Category Archives: Steamers

Henry Aitken to the rescue

From his house just above the village of Pownal Nathaniel Gay had a fine view out over the low shores of Crown Point and out into Pownal Bay towards Governors Island. On Tuesday morning 28 September 1875 after a night in which the wind blew particularly hard he spotted a vessel stranded on the reef running east from the Island. What made the sight more urgent was that he was able to see men clinging to the rigging as the gale force winds from the West North West tore at the grounded ship.

Chart of Governors Island and Pownal Bay 1869. To reach the Mary Kate on the east reef of the Island the Henry Aitken would have had to go around the Island to the south to avoid the Squaw Point reef.

There was nothing he could do from the shore and the few boats which might be found at Pownal Wharf or along the shore were too small to be of any assistance so he headed along the Georgetown Road towards Charlottetown seven miles to the ferry at Southport where he likely would have had to wait for a boat. He crossed the Hillsborough River and raised the alarm with officials in the city.  Luckily the tug Henry Aitken  was tied to the dock and its owner William Batt readily agreed to attempt to get to the wreck although seas were running high and the gale blowing full force.  The Henry Aitken was an almost new vessel having been built by William H. Batt and launched in the fall of 1874. However as it sat at dockside the tug was low on coal and lacked a boat suitable to get to the wreck which was in shallow waters which the Henry Aitken could not safely enter. Coaling of the steamer began immediately and enquiries were made for a boat.  Both the Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company were in dock at the time but there was confusion about a lifeboat as the captain of the passenger steamer was concerned about an unknown crew manning the lifeboat. In the delay a boat was secured from Peake Bros.  Five volunteers came forward from those on the wharf at the time and together with the tug’s Captain Robertson, Frank Batt, William Batt, Richard Hayes and Nathaniel Gay  set out on their dangerous mission.  It was now three o’clock, Many hours having passed without an update on the shipwrecked crew, while Nathaniel Gay made his way to town and the time it took for coaling and preparation. No one was certain that the crew of the stricken vessel had been able to stay aboard, or if the vessel was still afloat.

The Henry Aitken was 60 feet long and displaced 38 tons and she had a powerful engine but even she struggled with the conditions. As they left the limited shelter of the harbour waves broke over the tug and water poured through the hatches. Captain Robertson kept two pumps steadily at work and still had to resort to bailing to keep the waters from quenching the fires. The lifeboat in tow was swamped three times by the seas and had to be recovered and emptied. The Henry Aitken approached as close as the captain dared and the lifeboat was launched. The volunteers pulled towards the wreck with alacrity and were able to haul aboard the crew of the schooner who had been lashed to the rigging to prevent being swept into the raging seas.

As with many small coasting vessels there was a small crew with only four aboard; Edward Walsh, the master, two crew, Alex Hamilton and Patrick Kirwin, and a ship’s boy George Wood. All were exhausted, especially the boy, from having been exposed on the endangered ship without shelter but they began to recover once aboard the tug, which immediately began its return to the safety of the harbour, reaching the wharf about seven in the evening. The vessel was the Mary Kate bound inwards from Cape Breton with a cargo of limestone. She was little different from the dozens of small vessels which kept Charlottetown supplied with bulk cargos such as limestone and coal and carried away Island produce to nearby ports.  The name was common and there were several Mary Kates that visited Charlottetown in the early 1870s. One was owned in Charlottetown by W.W. Lord and D. Miller but it is not clear if this was the one which came to grief on Governors Reef.

The report of the incident in the Patriot newspaper concluded; “Too much cannot be said in praise of the brave men who risked their lives on that wild evening to succor their fellow-creatures in distress and we trust that they may receive a substantial reward for their gallant conduct.”

The storm was not the disaster that other storms such as the August gale of 1873* had been but several vessels were reported ashore in Egmont Bay and near Seacow Head and on the Nova Scotia shore.

The following year the Dominion government paid William Batt a reward of $150 for the use of the tug and hire of eight men to rescue the crew of the Mary Kate while the government also paid to clothe the shipwrecked sailors and pay their passage home. The Henry Aitken continued to provide tug and steamer services in the harbour of Charlottetown and in Northumberland Strait until 1889 when she was broken up and taken off the shipping register.

*An excellent account of storms during the period can be found in Ed MacDonald’s “The August Gale and the Arc of Memory on Prince Edward Island” in The Island Magazine Number 56 Fall/Winter 2004

 

Prince Eggward Island – The Henhouse of the Gulf

In the last quarter of the 19th century the harbours of Charlottetown and Summerside were busy places and the Island was famed for its exports. Oats, potatoes and lobsters were moved across the wharves to waiting sailing and steam vessels, especially the regular steamers of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company. The biggest bulk crop was oats, necessary for the horse-driven cities of Canada and New England. Potatoes were also shipped in bulk but they, like the oats were just as liable to be moved on slower-moving schooners and barks.

But beginning in the mid 1860s the Island achieved fame for another commodity, an export market which had all but disappeared by the end of the century. This posting provides some research observations about one of the Island’s most forgotten export products – the humble hen’s egg.

In June 1873, on the eve of Confederation, a correspondent for the New York Herald wrote from Summerside. “The excitement over the confederation scheme, by which this great egg-laying country becomes part of the New Dominion, has at length subsided…”  The Island over the years has had many nicknames but describing it as the “great egg-laying country” seems strange however it appears to have been a phrase which would readily identify the area in the minds of the Herald’s readers. In reading further in the historical record a forgotten chapter in the province’s agricultural history emerges.

Prior to the 1860s any egg production in the colony was purely a domestic market. The difficulties of both internal and external transportation mitigated against fragile commodities such as eggs. Transportation to any export markets was difficult. Only a few scattered references are made to egg shipments by sailing vessels and these are almost all small quantities and to destinations within the region. Although there had been steam packet services across Northumberland Strait since the 1830s the connections were mostly to Pictou and Shediac which were only poorly connected to other centres by difficult roads.

Twin steamers the Worcester and the Carroll were two of the “Boston Boats” carrying eggs to New England

That began to change early in the decade with establishment of regular steamer and rail services between P.E.I. and New England. In 1860 the European and North American Railroad through southern New Brunswick linked Shediac with Saint John and its steamer connections to New England. The line was later extended to lines in Maine and by 1872 It was possible to ship from Shediac to Boston by rail. In Nova Scotia the colonial railway reached Pictou Landing in 1867 and it became possible to go from Prince Edward Island to Halifax in a single day. From there it was an overnight steamer trip to Boston. The most important change took place in 1864 with the introduction of a direct steamer from Charlottetown to Boston. Originally operated by the Boston and Colonial Steamship line what became known as the “Boston Boat” created a weekly (and sometimes more frequent) service, which lasted until 1915.

Internally, the opening of the Prince Edward Island Railway in 1874 provided local access to faster and better shipping from the ports of Charlottetown and Summerside. While a fleet of small schooners and brigs were useful for shipping bulk cargo such as oats and produce, it was ill equipped to deal with perishable and fragile goods such as fish and eggs.

Boston and Colonial steamship advertisement. Note final line regarding egg shipments

In 1863 $8,980 worth of eggs were shipped to the United States from the Island. Within four years this had grown to $24,000 worth of eggs in spite of the fact that there was a 10 per cent tariff on eggs. By 1867 egg exports from Charlottetown alone had grown to 156,000 dozen, almost all bound for the Boston market. Many went by the Boston and Colonial steamers but most were sent by rail via New Brunswick. A year later advertisements began to appear offering cash for eggs to meet the growing market.  In 1874 the New England Farmer noted that eggs from Prince Edward Island weighed thirty per cent more than other eggs.  The following year the Boston Globe reported that a recent steamer cargo included five million eggs from Prince Edward Island in a single shipment.

Packaging for the shipping of eggs took many forms. Egg cases carried 49 dozen, boxes contained 100 dozen and barrels contained 79 dozen. While eggs from Prince Edward Island used all three forms, barrels using oats as the packing material may have been the most common. Local egg merchants received, graded, and packed eggs from area farmers. Containers would be loaded onto railway cars for transit to Charlottetown and Summerside. They would then need to be loaded onto ships. Summerside shipments had to be off-loaded at Shediac and into railcars. As several rail lines were needed to get to Boston, in some cases the eggs might be handled again if the cars did not go the whole distance. At Charlottetown almost all of the shipments were direct to Boston on the Boston Boat and had to be transhipped less often. The Boston and Colonial line realized at an early date that eggs were a significant export commodity and by 1878 were noting in their advertising that “Eggs in boxes and barrels handled with the greatest care.”

In 1878 the Boston market handled over 5.5 million dozen or in excess of 66,000,000 eggs. Eggs from Prince Edward Island, although available only from April to November represented 17 per cent of the total supply or almost 1,000,000 dozen eggs. Shipments from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were so few that they were not even mentioned in the accounts.

Both Island and Boston merchants advertised offering cash for eggs

The prices paid for eggs and other produce on the Boston Market was a regular feature of Island newspapers by 1881 enabling egg producers to have a better appreciation of the valuation. By the 1882 season wholesalers were advertising in Island papers seeking stock. J.M. Auld (highest prices paid for large and small lots) told producers “Two Thousand a Day Wanted this Season” while Arthur & Toombs advertised “500,000 Dozen wanted this season.”

However the egg rush did not continue indefinitely. Protectionism in the United States was ushered in by the McKinley Tariff in 1890. In 1889 David Laird, speaking on the threat posed by tariff proposals noted “At the present time the owners of hens are in a dilemma with regard to the proposed duty of five cents a dozen on eggs by the American Congress, and many a young and old woman in the country would sleep more soundly if they were assured that this duty would not be imposed.” The previous year the Island had shipped 2,148,000 dozen eggs valued at $309,000, an amount exceeding the province’s expenditure on education.

The damage to the export egg trade was significant. In 1890 the year the Tariff was first introduced the egg exports to the United States from Canada were 12,800,000 dozen, a value of 1.8 million dollars. By 1897 the number had shrunk to 479,000 dozen, giving less than $50,000. Efforts to shift the production to the markets in Great Britain had seen limited success. In 1890 only $860 (dollars, not thousands) worth of eggs had been sent across the Atlantic. By 1897 the annual egg exports to the United Kingdom were still less than 7,000,000 dozen bringing in $924,000. It appears that the majority of these shipments were made by producers in Ontario and Quebec. There is no evidence that Island henneries played the same role in the trans-Atlantic shipping that they had in the New England market which appears to have gradually withered.  Protectionism had allowed American producers to re-capture their domestic markets and without the ability to send eggs elsewhere the production on Prince Edward Island returned to serving domestic needs. By 1900 the great Boston egg boom was over. However the industry slowly rebuilt and by 1929 some 1.3 million dozen eggs were being produced, mostly through co-operative associations. and put on the market in neighbouring provinces, Quebec and New England.

A more detailed draft paper on the Boston egg exports along with source notes for this blog posting can be found here.

Pickford and Black’s PEI steamer service 1888-1912

The Murphy Hospitality Group (MHG) of Charlottetown has recently re-branded one of their Halifax  restaurants as Pickford & Black. The change makes some sense as the restaurant, located in Halifax’s Historic Properties, is actually on the Pickford & Black wharf. It may also make sense as it seems to distance the operation from the Murphy / Gahan brand which appears on an inordinate number of restaurants in Charlottetown and others in Halifax and Moncton.

Pickford and Black house flag

However, Pickford and Black resonates not just with Halifax as it also boasted a connection more than a century ago with Prince Edward Island when the shipping firm operated steamers providing freight and passenger service between Summerside and Charlottetown and Halifax.  The firm was established in Halifax in 1875 as a ship chandlery and hardware firm and the following year purchased Seaton’s wharf on the Halifax waterfront which soon became known as the Pickford and Black Wharf. They took early advantage of the transition from sail to steam and aggressively developed a fleet.

Beginning in 1887 the firm expanded into the steamship business and became best-known for their services between  Halifax and Caribbean islands including Bermuda, Turks, St. Croix, St. Kitts, Antigua,  Trinidad, Demerara,  Jamaica, and Cuba. The first vessels acquired were former Cunard steamers Alpha and Beta which had been on the trans-Atlantic run.  The following year Pickford & Black set up the Halifax and Prince Edward Island Steamship Company. One of their first purchases was a 270 ton steamer, the Princess Beatrice, for a weekly service along the Eastern Shore, through the Strait of Canso and calling at ports in Prince Edward Island. This was a route which had been used by the Fishwick steamer M. A. Starr until the firm was drawn into the Pickford and Black operations.  The Princess Beatrice, and the later Pickford and Black boats, called at several intermediate ports including Summerside, Souris, Port Hood, Port Hastings, Port Hawkesbury , Arichat, Canso, Isaacs Harbour, Salmon River, Sonora and Sheet Harbour.  The Princess Beatrice was unfortunately wrecked in her second year of operation near Isaac’s Harbour in September 1890.

Fastnet at the Pickford and Black Wharf, Halifax

She was replaced the following year by the Fastnet, a 145 foot screw steamer which had been built in Glasgow in 1878 for the Clyde Shipping Company for service in South West Ireland and had been bought by Pickford and Black for the Charlottetown run. During her first year of operation the Fastnet collided in fog with the Heather Belle which resulted in the sinking of the latter vessel. The Fastnet continued to call at Charlottetown through 1897. Discovery of gold in the Yukon Territory in 1896 created a market  for vessels to accommodated the rush of travellers to the north and in 1898 the Fastnet she was sent around Cape Horn with a party of gold seekers bound for the Yukon. The vessel was sold to a company in British Columbia and again to a Mexican firm in 1898 when she was re-named the Alamo.  In 1909 she was wrecked on Tortuga Island in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pickford and Black advertisement. Charlottetown Guardian 20 July 1898

Meanwhile the City of Ghent, which had been sailing from Halifax to a number of eastern mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton ports as well as Souris since 1892 became the only Pickford and Black connection between the Island ports of Summerside and Charlottetown, and Halifax.  The City of Ghent had been built in 1871 in Grimsby and the little iron vessel had limited passenger capacity but a large cargo space not unlike the fishing vessels built in that port. She was originally used on a run from Grimsby to Ghent in Belgium.  At 135 feet with a displacement of 198 tons she was even smaller than the Fastnet. An advantage for some of the smaller ports was that she drew less then ten feet.  She was refurbished by Pickford and Black to carry twenty first class and ten second class passengers with large staterooms and modern improvements including a “handsome little saloon.” It is unlikely that the passenger service would have been of great interest for Prince Edward Islanders who had daily service to Pictou and Shediac but it would have been a boon to those in the smaller ports in Nova Scotia with no access to rail service and indifferent roads. The City of Ghent had a “shrill and peculiar hyena whistle” which echoed in the harbours of Summerside, Charlottetown and Souris whenever she arrived and left.

By 1900 Pickford and Black were the second largest ship owners on the Atlantic Provinces. While most of their fleet serviced the Caribbean they established several feeder service including the ones to Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island which were able to direct West Indies traffic from coastal areas through Halifax to southern ports. Much of the cargo reflected a century-old triangular trade – saltfish and produce shipped out and rum, molasses and salt on the return.

In 1912, after operating to Island ports since 1888, Pickford and Black ended their service when they were unable to find a suitable replacement ship for the City of Ghent. She was sold to Captain Beattie of Pictou. He ran her as a tramp steamer through the Gulf area and Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast for a year or so but she was laid up and offered for sale and lay idle for three years in Halifax until 1916. Remarkably in the scramble for vessels in the early years of the Great War the City of Ghent, then 45 years old, sold for £700 more than her cost when she was launched.  Sent to England with a cargo of lumber she was employed carrying cargos of coke for the allied forces through the port of Rouen until she was sunk by a German submarine in September 1916.

Pickford and Black continued to maintain links with the West Indies for many years. They also became agents for several leading marine insurance underwriters and European steamship lines. The company continues today under the name of F.K. Warren Limited.