Category Archives: Steamers

Delight in the Details; One Photo – Many Stories

The winter of 1905 was a long one for the Island. The ships of the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company, faced with ice forming in the Strait, ceased crossing and were laid up on 12 December 1904. They would not begin to run again until 24 April 1905. Their cross-strait duties were taken over by the Dominion Government Steamers; the Stanley and the Minto, and crossings soon shifted from Charlottetown to Summerside and Georgetown although it was not long before the ice blocked the harbour of Summerside as well.  Government steamers without ice protection such as the survey vessels working on mapping the coastline of Newfoundland had tied up even before the Steam Navigation Company boats and their crews were discharged for the season.

The photo above, taken sometime in 1905, shows the wharves as completely ice-locked.  The unknown photographer is standing in the track of a horse and sleigh which has crossed from the Southport shore. In close-up bushing can be seen on the ice marking the safe routes which began at  the foot of Great George Street extended up the West River and across the harbour.

In this detail you can see the Plant Line terminal building with its characteristic truncated gables and moored alongside the Plant Line Wharf are the three-masted Royal Navy survey ship Ellinor and ahead of her the Canadian Government Steamship Gulnare. In winter ships were not tied tightly to the wharves to allow ice to form around them and ride up and down with the tide. What appears to be a canvas cover has been erected over the decks of the Ellinor to protect them from the snow. Ships boats and other removable equipment have been moved from the ships to indoor storage.   The scene is overseen by St. Dunstan’s Cathedral and the Christian Brothers School at the head of Great George Street. If you look closely you can see the spruce poles marking the bushed route across the ice.

Moored across the end of the Steam Navigation Company wharf is the S.S. Princess. Behind her are the shops and warehouses of the Bruce Stewart and Company foundry and factory. There appears to be a major overhaul of the Princess underway. The funnel has been removed from the ship and a derrick is in place over the boiler and engine room space. Annual re-fitting of steamers was a mainstay of the Bruce Stewart business.  Above the Princess the five-story tower of the Victoria Hotel at the corner of Great George and Water streets, and the spires of the Presbyterian and Anglican churches can be seen.

The easternmost section of the photo shows the area between the Steam Navigation wharf and the Prince Street Ferry Wharf.  In front of the bow of the Princess, the wooden City of London and the Steam Navigation Company’s flagship, the S.S. Northumberland, are lying in the basin between the two wharves.  The funnel of the Northumberland has been topped with a large cone to keep snow from filling the funnel and causing rust in the engine area. The two masts of a schooner show that another vessel is frozen in just ahead of the City of London. The huge roof of the Methodist Church (now Trinity United) looms over smaller buildings. Just visible to the right is the cupola of the roundhouse of the Prince Edward Island Railway at the south-east corner of Prince Street and Water Street.

Owing to the quality of the glass-plate negatives used to take photographs at the turn of the twentieth century and before, details can be found buried in the background of many period pictures.  While the overall scene and the beauty of the composition can be seen from a distance the real stories often require a magnifying glass.

On foot across the floes – when the mainland was cut off again.

Dominion Government Steamship “Minto” in the icefield. Raphael Tuck postcard. In addition to lifeboats the Minto also carried two iceboats, one of which is visible on the stern-most davits

The story appeared under a gripping headline — PERILOUS TRIP – PARTY OF NINE WALK THIRTEEN MILES OVER ICE FROM IMPRISONED STEAMER. But was it what it seemed?

St. John, N.B. Feb.26 – Impelled by anxiety to reach their parents who were ill in Boston, two young women led a party of seven persons over 13 miles of ice floes from an imprisoned steamer to Pictou Island and thence to the mainland. The steamer Minto, which runs from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island became icebound on Monday. Among the 40 passengers on board were two young women of different families who had received word that parents were dying in Boston. When they realized the situation of the Minto they expressed determination to set out on foot. Another young woman and four young men also were willing to join in the undertaking.

The party left the steamer shortly before noon on Monday. The sun’s rays on the ice proved almost blinding, and after the party had struggled along on the ice for some miles, one of the young men sank down from exhaustion. The balance of the distance, however, was finally covered although the young women were obliged constantly to assist the exhausted man. They reached Pictou Island about 9 o’clock in the evening.

After passing the night on the island the balance of the journey was made to the mainland on Tuesday, where the Boston women caught the train. Members of the party belonging in St. John reached here today greatly exhausted.

The winter of 1902-1903 was an especially hard one for Prince Edward Island but with two sturdy Canadian Government Steamers providing passage to the mainland there was little anxiety. However, as ice in Northumberland Strait built up it became increasingly difficult for the steamers to negotiate the passage.  The Stanley had been attempting to keep open a route from Summerside to Cape Tormentine while the Minto had what should have been the easier task of running between Georgetown and Pictou.

Early in January the Stanley became stuck in a floe off Seacow Head and would eventually remain imprisoned for 66 days as the ship was dragged by the ice east down the Strait.  By the end of February the ship was located between Merigomish and Pictou Island and although passengers had been sent to shore on ice boats, the crew remained aboard. Coal was running low and without steam in the boilers any hope of being able to manoeuvre in the ice would disappear.

Meanwhile the Minto was having a difficult time getting in and out of Pictou as the same ice that held the Stanley was jammed into ridges which rose in places to a height of 15 feet. On 14 February the Minto left Pictou for Georgetown with orders to get as close to the Stanley as possible and she had aboard some 85 tons of coal to refuel the stranded vessel.  She also had 54 passengers on board heading for the Island. They were warned by the Captain that there was considerable danger of a lengthy voyage as they had not only had to battle the ice for their own passage but also to aid the ice-bound Stanley.  It was reported that ” They said they were willing to take their changes and looked forward to an interesting experience.”  Stuck for  more than a week in the ice, hardly moving, the mood changed from interesting to infuriating.  A report of the trip noted that “After being out a while their good humor vanished, and there was much murmuring.  One young woman went in to hysterics and a young man became insane chafing under the delay.”

Compounding the problems with the ice, the Minto lost one blade of her four-bladed propeller, severely limiting her ability to manoeuvre and reducing her speed.  While the ship carried spare blades which could be bolted on the work required her to go on the marine slip at Pictou and could not be done at Georgetown.

 

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Steamer Minto in Ice, Northumberland Straits. The ice boats can be seen on the stern of the ship.

It is at this point that the dramatic newspaper story above begins to unravel as a few of the details are questionable. What was reported in P.E.I. papers, based on reports from Pictou and later from the ship, was that faced with so many passengers on board, the Minto was running out of food. On the February 23, after 9 days aboard,  the passengers were offered the opportunity to leave the ship and walk the 7 miles to Pictou Island accompanied by crew members who hauled their luggage in one of the iron runner-shod iceboats which were part of the Minto’s equipment.  The journey to Pictou Island took about 4 hours. The group intended to continue their journey across the 14 mile Strait to High Bank or Wood Islands walking or using dories from the Pictou Island fishing fleet. However on reaching Pictou Island the plan changed and they decided to cross from Pictou Island to the mainland, some electing to take the train to Cape Tormenting and cross on the iceboats running at the Capes. On Tuesday 24 February the rest of the passengers, save six who elected to stay aboard, made the same journey on foot to Pictou.  The following day the winds shifted and the Minto was freed to head for the relief of the Stanley. It took five hours to go a mile and then they reached a lead in the ice which enabled them to get within a mile of the Stanley.  They unloaded 45 tons of coal on the ice to be dragged to the Stanley by her crew and then headed for Georgetown arriving the following day, after 12 days in the ice. It would be weeks before the Stanley was finally free.

A dramatic story in itself but what of the news re-printed above?  Garbled at best and sensationalized at worst there are several puzzling details.  The story appeared in the New London, Connecticut,  Daily but there is no mention of the details in either the Island Patriot or the Guardian. If they were trying to reach parents who were ailing in Boston why were they aboard a steamer headed for Prince Edward Island?  And as for “leading” the party it seems instead that the evacuation was under the direction of the crew of the Minto. The story in the Daily conveniently omits the information that a total of 47 passengers apparently made the transfer to shore without incident.

“The time when we were stuck on the ferry for [fill in the blank] hours/days” is part of the story-telling repertoire of almost every Islander of a certain age, however few tales can compare with the experience of those on the Minto in the winter of 1903 who, when faced with the choice between boredom and ice, took to the latter.