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Shipping out before the Ice came in

Barque Undine. One of the several vessels trying to beat the harbour closure in December 1870. Image from “Launched from Prince Edward Island” by Nicolas DeJong and Marven Moore 1981

In the wood, wind and water economy the period between the fall and the freeze-up was one of the busiest times on the Charlottetown waterfront. Unlike today, when the milder winters and more powerful ships mean that the harbour is open  – at least to ice-reinforced tankers which leave their wake of crumpled ice cakes – there was a finality to winter, a closure of the harbour which meant that the mainland was cut off again for several months.

Farmers had a only few short weeks to haul their produce to markets or risk missing the opportunity for sales. In the twentieth century the problem was alleviated by winter steamers and finally by the Borden rail ferry but in earlier years winter was a closing door. Between the harvest and the harbour closure crops had to be rushed to market and the many small ports on the Island hummed with activity. Today we think of the potato as being the quintessential P. E. I. crop but in earlier years the main export was oats. The humblest of the grains was the gasoline of the 19th century as both town and country were powered by horses and horses were powered by oats. The Island was fine oat-growing country and throughout the fall bushel bags were carried to coastal schooners and trans-Atlantic ships to go to market.

An early freeze-up could paralyze the shipments and throughout November and December farmers, merchants and mariners keep a keen eye on the thermometer. Shipping became a gamble and vessels waiting for a late cargo could be in port until spring – with or without empty holds.

In 1870 the Christmas season saw Charlottetown’s harbour still open and the Charlottetown Herald carried an extensive shipping report. A succession of ships had escaped to avoid the freeze-up. The ship New Dominion under Capt. Kickham had left for Europe with 52,000 bushels of oats on December 16th, The bark Undine, Capt. Balfour cleared Charlottetown with 32,000 bushels for Europe on the 21st. Merchant I.C. Hall sent a cargo of oats, potatoes and fish to Cuba with Capt. Mutch’s Island Home. Carvell Bros. saw the barque Candice, Capt. McDonald clear for Queenstown Ireland with 25,000 bushels of oats.

There was news on the telegraph that earlier shipments had safely arrived.  Wm. Richards heard that two of his oat shipments, one from Summerside and another from Malpeque,  had arrived safely in England. The brigantine Ravenwood, Capt. Gavin arrived in St. John’s three days after leaving the Island.

Steamer Heather Belle, often used to tow sailing vessels to open water.

But there were still ships in the harbour desperate to get to the open sea. The steamer Heather Belle which also operated as a tug was kept busy bringing ships down the rivers to the harbour where they could begin their voyages under sail. She brought Lefurgy’s brig to the Three Tides to ride the currents and winds on the beginning if its trip. The steamer then went up the West River to McEwan’s wharf to take the brigantine Septimus with her cargo of grain for Europe in tow. The same evening the brigantine Paragon which had loaded oats at North River was towed to the sea by the steamer.
But not all the ships made their escape. Capt. Young’s brigantine Empress was frozen in at Pinette, still loaded with grain for Europe. At Crapaud Harbour a brigantine, the Sabrina with another Europe bound cargo, was reported aground. Shipping had stopped at Summerside and the ice had closed in on another brigantine, this one owned by Alex MacMillan, with a cargo of grain for Europe.

In Charlottetown the Herald closed the report with another local story.

The ship James Duncan, is the last of the fall fleet in port. She is nearly rigged, and has taken a considerable quantity of oats on board. We fear she is frozen in for the winter.

Once the harbour froze there was rarely a second chance. A thaw with rain might melt some  snow but it would not clear the harbour of ice. Some desperate shippers hired labourers to cut a channel to tow their vessels to the open water at the Three Tides where it froze last but they were not always successful.  The feverish activity at the wharves came to an end. Winter had set in.

 

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A Yacht it was Not – the Dominion Steamer Petrel

DGS Petrel

With her ram bow and sleek lines the vessel looked a lot like a small yacht when she came into Charlottetown Harbour for the first time in 1905.  One could easily mistake the reason why the Petrel was cruising eastern waters. Was this the pleasure ship of a wealthy industrialist?  Indeed the gushing description of her interior which the Guardian borrowed from the Pictou Standard  re-enforced the impression.

It seems almost impossible that such a small craft can be made so comfortable and roomy. Every alteration gained room and comfort. The engineers’ and officers’ quarters and mess room are fitted with every modern convenience. The pantry is fitted in a style that would compare favorably with any the modern ocean liner can produce. Hot and cold water, steam heaters, and the finest equipment of china of any craft of her kind. The master’s dining room, which is immediately aft of the officers’ quarters, and the pantry reminds one of a miniature palace. It is only 12×22 feet and on each side is a beautiful plush settee of the finest red silk plush. The room is also beautifully carpeted, which with the beautifully enamelled walls makes as neat and pretty a dining room as one would wish to see. Just aft of this room is the master’s sleeping apartments, which are fitted on a par with every other part of the vessel. On the main deck is the chart room, in which are all the necessary charts and other equipment and flags for the international code signals.

The D.G.S. Petrel was to be a frequent visitor to P.E.I. waters – not as a pleasure cruiser but as a patrol vessel in the years before Canada had a navy. Her job was fisheries protection but she took on all sorts of tasks that a government boat might be expected to have and for several years her main port was Souris, overseeing the fisheries of the eastern Gulf.

The Petrel was not a new vessel in 1905 but  was new to salt water. She was launched in late 1892 from the Polson Ironworks yard in Owen Sound Ontario and was the last built of three near-identical armed patrol vessels designed to target illegal American fishing on the Great Lakes.  When tensions on the lakes lessened her sister-ships the Curlew and the Constance were transferred to the East Coast and were frequent visitors to Island harbours – the Constance was later to serve as a steamer on the Charlottetown to Pictou service.  Meanwhile on the lakes the Petrel had been rendered obsolete as American fishing craft turned more and more to high-powered engines and the Canadian vessel could not keep up. On the East Coast sail was still in heavy use for the fishing fleets.

This photograph is noted in some publications as being the Petrel, in others the ship is described as the Curlew. As both vessels were similar the name may not be relevant. It appears to be an early photo as over the years additional deckhouses were added to all three sister-ships. A small cannon can be seen at the stern of the vessel but this may not be an armament as the ships often participated as judging or starting boats in local regattas Photo: NAC PA136650 reprinted from Freshwater Vol. 10 No. 1

The Petrel was 116 feet long, 22 feet wide and drew 9 feet. In 1905 she carried a crew of 22 men  and the ship was armed with Ross rifles and Maxim-Nordenfeld quick-firing [machine] guns. She appears to have been re-built at the time of her transfer east. Originally fitted with a 54 horsepower engine, by 1905 her 400 horsepower coal-fired engine was said to be able to move her at 12 knots but she likely fell short of that as a working speed.  She was, however, more dependable than the vessel she replaced – the unpowered schooner Kingfisher which had been based for several years in Souris.  The Petrel monitored the activities of visiting American vessels and kept an eye on the local vessels seizing and destroying illegal nets and lobster traps.  Still, the luxurious accommodation was not entirely wasted on fisheries protection officers as the following article from the 1907 Sackville Tribune suggests:

Rev. C.F. Wiggins returned Saturday from one of the most enjoyable trips of his life. He was absent about a fortnight, the first week being spent in Summerside and Charlottetown, while the second week was spent on board the government cruiser, Petrel, in company with Sir Louis Davies , of Ottawa [at the time a supreme Court Justice]  and Mr. Hyndman of Charlottetown. They sailed through the Bras d’Or Lakes, visited Sir Graham Bell, called at Sydney, fished trout to their hearts’ content and had a good time generally. The Petrel landed Mr. Wiggins at the Narrows C.B., whence he took the train for Sackville.  

In 1912 the Petrel, Curlew and Constance were all fitted with minesweeping gear to assist the operations of the newly formed Canadian Navy and on the outbreak of war in 1914 they were was taken over by the navy for examination duties and coastal patrol. The Dominion Government Steamer Petrel became H.M.C.S. Petrel. She spent much of the war in the Bay of Fundy but when the navy added submarines to their fleet the Petrel was transferred to the Bras d’Or lakes and used to train hydrophone operators.  Like many other vessels the end of the war ended her government service although she continued to be listed in the Mercantile naval List as belonging to the Minister of Marine and Fisheries until the 1924 edition when she was owned by Labrador Goldfields Ltd. of Montreal.  Labrador Goldfields turned out to be a scam stock operation earning thousands of dollars for its Montreal owners. It appears that Petrel may have been briefly re-united with sisters Constance and Curlew as they were both leased to Labrador Goldfields by their Cape Breton owner, Wentworth MacDonald.

In 1927 the registration for the ship was transferred from Ottawa to Sydney and John T. Cruikshanks of Sydney was the owner – some sources note that the ship had been seized for smuggling at the time. Another Cape Bretoner, George Burchill became the owner in 1933. The Petrel was wrecked on the Magdalen Islands in June 1934 and her remains lie near the N.E. end of the Dune du Sud close to Grande Entrée. Divers can still visit her although little is left of the vessel, now over 120 years old.

The Petrel originally had a bad reputation on the Island as it was mistakenly confused by both editorial writers and politicians with another Petrel – a tug owned by the Collins Bay Rafting and Towing Company of Ontario. That ship had been chartered in 1896 to run between Cape Tormentine and Cape Traverse to test the theory that the strong tidal currents would keep the Strait ice-free and allow steamer passage. The vessel made a few early trips and was then trapped for the rest of the season at the Cape Traverse wharf by rafted board ice. The experiment proved to be a failure and was not repeated.

I am once again indebted to Kevin Griffin and his research on the Clarke Steamship Company – which is really a comprehensive study of merchant shipping in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – for providing information about the Labrador Goldfields and the coincidence of the possible reunion of the three sisters.  A link to his excellent series can be found here.