Category Archives: Ferry

Home port of Georgetown – the Three Rivers Steamship Company

 

Steamer Enterprise at Montague. Warwick Bros. & Rutter postcard #6045 (detail). The card is erroneously titled “New Steamer “Empress”

Historians sometimes bemoan the apparent inability of P.E. Islanders to move from the success of Island wooden shipbuilding and trade to the new realities of steamships and iron. The failure of the Island’s Ocean Steamship Company in the 1880s is seen as the end of the province’s efforts to keep pace with changing technology.  This analysis ignores the relatively successful attempts over an eighty-year period by the owners of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company (and its successor, the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company) to have Island control of intercolonial and interprovincial shipping.

It also ignores another initiative which saw success at the turn of the 19th century, an initiative which did not originate in the capital, Charlottetown, but from the eastern part of the province. The Three Rivers Steamship Company was incorporated by provincial statute in 1892 and successfully operated for a quarter of a century. Capitalized at only $20,000 several of the major owners and officer of the company had close ties to Kings county. Alexander Martin was a merchant in Valleyfield, Donald A. MacKinnon was a Georgetown lawyer later to serve as an MLA and MP and eventually becoming Lieutenant Governor, George Whiteman was a Montague merchant and shipper, G.A. Thompson a later president of the company, was a merchant with the firm of Poole and Thompson of Montague.

By mid-May of 1892 the Three Rivers Steamship Company was in operation. The steamer Electra, built in 1887 near Yarmouth, had been launched as a fish tug but was refitted a year later for passengers and freight and operated on the Nova Scotia coastal service before being purchased by the P.E.I. company for $7,500.  She was small by steamer standards – 86 feet long by 17 feet wide and displacing only 111 gross tons. Her engine generated only about 25 horsepower. The steamer was a regular visitor to ports in south-eastern P.E.I. such as Montague, Georgetown and Murray Harbour linking them with Charlottetown and Pictou. Service to some ports such as Murray Harbour South and Annandale depended on the tide as the wharves were not accessible at low water.

Prior to the completion of the Hillsborough Bridge and the Murray Harbour Branch line in 1905 southern Kings county had no railway connections to the rest of the province and the branch line to Montague was not completed until 1906.  Local schooner and steamer service continued in these areas long after the rest of the province and the locally based Three Rivers Steamship Company met a need for the area.

The company invested in new boilers for the ship early in 1900 but that fall experienced a close call in which the ship was nearly lost. In mid-October the Electra was returning to Georgetown from a trip to Pictou when she was caught in a major storm which caused damage all across King’s county. The ship took on so much water that the fires in her boilers were extinguished. Under her experienced captain the crew were able to rig canvas and the Electra made it into the port of Georgetown under sail.  However before the end of the decade the amount of trade dictated that a newer and larger ship was required. The completion of the branch rail lines was providing a competitor for freight haulage but was also bringing new cargos and passengers to the Kings County ports.  After being replaced the Electra was sold to Captain William A. Beattie of Pictou and continued to visit P.E.I. Posts. She was wrecked at Margaree Harbour Cape Breton in 1911.

Enterprise under construction at McGill Shipyard, Shelburne 1907. Photo PARO Acc.2554/25

In April of 1907 a new steamer was launched from the McGill Shipyard at Shelburne Nova Scotia for the New Burrell Johnson Iron Company of Yarmouth who were to install her machinery before turning her over to the Three Rivers Steamship Company.  The Yarmouth company was also responsible for a several other vessels with P.E.I. connections including the tug William Aitken and the steamers Harland  and Magdalen.  The new wooden ship was christened the Enterprise.  At 120 feet she was half again as long as the Electra with a beam of 25 feet and displaced 211 tons, almost twice that of the older ship. Her engines produced 42 horsepower and carried her at 12 knots.

S.S. Enterprise with schooners at Murray Harbor. Photo: PARO Acc.2689/92

On 1 July 1907 she began her service and one of her first trips was a one-day round trip excursion from Montague to Pictou calling at Lower Montague, Georgetown and Beach Point. As with other steamers and ferries of the period these excursions continued to be a regular feature and added to the popularity of the vessel. More important to her success however was the annual $6,000 Dominion subsidy owing to the interprovincial service she provided. Beginning in 1907 her route consisted of two round trips each week from Montague to Pictou calling at Georgetown and Murray Harbour and one round trip beginning at Montague calling at Georgetown, Souris, Port Hood, Port Hawkesbury and Port Mulgrave.

Enterprise at Montague. Photo: PARO Acc.2947/1

In 1908, her first full year of operation she made 98 round trips and carried over 1300 passengers and almost 3,400 tons of freight including 137 livestock. The return trip from the Montague to Pictou was $2.50 and the Cape Breton ports were a dollar more.  In the years before the beginning of the Great War  numbers for both passengers and freight increased.  The Cape Breton stops were dropped before 1912 and in that year the ports served were Montague, Lower Montague, Georgetown, Beach Point, Pictou, Murray Harbour North, Murray Harbour South, and Charlottetown. Cardigan and Newport were added  by 1914.  While some of these ports saw almost daily service, others such as Cardigan and Charlottetown were visited only once per week.

Enterprise at Murray Harbour Photo: PARO Acc.4466/1

In April of 1916 the Guardian reported that Three Rivers Steamship’s G.A. Thompson was travelling to Quebec and Halifax to try to find a replacement for the Enterprise which had been sold to parties in Newfoundland. Although the sale did not go through, at a meeting of the Charlottetown Board of Trade at the same time it was noted that the vessel was unlikely to be replaced. Thompson was obviously unsuccessful or abandoned the search for a new vessel as in 1917  the company once again had the Government of Canada contract and $6,000 subsidy. The ship made 84 round trips carrying 1500 passengers and almost 6,000 tons of freight. The subsidized service was at an end that year as in 1918 the subsidy was eliminated, probably reflecting that fact that the S.S. Prince Edward Island was now providing service across the strait. The Three Rivers Steamship Company appears to have been wound up and the Enterprise sold.

That however, was not the last that the Enterprise was seen in Prince Edward Island waters.  In 1918 she appears to have been owned by the Western Steamship Company of Nova Scotia and was leased to J.A. Farquhar & Co. who had secured the contract for the service between Pictou and the Magdalen Islands, stopping at Souris. She was not a popular vessel on that run as it was believed that the ship would not be able to cope with the conditions in the Gulf and she was replaced the following year.

Enterprise, probably at a Nova Scotia port ca. 1930. The vessel shows modifications made to the upper deck after it was sold by the Three Rivers company.  Photo: Maritime Museum of the Atlantic – MP20.14.1

The Enterprise operated elsewhere in the Atlantic region for a number of years but in 1933 she was the property of W.N. MacDonald of Sydney and he developed a weekly service which saw the Enterprise sailing from Georgetown to Port Hawkesbury, Mulgrave, Isle Madame, Bras d’Or Lake Ports and Sydney. Promising the cheapest and fastest freight and passenger service between Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton the ship offered “the most delightful sail on the Atlantic Seaboard ” through the St. Peter’s Canal and lakes to Sydney. The round trip fare was $18.00 including stateroom and meals.  The regular service was advertised again in 1934 but it is not clear if it continued after that.  The ship was destroyed by fire in Cape Breton in 1936.

Loading potatoes on the Enterprise Ca. 1933. Photo PARO Acc.2799/7

While trade between the Island and Cape Breton continued for many years there seem to have been no further attempts at a scheduled service. It continues to be a dream that occasionally recurs in the form of a proposal for a ferry between the two provinces. MacDonald had a continuing interest in Prince Edward Island shipping and was one of the principals connected with the creation of Northumberland ferries in 1939.

 

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Steamer Lovat was a regular Souris and Charlottetown visitor

S.S. Lovat docking at Grindstone (Cap au Meules) 1938. Photo: Office du film du Quebec (P25169)

The steamship service between the mainland and les Iles-de-la-Magdalene was established after confederation. Although the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence lacked the promise of “continuous steam communication” that Prince Edward Island had obtained as a term of Confederation, the interprovincial steamer route received a subsidy from the Dominion government. The Magdalen Islands were a part of the Province of Quebec but the nearest mainland port was Pictou and since the route ran right past Souris, the P.E.I. town was a regular port of call. The steamers provided access for goods and passengers and several Souris businesses, especially merchants Matthew and MacLean, did a good business with the Islands.

Beginning in 1874 a series of shipping companies and vessels, some more efficient than others, received the contract. The one on the run for the longest period was the S.S. Lovat.

In 1921 a company called the Magdalen Transports Limited won the tendered contract. One of the owners of the enterprise was William Fraser of Pictou and in 1923 he incorporated a new company, the Lovat Steamship Company Limited which took over the responsibilities for the service. Fraser had a steamer, the Lovat, built especially for the Magdalen run. The new ship was launched in April 1924 and arrived in Halifax in July. She had been built on the Clyde by Bow, McLachlan & Co. at their Paisley Yard. She was 175 feet long by 29 feet wide, drew 19.7 feet and was 441 register tons.  Her coal-fired, three-cylinder engine generated 141 horsepower and drove a single screw propeller.

S.S. Lovat leaving Grindstone 1938. Photo: Office du film du Quebec (P25168). Note vehicle on rear deck.

Her initial schedule provided for twice-weekly round trips between Pictou and the Magdalen Islands,  calling at Souris each way and a weekly trip between Pictou and Charlottetown as well. The schedule was linked to rail service with the ship departing Pictou after the arrival of the evening train, reaching Souris in time to meet the Eastern Train from Charlottetown, and arriving at Grindstone at an early morning hour.  She called at the ports at Amherst, Grindstone and Entry Islands although with the passage of time improvements in communication within the Island group meant fewer stops. Over her tenure on the run she also put into Halifax and Cape Breton ports.

After a series of barely satisfactory (and often unsatisfactory) vessels the Lovat received excellent reviews and was popular with her passengers. The ship had a large cargo capacity and was capable of carrying up to five automobiles as deck cargo. The Charlottetown Guardian hailed the ship as “one of the finest” to ever run on the service:

A personal inspection of the vessel can alone do justice to her beautiful interior and luxurious appointments, which class the Lovat as a passenger boat of the most comfortable type. A commodious salon off the main deck has immediately below it has the large and roomy first class dining saloon, beautifully finished in mahogany and oak. Corridors lead to fifteen first class staterooms which have accommodation for forty passengers. Further forward are the second class cabins with accommodation for fifty-five passengers, and the second class dining saloon.

The name Lovat came from the Chieftain name of the Fraser clan and the ship carried a large scotch thistle on her funnel as an identifier and first class cabins were decorated with Scottish pictures.

S.S. Magdalen preparing to leave Pictou ca. 1955. Autos can be seen on both the foredeck and aft.

In 1945 the Lovat Steam Ship Company was acquired by the Magdalen Islands Transportation Company, a subsidiary of the Clarke Steamship Company and her registry port was changed to Montreal.  The ship was sold for $150,000 to the new company and the vessel’s name was changed to S.S. Magdalen. As a Clarke steamship the livery of the vessel was changed. The thistle symbol was removed and the funnel was repainted as a black funnel with four white bands.  Owing to changing transportation patterns for shippers and an increase in air travel for passengers  the route was changed to include Charlottetown rather than  Souris. The ship operated under the Clarke banner until its last voyage to Pictou in December of 1960. She was broken up in Sydney Nova Scotia and she was replaced by Clarke’s diesel-powered S.S. North Gaspe.  The Lovat/Magdalen, which had been in service for thirty-six years,  was the last coal-fired steamship to operate in the region. The subsidized steamer service was later replaced with a passenger and vehicle ferry between Souris and Grindstone.

More about the Magdalen Island steamers can be found in Byron Clark’s excellent volume The Pictou-Magdalen Islands Run 1874-1960, The Days of the Coal-Burners, published by the author 2018. Information about Clarke Steamships services to both the Magdalen Islands and Prince Edward Island can be found in Ken Griffin’s history of the company found here.

 

 

Fulfilling a Confederation promise – Ferry service began 100 years ago this week

One of the earliest photos of the S.S. P.E.I.leaving port. Much of the upper deck with the first-class lounge was removed when the ship was altered to carry automobiles in the 1930s.  Photo: National Museum of Science and Technology.

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.

P.E.Island New Ferry Service showing Cape Tormentine and (erroneously) Cape Traverse. Raphael Tuck postcard ca. 1917

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.

Smoking room aboard the S.S. Prince Edward Island

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”.