Category Archives: Steamers

Going With the Floe 1876

There are few accounts of winter travel to Prince Edward Island but for those that were published a consistent theme is the iceboat crossing to or from the province.  Seldom routine and often dangerous, the crossing was not for the faint of heart. Lives and limbs had been lost when weather, tides and waves conspired to force crews and passengers to spend the night on the Strait with only the slight protection of an upturned iceboat.(1)

Taylor Manufacturing Dry Styeam Engine ca. 1875

The following account dates from April 1876 and is part of a letter published in the Democratic Advocate in Westminster Maryland by an unidentified correspondent who had spent much of the winter on the Island, apparently as an agent for the Taylor Manufacturing Company which was based in Westminster. The company built portable steam engines for use with sawmilling and working operations running circular saws, planers and band saws. He reported that 15 of the engines had been put in operation over the winter and that they were having a beneficial impact on the construction costs for shipyards,  The account includes a testimonial from shipbuilder James Yeo.

In 1876 communication for the mails and passengers was supposed to have been provided by a contracted steamer, the SS Albert. The Albert, however was not up to the task and so the iceboat service, which had existed since at least the 1830s was the fallback.

On March 2d, we started to cross the Northumberland Strait, which from Cape Travers on the Island to Cape Tormentine on the New Brunswick coast is 9 miles across. These straits are filled at all times from December to March with floating fields of ice, in many instances, acres in size. Waited till Sunday, (which by the way they call fine day to cross) and started. The crossing is made in a common boat, some 15 feet long, made as light as possible, with runners on bottom, so as to haul it on the ice. Each boat has its captain, and 3 men, with places for passengers; each man is harnessed to the boat by means of a strap over the shoulders and breast so in case the ice is bad he can only go through the length of strap; it does not save from a complete wetting, but saves from drowning. This Sunday was not, unfortunately not one of the good days. We left board ice, that is, ice that always stays on each shore, at 9 0’clock in the morning, two boats and 20 passengers, and found no ice bergs but thin ice, which in salt water means very unreliable stuff. Now passengers are taken across at $2.50 a piece, from $5 to $20 for baggage if in much bulk, and they are required to pull, haul and shove the boat along, to work same as boatmen; while if detained a week waiting as your correspondent was, it means from $20 to $30, besides hard work to get over. The first man that took a bath a got the laugh, but before noon the laugh was general, as there were but few who had not had the pleasure of taking a wistful look, with chin just over the gunwale of the boat. At 2 p. m. we were scarcely 4 miles from shore, the wind was starting up, our captains consulted, and decided to turn the boats back for the same shore. We started with the pleasent [sic] news that it looked very bad, and unless we worked very hard we must stay out that night. It had the desired affect. Such shoving and hauling with boat hooks I never wish to participate in again. At 6.30 we struck board ice, completely exhausted, with the whole thing to be done over again. Tuesday we took another prospecting tour on the gulf; out four hours and gave up. Wednesday we started again, came over in fine shape, much open water and struck large bergs of ice with pinnacles higher than church steeples, then flat fields of ice, then lanes of water. The day was cold but no one wore coats or vests, they all had business that kept them warm without extra clothing, and all were very happy to be once more on the main land. Forty miles staging brought us to the Intercolonial Railroad where we took cars, which carried us to a land where travel not so difficult in winter. About May 10th ice will disappear, and steamers and the ships and vessels will begin to trade with Island.

SS PEI at Borden showing iceboat (detail). Image courtesy Phil Culhane

Even after improved winter steamers were introduced they too, proved unable to cope with the ice of Northumberland Strait. Up until  about 1920 the winter steamers carried iceboats so that passengers could be transported to land if the boat became stuck in the ice floes. It was not until the arrival of the SS Prince Edward Island in 1915 that the service became dependable and the iceboats finally stopped running after the completion of port facilities at Port Borden and Cape Tormentine.

(1) An earlier and more detailed account of the crossing can be found in B.W.A. Sleigh’s Pine Forests and Hacmatack Clearings [1853]. The section dealing with the “The Icy Passage” can be found in The Island Magazine  #1, Fall-Winter 1976 p.23-29.

Mrs. Brassey is not amused by Charlottetown

In spite of a few scurrilous comments from muckraking journalists it is often difficult to get a sense of what 19th century visitors to Charlottetown really thought of the place. By and large the published reports were polite. After all, they would appear in newspapers or books which the population might read.  Exceptions can be found in private accounts such as diaries and personal letters not intended for publication. Another outlet for the uncensored remarks was in private publications not intended for any but a select few of family and friends. Such is the case for an illustrated volume which was privately printed in 1872 by Anna Brassey.

Brassey was the wife of Thomas Brassey whose family had made its fortune in railway construction in England which enabled the family to live a comfortable life of leisure. Although Thomas served as a member of parliament he was also an avid yachtsman and traveller. Anna documented their voyages in a series of volumes, several of which became best-sellers. The best known of these was the A Voyage in the Sunbeam (1878) which described the round the world tour of their private yacht.   An earlier trip to North America is the subject of a volume printed for private distribution titled A Cruise in the Eothen.

Screw Steam Yacht ‘EOTHEN”  Royal Yacht Squadron 1864

The Eothen, a 340 ton steam yacht, had been built of iron at the James Ash shipyard in London for Arthur Anderson in 1864. Anderson was chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, an enterprise which still exists. One of their P&O cruise ships visited Charlottetown in the summer of 2019. Brassey acquired the Eothen in 1872 and set off for North America. The Eothen was the first steam yacht to cross from England to Canada but Anna was not aboard for the Altantic crossing as she came to Canada on one of the Allen Line Steamers to Montreal and joined the yacht there.  The family toured Quebec and Ontario and then took the Eothen to New York. Anna’s brief sojourn in Charlottetown was one of a number of stops. The Eothen came down Northumberland Strait and anchored inside Point Prim owing to strong winds. The next day the yacht approached Charlottetown.  The three-masted iron vessel must have seemed a considerable extravagance to the townsfolk. She was 152 feet long and 22 feet wide and even though her sails were a supplement to her 62 horse powered engine she had a graceful and pleasing shape. While the residents of Charlottetown may have been impressed by the vessel the feeling was not reciprocated. If Anna was underwhelmed by Charlottetown (a second-rate country town) she was appalled by the people (their ugliness is extreme).  All in  all it was not a happy visit, or perhaps Anna was not a person easily amused. The residents of the town remained blissfully unaware of her comments as her book was likely not circulated in the colony.

Anna Brassey 1839 – 1887

Tuesday, October 8th.—The fires were only banked up for the night, and at daylight we started again, and steamed up Hillsborough Bay, a distance of ten miles, to Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward’s Island, where we dropped anchor at nine a.m. Here we found H.M.S. the “Niobe,” which divides with the “Lapwing” the task of looking after and protecting our fisheries on this coast. At the present moment, owing to some absurd local dispute between the officials of Prince Edward’s Island and those of America, the fishing vessels from the United States are not allowed to take fish within three miles of the shore, where all the best fish are to be found. This seems very greedy, as the waters are quite wide enough, and there is fish in plenty and to spare for all.

Eothen in Montreal 1872. Note that the foremast now carries yards

We landed at Charlottetown with considerable difficulty, as there are no steps anywhere and we were obliged to climb across rafts, and over huge blocks of timber.
This city is very like most others in America. It contains no handsome buildings in particular, but there are numerous shops, and it may be fairly compared with ordinary second-rate English country towns.
The land in Prince Edward’s Island generally, but especially in the vicinity of Charlottetown, is of great fertility, and to its agricultural resources the island owes its activity. The day we arrived was market day, as well as the great annual cattle-fair, and the streets were therefore crowded with a most cadaverous-looking population. There were a great many Micmac Indians selling baskets. These Indians are not unlike gipsies in appearance; their complexions are dusky brown, and they are remarkable for their long, lanky black hair, and very high cheek-bones.
The Market Hall is a fine building, well supplied with fresh provisions, which included all the vegetables and fruits familiar to us in England.
The cattle and horses at the fair were anything but first-rate; there were, however, a few good specimens, which is perhaps as much as we ought to expect, considering it is but a small island.
The Post Office is an enormous structure, but there is not much business going on there, except when the mails arrive and depart, once a fortnight. There is no postal delivery here, so every one has to call for letters.
After lunch we started in two waggons to call on the Governor first, and then to drive round the “royalties,” as part of the island is called. Our horses were good, but the drivers fearfully reckless; and as the roads are very bad, and full of deep ruts, it was a marvel we did not come to grief, as we seemed to be plunging in and out of the most frightful holes, whilst driving at considerable speed; indeed, several times we were nearly thrown from our seats. We must have driven a distance of sixteen miles, making quite a circuit through the country, the scenery of which was pretty and park-like, the land rich and well-cultivated. Towards evening, on our way back to the town, we met all the people driving out in small one-horse carts. There were a few on horseback, but none on foot.
We were much struck with the unhealthy look of the population in general: they are so pale and thin, their ugliness is extreme, and they all seem to have an extraordinary tendency to squint. We looked in vain for the robust and hearty peasantry of the rural districts of the old country, It seems hard to conjecture the cause for this marked deterioration of the descendants of Scotch, Irish, and English settlers. Probably the long winter may be to a great extent the reason. The impossibility of active and out-door operations at that season, and the consequent temptation to spend the day in heated rooms, smoking, and sipping strong liquors, are extremely prejudicial to the health of the population.
Prince Edward’s Island has not yet joined the Canadian Dominion. A railway is, however, being laid down, for which a loan is necessary; and as soon as the increased burden of taxation is more distinctly felt, it is probable that the people will be prepared to unite with the Dominion.
In the numerous crowd at the fair we were surprised to see so few persons bearing traces of superior refinement and culture. We had supposed that the poor gentleman might have found a field for enterprise in the Colony as well as the industrious labourer. But, however, it is not so. The farmers of Prince Edward’s Island are evidently men who, if they had remained at home, would have been earning a scanty living as day-labourers.
When we returned to the yacht in the evening we found it was blowing half a gale of wind.
Wednesday, October 9th.—Our wedding-day, twelve years ago. We started at six a.m., in spite of the gale blowing and the barometer being low; but the wind was fair, though strong, and we had only fifty miles to run in a comparatively sheltered sea.

From Pictou the Eothen visited Halifax and a number of American cities before returning to England. Again Anna took a regular steamer to cross the Atlantic. In 1881 Thomas was knighted and in 1886 became Earl Brassey, making Anna, Lady Brassey. In 1876 Brassey and his whole family took a year-long cruise around the world in a new yacht the Sunbeam which became the first private yacht to make a circumnavigation.  This trip was the subject of Anna’s most popular book.  She died aboard during another extended voyage in 1887.

 

Built for the Crimea – Broken up at Charlottetown: The Long Life of the Steamer M.A. Starr

Today warships are rarely converted for commercial use but up until 1900 many naval vessels were not much different in design from their civilian counterparts.  One ship with a naval beginning was a regular sight in Charlottetown harbour for more than twenty years – and may still be resting beneath the harbour’s sand and mud.

When the British entered the Crimean War in 1854 it provided an incentive to expand the Royal Navy. The extended siege of Sebastopol, the chief Russian Naval base on the Black Sea, showed a need for shallow draft gunboats and within three years more than 120 vessels of this type were added to the fleet. Ninety-eight of these were of the Albacore class, 106 feet long and drawing under seven feet. One of these was the HMS Delight, begun while the conflict still raged but launched in 1856 from Money, Wigram & Sons yard on the Thames only a few days after the war had ended.

Builders sketch of HMS Delight

HMS Raven an Albacore class sister ship to HMS Delight

In 1864 the Delight she crossed the Atlantic serving at naval stations in Bermuda and Jamaica and in 1867 she was in Halifax. By this time the hastily-built wooden gunboats had become obsolete and the majority had already been sent to the breakers yards.  The Delight was decommissioned, stripped of her valuable copper bottom, and sold to J. Knight of Halifax in November 1867. She was re-named the M.A. Starr. She was sold again in 1869 and was registered at the Port of Halifax under the ownership of F.W. Fishwick.

Daily Examiner 7 June 1886 p.2

Fishwick’s Express Line, an overland shipping company was founded in 1856, had routes throughout Nova Scotia.  The addition of the M.A. Starr in 1869 and another steamer five years later gave the firm capacity to serve ports from Yarmouth to the Strait of Canso, Pictou and Prince Edward Island.  By linking Charlottetown to Halifax the company gave Island shippers direct access to trans-Atlantic services and American ports such as New York. The ship was a regular visitor to Charlottetown with a weekly round trip schedule to Halifax via Bayfield (near Antigonish), Hawkesbury, Mulgrave, Port Hastings, Arichat, Canso and Sheet Harbour.

In 1888 the Halifax firm of Pickford and Black created a new company, the Halifax and Prince Edward Island Steamship Company, which was incorporated the following year to serve the run from Halifax to the Island, stopping a places such as Sheet Harbour, Canso, Hawkesbury, Port  Hood and Charlottetown – exactly the same ports as the M.A. Starr – but which would be served by a newer and larger vessel purchased in the United Kingdom, the Princess Beatrice. Mrs. E. Fishwick, who had taken over after the death of her husband, amalgamated her operations with the new firm and in early July 1889 the M.A. Starr was withdrawn from service.  A few days later she was on a Fishwick’s Express route along Northumberland Strait which included Charlottetown, River John, Wallace, Pugwash, Buctouche, Bay Verte and Crapaud. In August she also called weekly at Montague, Georgetown, Cardigan and Murray Harbour. However early in September the Charlottetown Daily Examiner noted that the owners were unable to keep her on the route and the ship was offered for sale by tender. She was acquired by the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company (and its successor company the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company) and for the next two years served as an assistant to the Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence.  Primarily running between Summerside and Point du Chene she was primarily dedicated to carrying freight, relieving the two freight and passenger side-wheel steamers and allowing them faster turn-around. When the company took delivery of the new steamer the S.S. Northumberland late in 1891 the M.A. Star became surplus to requirements, was sold to a group of P.E.I. shipowners (John Ings, L.C. Owen and William Richards) and appears have operated in 1892 on routes which included Victoria, Orwell and Mt. Stewart. She also made at least one trip to St. John’s Newfoundland late that year and another the following year.

Exactly when the M.A. Starr ceased operations in not clear. Steamboats required an annual inspection and the reports of the steamboat inspector provide a few clues. The vessel was not inspected in 1893 as it was noted she was “out of port.”  For the next two years she is listed but was not inspected as she fell into the “broken up or laid up” category. A footnote in the official register states simply “broken up 1894.” The nearly  forty year-old M.A. Star was one of just a handful of the wooden Crimean gunboats to survive into the 1890s.  Unless turned into a barge or burned for the iron in the hull she may still lie beneath the waters near the wharves in Charlottetown Harbour.