

It is not often that Northumberland Strait is the locale for literature. L.M. Montgomery did much to make the North Shore of the Island known to readers all over the world but the waters off the soft underbelly of the Island have had fewer champions and those who did write of the area have perhaps had less skill,  achieved less notoriety,  and have to great extent been forgotten.

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W. Albert Hickman 1877-1957

Such is the case with W. Albert Hickman. One need not be embarrassed if the name is unfamiliar, for except in an unrelated area of marine technology Hickman has been mostly ignored by history and his later fame was achieved far from Maritime waters. He is a very real example of the “successful Maritimer abroad.” 

He had a valid claim to his Maritime origins, having been born in Dorchester, New Brunswick and  raised in the Pictou area. He studied at Harvard, specializing in marine engineering and worked as an inventor in the United States. Among his successes were the development of modern vessel design by embracing the idea that boats could be made to go faster with less power by utilizing air under the hulls to lift the boats.  This led to the development of the world’s first high-speed torpedo boats and a remarkable craft which was probably the world’s first aircraft carrier. He was the first to make use of counter-rotating propellers and had patents in a wide range of hull improvements, many of which continue in use today. 

Hickman Sea Sled Drawing
Drawing of the Hickman Sea Sled from Rudder Magazine

He is best known for the invention of a boat he called the “Sea Sled” which in 1914 was described as “A new type of vessel, which promises to revolutionize water craft and which takes the same place on the water that the automobile does on land.”   The boat had an inverted “vee” hull but differed from a catamaran in that it tapered to an almost flat stern. A full description of the sea sled design can be found here. 

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Sea Sled advertisement – Motor Boat magazine 1926

He was obviously more successful as an inventor than as a writer but in his early years Hickman was also a published author although his output was limited to one full-length novel, a novella and a number of short stories published in Canadian and American popular magazines. One of the these short stories, “The Goosander” features a Northumberland Strait location and characters from both Charlottetown and Pictou. This story is about a rivalry between a humble and rustic Pictou inventor with a background in marine engineering (all resemblances to the author must be purely coincidental) and summer residents of Charlottetown who are inspired by a race from Charlottetown to Pictou to determine the fastest steamboat on the Strait. It is a contest between the native Maritime ingenuity of Donald MacDonald and the slick Upper Canadian stock-market-following men “from away”, personified by one Montgomery Paul.  The Island summer visitors are enchanted by Northumberland Strait. and that after seeing many spots all over the world said “there is, in all probability, no such summer climate as that of the Northumberland Strait and the southern light of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.” Paul’s fifty-foot yacht, the Niobe, is touted as the fastest boat on Northumberland Strait and to prove it Paul posts a thousand dollar prize for a race open to all comers.  MacDonald’s entry, the Goosander, is a broken down former government launch used for general work around a lobster cannery. In rebuilding the craft he uses all sorts of surplus equipment and alters the design to something never before seen on the Strait.  The race itself begins in Charlottetown Harbour in the presence of a fleet of spectators ranging from families of fishermen in tiny sloops to the steam yachts, ferries and steamers of the harbour pumping the atmosphere full of smoke, coal dust and ash. At the start line there are boats from Halifax, to Cape Breton, to the Bay of Chaleur; yachts, tugs, workboats and fishing craft. Steaming out the mouth of the harbour and around Point Prim the many contestants fight a rising sea and as the fleet stretches out many drop out or fall far behind the race leaders. The race has the expected number of dramatic incidents with broken equipment, on-the-fly repairs and the exchange of challenges and insults between vessels. Rounding Gull Rocks and MacDonald’s Reef the Niobe and Goosander both skippers jockey for the lead as they pass the Pictou lighthouse and headed up the harbour to the finish line…… 

Gosh,  I wonder how this could possibly end?

There are echos of Hickman’s 1904 story, five years later with the arrival in Keppoch, of a Mahogany speedboat launch imported by broker and industrialist  C.P. Larned of Detroit, the story of which which I posted here.  There are lots of local references in the Goosander story as Hickman was certainly familiar with both Charlottetown and Pictou. He was a lecturer at the Summer School of Science, and annual training workshop for teachers held in Charlottetown in the early years of the 20th century.   Incidentally, a goosander is a type of sea duck, very similar to the common merganser.  

If you wish to read the Goosander story, which is an excellent example a certain period in Canadian literature, it can be found by following these links: part 1 Canadian Magazine Vol 24 No 1 pp 67-76 Nov 1904    part 2 Canadian Magazine Vol 24 No 2 pp 120-127 Dec 1904 .

A very interesting analysis of the story in the context of industrialization and regional identity can be found in a chapter titled “An ugly piled-up sea” by Caitlin Charman which appears in The Greater Gulf: Essays in the Environmental History of the Gulf of St. Lawrence published in 2019.

Hickman’s full-length novel, The Sacrifice of the Shannon , which is a love story centered around ice-breakers in the Strait and Gulf of St. Lawrence, also draws on his experiences in Maritime waters and will be the subject of a future posting.

Spuds, Steamers, and Stevedores: Potato Shipping in the Inter-war Years

 

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Potato shipping from Charlottetown ca. 1930. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 4332/2 Wallace MacDonald album

Up until the 1970s the arrival and departure of potato boats was one of the rites of fall. Each year dozens of shipments would be made from the wharves in Charlottetown and Summerside and to a lesser extent from Georgetown, Souris, and even Victoria.  However it had not always been so. During the 19th century potato shipments had been dwarfed by the Island’s largest export — oats. Oats were the diesel fuel of the horse era with thousands of animals in American and Canadian cities and farms being powered by Island oats. Although potatoes had been exported they were a much lesser crop and their large bulk and relatively low value meant that most shipments were by the small schooners that could visit the Island’s shallow harbours. 

There were some developments in the last quarter of the century. Potatoes made up part of the cargo of the S.S. Prince Edward for an experimental shipment of produce and livestock direct from the Island the Great Britain in the 1870s and the same decade also saw R.T. Holman shipping potatoes from Summerside to American destinations by steamer.  However, until the end of the Great War the vast majority of shipments were still small cargos carried by sailing ships. 

Seed potatoes were crop of which the Island was proud. The province was was the first jurisdiction to place a slogan on its license plates

It was the development of seed potato exports which really spurred the shift toward steamers. The 1920s saw a boom in the high quality, high value seed potatoes and Island farmers, led by the Potato Growers Association, turned to the new crop in ever increasing numbers. In 1922 the Association entered into an exclusive agency agreement with the Southgate Produce Company of Virginia which saw most PEI seed potatoes for southern U.S. markets landed at Norfolk.  In a 1928 address to the Charlottetown Rotary Club a Southgate officer described in detail the shipping and processing of seed potatoes once they left the Island. Shipping by water was preferred to the rail shipping used for shipments to Canadian markets owing to the special handling required as well as the reduced costs.  In his speech he credited the efficiency of stevedores at Summerside and Charlottetown in ensuring quality through the loading process. This was a labour-intensive operation often requiring sixty to one hundred longshoremen and was described by a Guardian reporter in a 1925 article when he visited the steamer Orkild taking on 30,000 bags potatoes in Charlottetown.     

There are four “gangs” comprised of twenty-two men to each hatch, eighty-eight men in all, including four winchmen. Each hatch has eight men stowing the potatoes as they come aboard; the men are divided to the port and starboard side thereby alleviating any undue “list” as she is being loaded; in other words the steamer is ion an even keel; at all times.

To stand on the combing [sic] of a hatch and look down into the huge hold of the steamer makes one wonder and imagine how a space so large can be stowed to the top deck in such a comparatively short time by the thirty-two stalwarts working below. 

Stowing the ship does not mean merely throwing the cargo into the hold, it takes ingenuity and skilled workmen all-round in order that the valuable cargo may not become loosened when the ship is heaving far out at sea. The cargo must be stowed with the shear of the ship from stem to stern, and every bag placed so as to occupy just a bag space, and stowed tight at that.  If a cargo is not properly placed in a vessel it is to realize what may happen in the extreme — a loose and poorly stowed cargo before now has been the loss of many a good ship. But thank goodness such is not the case with steamers leaving this port as the ability of the local men is known far and wide for the thoroughness and experience they show in handling freight. Therefore the Labourers’ Protective Union is to be congratulated on the capable and efficient body of men which represent this city. Their work may be hard at times, exposure and loss of sleep, may be experienced but this does not seem to bother then in the least — the work goes on amidst good natured chaffing and joviality which appears to prevail throughout the entire working hours. All hail to the Labourers’ Protective Union.

Mr. Wallace MacDonald is the stevedore in charge of loading the steamers.

The Labourers’ Protective Union had not always had such glowing support from those operating steamers from Charlottetown. The union had been formed in the 1880s and over the years successfully negotiated for wages on the wharves. In 1905 they clashed with the Plant Steamship Company with claims for an advance in the labour rates. The company charged that “the laboring men evidently have no interest in the welfare of their city when they band together to increase the cost of doing business to such an extent…”   However, as is often the case, claims of both sides in the disagreement were successfully compromised and trade on the waterfront continued with only a short delay. Issues again arose in 1917 when the steamer Aranmore was brought in to clear a shipping backlog while the carferry steamer Prince Edward Island was awaiting completion of the terminals at the Capes.  The S.S. PEI, which had to be loaded by hand through the stern, required more handling and workers were paid 60 cents per hour. For the Aranmore the longshoremen demanded 40 cents per hour for day work and 45 cents for night work. After lying idle at the wharf the P.E.I. Railway, which was operating the Aranmore finally reached a settlement and work continued. 

The arrival of larger steamers dedicated to freight saw a shift in loading procedures. Prior to WW I many of the steamers loaded through side ports which was slow and   labour-intensive. Larger freighters with ship-borne derricks and multiple holds sped up the process although large work gangs, as noted above, were still required. Shipments became massive. In 1926 for example amidst a month in which 700,000 bushels were shipped from the Island. One vessel — the S.S. Sabotawan — loaded over 185,000 bushels for Norfolk, Virginia, at the time a world record for a single shipment. 

Even with improved ferry and rail connections the steamers continued to load each fall from government warehouses at the Island’s ports into the 1970s, with shipments from Summerside continuing for somewhat longer. However, with the end of rail traffic on P.E.I. and completion of the Confederation Bridge, potato shipping easily shifted to trucking and containers and the potato boats vanished from the Island’s harbours. At the same time the move to processing potatoes on the Island spelled the end of the profitable seed-potato trade. The number of potato boats seemed to drop each year and it is hard to remember just when the last of the big freighters left our harbours.