Category Archives: Steamers

The West River Draw-bridge

For those living beside them, rivers can be both a blessing and a curse.  The river itself is a highway providing access for ships and boats to the communities and farms along their course. In winter it became a different sort of highway with ice providing a smooth passage both up and down and across its route. On P.E.I. river estuaries reached deep into the landscape and while giving communities access to the sea it also separated them. One area where this was a special problem was along the West or Elliott River.  In early years those living south of the river faced a long trip inland to Bonshaw on their way to Charlottetown.  The unbroken shoreline meant that for those in Cumberland or Rocky Point a trip to town, which they could easily see across the water, was a twenty-mile trip – barely doable in a day. Moreover the route went into the Bonshaw Hills with steep horsepower-destroying grades.

Mac Irwin’s Roamer coming down river ready to pass through the draw of the West River bridge. The raising of the draw may have been something of a local attraction.  All effort was manual, using hand-cranked winches to lift the draw leaves – two can be seen to the left of the photo. This picture originally appeared in the excellent Clyde River community web-site at https://clyderiverpei.com/2010/03/04/original-bridge-at-dunedin/ 

Until 1881 there was no bridge across the Eliott although there were a number of wharves and a steamer service went up and down the river. There was a rope-ferry across the river at Westville but the service seems to have sporadic.  A bridge was needed and according to Walter Shaw’s in his local history, Tell Me The Tales, there was a local battle for the site. Was it to be Westville, not far from the present causeway, or farther inland?

Detail of Lot 31 showing site of Westville ferry and the site which would be chosen for the West River Bridge. Meacham’s Atlas 1880.

Wherever it was to be built it would function as a terminal for the river steamers because they would simply be too large to pass under or through a bridge.  The higher up the river the more local residents could reach the steamers. The St. Catherine’s proponents of a site near Shaw’s wharf were successful and a 1250 foot pile structure was thrown across the tidal waters.  However access to the upper reaches of the River was still needed, albeit for smaller vessels, and the bridge contained an 18 foot draw section.  The same arrangement was made for a number of other Island bridges.  At Morell for example, a swing bridge on the railway and a draw-bridge at the village allowed small boats to go 8 miles into the hinterland.   With the creation of the West River crossing a small community developed at the north end of the bridge with a general store and a few houses. The community was called Dunedin. There was a post office there from 1892 to 1913. It was here that the steamers such as the Southport,  City of London and the Harland ended their trips up river and in summer Dunedin was one of several picnic and excursion destinations on the West River. With the development of gasoline engines a number of smaller boats provided subsidized packet service above the bridge as far as Bonshaw.

Another group benefiting from the drawbridge was the increasing number of pleasure boaters who made the Strathgartney and Bonshaw areas as an excursion, fishing  and camping destination. Passing through the bridge was a brief but interesting interruption in the trip.

Air photo of the Dunedin bridge about 1937. While the wharf at the bridge is clearly visible there is no sign of a draw section.

The bridge was completely rebuilt in 1919 but the draw was retained. A warehouse was built on the east side of the bridge where goods could be transshipped to the steamers.  In 1929, following a jurisdictional dispute and not a little politicking, the Dominion Government built a warehouse at  Bonshaw and dredged shallow sections of the river above the Dunedin Bridge.

However, by the mid-1930s the traffic on the river had fallen off considerably, The subsidy for the gasoline boats was discontinued. While there were only a few wharves above the Dunedin bridge; McArthur’s and Bonshaw, they were little used and fell into disrepair. Roads had improved and cars and trucks became the favoured mode of transport.  In 1936 the bridge was replaced but this time there was no draw section.  Although the Conservative Charlottetown Guardian editorialized that the people of Bonshaw had received scant consideration by the Liberal Government the only concession made was that the Dunedin Bridge had a bit of a “hump” to give additional headroom so that small boats could more easily pass under the barrier.

For many years the remains of the wharf were visible at the bridge site but a recent rebuilding has removed even these modest reminders that the Elliott was once a water highway to the Bonshaw Hills.

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First Cruise Ship Visited more than a Century Ago

In recent years the residents of Charlottetown have become accustomed to the seasonal visits of cruise ships emptying their hundreds or thousands of passengers on a city hungry to sell meals, tours and Anne of Green Gables effigies. While this may seem to be a recent phenomena the first visit of a purpose-built cruise ship to the port took place more than a century ago.
There had been earlier vessels fitted out for winter cruising but their chief role was as passenger and freight carriers and the cruising role was incidental. The Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company’s Northumberland was one of the first in the Florida-Bermuda trade with its freight deck temporarily fitted with partitions to create additional cabins and several of the Plant Line Steamers such as the S.S. Halifax and Olivette had winter charters in the Caribbean Sea when ice ended their seasonal work as the Boston Boat.

S.S. Evangeline by marine artist Antonio Jacobsen

On 7 June 1913 the new Plant Steamships liner docked in Charlottetown for the first time. According to the Guardian its arrival eclipsed the excitement around the visit of H.M.S. Cumberland the previous week which had brought a “real live Prince” to the city in the personage of Prince Albert, son of King George and Queen Mary. Docking to a “rousing and hearty welcome” the Evangeline was probably the most luxurious and up-to-date ship to visit Charlottetown before WW 1. The S.S. Evangeline was designated as a “tourist passenger steamer”  and already had experienced a season of winter cruising between Key West and Panama, Cuba, and Jamaica advertised as “Winter Outings on Summer Seas”.  Her winter work was under charter to the Peninsular and Occidental line, not to be confused with the British Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) company which operated to the far east. The Peninsular and Occidental was a joint venture between the Plant line and Henry Flagler and the Evangeline voyages were the first cruises from a Florida port. For the Evangeline, in a reversal of the role of other Plant Line vessels, the summer was the “off-season”

Launched from the London and Glasgow Engineering shipyard on the Clyde in the summer of 1912 the new ship was 350 feet long, 46 feet wide and drew 22.6 feet. She was a powerful vessel with her twin 6,000 hp engines and twin screws giving a speed of 16 knots. She had capacity for 700 passengers and also could carry 1,500 tons of cargo. She had all the accommodation features of the finest and largest ships of her day.  On the promenade or boat deck canvas awnings allowed for strolls. Inside, this deck housed a large smoking room paneled in oak and with morocco upholstered chairs and settees, the entrance hall with a stairway to the decks below, 50 staterooms with direct access to the deck and a number of suites. The awning deck was completely devoted to passenger services with a music room or social hall, deluxe staterooms, the purser’s office and 80 more staterooms. The main deck forward of the grand staircase was devoted to the dining saloon with seating for 150 and the kitchens and pantries. This deck had another 80 staterooms several of which were fitted up as “bridal rooms de luxe”.  As a reminder that this was a ship of the early 1900s the report also noted that this deck also housed the lavatories and bathrooms suggesting that these facilities were not available in even the deluxe passenger cabins. And not all the accommodation was deluxe for on the lower deck near the waterline there were 25 family staterooms, a ladies’ cabin with 50 berths and the second class men’s cabin with 80 berths.

Plant Steamship Line’s S.S. Evangeline

For the Guardian writer, the arrival of the vessel was heralded as “A New Era in Tourist Traffic” and advance bookings  suggested that the Island would see the largest stream of summer visitors in its history.  Whether true or not the arrival of the large vessel re-kindled the debate over the need for increased hotel accommodation to meet tourist needs. Unlike today’s visitors who arrive and vanish in a single day it was anticipated that the passengers on the Evangeline would see Prince Edward Island as a destination and not simply as one of a series of day stops.

Unlike several of the Plant Line ships this one had been built specifically for the firm which was then operating under the name Canada Atlantic and Plant Steamship Company. A year later the ownership was transferred to A.W. Perry of Boston but this did not really constitute a change as Perry was then owner of the Plant Line.

The outbreak of the Great War did not have an immediate effect on the P.E.I. service. The Evangeline was taken off the route in late September as it had been the previous year but instead of the sailing to the Caribbean  she was laid up in Boston with a planned charter to San Francisco via the Panama Canal in March. When she did come back to Charlottetown in the summer of 1915  it was advertised she was “Under the American Flag”, a change no doubt to make her a neutral vessel in the face of increased German U-boat and surface raider activity.

It was the Evangeline’s last summer in Island waters.  In the winter of 1915-1916 she ran between New York and Bermuda and in June of 1916 was chartered to carry freight to Manchester. She never returned to Charlottetown.  In 1918 she became to property of the French Government and was converted from a passenger vessel to a freight carrier.  She was wrecked off the coast of Brittany in January 1921.