Category Archives: Ferry

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”.

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On foot across the floes – when the mainland was cut off again.

Dominion Government Steamship “Minto” in the icefield. Raphael Tuck postcard. In addition to lifeboats the Minto also carried two iceboats, one of which is visible on the stern-most davits

The story appeared under a gripping headline — PERILOUS TRIP – PARTY OF NINE WALK THIRTEEN MILES OVER ICE FROM IMPRISONED STEAMER. But was it what it seemed?

St. John, N.B. Feb.26 – Impelled by anxiety to reach their parents who were ill in Boston, two young women led a party of seven persons over 13 miles of ice floes from an imprisoned steamer to Pictou Island and thence to the mainland. The steamer Minto, which runs from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island became icebound on Monday. Among the 40 passengers on board were two young women of different families who had received word that parents were dying in Boston. When they realized the situation of the Minto they expressed determination to set out on foot. Another young woman and four young men also were willing to join in the undertaking.

The party left the steamer shortly before noon on Monday. The sun’s rays on the ice proved almost blinding, and after the party had struggled along on the ice for some miles, one of the young men sank down from exhaustion. The balance of the distance, however, was finally covered although the young women were obliged constantly to assist the exhausted man. They reached Pictou Island about 9 o’clock in the evening.

After passing the night on the island the balance of the journey was made to the mainland on Tuesday, where the Boston women caught the train. Members of the party belonging in St. John reached here today greatly exhausted.

The winter of 1902-1903 was an especially hard one for Prince Edward Island but with two sturdy Canadian Government Steamers providing passage to the mainland there was little anxiety. However, as ice in Northumberland Strait built up it became increasingly difficult for the steamers to negotiate the passage.  The Stanley had been attempting to keep open a route from Summerside to Cape Tormentine while the Minto had what should have been the easier task of running between Georgetown and Pictou.

Early in January the Stanley became stuck in a floe off Seacow Head and would eventually remain imprisoned for 66 days as the ship was dragged by the ice east down the Strait.  By the end of February the ship was located between Merigomish and Pictou Island and although passengers had been sent to shore on ice boats, the crew remained aboard. Coal was running low and without steam in the boilers any hope of being able to manoeuvre in the ice would disappear.

Meanwhile the Minto was having a difficult time getting in and out of Pictou as the same ice that held the Stanley was jammed into ridges which rose in places to a height of 15 feet. On 14 February the Minto left Pictou for Georgetown with orders to get as close to the Stanley as possible and she had aboard some 85 tons of coal to refuel the stranded vessel.  She also had 54 passengers on board heading for the Island. They were warned by the Captain that there was considerable danger of a lengthy voyage as they had not only had to battle the ice for their own passage but also to aid the ice-bound Stanley.  It was reported that ” They said they were willing to take their changes and looked forward to an interesting experience.”  Stuck for  more than a week in the ice, hardly moving, the mood changed from interesting to infuriating.  A report of the trip noted that “After being out a while their good humor vanished, and there was much murmuring.  One young woman went in to hysterics and a young man became insane chafing under the delay.”

Compounding the problems with the ice, the Minto lost one blade of her four-bladed propeller, severely limiting her ability to manoeuvre and reducing her speed.  While the ship carried spare blades which could be bolted on the work required her to go on the marine slip at Pictou and could not be done at Georgetown.

 

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Steamer Minto in Ice, Northumberland Straits. The ice boats can be seen on the stern of the ship.

It is at this point that the dramatic newspaper story above begins to unravel as a few of the details are questionable. What was reported in P.E.I. papers, based on reports from Pictou and later from the ship, was that faced with so many passengers on board, the Minto was running out of food. On the February 23, after 9 days aboard,  the passengers were offered the opportunity to leave the ship and walk the 7 miles to Pictou Island accompanied by crew members who hauled their luggage in one of the iron runner-shod iceboats which were part of the Minto’s equipment.  The journey to Pictou Island took about 4 hours. The group intended to continue their journey across the 14 mile Strait to High Bank or Wood Islands walking or using dories from the Pictou Island fishing fleet. However on reaching Pictou Island the plan changed and they decided to cross from Pictou Island to the mainland, some electing to take the train to Cape Tormenting and cross on the iceboats running at the Capes. On Tuesday 24 February the rest of the passengers, save six who elected to stay aboard, made the same journey on foot to Pictou.  The following day the winds shifted and the Minto was freed to head for the relief of the Stanley. It took five hours to go a mile and then they reached a lead in the ice which enabled them to get within a mile of the Stanley.  They unloaded 45 tons of coal on the ice to be dragged to the Stanley by her crew and then headed for Georgetown arriving the following day, after 12 days in the ice. It would be weeks before the Stanley was finally free.

A dramatic story in itself but what of the news re-printed above?  Garbled at best and sensationalized at worst there are several puzzling details.  The story appeared in the New London, Connecticut,  Daily but there is no mention of the details in either the Island Patriot or the Guardian. If they were trying to reach parents who were ailing in Boston why were they aboard a steamer headed for Prince Edward Island?  And as for “leading” the party it seems instead that the evacuation was under the direction of the crew of the Minto. The story in the Daily conveniently omits the information that a total of 47 passengers apparently made the transfer to shore without incident.

“The time when we were stuck on the ferry for [fill in the blank] hours/days” is part of the story-telling repertoire of almost every Islander of a certain age, however few tales can compare with the experience of those on the Minto in the winter of 1903 who, when faced with the choice between boredom and ice, took to the latter.