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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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