Category Archives: History

“One of the Finest Harbours in the World” – Charlottetown in 1860

Detail of 1845 Chart of Charlottetown Harbour showing navigation features noted in Sailing Directions.

In  conjunction with charts, Sailing Directions were one of the most important aids to navigation in the 19th century and they continue to be useful to sailors. The Sailing Directions or “Pilots”  provided instructions as to the best ways to approach a harbour and warned of dangers that might be encountered. The earliest Directions for Prince Edward Island date from about 1810 but were much improved following the hydrographic surveys of Admiral Henry Bayfield. He was the author of the authoritative guide which was published in many editions and still is the basis of the guides used today.  The following excerpt is from the 4th edition Bayfield’s St. Lawrence Pilot, Comprising Sailing Directions for the Gulf and River, published for the Admiralty in 1860. [a fathom is 6 feet and a cable is 1/10 of a nautical mile or 608 feet]

Charlottetown Harbour is 4 ½  cables wide at entrance between the cliffs of Blockhouse and Sea Trout points; but shallow water, extending from both shores, reduces the navigable width of the Channel, reckoning from the depth of 3 fathoms, to about  2 ¼ cables; and as the shoals are very steep, it would require to be well buoyed before a ship of large draught could beat in or out with safety. Cliffs of red sandstone 10 to 30 feet high, form the shores on either side, the land rising gradually from them in undulations, and being partly cultivated and partly wooded. An old blockhouse and signal post stand on Blockhouse point, the west point of entrance. The next point of cliff on the west side of entrance is Alchorn point, and at the distance of half a mile from the blockhouse are the remains of Amherst fort, on the hill, 93 feet above high water. On the same side, north of Alchorn point, is Warren cove, and lastly, Canseau point, with its white beacon, 1 ¼ miles from the blockhouse. Canseau shoal extends off Canseau point to the distance of 3 ½ cables, and will be cleared by keeping the blockhouse just open, clear of Alchorn point; observing that the extremes of the cliff of Blockhouse and Alchorn points in one, lead over the point of the shoal in 16 feet at low water.

On the opposite or eastern side of the entrance, and less than a mile within Sea Trout point, is Battery point, with its shoal; the latter running out 2 cables, and having on its extreme point a buoy moored in 3 fathoms at low water. Outside that depth, on either side, the water deepens abruptly, and there are 13 fathoms in the middle of the channel. The red beacon and Scotch church tower at Charlottetown, clear the shoal off Battery point in 10 fathoms, and at the distance of 120 yards.  Within the harbour, in addition to the flats of mud and weeds extending off shore, there is the Middle Ground, with 17 least water, and for the situation of which the seaman is referred to the plan of the harbour; it my be well, however, to notice that the white beacon on Canseau point and McKinnon’s log house in line, lead through midway between it, and the flat of the southern shore.

Immediately within Canseau and Battery points which are the inner points of entrance, the channel expands into one of the finest harbours in the world, having depth and space sufficient for any number and description of vessels. In sailing in, York river will be seen running in to the northward; the Hillsborough river stretching away to the E.N.E. far as the eye can reach; and Elliot river running in to the westward. The confluence of the streams of these three rivers, between Canseau shoal and the mouth of York river, form the Three Tides, where there is excellent anchorage, used occasionally by laden vessels preparing for sea, the usual anchorage being off the wharves of the town, where the channel is 2 ¾  cables wide, and carries nearly 10 fathoms water.. Of the three rivers which unite in the harbour, the Hillsborough is the largest, being navigable for vessels of the largest draught to the distance of 7 or 8 miles, and for small vessels 14 miles above, where there is a bridge 2 miles from the head of the river. There is portage of less than a mile across, from the Hillsborough near its head to Savage harbour on the north coast of the island. York river, the smallest of the three, is crossed by Poplar island bridge, 2 ¾  miles from its mouth. Elliot river may be ascended 4 or 5 miles by large vessels, and 9 or 10 by small craft and boats. The shores of all three rivers are settled, and the country generally fertile.

Charlottetown, which is now a city, is advantageously situated on the northern bank of the Hillsborough river, a short distance within its entrance, and at the point where the deep water approaches nearest to the shore; its wharves, however, still requiring to be 240 yards long to reach the edge of the channel. The city is extremely well laid out, with spacious squares and wide streets at right angles; but these are as yet thinly occupied by houses of the rapidly increasing population. The new Provincial building, occupying the centre of the principal square is the only stone erection in the place. The houses, with the exception of 9 or 10 which are of brick, are all of wood; and so also are the churches and the chapels. The Scotch church, with its square white tower, will easily be distinguished, being the most to the westward, and appearing with the red beacon (used with it as a leading mark, and standing close to the on the left side of the city. Still farther to the left will be seen the Government house, by itself, and distinguished by its colonnade.

No part of the city exceeds in elevation 50 feet above the sea at high water but the land rises gradually behind it to the height of 150 feet at the distance of 1 ½ miles, and is well cultivated, whilst yet sufficient wood has been preserved to give to the country an agreeable and park-like appearance.

The site of Charlottetown, as the capital of the island, and the seat of the provincial government and legislature, appears to have been extremely well chosen, whether in regard to its almost central position, its extensive inland communication by means of the rivers which unite their streams before it; or the superiority of its harbour, which possesses, moreover, the important advantage of having the greatest rise of tide in the Gulf anywhere below Cape Chatte, with the exception of Campbelltown in the Restigouche, which is inaccessible to vessels of large draught. All kinds of supplies may be obtained at Charlottetown, but water only from wells with pumps, which are numerous in the town. In the year 1856, 619 vessels (35,931 tons burthen) entered inwards, and 603 vessels (42,365 tons) cleared outwards; in the same year the total value of imports amounted to 182,499l., and of exports to 54,090l. In 1858 the population was about 8,000.

Although primarily for navigation purposes, the Sailing Directions also could contain useful information about changing shore facilities and landmarks. The 1891 American edition of the Sailing Directions contained the following information about Charlottetown:

The Provincial building occupies the center of the public square, and is flanked on either side by the law courts and post-office, both substantial brick structures. The market house, a large wooden building, with a belfry at the west end containing the fire alarm, is situated west of the post-office, while St. Paul’s Church, a wooden building with a spire, occupies the east end of the square. The new Presbyterian Church, a handsome stone building, is situated at the NW. end of the town, and a convent, built of brick with a small belfry at the top, is conspicuous from the harbor. The Roman Catholic Cathedral, a wooden building with a large gilt cross at the top of the spire, and Bishop’s palace, of stone, near it, also show prominently. The lunatic asylum, a tine building of stone with a high tower, stands just north of Falcon Point. The railway station is at the east end of the town, and may be known by the wharf in connection with it, on which stand large chocolate-colored warehouses. St. Dunstan College, a Roman Catholic seminary, built of brick, stands on a hill 150 feet high, 11/2 miles to the northward of the town. The telegraph station is situated in Queen street, which runs northward from Queens Wharf, and is in connection with the Anglo-American Telegraph Company.

Sailing Directions continue to be published to this day and are a part of the suite of navigation tools available to sailors.

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Commerce and Franconia – The first of the Boston Boats

Steamer Commerce at Boston’s T Wharf c. 1870. Although only the wheelhouse of the small vessel can be seen its diminutive size is clear.

In yet another connection between Prince Edward Island and the Civil War, the steamer Commerce was the first of many vessels* trading to Prince Edward Island which began life on one side or the other of the Union blockade of the southern states. She was built on the river Tees by the firm of Backhouse and Dixon and launched, carrying the name Pet, in October 1862. In all probability she was designed specifically for blockade running. A relatively small vessel, 141 feet long and 20 wide, she had engines which gave her a top speed of 11 1/2 knots. Although not the name on her ownership papers she was the property of the Manchester firm of Alexander Collie & Co. who owned more than fifteen blockade runners, many of which were to be eventually seized by the Union forces.

The Pet arrived in Nassau Bahamas, the main port for blockade runners in early 1863 and was one of 28 new vessels noted by the U.S. Consul that season. The Consul calculated that each of these vessels could make a profit of $119,000 per trip which meant that the full cost of building the Pet was covered by a single round-trip. A good blockade captain could be paid $7,000 in gold for each round trip. She was a very successful commercial blockade-runner and made between fifteen and twenty trips over the next year. However, In February 1864 she was intercepted on her way from Nassau to Wilmington, Delaware by the U.S.S. Montgomery. She was close enough to shore to land her passengers and pilot before the navy boarding party could stop them. The crew, as British nationals were captured but later released.

As a prize of war the Pet was sent to Boston to be auctioned off where in April 1864 she was purchased by Franklyn Snow of Boston for $35,500. The new owner changed her name to the Commerce and she began a new life as the first of the Boston Boats shuttling between Charlottetown and Boston under the name of the Boston and Colonial Steamship Company.. On her arrival in Halifax one newspaper described her as a gentlemen’s yacht but noted her appearance had been spoiled by the addition of increased accommodation although the writer did concede that her cabins were “nicely fitted”. She arrived in Charlottetown in late May accompanied by her owner who, according to the Islander  “made himself most agreeably acquainted with the many citizens of Charlottetown.”

Islander 9 September 1864

Beginning with a bi-weekly service, the Commerce, ex Pet, was joined in early August by a larger vessel, the steamer Franconia. This ship was American-built  and, at 179 feet, was considerably larger than the Commerce, Her arrival at Charlottetown seems to have been accorded more coverage than that of the Commerce, perhaps because owner Franklyn Snow provided an excursion to Point Prim for, as the Islander, stated “all the world and his wife”, and most of the leading politicians of the colony provided entertainment for the captive audience in the form of speeches praising the enterprise.  George Coles noted this was the first attempt at providing regular service since the visits of the Albatross  more than twenty years earlier. The addition of the Franconia to the Boston and Colonial fleet meant that Charlottetown would have regular weekly service to Boston with each of the vessels leaving their respective ports every Monday and arriving on Friday.

The provision of regular service was a major advancement for the colony. Previously shippers had to take advantage of what ever shipping opportunity presented itself, often not knowing when a ship would arrive until it appeared in the harbor.  This was especially welcome for shippers of perishable goods such as oysters, eggs, meat and produce which could go directly to market in Boston or Halifax. While an alternative route using the ships of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company and several Canadian and American rail lines was available, the cargo would have to be handled several times as it had to be transferred from ship to wagon or rail several times. Another advantage was speed. The steamers could reach their port within four days, including stops at Pictou, Canso, and Halifax. Sailing vessels could take much longer. The direct service also suited passengers who could make the trip for as little as eight dollars – with additional cost for cabins and meals.

The question of the day was whether or not the trade would support the venture. The Islander’s editor noted that “The Americans have been, and are, our best customers” and suggested that by inducing the American fishing fleet, which annually visited Island waters to harvest the herring, to ship their catches on the fast steamers rather than having to return to their ports, could provide additional trade.

An added concern was that the Boston service would have a negative impact on the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company which had just made a major investment in a new vessel, the Princess of Wales in the same year. However, at the close of navigation the Islander was able to report that the Boston run had been “well patronized” and that the receipts for the Steam Navigation Company had not fallen off.

That year, navigation closed on December 21st with the Franconia being the last vessel to work its way through the harbour ice to the open channel.  She carried some 12,500 bushels of oats, 150 sheep and a quantity of poultry as well as other goods.

The following year the Commerce returned but the Franconia did not. She was replaced on the run by the Greyhound. By 1870 the Franconia had become the property of the Maine Steamship Cop. and was used on their Portland to New York route for many years.  For the next half-century the Boston Boat was a vital part of the Island’s communication  system. During the period many vessels and several companies served on the route  and they both responded to, and helped forge, the close linkages between the Island and the Boston States.

* Vessels in the P.E.I. service which had a civil war connection include the Greyhound, Oriental, Miramichi, St. Lawrence, Worcester, Carroll, Somerset, Westmoreland and Lady Le Marchant,