On 15 October 1917 the first scheduled round trip of the S.S. Prince Edward Island between Port Borden P.E.I. and Cape Tormentine N.B. took place – achieving the goal of “continuous steam communication” which had been part of the Confederation conditions under which the Dominion joined the Island in 1873. Without a ribbon cutting and an official ceremony (unthinkable today) the first trip was a modest beginning for an Island travel tradition which did not end until the opening of the Confederation Bridge in 1997.
In reality the ferry had operated on the route for several weeks but the freight consisted only of supplies and materials for the completion of the wharves, tracks and rail yard on the Borden side. The project had been a massive undertaking and had been the biggest construction seen on the Island since the building of the Hillsborough Bridge and the Murray Harbour branch railway. Although there had been a rudimentary wharf on the Cape Tormentine side built when the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Railway reached the end of the peninsula in 1886 the wharf, and the entire rail line had to be upgraded. On the Prince Edward Island side a branch line had been built to Cape Traverse from Emerald so only a short addition was required to bring the line to the site at Carleton Head. This extension was built in part by using German prisoners of war. Wharves extending to a minimum low-water depth of 20 feet had to be extended into Northumberland Strait as there was no natural harbour on either side. At the same time the rail marshalling yard where goods were transferred from standard gauge mainland rail cars to the narrow gauge PEIR cars had to be built. Another feature of the site was the development of Port Borden, the first planned community on the Island since the county towns were laid out in the 1770s. On the streets of the new town, named for Primer Minister Robert Borden, buildings were constructed while others were hauled from Cape Traverse to their new sites. All of this activity was a draw for excursionists and visitors.
The benefits for the Island started immediately. The difference in capacity of the mainland line and the diminutive P.E.I Railway is illustrated by the fact that on the first trip from Cape Tormentine to the Island the S.S. P.E.I. carried 12 Intercolonial cars which represented loads for 24 cars of the Island’s railway. Loading and unloading the rail cars unto the ferry took only 25 minutes and it is perhaps fitting that the first commercial crossing to New Brunswick consisted entirely of rail cars of potatoes. Twelve Intercolonial cars easily carried what it had taken twice that number of the narrow-gauge cars.
Even with the need to transfer goods from one type of car to another the new ferry reduced the bottleneck for shipping which had previously required that everything be taken off the rail cars by hand, loaded on board ships, taken off the ships and re-loaded unto the mainland rail cars. Now, in the Borden rail yard the cargos could be transferred directly from rail car to rail car and loaded directly aboard the ferry to connect at Sackville with mainland trains.
For passengers the S.S. Prince Edward Island was a luxurious interval in their rail journey it had a smoking room, ladies cabin, first and second class lounges and a dining room. The interior resembled a scaled down ocean liner with mahogany panelling and carpeted decks. The ship had been launched in England in 1914 and travelled between Charlottetown and Pictou for two years while waiting for the Borden and Tormentine piers to be completed. For more photos of the building of the vessel and the interior views of the ship see here. The S. S. Prince Edward Island remained on the route for more than fifty years, finally being retired in 1968.
Initially there were only two round trips per day. One could leave Charlottetown at 6:00 am, take the morning ferry at 8:55 and be in Sackville before noon to connect with the Ocean Limited to Montreal. The afternoon ferry trip at 4:20 allowed rail passengers to connect with the Maritime Express.
With the new service finally established, the Island’s pleas to the Dominion changed. Like Oliver Twist we didn’t want much – we just wanted more. Agitation for another boat and more service started almost immediately. With the completion of a third rail for standard gauge cars between Borden and Charlottetown and Summerside in 1919 through passenger car service so that passengers did not have to disembark from the PEI Railway cars at the ferry and re-board the Intercolonial cars at Tormentine became a goal – one that was not achieved until the 1930s. Another issue dealt with at the same time was the elimination of the need and cost to transfer autos to railway flat cars before loading them on the ferry.
I was fortunate to have been one of the hundreds of Islanders who served on the S.S. Prince Edward Island over her lifespan. Working as a purser on the vessel in her final years she became my favourite of all of the ferries and like many Islanders I have fond memories of crisscrossing the Strait and the many days and nights aboard the old “Prince”.