Category Archives: Steamers

Spuds, Steamers, and Stevedores: Potato Shipping in the Inter-war Years

 

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Potato shipping from Charlottetown ca. 1930. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 4332/2 Wallace MacDonald album

Up until the 1970s the arrival and departure of potato boats was one of the rites of fall. Each year dozens of shipments would be made from the wharves in Charlottetown and Summerside and to a lesser extent from Georgetown, Souris, and even Victoria.  However it had not always been so. During the 19th century potato shipments had been dwarfed by the Island’s largest export — oats. Oats were the diesel fuel of the horse era with thousands of animals in American and Canadian cities and farms being powered by Island oats. Although potatoes had been exported they were a much lesser crop and their large bulk and relatively low value meant that most shipments were by the small schooners that could visit the Island’s shallow harbours. 

There were some developments in the last quarter of the century. Potatoes made up part of the cargo of the S.S. Prince Edward for an experimental shipment of produce and livestock direct from the Island the Great Britain in the 1870s and the same decade also saw R.T. Holman shipping potatoes from Summerside to American destinations by steamer.  However, until the end of the Great War the vast majority of shipments were still small cargos carried by sailing ships. 

Seed potatoes were crop of which the Island was proud. The province was was the first jurisdiction to place a slogan on its license plates

It was the development of seed potato exports which really spurred the shift toward steamers. The 1920s saw a boom in the high quality, high value seed potatoes and Island farmers, led by the Potato Growers Association, turned to the new crop in ever increasing numbers. In 1922 the Association entered into an exclusive agency agreement with the Southgate Produce Company of Virginia which saw most PEI seed potatoes for southern U.S. markets landed at Norfolk.  In a 1928 address to the Charlottetown Rotary Club a Southgate officer described in detail the shipping and processing of seed potatoes once they left the Island. Shipping by water was preferred to the rail shipping used for shipments to Canadian markets owing to the special handling required as well as the reduced costs.  In his speech he credited the efficiency of stevedores at Summerside and Charlottetown in ensuring quality through the loading process. This was a labour-intensive operation often requiring sixty to one hundred longshoremen and was described by a Guardian reporter in a 1925 article when he visited the steamer Orkild taking on 30,000 bags potatoes in Charlottetown.     

There are four “gangs” comprised of twenty-two men to each hatch, eighty-eight men in all, including four winchmen. Each hatch has eight men stowing the potatoes as they come aboard; the men are divided to the port and starboard side thereby alleviating any undue “list” as she is being loaded; in other words the steamer is ion an even keel; at all times.

To stand on the combing [sic] of a hatch and look down into the huge hold of the steamer makes one wonder and imagine how a space so large can be stowed to the top deck in such a comparatively short time by the thirty-two stalwarts working below. 

Stowing the ship does not mean merely throwing the cargo into the hold, it takes ingenuity and skilled workmen all-round in order that the valuable cargo may not become loosened when the ship is heaving far out at sea. The cargo must be stowed with the shear of the ship from stem to stern, and every bag placed so as to occupy just a bag space, and stowed tight at that.  If a cargo is not properly placed in a vessel it is to realize what may happen in the extreme — a loose and poorly stowed cargo before now has been the loss of many a good ship. But thank goodness such is not the case with steamers leaving this port as the ability of the local men is known far and wide for the thoroughness and experience they show in handling freight. Therefore the Labourers’ Protective Union is to be congratulated on the capable and efficient body of men which represent this city. Their work may be hard at times, exposure and loss of sleep, may be experienced but this does not seem to bother then in the least — the work goes on amidst good natured chaffing and joviality which appears to prevail throughout the entire working hours. All hail to the Labourers’ Protective Union.

Mr. Wallace MacDonald is the stevedore in charge of loading the steamers.

The Labourers’ Protective Union had not always had such glowing support from those operating steamers from Charlottetown. The union had been formed in the 1880s and over the years successfully negotiated for wages on the wharves. In 1905 they clashed with the Plant Steamship Company with claims for an advance in the labour rates. The company charged that “the laboring men evidently have no interest in the welfare of their city when they band together to increase the cost of doing business to such an extent…”   However, as is often the case, claims of both sides in the disagreement were successfully compromised and trade on the waterfront continued with only a short delay. Issues again arose in 1917 when the steamer Aranmore was brought in to clear a shipping backlog while the carferry steamer Prince Edward Island was awaiting completion of the terminals at the Capes.  The S.S. PEI, which had to be loaded by hand through the stern, required more handling and workers were paid 60 cents per hour. For the Aranmore the longshoremen demanded 40 cents per hour for day work and 45 cents for night work. After lying idle at the wharf the P.E.I. Railway, which was operating the Aranmore finally reached a settlement and work continued. 

The arrival of larger steamers dedicated to freight saw a shift in loading procedures. Prior to WW I many of the steamers loaded through side ports which was slow and   labour-intensive. Larger freighters with ship-borne derricks and multiple holds sped up the process although large work gangs, as noted above, were still required. Shipments became massive. In 1926 for example amidst a month in which 700,000 bushels were shipped from the Island. One vessel — the S.S. Sabotawan — loaded over 185,000 bushels for Norfolk, Virginia, at the time a world record for a single shipment. 

Even with improved ferry and rail connections the steamers continued to load each fall from government warehouses at the Island’s ports into the 1970s, with shipments from Summerside continuing for somewhat longer. However, with the end of rail traffic on P.E.I. and completion of the Confederation Bridge, potato shipping easily shifted to trucking and containers and the potato boats vanished from the Island’s harbours. At the same time the move to processing potatoes on the Island spelled the end of the profitable seed-potato trade. The number of potato boats seemed to drop each year and it is hard to remember just when the last of the big freighters left our harbours.   

All the world’s a pier

 All the world’s a pier,
And all the sail and steamers merely vessels;
They have their arrivals and their sailings;
And one ship in its time sees many ports,
 
With apologies to the Bard.
 
Some ships lead a solitary existence barely straying from the ports of their launch and their end – either dramatically through wreck or peacefully by reason of scrapping.  That certainly is the case with many of the steamers such as ferries for which Charlottetown was almost the only port. Other vessels played a multitude or roles in their visitation to the port. Such is the case with the S.S. Aranmore which over a forty year period was a frequent and sometimes regular visitor to the harbour but for many different  reasons and under the management of several different owners and operators.
 
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S.S. Aranmore

The Aranmore was built in 1890 by the W,B. Thompson & Co. yard in Dundee Scotland. It was a general cargo steamer of 1170 gross tons, 500 net tons and was built for the Clyde Shipping Company of Glasgow.  Besides its cargo capacity the Aranmore also was a passenger steamer with accommodation for 75 first class passengers, 20 second class and 100 steerage and deck passengers. Clyde Shipping had developed a regular coastal service to Cork and Waterford and to Galway Bay, the Shannon estuary and Limerick. A service to Plymouth was later extended to Southampton, Newhaven and London. From 1888, the deep-sea tramping trade saw the company heavily involved in the guano, nitrate and copper trade in the Pacific islands. After fifteen years serving the Irish Sea ports the Aranmore was purchased by the Holliday Brothers  company of Quebec which had been awarded a five-year mail contract for ports on the Quebec North Shore and the vessel also extended service to Charlottetown and Sydney. In the fall of 1905 the Aranmore was chartered from Holliday’s by the Plant Line to replace the S.S. Halifax  sailing from Charlottetown to Boston. The following year, still owned by Holliday’s, she was sailing under the Dobell Line operations and again regularly stopped at Charlottetown, this time on a passage from Montreal to St. John’s. During this period the ship was occasionally charted by the Dominion government for lighthouse supply.   
 
At the end of 1913 Holliday Brothers ended their steamship operations and sold their vessels, the Aranmore being acquired by the Dominion Government and re-registered as a government vessel in 1915. As the C.G.S. (Canadian Government Steamship) the Aranmore was primarily engaged in the lighthouse and buoy service, although on several occasions the vessel was chartered by Clarke Steamships for their Quebec North Shore service. 
 
In 1916, pending the opening of the car ferry service a the Capes,  the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company had sold the steamer Empress to the C.P.R and the Canadian Government acquired the company’s Northumberland, attaching it to the Canadian Government Railways. The following year the Island had a bumper crop of ships carrying freight and passengers across the Strait. The Northumberland mainly served on the Summerside to Point du Chene route. Construction of the ferry terminals at the Capes was still underway and so the rail ferry was crossing from Charlottetown to Pictou but its capacity was limited as freight had to be transferred from rail cars to the ship and then unloaded by hand at the other end of the crossing. Rail shipping became backlogged at both ends of the crossing and early in 1917 the Government advised that P.E.I. Railway that the Aranmore would be detached from other duties and put on the Charlottetown – Pictou route to assist.  Throughout the 1917 season the Aranmore was a regular sight in Charlottetown harbour supplementing the voyages of the S.S. P.E.I.  One trip in July 1917 showed a glimpse of the Island’s future as the steamer carried 60 passengers, one motor truck and nine new automobiles for dealers including Bruce Stewart, Horne Motors and Grant & Kennedy.  In addition the load also included one railcars worth of paper, one of bran, two cars of corn and 1,200 sacks of cement.    
 
By the end of 1917 the ferry terminals had been completed and the S.S. Prince Edward Island was in full operation at the Capes. Although the Aranmore continued on the Pictou route until freeze-up it was clear that the carferry would be able to handle the traffic in the future. Government operated steamer service from Summerside to Point du Chene was halted and the Charlottetown-Pictou route was handled by subsidized private operators. (see the Constance, Magdalen and Hochelega)  
 
The Aranmore was then moved to the Yarmouth to Boston route where the vessels had been taken off the service for wartime duties. It was leased to Eastern Steamship Lines to meet a demand from Nova Scotia shippers for a continuation of the New England connection.  When Eastern Steamships was able to secure new vessels for the route the Aranmore was returned to lighthouse duties.  
 
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Belle Isle North End Lighthouse. One of the facilities serviced through the 1920s and 1930s by the Aranmore from the Charlottetown base.

In the 1920s Charlottetown was the primary depot for the Gulf of St. Lawrence with responsibilities extending to the Strait of Belle Island and beyond as well as a number of Newfoundland lighthouses. The Aranmore saw lighthouse duties along the north shore of the Gulf and into the Strait.   Late in 1919 the Aranmore had been stranded in an attempt to carry  supplies to marooned and starving wireless operators at Battle Harbour and two crew members spent the winter ashore in shacks maintaining the ship. It was  not pulled from the shore until September of 1920.  Throughout the 1920s the Aranmore was normally attached to the Charlottetown Marine Agency during the season and was laid up in Halifax over the winter, occasionally making voyages to Sable Island.  A large number of the ship’s crew were from Prince Edward Island.

 
The lighthouse work continued through the 1930s but in 1938, as the Aranmore was approaching almost 50 years of age the Government announced that the ship, along with two other vintage vessels; the Bellechase and the Lady Grey would be scrapped and a new combination icebreaker and service vessel would be built. However with the outbreak of World War II scrapping of a ship that was still operable would not have been a wise decision and early in 1940 the ship was sold to the Halifax-based salvage company Foundation Maritimes, then engaged in essential war work. The ship was re-named the Foundation Aranmore and served throughout the war in the Foundation fleet along with the better-known salvage tug Foundation Franklyn. At the conclusion of the war she was purchased by Wentworth MacDonald of Sydney who had owned a number of other vessels, such as the Constance, with P.E.I. connections. He held onto the Foundation Aranmore for only as year and it was sold to Cuban interests and was stranded, salvaged and sold in 1946. 
 
Like an actor playing different parts the Aranmore had been in P.E.I. waters for many years as a part of operations of Holliday Bros., Clarke Steamships, Dobell, and Plant Steamships and the Dominion. It had served as a passenger carrier, a ferry, a buoy tender, lighthouse supplier and general marine spear carrier.   Often crewed by Islanders it was a familiar sight in Charlottetown Harbour, a reminder of how much of a port Charlottetown once was.  
 
  

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.