Category Archives: History

The Rite of Passage: Crossing the Strait by Iceboat

Almost all visitor accounts of travel to Prince Edward Island in the 19th century included mention of the winter isolation and the iceboat service which was a unique experience.  However most travellers came or went in the summer so their accounts were second- hand. What is rarer are those who actually experienced the icy passage. While there were a number of dangerous and prolonged crossings in the more than 80 years that the system operated most were routine although still cold and exciting. On a good day some crossings were made in under four hours from shore to shore.

Iceboat Service from P.E.I. to Mainland. Haszard & Moore postcard. Author’s collection

One of the most interesting and detailed is that of Father Edward Osborne, an Anglican brother of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist which had a monastery in Boston.  Osborne came to the Island in a mission in January of 1883.   An excerpt from the diary kept on the trip appeared in the 8 March 1883 edition of the Examiner.  After detailing the trip from Amherst to Cape Tormentine and his frustration with a three-day wait for favourable weather at the Cape Father Osborne records with some relief that the boats finally set out for the Island.

After the drive over the board ice, all the boats were loaded, and we were ready to go at the word. Mrs. —– and little girl went in the Captain’s boat. I went with his son. We had five boats in all, ours being the heaviest with ten men including myself. Of course, Mrs. —– and little girl were packed in with bags, fur coats and hot bricks, not to move until we got over to the other side. I could have gone the same way if I had liked, and had paid a little extra; but am I not a man among my brethren? My place was third on the left of the boat, between two men passengers who had both crossed before. The man next behind me had a brother on the other side of our boat, who jokingly said that he did not think that his brother had ever followed a clergyman before – better for him if he had! Every man has a strong strap passed over his shoulder and under his arm. By this he pulls the boat along and is himself kept safe in case of accident; so with one hand on the boat we are to run along.

Crossing the Ice. P.E. Island. Real photo postcard. UPEI Collection.

It is curious as we stand waiting, to see the huge fields of ice drifting majestically past us, the great hummocks standing out sharp against the blue sky from ten to twenty feet high. The Captain and to men stand on heaps, watching for our chance. At last a huge ice field, a mile or more along – “Now boys if we are to take this field we must go” – and with a rush we are off. There are about ten or twelve feet of water with floating ice and slush between us and the solid field and as the boat crashes down into this I supposed all would get on board, and accordingly got in. But the men rushed on, stepping on the floating blocks, shouting and heaving, and in two minutes we were on the solid ice in front. We were now fairly off and settled down to our work, the boats were formed in line, the Captain leading and our boat second. The stem of each boat was kept close to the stern of the boat in front, so that we looked like some enormous reptile winding its way along over the silent snow. The work was heavy, for the snow on the ice-field was fully eighteen inches deep, and through this we had to plod dragging our boats with their burdens.

Crossing at the Capes, Prince Edward Island, PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation. Earl Taylor collection.

Very little was said by anyone, so that the stillness in the quite morning air was striking. We were soon warm, and in fact too warm. In half an hour from starting every man had an icicle from each end of his moustache, while I had a little circle of them around the edge of my fur cap.  The men made me put my boots under my trousers and tie the trousers down. By this means all snow was prevented from getting into the tops of my boots, and if I happened to slip into water the thick trousers I wore would throw it off. I got over thus quite dry.

Our ice-field was not all smooth; in many places the ice was overshot, that is, one sheet over another. These were concealed under the snow and before we knew it we might stumble and slip over them. Sometimes there were holes ever so deep, into which you might sink in snow and water to your waist. We got over our first field without mishap. The there was a short space of blue water to be crossed to the next field. As we neared the edge the word was given “straps off,” and we threw then off into the boats. Then accelerating the speed of the boat she crashed down into the water and we all jumped in hastily and were soon rowing on. We had to repeat this several times. In some places the water had a very thin coating of ice, through which we easily rowed the oars, leaving a mark like a V in the ice on either side. Sometimes the ice was just too thick to row in, and then we had to break the way. This was done by rolling the boat rapidly and striking the ice in front with an oar or boathook. In one instance two of the men got over the bows of the boat, and jumped up and down smashing the ice with their feet. This was very curious to see, and looked very dangerous. They kept fast hold of the boat, and kept their straps on, and no harm happened. While they did this the others pulled the boat by means of boathooks. These hooks were of curious shape, like two spuds put opposite ways. Then hooked spud was struck into the ice so as to get a purchase to pull on. It was very funny to see the boats going thus, the six hooks in each boat striking rhythmically together. After the first start, our boat was the leading boat all the way, so we had the honour and toil of breaking the way for the others. The men were very civil to me addressing me as “Reverence,” whenever we came to any hard place it was always, “In with your Reverence,” and then I jumped into the boat and they followed. Now and then the ice was very rough and in great hillocks, and the boats had to be dragged up and down, bumping and crashing. This was very thicklish [sic] work for the hillocks were often only piles of loose lumps of ice. And on these we had to step. Sometimes they gave way under us and then we had to look very sharp, for we might slip under the boat and strain an ankle or break a leg.  Where the ice was thin or indeed where we dragged the boat in water, we ourselves stepping on floating lumps, the sensation was very curious when you found your footing sinking beneath you. There was nothing for it then but to hold onto the boat and jump or step to the next piece. Indeed, we had to keep our eyes open and our wits about us all the time.

Striking Board Ice. Warwick and Rutter Postcard #2669. This image is from a Cyrus Lewis photograph dated from about 1895.

About 12 we halted for ten minutes in the middle of an ice field, and eat the little refreshments we had brought with us and took a drink of water from the bung-hole of the little keg with which each boat was provided. At this halt the passengers exchanged greetings and experiences, and all paid a visit to Mrs. —– and the little girl, in the captain’s boat. This was the only pause we made, pressing on all the rest of the time.

About one we passed the party going in the opposite direction, about one-quarter of a mile south of us, with only one boat. They raised a hat on an oar as a signal, which we returned. Towards the end of our journey we had some long stretches of water, on which the boats raced one another. Near the further shore we came to what seemed to me to be the most exciting and dangerous of all. This was the thin ice, which the day before was “lolly,” and was now about three inches thick. It was glassy on the surface; but when broken – and it broke easily – it looked like the almond icing of wedding cake. This was thick enough to bear a man, but not enough to bear the boats if they stood still. The boats now kept far apart so as to distribute the weight and we started at a run skimming over the thin ice. Oftentimes the boat would break in and then we had to lift her if we could, and if not drag her on, crashing and breaking the ice as she went, the water flowing over our boots. The men hurried on but kept quite calm, so that it did not seem as if there was any real danger and I do not know that there was except that we might have all smashed in together and got a ducking. Only one man of our boat got really wet. One of the other boats fared much worse.

Crossing to Prince Edward In Winter. Taylor’s Bookstore postcard. UPEI collection. Although several cards show boats with small sails they were not often used during the crossing as conditions were seldom right.

The last half mile we rowed in clear water until we reached the beach ice again and then there was one strong and heavy pull over bumps and hillocks and we were safe ashore.

The full account from Osborne’s diary can be found here.  It includes other details of the trip such as the extended stay in Cape Tormentine.  Other accounts of the iceboat crossing can be found from earlier Sailstrait postings can be found here and here

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.

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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. 

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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.

Spuds, Steamers, and Stevedores: Potato Shipping in the Inter-war Years

 

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Potato shipping from Charlottetown ca. 1930. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 4332/2 Wallace MacDonald album

Up until the 1970s the arrival and departure of potato boats was one of the rites of fall. Each year dozens of shipments would be made from the wharves in Charlottetown and Summerside and to a lesser extent from Georgetown, Souris, and even Victoria.  However it had not always been so. During the 19th century potato shipments had been dwarfed by the Island’s largest export — oats. Oats were the diesel fuel of the horse era with thousands of animals in American and Canadian cities and farms being powered by Island oats. Although potatoes had been exported they were a much lesser crop and their large bulk and relatively low value meant that most shipments were by the small schooners that could visit the Island’s shallow harbours. 

There were some developments in the last quarter of the century. Potatoes made up part of the cargo of the S.S. Prince Edward for an experimental shipment of produce and livestock direct from the Island the Great Britain in the 1870s and the same decade also saw R.T. Holman shipping potatoes from Summerside to American destinations by steamer.  However, until the end of the Great War the vast majority of shipments were still small cargos carried by sailing ships. 

Seed potatoes were crop of which the Island was proud. The province was was the first jurisdiction to place a slogan on its license plates

It was the development of seed potato exports which really spurred the shift toward steamers. The 1920s saw a boom in the high quality, high value seed potatoes and Island farmers, led by the Potato Growers Association, turned to the new crop in ever increasing numbers. In 1922 the Association entered into an exclusive agency agreement with the Southgate Produce Company of Virginia which saw most PEI seed potatoes for southern U.S. markets landed at Norfolk.  In a 1928 address to the Charlottetown Rotary Club a Southgate officer described in detail the shipping and processing of seed potatoes once they left the Island. Shipping by water was preferred to the rail shipping used for shipments to Canadian markets owing to the special handling required as well as the reduced costs.  In his speech he credited the efficiency of stevedores at Summerside and Charlottetown in ensuring quality through the loading process. This was a labour-intensive operation often requiring sixty to one hundred longshoremen and was described by a Guardian reporter in a 1925 article when he visited the steamer Orkild taking on 30,000 bags potatoes in Charlottetown.     

There are four “gangs” comprised of twenty-two men to each hatch, eighty-eight men in all, including four winchmen. Each hatch has eight men stowing the potatoes as they come aboard; the men are divided to the port and starboard side thereby alleviating any undue “list” as she is being loaded; in other words the steamer is ion an even keel; at all times.

To stand on the combing [sic] of a hatch and look down into the huge hold of the steamer makes one wonder and imagine how a space so large can be stowed to the top deck in such a comparatively short time by the thirty-two stalwarts working below. 

Stowing the ship does not mean merely throwing the cargo into the hold, it takes ingenuity and skilled workmen all-round in order that the valuable cargo may not become loosened when the ship is heaving far out at sea. The cargo must be stowed with the shear of the ship from stem to stern, and every bag placed so as to occupy just a bag space, and stowed tight at that.  If a cargo is not properly placed in a vessel it is to realize what may happen in the extreme — a loose and poorly stowed cargo before now has been the loss of many a good ship. But thank goodness such is not the case with steamers leaving this port as the ability of the local men is known far and wide for the thoroughness and experience they show in handling freight. Therefore the Labourers’ Protective Union is to be congratulated on the capable and efficient body of men which represent this city. Their work may be hard at times, exposure and loss of sleep, may be experienced but this does not seem to bother then in the least — the work goes on amidst good natured chaffing and joviality which appears to prevail throughout the entire working hours. All hail to the Labourers’ Protective Union.

Mr. Wallace MacDonald is the stevedore in charge of loading the steamers.

The Labourers’ Protective Union had not always had such glowing support from those operating steamers from Charlottetown. The union had been formed in the 1880s and over the years successfully negotiated for wages on the wharves. In 1905 they clashed with the Plant Steamship Company with claims for an advance in the labour rates. The company charged that “the laboring men evidently have no interest in the welfare of their city when they band together to increase the cost of doing business to such an extent…”   However, as is often the case, claims of both sides in the disagreement were successfully compromised and trade on the waterfront continued with only a short delay. Issues again arose in 1917 when the steamer Aranmore was brought in to clear a shipping backlog while the carferry steamer Prince Edward Island was awaiting completion of the terminals at the Capes.  The S.S. PEI, which had to be loaded by hand through the stern, required more handling and workers were paid 60 cents per hour. For the Aranmore the longshoremen demanded 40 cents per hour for day work and 45 cents for night work. After lying idle at the wharf the P.E.I. Railway, which was operating the Aranmore finally reached a settlement and work continued. 

The arrival of larger steamers dedicated to freight saw a shift in loading procedures. Prior to WW I many of the steamers loaded through side ports which was slow and   labour-intensive. Larger freighters with ship-borne derricks and multiple holds sped up the process although large work gangs, as noted above, were still required. Shipments became massive. In 1926 for example amidst a month in which 700,000 bushels were shipped from the Island. One vessel — the S.S. Sabotawan — loaded over 185,000 bushels for Norfolk, Virginia, at the time a world record for a single shipment. 

Even with improved ferry and rail connections the steamers continued to load each fall from government warehouses at the Island’s ports into the 1970s, with shipments from Summerside continuing for somewhat longer. However, with the end of rail traffic on P.E.I. and completion of the Confederation Bridge, potato shipping easily shifted to trucking and containers and the potato boats vanished from the Island’s harbours. At the same time the move to processing potatoes on the Island spelled the end of the profitable seed-potato trade. The number of potato boats seemed to drop each year and it is hard to remember just when the last of the big freighters left our harbours.