Category Archives: Steamers

Coal, Steam and Seals: Captain McMillan’s Steamer Elliott

I have written in an earlier posting about Captain Ronald McMillan and the steamer William but this was only one chapter in the story of McMillan’s forays into the world of steamships. – forays that in general did not have happy endings.

It was rare for Island ship-owners to make the transition from sail to steam. One well-funded venture in the late 1870’s saw a number of Island capitalists come together to form the Ocean Steamship Company but the venture into trans-Atlantic trade was ultimately unsuccessful. However late in the 19th century a market began to open up in the coastal trade for new steamers. With the decline in shipbuilding across the region the fleet of schooners and brigs which carried much of the bulk cargo and which served smaller ports was aging and the response was not to build more sail-powered replacements but to shift some of the carrying capacity to steamers.  Builders such as Joseph McGill in Shelburne and the Burrill- Johnson Iron Works in Yarmouth put a number of small wooden vessels on the market, several of which, including the Electra, the Magdalen and the Harland,  ended up serving P.E.I. ports. Another response was to purchase older British-built steamships and bring them across the Atlantic to enter the maritime coastal trade.

Advertisement for McMillan’s coal business. Daily Examiner 15 February 1889 p.2

One of the most active shippers on Prince Edward Island was Captain Ronald McMillan of West River. He had been a successful captain who had built and operated a number of coastal schooners before the became a partner with Donald Farquharson in the steamer William in 1888.  The sinking of that vessel in December of 1891 did not mean the end of his activity.  In 1881 he had begun a coal business and had purchased the Duncan shipyard property just west of the Prince Street ferry wharf. With the end of waterfront shipbuilding the property had deteriorated and MacMillan converted  it to a coal yard with a wharf which was reported by the Daily Examiner in 1892 to be “second to none in the city.”  The wharf housed two large coal sheds served by trollies holding three-quarters of a ton moving  bulk coal from ships to storage. Instead of using horse powered hoisting gear he had the latest steam-powered donkey engines which could unload 150 tons from a vessel in a single day. McMillan was reported to be the largest coal dealer in the province at the time.

After the loss of the William McMillan may have had insurance proceeds and he moved to replace her. In the spring of 1892 he sought out a vessel in England but not satisfied with what he was able to find there he decided not to use another British-built steamer but have one built on Prince Edward Island.  Late in that year he made a request to Charlottetown City Council for permission to use the area between his property and the Prince Street Wharf to build a vessel during the winter months.

3218.67 launch 2

Launch of the Steamer Elliot. November 1893. H.B. Sterling Photo. Public Archives and Records Office

Permission appears to have been granted and in November 1893 a ship, named the Elliott after the Elliott River, slid down the ways of the shipyard. Built by veteran shipbuilder Kimble Coffin of Mt. Stewart the vessel was one of, if not the largest steamer built on the Island. The 367 ton vessel was 160 feet long, 25 feet beam and an 11 foot depth of hold. Constructed of spruce, juniper, pitch pine and American oak  she had galvanized iron fastenings throughout.

Advertisement for maiden voyage of the S.S. Elliott. Daily Examiner 15 November 1893 p.2.

Within a week the maiden voyage of the Elliott was advertised. She would make a trip to Barbados and Trinidad calling at Bermuda. For the rest of the decade the Elliott continued to call at ports such as Philadelphia and Halifax up and down the Atlantic seaboard but given the other business  interests of her owner one of the most frequently hauled cargos would have been coal from Cape Breton or Pictou She often carried livestock on the out-bound legs.  In 1897 McMillan took the Elliot to the Strait of Belle Isle where a steamer the Baltimore City had been wrecked and salvaged the bulk of the cargo and fixtures of the steamer which were taken to Charlottetown and sold.

In 1904 McMillan decided to try something different with the steamer.  January found the ship in Halifax fitting out for a trip to the sealing grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The ship would pick up about 100 sealers at Channel – Port Aux Basques and head for the sealing grounds around Meat Cove Cape Breton and St. Paul Island just off the Cape Breton coast. She was to only Canadian steamer to be engaged in the fishery that year. On 18 March a report was received that the ship had received damage from the ice to her stern post, keel and shaft, was aground at Atlantic Cove on St. Paul Island. The sealers and crew had been put ashore on the tiny island but Captain Farquharson was able to get word to the mainland that he hoped she could be saved and by 26 March the crew had returned to the ship and she had re-started for the sealing ground. However about four or five miles from the Island she was nipped by the ice and all aboard had to take to the boats and with a favourable winds were able to return to the Island. Strangely the following day the steamer was blown back into the cove, leaking and with the rudder torn away. They attempted to keep her afloat and beach her but she sank in fourteen feet of water just off the shore and was a total loss.

Sale notice for McMillan properties. Charlottetown Guardian 12 August 1905 p.2.

The loss of the Elliott may have been one blow too many for McMillan.  The following year “intending to make a change in business” he advertised his business and property for sale. This consisted of the property with 110 foot frontage on the south west corner of Prince and Water Streets which included The Plazza House Hotel, two large dwellings and barns and two vacant building lots.  On the other side of the railway siding which ran through the property was the coal business with a roller mill, offices, coal scales, two coal sheds which could hold 2000 tons, warehouses and a blacksmith shop. There was also a wharf and water lot which extended to the channel of the Hillsborough.

McMillan appears to have become insolvent in 1906 with his estate assigned to W.H. Aitken and by 1908 he was living in Vancouver where he died in 1915.

There are few reminders of McMillan and his ships and businesses left on the Charlottetown waterfront. The wharf, shipyard, warehouses and coal yard have been knocked down and the land now forms the eastern half of the Confederation Landing Park.  The two buildings which faced on Water street have long histories and were part of the James Duncan property before being acquired by McMillan and they both survive.  The “Plazza House” had, by 1909, become the Lennox Hotel and operated under that name for many years, for part of the time by the Misses McMillan who may have been relatives of Capt. Ronald.

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.