Category Archives: Ferry

Going With the Floe 1876

There are few accounts of winter travel to Prince Edward Island but for those that were published a consistent theme is the iceboat crossing to or from the province.  Seldom routine and often dangerous, the crossing was not for the faint of heart. Lives and limbs had been lost when weather, tides and waves conspired to force crews and passengers to spend the night on the Strait with only the slight protection of an upturned iceboat.(1)

Taylor Manufacturing Dry Styeam Engine ca. 1875

The following account dates from April 1876 and is part of a letter published in the Democratic Advocate in Westminster Maryland by an unidentified correspondent who had spent much of the winter on the Island, apparently as an agent for the Taylor Manufacturing Company which was based in Westminster. The company built portable steam engines for use with sawmilling and working operations running circular saws, planers and band saws. He reported that 15 of the engines had been put in operation over the winter and that they were having a beneficial impact on the construction costs for shipyards,  The account includes a testimonial from shipbuilder James Yeo.

In 1876 communication for the mails and passengers was supposed to have been provided by a contracted steamer, the SS Albert. The Albert, however was not up to the task and so the iceboat service, which had existed since at least the 1830s was the fallback.

On March 2d, we started to cross the Northumberland Strait, which from Cape Travers on the Island to Cape Tormentine on the New Brunswick coast is 9 miles across. These straits are filled at all times from December to March with floating fields of ice, in many instances, acres in size. Waited till Sunday, (which by the way they call fine day to cross) and started. The crossing is made in a common boat, some 15 feet long, made as light as possible, with runners on bottom, so as to haul it on the ice. Each boat has its captain, and 3 men, with places for passengers; each man is harnessed to the boat by means of a strap over the shoulders and breast so in case the ice is bad he can only go through the length of strap; it does not save from a complete wetting, but saves from drowning. This Sunday was not, unfortunately not one of the good days. We left board ice, that is, ice that always stays on each shore, at 9 0’clock in the morning, two boats and 20 passengers, and found no ice bergs but thin ice, which in salt water means very unreliable stuff. Now passengers are taken across at $2.50 a piece, from $5 to $20 for baggage if in much bulk, and they are required to pull, haul and shove the boat along, to work same as boatmen; while if detained a week waiting as your correspondent was, it means from $20 to $30, besides hard work to get over. The first man that took a bath a got the laugh, but before noon the laugh was general, as there were but few who had not had the pleasure of taking a wistful look, with chin just over the gunwale of the boat. At 2 p. m. we were scarcely 4 miles from shore, the wind was starting up, our captains consulted, and decided to turn the boats back for the same shore. We started with the pleasent [sic] news that it looked very bad, and unless we worked very hard we must stay out that night. It had the desired affect. Such shoving and hauling with boat hooks I never wish to participate in again. At 6.30 we struck board ice, completely exhausted, with the whole thing to be done over again. Tuesday we took another prospecting tour on the gulf; out four hours and gave up. Wednesday we started again, came over in fine shape, much open water and struck large bergs of ice with pinnacles higher than church steeples, then flat fields of ice, then lanes of water. The day was cold but no one wore coats or vests, they all had business that kept them warm without extra clothing, and all were very happy to be once more on the main land. Forty miles staging brought us to the Intercolonial Railroad where we took cars, which carried us to a land where travel not so difficult in winter. About May 10th ice will disappear, and steamers and the ships and vessels will begin to trade with Island.

SS PEI at Borden showing iceboat (detail). Image courtesy Phil Culhane

Even after improved winter steamers were introduced they too, proved unable to cope with the ice of Northumberland Strait. Up until  about 1920 the winter steamers carried iceboats so that passengers could be transported to land if the boat became stuck in the ice floes. It was not until the arrival of the SS Prince Edward Island in 1915 that the service became dependable and the iceboats finally stopped running after the completion of port facilities at Port Borden and Cape Tormentine.

(1) An earlier and more detailed account of the crossing can be found in B.W.A. Sleigh’s Pine Forests and Hacmatack Clearings [1853]. The section dealing with the “The Icy Passage” can be found in The Island Magazine  #1, Fall-Winter 1976 p.23-29.

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.

 

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.