Category Archives: History

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.   

All the world’s a pier

 All the world’s a pier,
And all the sail and steamers merely vessels;
They have their arrivals and their sailings;
And one ship in its time sees many ports,
 
With apologies to the Bard.
 
Some ships lead a solitary existence barely straying from the ports of their launch and their end – either dramatically through wreck or peacefully by reason of scrapping.  That certainly is the case with many of the steamers such as ferries for which Charlottetown was almost the only port. Other vessels played a multitude or roles in their visitation to the port. Such is the case with the S.S. Aranmore which over a forty year period was a frequent and sometimes regular visitor to the harbour but for many different  reasons and under the management of several different owners and operators.
 
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S.S. Aranmore

The Aranmore was built in 1890 by the W,B. Thompson & Co. yard in Dundee Scotland. It was a general cargo steamer of 1170 gross tons, 500 net tons and was built for the Clyde Shipping Company of Glasgow.  Besides its cargo capacity the Aranmore also was a passenger steamer with accommodation for 75 first class passengers, 20 second class and 100 steerage and deck passengers. Clyde Shipping had developed a regular coastal service to Cork and Waterford and to Galway Bay, the Shannon estuary and Limerick. A service to Plymouth was later extended to Southampton, Newhaven and London. From 1888, the deep-sea tramping trade saw the company heavily involved in the guano, nitrate and copper trade in the Pacific islands. After fifteen years serving the Irish Sea ports the Aranmore was purchased by the Holliday Brothers  company of Quebec which had been awarded a five-year mail contract for ports on the Quebec North Shore and the vessel also extended service to Charlottetown and Sydney. In the fall of 1905 the Aranmore was chartered from Holliday’s by the Plant Line to replace the S.S. Halifax  sailing from Charlottetown to Boston. The following year, still owned by Holliday’s, she was sailing under the Dobell Line operations and again regularly stopped at Charlottetown, this time on a passage from Montreal to St. John’s. During this period the ship was occasionally charted by the Dominion government for lighthouse supply.   
 
At the end of 1913 Holliday Brothers ended their steamship operations and sold their vessels, the Aranmore being acquired by the Dominion Government and re-registered as a government vessel in 1915. As the C.G.S. (Canadian Government Steamship) the Aranmore was primarily engaged in the lighthouse and buoy service, although on several occasions the vessel was chartered by Clarke Steamships for their Quebec North Shore service. 
 
In 1916, pending the opening of the car ferry service a the Capes,  the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company had sold the steamer Empress to the C.P.R and the Canadian Government acquired the company’s Northumberland, attaching it to the Canadian Government Railways. The following year the Island had a bumper crop of ships carrying freight and passengers across the Strait. The Northumberland mainly served on the Summerside to Point du Chene route. Construction of the ferry terminals at the Capes was still underway and so the rail ferry was crossing from Charlottetown to Pictou but its capacity was limited as freight had to be transferred from rail cars to the ship and then unloaded by hand at the other end of the crossing. Rail shipping became backlogged at both ends of the crossing and early in 1917 the Government advised that P.E.I. Railway that the Aranmore would be detached from other duties and put on the Charlottetown – Pictou route to assist.  Throughout the 1917 season the Aranmore was a regular sight in Charlottetown harbour supplementing the voyages of the S.S. P.E.I.  One trip in July 1917 showed a glimpse of the Island’s future as the steamer carried 60 passengers, one motor truck and nine new automobiles for dealers including Bruce Stewart, Horne Motors and Grant & Kennedy.  In addition the load also included one railcars worth of paper, one of bran, two cars of corn and 1,200 sacks of cement.    
 
By the end of 1917 the ferry terminals had been completed and the S.S. Prince Edward Island was in full operation at the Capes. Although the Aranmore continued on the Pictou route until freeze-up it was clear that the carferry would be able to handle the traffic in the future. Government operated steamer service from Summerside to Point du Chene was halted and the Charlottetown-Pictou route was handled by subsidized private operators. (see the Constance, Magdalen and Hochelega)  
 
The Aranmore was then moved to the Yarmouth to Boston route where the vessels had been taken off the service for wartime duties. It was leased to Eastern Steamship Lines to meet a demand from Nova Scotia shippers for a continuation of the New England connection.  When Eastern Steamships was able to secure new vessels for the route the Aranmore was returned to lighthouse duties.  
 
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Belle Isle North End Lighthouse. One of the facilities serviced through the 1920s and 1930s by the Aranmore from the Charlottetown base.

In the 1920s Charlottetown was the primary depot for the Gulf of St. Lawrence with responsibilities extending to the Strait of Belle Island and beyond as well as a number of Newfoundland lighthouses. The Aranmore saw lighthouse duties along the north shore of the Gulf and into the Strait.   Late in 1919 the Aranmore had been stranded in an attempt to carry  supplies to marooned and starving wireless operators at Battle Harbour and two crew members spent the winter ashore in shacks maintaining the ship. It was  not pulled from the shore until September of 1920.  Throughout the 1920s the Aranmore was normally attached to the Charlottetown Marine Agency during the season and was laid up in Halifax over the winter, occasionally making voyages to Sable Island.  A large number of the ship’s crew were from Prince Edward Island.

 
The lighthouse work continued through the 1930s but in 1938, as the Aranmore was approaching almost 50 years of age the Government announced that the ship, along with two other vintage vessels; the Bellechase and the Lady Grey would be scrapped and a new combination icebreaker and service vessel would be built. However with the outbreak of World War II scrapping of a ship that was still operable would not have been a wise decision and early in 1940 the ship was sold to the Halifax-based salvage company Foundation Maritimes, then engaged in essential war work. The ship was re-named the Foundation Aranmore and served throughout the war in the Foundation fleet along with the better-known salvage tug Foundation Franklyn. At the conclusion of the war she was purchased by Wentworth MacDonald of Sydney who had owned a number of other vessels, such as the Constance, with P.E.I. connections. He held onto the Foundation Aranmore for only as year and it was sold to Cuban interests and was stranded, salvaged and sold in 1946. 
 
Like an actor playing different parts the Aranmore had been in P.E.I. waters for many years as a part of operations of Holliday Bros., Clarke Steamships, Dobell, and Plant Steamships and the Dominion. It had served as a passenger carrier, a ferry, a buoy tender, lighthouse supplier and general marine spear carrier.   Often crewed by Islanders it was a familiar sight in Charlottetown Harbour, a reminder of how much of a port Charlottetown once was.