Category Archives: Charlottetown Harbour

“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.

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.

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. 


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.