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Canada’s navy before the Canadian Navy: the steam cruiser Acadia

The official establishment of the Canadian Navy dates from 1910 but the Dominion had a longer history of protecting its marine resources. Chief among these resources was the fishery on Canada’s east and west coast as well as on the Great Lakes. The main threat to Canada’s sovereignty came not from one of the growing European powers, but from the south.

American vessels had long infringed upon Canada’s waters and there were several threats to the the generally peaceful relations between the two countries which arose from disputes concerning the fishery. Up until the time of confederation Canada depended entirely upon the Royal Navy and patrols of the of the fishing grounds along the coast of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were long a regular and necessary part of the duties of the North Atlantic fleet based in Halifax. 

That gradually changed and after 1873 it was clear that Canada would have to take more responsibility for its coast and the fisheries protection service came into being. At first it consisted on a motley collection of government vessels which had multiple nautical responsibilities but in 1886 a step was taken to add to the efficiency of the service’s activities.  At the time many of the vessels were sail powered and sometimes could not keep up with faster American fishing schooners in Canadian waters.   

The remedy was a new vessel  — albeit one that was used, and in an ironic turn the vessel acquired to protect the fishery from the Americans was a former American private yacht.   

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The John Roach designed iron steam yacht Yosemite ca. 1880

The steam yacht Yosemite had been launched in 1880 from a shipyard in Pennsylvania. Designed by noted yacht builder John Roach, the expensive yacht was to be the property of New York banker William Belden. However Belden’s bankruptcy meant that the yacht was returned to the builder and in 1886 it had been on the market for some time. The Canadian government reportedly paid only $40,000 for a little-used ship that cost over $140,000 a few years earlier.

The iron and wood vessel was impressive. At 186 feet the 486 ton vessel was long and narrow and could steam at 20 knots. As can be seen in the illustrations she was turtle-backed and her narrow hurricane deck served to increase the perception of speed Brass and copper abounded in her deck fittings and the interior was all that a millionaire’s plaything promised to be with maple inlay throughout. The vessel had large and conveniently fitted staterooms. The engines were triple cylinder compound and built of steel. As an early steamer she was hardly economical. At a comfortable cruising speed of 12 knots she consumed eight tons of coal every 24 hours. (Her bunkers held 175 tons).

She was not, however, acquired to continue as a gentleman’s yacht. As a newspaper reported she possessed a very sharp bow and “would cut through an ordinary Yankee fisherman as neatly and as cleanly as it would be possible to do.” The crew of 22 was well armed with revolvers, Winchester rifles, and cutlasses and as the Halifax Herald noted “carries enough ammunition to deal out death to 500 Yankee fishermen.” The newspaper did, however point out that her 12 pound brass cannon was over a century old and had been used in the revolutionary war.


Fisheries Protection Service Steamer Acadia

With the name Yosemite sounding perhaps a little too American for a vessel used to confront the Americans, the name was changed to the Acadia.* In 1886 the Acadia visited Souris which was a port frequented by the American fleet. She continued to be a visitor to P.E.I. waters until the end of her service. Her commander was referred to at the time of her visit to Souris as “Admiral Scott” and this seems to have been the title used for the head of the Fisheries Protection Service. 

The Acadia was not alone in her duties and in a list published in the Charlottetown Examiner in 1887 provided the names of all of the vessels engaged in fishery protection on the east coast.  Besides the Acadia there were two other steamers, the La Canadienne and the Lansdowne (which the Acadia replaced) , The steamers all carried three officers and from 18 to 24 men and carries three guns. Several of the officers were ex- or current Royal Navy. However the bulk of the fleet consisted of schooners, most of which appear to have been hired for the season.  These were all smaller vessels from 65 to 90 tons and carried a complement of three officers and a dozen crew. These vessels were armed with one gun.   

Within a few years the dependence on schooners had been reduced and more of the vessels of the fleet were steamers. The flagship of the service commander was the Acadia but other vessels included the steamers Curlew, Petrel, Dolphin, Stanley, La Canadienne, and Constance Still, two schooners the Kingfisher and the Vigilant were also part of the fleet.

The Acadia continued in the Fisheries Protection Service until 1909 when the steamer was scrapped. There are no reports that her 18th century gun was ever fired in anger.

Although the Fishery Protection Service did the job assigned, there were forces at work that called for a larger role for Canada on the international stage and also to take up responsibilities for the defence of the greater Empire. Within a year of the scrapping of the Acadia the Canadian navy had been created.  The protection of the fishery had ceased to be the primary maritime concern of the nation. 

  • * The steam yacht Acadia should not be confused with the later C.G.S. Acadia which is preserved at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.   


Cast away on Governor’s Island in the winter of 1820

In a recent posting concerning the erection of a lighthouse to guide mariners into Charlottetown I noted that Governors Island was opposed as a site owing to the danger of the shoals surrounding the Island.  That this was no idle concern is given strength by the many accounts of shipwrecks on the rocks of the Island and is mirrored in the early sailing guides which warned of the dangers of the Bay. 

In Holland’s survey of the Island in 1764-65 Henry Mowat was assigned responsibility for charting several of the bays and harbours and his rudimentary charts were used by later cartographers such as DesBarres for the few additional maps published through the 18th and early 19th centuries.   

Henry Mowat The Great Bay of Hillsborough 1764-1765 manuscript map  (detail)

The danger of shipwreck is stirringly illustrated by the following account taken from the Prince Edward Island Gazette of 16 December 1820. This appears to be the earliest account specifically mentioning wrecks on Governor’s Island (shown on many charts as Governor Island) but wrecks on remote shores were so common that they did not always attract newspaper coverage and in the sparsely populated colony wreckage and bodies found on the beaches and rocks often were the only indication that a vessel had been lost. 

This incident seems to have a relatively happy outcome — except perhaps for the old and infirm who were “irrecoverable from fatigue and cold.” What is less immediately clear from the narrative is that the survivors were stranded either aboard the ships on the rocks or the shore from Sunday until at least Thursday, much of the time in the midst of a winter storm. 

By the arrival of a small vessel on Sunday night last from the Gut of Canso, information was brought to Town that two schooners had run upon the shoals of the Governor’s Island, about the distance of seven miles hence, a most exposed situation to the W. and N.W. and at this season of the year to vessels grounding upon it, threaten immediate destruction — The Schooners are the Lord M’Donald, Dodd, belonging to Alexr. Campbell Esq. of Bedeque, and the other the Providence, Long, of New Brunswick, both from Newfoundland, the latter with 52 passengers on board. At about 7 o’clock P.M. a heavy gale sprung up from the westward and continued during the night and hauling more to the northward, the two succeeding days. On Tuesday a signal was made from the Block-House  (a distance of four miles from thence) of two vessels ashore in great distress. His Excellency Lt. Governor Smith feeling particularly the imminent danger to which the crews and passengers were exposed, offered very liberal rewards to persons who would venture to afford them relief, and his Excellency’s son G. Sydney Smith of the R.N. volunteered his services upon the occasion, but the weather continued tempestuous and the ice making rapidly in the harbour, it was found impracticable to proceed from this place, and a Mr. Mudge, living opposite the Town, by crossing over at considerable risk, undertook by engagement of the Governor, to repair to the outer shore and employ men and boats with provisions, etc. to their assistance. It was not until Thursday that any relief was afforded. To the surprize and joy of the inhabitants of the surrounding shores, fires and other signals were discovered on the Island when Messrs Woods, Burhoues, and others of the Lot 49 settlement, went off in boats with sheep and other provisions to their assistance. When they arrived on the island they found with happiness and surprize that all hands had providentially landed alive. These humane delivers arrived in the utmost time of need. The sufferers flocked to them with grateful salutations, and offered them money and whatever they had for their exertions and provisions.– and to their memories be it ever spoken as a theme of admiration, what were their answers — “We do not come to afford you relief for the hope of any considerations but that of helping the distressed.” When the boat left the Island they saw another boat (supposed to be Mudge) with a further stock of provisions going to their assistance. Soon after these vessels grounded the tide receded far enough to let them careen upon their broadside — the Lord M’Donald fortunately inclining inwards and the Providence out, with her deck exposed to the whole force of the sea– the former we understand is little injured except the cutting away of her mast, protected by the way she lay, while the latter was soon bilged, and the master, crew, and passengers were obliged to keep to the wreck in the cabin and hold, from the frost and blast without; but in this their sheltered situation they were until the again receding of the tide, up to their middles in water, severely bruised by the casks and boxes in the hold, and expecting every surge of the sea to meet a dreadful fate. At 7 o’clock in the morning the Captain cut a hole through her inward side, and some of the most determined hearts sounded the depth of the water (about three feet) took fire works, axes, &c. and to the joy of all gained the Island where they made fires, and during the morning all hands got on shore in safety. — Some of these (we may say fortunates) are frozen, and some of the old and infirm are said to be irrecoverable from fatigue and cold. During the night several gave up to despair and drank too freely of Spiritous Liquors to dissipate the horrid gloom. — Capt. Dodd, is unloading the cargo of the Lord M’Donald When the boat arrived all had been allowanced upon one potatoe and a bit of fish, with some molasses and rum.   

The PEI Gazette seems to have taken no further notice of either the vessels or their crews and passengers.

The whole of Hillsborough Bay was surveyed by George Wright and Capt. Peacock in 1839 and a chart published in 1842 and another in 1846 by Captain Bayfield. While Bayfield’s Chart gives more detail of the rocky outcrops surrounding the Island it would have done little to lessen the danger to a sailing vessel caught in the grip of a northwestwardly gale in early winter. 

Governor Island shoals. Detail from Bayfield Chart 1846

Other postings about Governor’s Island can be found on this blog site including a visit to the Island, an Account of the search for oil, a rescue in 1875, the Hochelaga on the rocks, and a marooned hunting party  

Art in the Service of Commerce: Miniature Engravings on Bills of Lading


In the nineteenth century the trinity of “wood, wind, and water” which described the ship-borne commerce of the age could have been replaced by a description which more accurately described the transactions which circumscribed the mercantile activity of the age: “wood, wind, water, and paper.”     

Documenting the responsibilities and legal requirements of the purchase, sale and shipping of goods required a set of documents, often prepared in duplicate and triplicate which were sent with the goods with copies sent by mail and retained by the originator  For shippers and merchants the foremost of these was the bill of lading. 


Bill of Lading documenting the shipment of 20 barrels of flour from Boston to Charlottetown on the schooner Sax Gotha in 1855

The norm in the 19th century was that sellers would send goods to a distant buyer by sea. Even today, the carriage of goods by sea constitutes a significant portion of all long-distance commercial transactions. In a typical transaction, a shipper delivers goods to a carrier ship. The carrier, the ship’s captain, or a clerk then issues a bill of lading. Similar documents are used in both land and air transportation today. 

The bill of lading is an acknowledgment by the carrier that it has received goods for shipment; it includes an agreement to transport these goods to the consignee or his assignees at a specified destination. A bill normally contains statements concerning the nature, quality, and quantity of the goods. These statements reflect either the shipper’s representations to the carrier or the carrier’s notations from its own inspection of the goods. Often the bill of lading would contain information about how the parcels, bundles, barrels, bales or other containers were marked so they could be identified on arrival. Once a bill of lading was issued the carrier became responsible for goods. Invariably the words “Shipped in good order and condition” were  part of the pre-amble to the details of the bill. 

lading 6 At the receiving end, the goods would be checked for delivery and responsibility of  the receiving individual or firm for the goods passed from the shipper.

Similar documents are used today but in contrast to the bland nature of present-day commercial documents (now often in electronic form only), those of the 19th century frequently, but not always, contained tiny engravings proudly displaying the printers art. In some cases these engravings would be created by the printer but more often the type blocks would be purchased from an engraving firm. Even in the examples below there are several examples with the same image used by different printers.  For the printer the documents were a form of advertising and often the bills of lading contained elaborate and varied typefaces as well as the illustrations, Being documents associated with nautical commerce the engravings on the bills of lading were of marine scenes: sketches of the busy wharves, harbour scenes, or illustrations of ships, schooners, or steamers safely and competently  carrying goods from harbour to harbour. 

lading 2Printers used the illustrations to put forward their names and the phrase “sold by” refers not to the shippers of the goods but the printer of the forms.  J.D. Haszard, who was for part of the period the Queen’s Printer, was one of the Charlottetown printers who offered bills of exchange. This same illustration also appears over the name of Haszard & Owen.  Another Charlottetown forms printer was J.S. Bremner but he used a different illustration. 


IMG_1957The engravings themselves vary greatly in quality and detail. Some, such as the example above have the same humble appearance as simple woodcuts. Others have the delicacy of fine engravings and are excellent examples of the engravers art.  It must be kept in mind that most of these illustrations are about an inch or 2.5 cm square. The examples in this posting are for the most part much enlarged. 

lading 16bBeing commercial documents of little long term individual value few bills of lading have survived. However a small but exceptional collection is housed at the P.E.I. Public Archives and Records Office (PARO).  The document have an interesting history. They were discovered in the 1970s in the attic story of Peake’s Brick Building at the corner of Water and Queen Street in Charlottetown and were the few surviving remnants of the voluminous business records of number of prominent waterfront merchants including James Peake and John Brecken.  In addition to the collection of bound day books and ledgers a primitive filing system of “spiked” orders and other documents hung from the building’s rafters. These records date from the 1830s through the 1860s and contain unique commercial information about trade and commerce on Prince Edward Island.  Transferred to PARO the records have been largely catalogued as the Peake-Brecken Collection (Accession 2881) and continue as an important source for P.E.I. history. 

lading 15Over forty different engravings have been identified on the  bills of lading in the collection. They span the 1840s and 1850s. Not all bills of lading carry illustrations and in the later years of the century they seems to have disappeared as the documents became more standardized – and at the same time somewhat business-like and boring. The Peake-Brecken collection of bills of lading contains examples from Charlottetown, Pictou, Halifax, Quebec  Boston, New York, Liverpool, Glasgow, Plymouth and London – all ports with which the merchants of the Island did business. Collectively the bills of lading form a gallery of marine miniatures helping document a world now lost.

Seen below is an incomplete catalogue of the Peake-Brecken bills of lading illustrations. When viewed on a desktop and some tablets clicking on any image will bring up a slide show view.