Category Archives: Steamers

1894 Excursion from New York and Boston was the real beginning of Charlottetown as a cruise ship port of call.

In a posting more than two years ago (found here) I opined that the first cruise ship visited Charlottetown just prior to the Great War. I was wrong by about two decades.

Quebec Steamship Company steamer Orinoco in Charlottetown 10 August 1894. Photo probably by Charlottetown photographer Cloud Hill.

On 10 August 1894 an article appeared in the Charlottetown Examiner announcing “The Orinoco Arrives.” The previous day the vessel with a large party of excursionists had tied up at Pownal wharf. The vessel was described as “handsomely furnished” and the saloons were “spacious and comfortable.” Unlike other passenger-carrying ships she appears to have landed no freight at Charlottetown. This was strictly an excursion trip. On her arrival a large number of Charlottetown residents were welcomed aboard for an evening of music. The ship spent the night and most of the next day in Charlottetown and no doubt passengers came ashore to see the sights of the city. After her stay of just under 24 hours she left to continue her two-week trip to Dalhousie, New Brunswick and the Saguenay, Tadoussac and Quebec.

Before she left however the excursion leader, Mr. E. Stokes, commissioned a local photographer with the intriguing name of Cloud Hill to capture an image of the Orinoco and her tourist passengers. That is, with little doubt, the scene shown above.

The S.S. Orinoco was operated by the Quebec Steamship Company, formerly the Quebec and Gulf Ports SS Co. which had provided a steamer a service between Quebec and Pictou calling at Charlottetown and other ports. In 1894 they had the paddle steamer Miramichi, a former blockade runner, on the route. The Orinoco normally operated between New York and Bermuda and also from Halifax to several Caribbean destinations. However in 1894 the company tried an experimental cruise from New York to the St. Lawrence. The famous Thomas Cook & Sons was the steamship’s agent and the trip was a great success. Thomas Cook had offices in several American cities and with the exception of a single Canadian all of the passengers were Americans. The Orinoco also stopped at Charlottetown about a week later on the return trip to New York. The following year the vessel repeated the excursion with an itinerary which included Boston, Bar Harbor, Portland, Saint John, Yarmouth, Halifax, Dalhousie, Gaspe Saguenay and Quebec.

Built in a yard at Hartlepool in the Tees region of northern England and launched in 1881, the Orinoco which, was originally to be called the Barbados, was an iron screw steamer, 270 feet long and displaced 1864 gross register tons. She had accommodation for 60 first class and 30 second class passengers as well as large freight capacity.

Although the 1894 and 1895 tourist excursions were considered successful they were not repeated and the competition provided by the Plant Line may have been seen as a barrier to further profitable trips. The ship continued to operate from New York to Bermuda and the Halifax firm of Pickford and Black chartered the vessel for their Caribbean service in 1900. Less than six months later she was wrecked in Grenada on a passage from Demerara to Halifax. She was replaced by another Dutch-built chartered vessel which the firm confusingly also renamed as the Orinoco. That vessel was wrecked in 1907.

With the Orinoco’s passengers identified as “tourists” and “excursionists” 1894 makes a much better starting date for Charlottetown’s status as a cruise port. While later vessels were often fitted out with services for cruise passengers their trips to Charlottetown were part of a regular steamship route whose accommodation was available to ordinary travellers as well as tourists. Sold as an excursion the trips of the Orinoco were designed for, and apparently limited to, vacationers. The Port of Charlottetown can thus claim a history of cruise ship visits going back more than 125 years — with a few interruptions.

The image of the Orinoco at Pownal Wharf was brought to my attention through a posting on the Historic Prince Edward Island Facebook site which can be found here. Unfortunately this site does not indicate the source of the photo. More on the history of steamers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence can be found on Kevin Griffin’s excellent site The St. Lawrence Saga.

The day the Steamers Stopped: Mainland Cut-off Again!

Princess of Wales in Summerside Harbour 1878. Detail From Panoramic View of Summerside

The last few weeks of the shipping season in 1883 looked to be business as normal for those using the steamers of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company. Merchants were rushing to get the last shipments of goods and supplies to the Island before the ice set in.  After that they would have to rely on the undependable services of the Northern Light, the icebreaker that the Dominion Government promised would bring and end to the Island’s seasonal isolation (or more likely “ice-olation”) but had utterly failed in the task. Island-bound winter orders began to build up at the railheads at Pictou and Point du Chene. On the Island side schooners and steamers were rushed to load with produce bound for market before they became iced-in at Island ports. Fall was a busy shipping season for paddle steamers Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence, the veteran ships of the Steam Navigation fleet.

Paddle steamer St. Lawrence in Charlottetown Harbour 1878. Detail from Panoramic View of Charlottetown.

Passengers too, began to worry about getting to and from the Island. If the steamer service stopped the alternative of an ice-boat crossing was an un-attractive and dangerous alternative.

Then, on 29 October 1883 all plans unraveled as news hit the Island that the steamer service provided by the aging paddle-steamers Princess of Wales and St. Lawrence would be suspended. The mainland would be cut off again!   The cause was not severe winter weather nor mechanical problems with the steamers, rather it was by order of an official of the Dominion Government.

In 1882 the Steamboat Inspection Act had been amended to include Prince Edward Island. This legislation required safety inspections but it had not been operable on the Island as no inspector had been appointed for the area, but the following year, albeit late in August the Maritime Provinces inspector, a Mr. Coker, crossed on the steamer from Shediac to Summerside and returned from Charlottetown to Pictou.  Based on this short visit to the boats he ordered that they cease operations as of the end of October.

Initially it was understood that the order referred only to the carrying of passengers and that the freight operations could continue. The Northern Light was pressed into service two months earlier than normal to carry passengers and mail with three round-trips a week between Charlottetown and Pictou.  However, within a few days the ban was extended to any voyages of the paddle steamers, not just for passenger service.

There was however, one bit of good news. Earlier in the year the Steam Navigation Company had taken delivery of new boat for the fleet. The SS Summerside  was not designed or fitted out as a passenger vessel although there had been speculation that capacity would be added. Never the less passengers were taken aboard and must have missed the saloons, staterooms and dining facilities of the paddle steamers. The biggest job for the steamer was to keep up the flow of freight between Summerside and the rail head at Point du Chene.

Northern Light. Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly 1887.

The Dominion Government had an obligation under the terms of the Island’s entry into confederation to provide continuous steam communication across the Strait and in addition to the winter steamer Northern Light they moved quickly to add the steamer tug Napoleon III, a Canadian government steamer primarily engaged in lighthouse tending  onto the freight route between Charlottetown and Pictou.  This ship too had limited passenger capacity but the four boats were able to avoid what could have been a crippling blow to the Island’s economy.  By mid-November the Napoleon III was sailing between Charlottetown and Pictou while the Northern Light carried passengers and freight between Georgetown and Pictou.

Government Steamer Napoleon III. Helped in a pinch – but not very much. Image from Confederation Centre Art Gallery collection.

However there were still problems. The Napoleon III did not have the capacity of the Steam Navigation boats and within a day traffic was backed up. On 11 November a dozen rail cars worth of freight had been left on the Pictou docks.  The Examiner noted that if freight “cannot be carried to this port, serious loss to our merchants will be involved.” A few days later the Summerside had to have her propeller, damaged in a gale, replaced which caused further disruption.

The ice closed the port of Summerside early. By the first of December the S.S. Summerside had been moved to the Charlottetown Pictou route. The Napoleon III’s last trip was on 3 December  and it was announced that the last trip across the Strait by the SS Summerside would take place on 19 December.  Twelve days earlier she had carried an important cargo – two new boilers for the Steam Navigation Company Steamers.

The incident provided an additional excuse for the newspapers in the province to exchange a lengthy series of salvos debating what was either the high-handed inexcusable actions of the Dominion Government in cancelling the registration of the two Company paddle-steamers, or the admirable concern with the safety of the public in taking reasonable measures to prevent the use of unsafe vessels. What is strangely lacking is any sort of response from the Company itself.  Aside from a single advertisement regarding revised schedules the PEI Steam Navigation Company had nothing to say.

Given that silence there may have been something in the concerns of the Steamboat Inspector. In 1883 the Princess of Wales had had 19 years of service on the route and the St. Lawrence had been built even earlier. Although the Company appears to have had maintained the vessels over the period they had not had a major re-fit.

However, faced with revoked certificates the Company made major investments in their boats.  As noted above, new boilers arrived before freeze-up and the winter was spent with shipwrights swarming over the steamers. When put back in service in the spring of 1884 the two boats had not just been re-fitted and re-painted they had, in the words of the Patriot newspaper been “re-constructed”

It was well that the investment had been made. A year later the Summerside went on the rocks at Fogo Island. The two old wooden paddle steamers continued to serve the Island for many years. The Prince of Wales was replaced in 1891  and the St. Lawrence, after more than thirty years service, was finally broken up in 1896.

A Public Boon and a Private Success? The Richibucto to West Cape Ferry

On the map it seems pretty straightforward.  If you are coming from Canada by rail the shortest route to Prince Edward Island would be from New Brunswick across the Strait to West Cape. It would save having to come all the way down the shore to Moncton or Sackville. Its not a long stretch across the water and then you could catch a train at O’Leary and get to Charlottetown in relative comfort. At least that was the theory.

Historic Railway lines in New Brunswick. Map from New Brunswick Railway Museum, Salem and Hillsborough Railroad

Unlike Prince Edward Island with its single railway company there have been no shortage of railways in New Brunswick. Over two hundred railway companies have been proposed and more than a score of lines were actually built, almost all in the late 19th century.  Most of these were built as feeder lines for the Intercolonial Railway (ICR) which crossed the province from south to north. One of these was the Kent Northern Railway.  Originally proposed in 1873 the line would run from the ICR mainline at Kent Junction to tide water at Richibucto, a distance of about 25 miles.  The promotors hoped to develop Richibucto as a major port shipping coal and ore from mines along the ICR route. It was an easily built and inexpensive line running mostly through uninhabited woods without the need of expensive grades and bridges. Never the less it took about nine years before construction was completed. The line was  finally laid with used iron rails which became available when the Prince Edward Island Railway switched to steel rails in 1882.  The Kent Northern Railway was opened in November of 1883.

Even before the rail line was operational there were reports that it would be part of a new link between Canada and Prince Edward Island. in October 1879 The Saint John Telegraph newspaper carried a story from Buctouche stating that local politicians and  merchants, several of whom ware also involved with the railway, were interested in starting a new steamship line operating out of Richibucto and connecting with Prince Edward Island.  Part of the impetus was the difficulty that had been experienced with the winter connection to the Island and the failure of the specially-built steamer Northern Light to maintain the connection in heavy ice.  Local observers claimed that the seas between Richibucto and the Island were “open and free from ice, or nearly so” all winter.  Again the map told the story, as the ice jams between the Capes at Tormentine and Traverse would be avoided as the Strait was wider west of that point and the ice did not build up there, at least in theory.

The opening of the Kent Northern Railway revived interest in the proposal.  From Richibucto to West Cape, about 20 miles,  was considerably shorter than the Pointe de Chene to Summerside route which provided the only other mainland rail connection with Northumberland Strait. This would provide a definite advantage in the summer. In the winter the route was also preferred. The Moncton Transcript noted that “On any winter day, except when strong northeasters blow you can stand on Richibucto Cape and see a clear path of water from the Mainland to the Island Shore.”  The author assured readers that the venture would be “a public boon and a private success.”

Map showing Richibucto to West C ape and Shediac to Summerside steamer routes. Google Earth.

Although shorter, it might not have been the easiest trip. At Kent Junction the passengers would have to change from the ICR to the Kent Northern to Richibucto, then by carriage or sleighs to Richibucto Cape, across the Strait by steamer to West Cape, change to carriages or sleighs to O’Leary and board the narrow gauge PEI Railway to Charlottetown.  With the completion of lines to Cape Tormentine and Cape Traverse, by 1885 there was an all-rail route on the competing Shediac Route or by the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island Railway crossing at the Capes in winter.

On the Prince Edward Island side there was less enthusiasm.  A nine mile branch line from the P.E.I. Railway at O’Leary to West Cape was placed on a wish list for branch lines soon after the Island line was opened in 1874 and was raised as a possible expansion of rail services for the next fifty years but was never a priority as it competed with other projects such as the Cape Traverse line, the Hillsborough Bridge and the Murray Harbour line.  Summerside had a vested interest in keeping the connection with Shediac as the primary link and there were few capitalists or politicians backing the development of West Cape beyond its role as a local fishing harbour.

The new steamer route was not even attempted. The Kent Northern never went much beyond Richibucto although for a time the line extended to St. Louis de Kent. In 1904 it was rumored that the line would be purchased by American capitalists and extended 18 miles to the shore. A 1908 report showed the line had two locomotives, two passenger cars and one freight car. The harbour at Richibucto was unsuitable for steamers in winter and the crossing would have required major wharf construction at Richibucto Cape which failed to gain support from government. In the end the Kent Northern Railway was neither the promised public boon nor a private success. The Kent Northern never served as the ore and coal shipping line but it appears to have been modestly profitable for much of its existence through shipments of pulp logs and other wood products from the surrounding area . To that extent it was not a complete failure. It was purchased by the Dominion Government in 1918 and was and folded into the Canadian National Railway in 1929 as part of the rationalization of rail services. The purchase price for the entire line, right of way, rails, rolling stock, stations and locomotives was $60,000 – about the same as the scrap value for the operation.  The line was finally abandoned by the CNR in 1984 and the rails lifted in 1986.

Although the Richibucto – West Cape ferry has never been seriously been entertained, and with the construction of a fixed link is unlikely to be so, it is an idea that refuses to go away completely. There was a resurgence of discussion after the Second World War and at other times when development plans are to the fore. It is periodically dusted off and presented anew as a brilliant idea to increase tourism and trade. As to why the idea refuses to die  – one has only to look at the map. It just seems so obvious – until reality intervenes. :{)