Category Archives: Steamers

“Life on Our Harbor” 1899

As one looks out on Charlottetown Harbour today, empty except for the occasional oil tanker or gravel boat, it is very difficult to imagine how busy the port would have been at the end of the Victorian era. Even in a normal year with cruise ships entering and leaving there is not real sense of a busy port except for the crowded streets and souvenir shops. In the late 1800s it was a different story as everything and everybody coming to or leaving the Island had to come by boat. Charlottetown was connected by passenger steamers to Boston and Halifax, to Montreal and Quebec and across the Strait to Nova Scotia. Freight boats visited with cargos to and from Montreal, Sydney, St. John’s and other Atlantic Canadian ports. Smaller steamers also linked Charlottetown to other Island ports such as Orwell, Montague and Souris. And almost unnoticed among the steamers were scores of schooners visiting ports all along the Atlantic seaboard and into the Caribbean. These visits were seldom the subject of front page news coverage but every now and again we get a hint of how busy the port could be. Following is a story from the Charlottetown Examiner from 5 August 1899.

Life on Our Harbour

Seldom do so many steamers enter Charlottetown Harbor on one day as came in on Thursday afternoon and evening.  Those who were out in the park on that day, in addition to watching the cricket match and tennis playing had the pleasure of seeing an unusually large number of steamboats coming in.

Jacques Cartier

S.S. Jacques Cartier at harbour mouth

First of all came the Electra, and as she was coming in the Jacques Cartier was going out crowded with excursionists — all bound on enjoying the beautiful sail to Orwell. The the little government launch Sir Louis came in and shortly after her the City of Ghent, whose coming was not only known to those looking on  — her delightful sirene [sic] whistle proclaimed to all the city she was here on her regular weekly visit. Closely following the Ghent was the Sentinel, that trim little American Yacht which attracted the admiration of all that saw her.  Many were the suppositions as to what her name could be, but as she was not expected no-one knew until she got close to the wharf.


Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company’s Princess

After her the familiar form of the Princess was seen coming in at full speed until she was almost up to the wharf. Just as onlookers adjourned for something to eat, last but greatest of all, the Halifax steamed in at a lively rate, sending side waves to wards the shore, and bringing to the Island tourists, who came to enjoy the refreshing breezes of our summer clime. 

HalifaxThis number of steamers, in addition to our regular ferry boats, tugs and steamers, coming in, is for Charlottetown Harbor something out [of] the ordinary.  After tea it still kept up, the Jacques Cartier returning from Orwell shortly after eight o’clock and she neared her berth the old time strains of “Home Sweet Home” could be herd across the water with pleasing effects, being sung by upwards of one hundred and thirty excursionists who crowded her deck.

Bonavista 2

Black Diamond Steamship Company’s Bonavista in Montreal

At ten o’clock the Bonavista, of the Black Diamond Line arrived from Montreal and she was the last one for Thursday night. At Friday morning at five o’clock, the Campana, that splendid steamer owned by the Quebec Steamship Company arrived from Quebec and Montreal with one hundred and twenty five passengers, and as she came in the Electra sailed for Montague. 


S.S. Campana in Pictou ca. 1903. Warwick & Rutter postcard

It is enjoyable to watch the steamers as well as sailing vessels coming and going. But those who had the luck to be about the wharves or park at 7 o’clock on Friday morning might see a sight not often equalled in our harbor.  First of al the City of Ghent left her wharf, immediately after her the yacht Sentinel glided out and following the Sentinel the Princess started. One behind the other they steamed out the harbor and just as they were going out the three-masted schooner Evelyn, with every stitch of canvas set, was coming in sixteen days from Barbados. That was a sight which would make many a confirmed land lubber wish that the were a sailor, with “a life on the ocean wave and a home on the rolling deep.”

The yacht Sentinel which was noted above was also the subject of an enthusiastic report . Described as “A thing of beauty in the sailing line” it certainly caught the attention of the Examiner’s reporter. At the time the vessel belonged to Chicago millionaire C.K.G. Billings who had made a fortune in gas and electric utilities.

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Sentinel under a previous owner. Chicago Tribune 24 June 1895

She probably leads anything that has ever entered Charlottetown Harbor  — she’s so trim, so neat and so spotlessly clean. Everything about her is got up in the costliest manner. She is lighted with electricity, has a powerful searchlight, all the woodwork is  of mahogany and the fittings of brass and her naptha launch  and small sized cannon came in for not little share of attention from the number who who had the pleasure of seeing her as she lay at Poole & Lewis’ Wharf. Her length is 124 feet and she maintains a cruise speed of 10 knots. Her owner is Mr. Billings, who is now in Boston, and two friends of his on board. While at the wharf she was supplied with water, with ten tons of egg anthracite coal by C. Lyons & Co. and with a quantity of fresh provisions by Blake Bros.  

1894 Excursion from New York and Boston was the real beginning of Charlottetown as a cruise ship port of call.

In a posting more than two years ago (found here) I opined that the first cruise ship visited Charlottetown just prior to the Great War. I was wrong by about two decades.

Quebec Steamship Company steamer Orinoco in Charlottetown 10 August 1894. Photo probably by Charlottetown photographer Cloud Hill.

On 10 August 1894 an article appeared in the Charlottetown Examiner announcing “The Orinoco Arrives.” The previous day the vessel with a large party of excursionists had tied up at Pownal wharf. The vessel was described as “handsomely furnished” and the saloons were “spacious and comfortable.” Unlike other passenger-carrying ships she appears to have landed no freight at Charlottetown. This was strictly an excursion trip. On her arrival a large number of Charlottetown residents were welcomed aboard for an evening of music. The ship spent the night and most of the next day in Charlottetown and no doubt passengers came ashore to see the sights of the city. After her stay of just under 24 hours she left to continue her two-week trip to Dalhousie, New Brunswick and the Saguenay, Tadoussac and Quebec.

Before she left however the excursion leader, Mr. E. Stokes, commissioned a local photographer with the intriguing name of Cloud Hill to capture an image of the Orinoco and her tourist passengers. That is, with little doubt, the scene shown above.

The S.S. Orinoco was operated by the Quebec Steamship Company, formerly the Quebec and Gulf Ports SS Co. which had provided a steamer a service between Quebec and Pictou calling at Charlottetown and other ports. In 1894 they had the paddle steamer Miramichi, a former blockade runner, on the route. The Orinoco normally operated between New York and Bermuda and also from Halifax to several Caribbean destinations. However in 1894 the company tried an experimental cruise from New York to the St. Lawrence. The famous Thomas Cook & Sons was the steamship’s agent and the trip was a great success. Thomas Cook had offices in several American cities and with the exception of a single Canadian all of the passengers were Americans. The Orinoco also stopped at Charlottetown about a week later on the return trip to New York. The following year the vessel repeated the excursion with an itinerary which included Boston, Bar Harbor, Portland, Saint John, Yarmouth, Halifax, Dalhousie, Gaspe Saguenay and Quebec.

Built in a yard at Hartlepool in the Tees region of northern England and launched in 1881, the Orinoco which, was originally to be called the Barbados, was an iron screw steamer, 270 feet long and displaced 1864 gross register tons. She had accommodation for 60 first class and 30 second class passengers as well as large freight capacity.

Although the 1894 and 1895 tourist excursions were considered successful they were not repeated and the competition provided by the Plant Line may have been seen as a barrier to further profitable trips. The ship continued to operate from New York to Bermuda and the Halifax firm of Pickford and Black chartered the vessel for their Caribbean service in 1900. Less than six months later she was wrecked in Grenada on a passage from Demerara to Halifax. She was replaced by another Dutch-built chartered vessel which the firm confusingly also renamed as the Orinoco. That vessel was wrecked in 1907.

With the Orinoco’s passengers identified as “tourists” and “excursionists” 1894 makes a much better starting date for Charlottetown’s status as a cruise port. While later vessels were often fitted out with services for cruise passengers their trips to Charlottetown were part of a regular steamship route whose accommodation was available to ordinary travellers as well as tourists. Sold as an excursion the trips of the Orinoco were designed for, and apparently limited to, vacationers. The Port of Charlottetown can thus claim a history of cruise ship visits going back more than 125 years — with a few interruptions.

The image of the Orinoco at Pownal Wharf was brought to my attention through a posting on the Historic Prince Edward Island Facebook site which can be found here. Unfortunately this site does not indicate the source of the photo. More on the history of steamers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence can be found on Kevin Griffin’s excellent site The St. Lawrence Saga.

The day the Steamers Stopped: Mainland Cut-off Again!

Princess of Wales in Summerside Harbour 1878. Detail From Panoramic View of Summerside

The last few weeks of the shipping season in 1883 looked to be business as normal for those using the steamers of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company. Merchants were rushing to get the last shipments of goods and supplies to the Island before the ice set in.  After that they would have to rely on the undependable services of the Northern Light, the icebreaker that the Dominion Government promised would bring and end to the Island’s seasonal isolation (or more likely “ice-olation”) but had utterly failed in the task. Island-bound winter orders began to build up at the railheads at Pictou and Point du Chene. On the Island side schooners and steamers were rushed to load with produce bound for market before they became iced-in at Island ports. Fall was a busy shipping season for paddle steamers Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence, the veteran ships of the Steam Navigation fleet.

Paddle steamer St. Lawrence in Charlottetown Harbour 1878. Detail from Panoramic View of Charlottetown.

Passengers too, began to worry about getting to and from the Island. If the steamer service stopped the alternative of an ice-boat crossing was an un-attractive and dangerous alternative.

Then, on 29 October 1883 all plans unraveled as news hit the Island that the steamer service provided by the aging paddle-steamers Princess of Wales and St. Lawrence would be suspended. The mainland would be cut off again!   The cause was not severed winter nor mechanical problems with the steamers, rather it was by order of an official of the Dominion Government.

In 1882 the Steamboat Inspection Act had been amended to include Prince Edward Island. This legislation required safety inspections but it had not been operable on the Island as no inspector had been appointed for the area, but the following year, albeit late in August the Maritime Provinces inspector, a Mr. Coker, crossed on the steamer from Shediac to Summerside and returned from Charlottetown to Pictou.  Based on this short visit to the boats he ordered that they cease operations as of the end of October.

Initially it was understood that the order referred only to the carrying of passengers and that the freight operations could continue. The Northern Light was pressed into service two months earlier than normal to carry passengers and mail with three round-trips a week between Charlottetown and Pictou.  However, within a few days the ban was extended to any voyages of the paddle steamers, not just for passenger service.

There was however, one bit of good news. Earlier in the year the Steam Navigation Company had taken delivery of new boat for the fleet. The SS Summerside  was not designed or fitted out as a passenger vessel although there had been speculation that capacity would be added. Never the less passengers were taken aboard and must have missed the saloons, staterooms and dining facilities of the paddle steamers. The biggest job for the steamer was to keep up the flow of freight between Summerside and the rail head at Point du Chene.

Northern Light. Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly 1887.

The Dominion Government had an obligation under the terms of the Island’s entry into confederation to provide continuous steam communication across the Strait and in addition to the winter steamer Northern Light they moved quickly to add the steamer tug Napoleon III, a Canadian government steamer primarily engaged in lighthouse tending  onto the freight route between Charlottetown and Pictou.  This ship too had limited passenger capacity but the four boats were able to avoid what could have been a crippling blow to the Island’s economy.  By mid-November the Napoleon III was sailing between Charlottetown and Pictou while the Northern Light carried passengers and freight between Georgetown and Pictou.

Government Steamer Napoleon III. Helped in a pinch – but not very much. Image from Confederation Centre Art Gallery collection.

However there were still problems. The Napoleon III did not have the capacity of the Steam Navigation boats and within a day traffic was backed up. On 11 November a dozen rail cars worth of freight had been left on the Pictou docks.  The Examiner noted that if freight “cannot be carried to this port, serious loss to our merchants will be involved.” A few days later the Summerside had to have her propeller, damaged in a gale, replaced which caused further disruption.

The ice closed the port of Summerside early. By the first of December the S.S. Summerside had been moved to the Charlottetown Pictou route. The Napoleon III’s last trip was on 3 December  and it was announced that the last trip across the Strait by the SS Summerside would take place on 19 December.  Twelve days earlier she had carried an important cargo – two new boilers for the Steam Navigation Company Steamers.

The incident provided an additional excuse for the newspapers in the province to exchange a lengthy series of salvos debating what was either the high-handed inexcusable actions of the Dominion Government in cancelling the registration of the two Company paddle-steamers, or the admirable concern with the safety of the public in taking reasonable measures to prevent the use of unsafe vessels. What is strangely lacking is any sort of response from the Company itself.  Aside from a single advertisement regarding revised schedules the PEI Steam Navigation Company had nothing to say.

Given that silence there may have been something in the concerns of the Steamboat Inspector. In 1883 the Princess of Wales had had 19 years of service on the route and the St. Lawrence had been built even earlier. Although the Company appears to have had maintained the vessels over the period they had not had a major re-fit.

However, faced with revoked certificates the Company made major investments in their boats.  As noted above, new boilers arrived before freeze-up and the winter was spent with shipwrights swarming over the steamers. When put back in service in the spring of 1884 the two boats had not just been re-fitted and re-painted they had, in the words of the Patriot newspaper been “re-constructed”

It was well that the investment had been made.  a year later the Summerside went on the rocks at Fogo Island. The two old wooden paddle steamers continued to serve the Island for many years. The Prince of Wales was replaced in 1891  and the St. Lawrence, after more than thirty years service, was finally broken up in 1896.