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Drunk and Disorderly: the Royal Visit of 1860

It was not a pretty sight and the correspondent for the New York Tribune made  it the centrepiece of his reporting of the event.  And what an event it was. The biggest thing to hit Charlottetown in its history. The first visit ever of a member of the Royal Family. Today it has become commonplace as every decade one or more Royals cycle through the province. It was not always so.

View of Royal Fleet at Charlotte Town 1860. From Journal of the Progress of the HRH Prince of Wales through British North America and his Visit to the United States. 1860.

When H.R.H. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Queen Victoria, came to North America it was a major event wherever he visited. Not only did he visit the British Colonies, still four years away from becoming a nation, but he also travelled to the United States which had been, less than a century earlier, colonies of an earlier empire.  The rarity of the event made the Royal visit a huge public event. The media circus, led by the American press ensured that every speech, every move, every detail was covered in full.  As the royal entourage  made its way from landfall in Newfoundland, west to Ontario and south into the United States the crowds and the interest increased.

HMS Hero, flagship of the Prince of Wales 1860.

When H.M.S. Hero entered Charlottetown Harbour on August 9  1860 it was accompanied by the largest group of warships ever seen on the Island, before or since. Besides the Hero the squadron consisted of warships Nile, Ariadne, Valorous, Cossack and Flying Fish. The French navy steamer Pomone was already in Charlottetown as was the locally based survey vessel Margaretha Stevenson. The wharves were occupied by overcrowded steamers which had brought royal watchers from all over North America to Charlottetown. There was a slight alteration to the plans as the H.M.S. Nile went aground at the harbour mouth and snuck away in disgrace to await the Prince at Quebec rather than joining in on the Island celebrations.  In the afternoon of the arrival the waters of the harbour echoed with salutes from the cannon afloat and ashore and the welcomes and the visits of the dignitaries occupied much of the day.

61W9JMgptVL._SY741_But behind the well-ordered facade of triumphal arches and speeches by provincial and municipal worthies there was an undercurrent of chaos.  The visit had completely overwhelmed the resources of the city.  There had been complaints for more than twenty years about the insufficiency of accommodation for visitors and when the steamer Arabian (packed, according to one journalist, like the Black-Hole of Calcutta) arrived with between four and five hundred, and by another account, six hundred),  all anxious to see the Prince, there was a mad scramble for what little accommodation existed. Even direct intervention from the mayor could not help the New York Herald’s correspondent, who, after walking the streets far into the night and being turned away from dozens of houses, eventually found a bed – but not a room.

It was about an hour after this that I was introduced to a mattress, on the top of sundry chairs, in a room in which I found four other sleepers extended on as many stretchers. I lay down but the street noises consequent on the landing of the steamer;’s passengers were so great that had it not been for excessive fatigue I should hardly have slept; but I did sleep, and when I awoke early in the morning and looked out of the windows I saw hundreds of my own fellow passengers, as well as those who had come by a subsequent steamer, crowding the streets and walking about searching for a place of rest.  

The restless crowd also impressed the correspondent for the New York Tribune not only for its size but also for its demeanour. He reported that strangers had been pouring into the little city for a week before the Prince’s arrival. Estimating that between 15 and 20 thousand visitors were present, he was able to contrast the behaviour of the crowd with that of the New York populace with which he was more familiar – and not to the credit of Charlottetown.

But here in Charlotte Town, nothing has been known in street or square, but incessant brutal bursts of drunkenness, so violent, and wild, and reckless that the most vicious quarters of New York could not yield their parallel. I never saw so small a place given over so utterly to bestiality. Fancy a town in every street of which great riotous mobs continually gather in quarrelsome force, breaking through tavern doors, intrenching themselves in narrow lanes and inviting gladiatorial combats  with all who passed, or scattering about, to spread disorder more effectually; in which every corner was made a fighting-ground; in which deserting soldiers, of whom there were numbers, perpetually plunged into conflicts with the townspeople, and made free with their weapons, until dragged away to temporary confinement; in which children and plenty of them, of tender years, ranged the thoroughfares, not less besotted than the mature multitudes; the whole passing, from hour to hour, an uninterrupted scene of disgrace and degradation. There must have been something weak in the administration of affairs. Of course the better part of Charlotte Town looked aghast upon these excesses; but that no provision should have been made for their suppression, was surely the gravest oversight.

His comments caught the eye of Vanity Fair magazine who later quipped that the Prince’s visit had given an added dimension to the phrase “tight little Island.”

Strangely the deficiencies in civil order were not reported in the local press which instead focussed on the turn-out of the militia and beauty of the street decorations. To read in the Islander or the Examiner of the events is not unlike encountering a parallel universe.  The grand success of the visit as reported locally is at odds with the scene sketched by the New York Herald’s reporter

The cheering was not very energetic, and the weather was gloomy and wet. It cleared up during the time between his leaving the ship and reaching Government House, but after that it rained heavily all day. … The illuminations which were attempted in the evening did, considering the extremely wet and cloudy weather, much credit to the natives. The attempt was spirited, but the failure desperate.

The Prince’s party stayed two nights in Charlottetown, the second night being given over to a public ball at the Colonial Building and the following day the fleet departed for Quebec.

The Royal Tour was the subject of countless newspaper accounts and several volumes by both journalists and the travellers themselves.  Two days in Charlottetown merited little more than a footnote in either the official accounts or the foreign press. While rejoicing that the city was mentioned at all, it is likely that Charlottetown’s inhabitants preferred to pass over the views of the New York press.

Keep Turning Left – All Right!


Caution: what follows is a shameless endorsement and promotion of one of the most interesting and entertaining sailing sites on the world-wide web.

Those of you who have been reading this blog since the beginning will recall that the site started off as an exploration of the bays and harbours I visited (or intended to visit)  in my pocket cruiser, a Halman 20 called Ebony.  From there it evolved into a site dealing with the maritime history of Northumberland Strait and that is its primary thrust today – but I have not forgotten the original purpose.

Winter is not a happy time for sailors in this part of the world. Boats are tucked up in their winter quarters and there is a limit to how much solace one can get from planning summer cruises based on charts and on-line imaginary navigation. As we approach the particularly nasty little month of February we search anxiously for a winter replacement for sailing therapy.   As I have done in previous years I turn to the internet and present (once again) my nomination for the best nautical survival gear for the dark days of January and February.

keepturningleftThe finest source of mental survival rations and one of my inspirations for the Sailstrait site was a video series I discovered created by “a middle-aged, middle-class bloke from middle England” named Dylan Winter who sailed a Mirror Offshore, a 19 foot boat of a similar size to Ebony affectionately referred to as “The Slug.” Dylan set off to sail around England and Scotland starting from a harbour on the south coast and then turning left (that’s to port for your nautical snobs). Gunkholing along from harbour to harbour Dylan kept turning left working his way around the coast of England, up the east coast of Scotland, to the Shetlands and Orkneys and then back down the west coast. These are not heroic voyages, they are slow excursions taken alone or with friends or family and it is a pleasure and a privilege to be taken along.

Travel proceeded as time and finances permitted. Some years Dylan would explore every single creek and backwater he could find and never stray more than a few dozen nautical miles from that season’s home port. In other years he would leapfrog along the coast. Like real sailing, the videos are a fine blend of the mundane and the sublime. Engine problems, days of continuous rain and unfavourable winds are bracketed by the uplift provided by the happy chuckle of a bow wave or the site of a dancing flock of shore birds over a mud flat.

dylan-winterIn his other (I dare not say “real”) life Dylan is a professional videographer and the series is composed of exceedingly high quality video essays of inconsistent length with Dylan luxuriating in the wonder of a walk along a creek-side dike or the design and grace of an East Coast sailing barge and then delivering a rant on the thoughtless antics of motorboaters and their fibreglass lozenges. In other words it is very personal, and yet at the same time he captures the universal appeal of small-boat, thin-water sailing.

There are now nine seasons of eclectic sailing videos on-line. And no, after nine years, he is nowhere near to finishing the circumnavigation. The tiny Slug is gone, replaced by the Katie L (get it – KTL) a 23 foot Hunter Minstrel, replaced by an almost borrowed (an interesting story in itself) Westerly Centaur for the Scotland trip, and now back to the Minstrel. After turning left he has returned to the east coast of Scotland for further adventures on the coast of the North Sea.  Perhaps he’ll return to the Irish Sea, perhaps not. Like Bernard Moitessier who refused to finish the first single-handed round the world race because he wanted to just keep sailing, the joy for Dylan is the journey itself, not finishing but continuing.

keep_turning_left_the_deben_still045There are hours and hours and hours of wonderful sailing time to be had on Dylan’s site at keepturningleft   If nothing else it will get you through February and then you can dream of the ice melting and taking to the sea again.

For years Dylan has been able to continue to provide these videos only because of voluntary contributions from (as they say on PBS) “viewers like you.” If you enjoy the series I urge you to pay your fair share. The hours of pleasure it has given this sailor are a cheap cure for the winter blahs.  To see how you can contribute click at the top right of the KTL home page found here.

All images lifted from the KTL site.  I am assuming permission, and if not, then forgiveness. Sail on Dylan.

Little Engines that Couldn’t: The First Icebreakers on the Strait


Screen Shot 12-04-18 at 06.47 PMThe engravings are dramatic with the little, strangely shaped steamer charging through the ice-pack unimpeded by the floes reaching to the decks.  The reality was much different and reflected the asymmetrical expectations of the promise made when Canada joined Prince Edward Island in 1873. “Continuous steam communication” for Islanders was  a real need but for the Canadians it was treated (at least in the early years) as aspirational rather than actionable.  The story of the first two steamers did not bode well for the Island’s treatment in the confederation deal.

Canada seemed to think that the winter ice was a mere inconvenience and their first attempt to deal with the matter was to contract out the winter service as they had done with the summer steamers. The first ship on the route was the Albert, built in Hopewell, New Brunswick in 1872. The small vessel, only 92 feet long with a beam of 27 feet and tonnage of 194  was powered by an engine from the Burrill Johnson Iron Works in Yarmouth , Nova Scotia. This firm was to supply engines for a number of Maritime-built steamers including others crossing to P.E.I.  The ship may have been a stout little steamer but there is nothing to suggest that she had any specific ice reinforcement or design. The experience of ice vessels was that they had to simply survive the crushing forces. That was the case with Newfoundland sealers and the arctic exploration vessels. They were designed to be frozen in and left the until the ice let them go. Any thought of actually breaking or cutting through the ice was foreign to the design.

Never-the-less in 1873 the Dominion contracted with James King, a Halifax ship-owner to use his vessel, the Albert, to make regular winter crossings after the Steam Navigation ships had been laid up for the winter.  King’s ship was used on summer services in the region including the link to the Magdalen Islands but even there its utility was questionable. One American visitor traveling on the Albert in the summer season to the Magdalen Islands had this to say about the boat:

The Albert proved to be, without exception, the most clumsy and dangerous craft I ever stepped foot on, considering the dangerous nature of the waters she navigates.

In 1876 the experiment with the Albert came to an end as it had failed miserably to deal with the ice of the Strait.  Instead the government purchased a ship that seemingly had been designed for the ice. Quebec builder Edmund W. Sewell had experience with ice having studied the ice on the St. Lawrence since the 1850s. He believed that with the right design for an “ice breaker” steamers would be able to reach Quebec from the Atlantic year-round.

Northern LightHis design had several interesting features – some of which feature in ice-breakers to this day.  Rather than trying to cut through the ice like a knife the Sewell design was designed to crush the ice by riding up on it and smashing it with the weight of the ship and its powerful engines.  The ship was wedge-shaped with a very shallow bow and a deep stern. The latter feature ensured that the propeller was well-below the ice and protected while the bow rode on top of the ice and crushed it as the ship moved forward.  The cross-section of the ship also showed a wedge shape which also contributed to the idea that the ship would ride up on the ice and use its weight to crush the ice.  The design was experimental but the Dominion felt it held the solution and they bought the Northern Light and kept it in operation for a dozen years.  Sewell’s ship had been designed for the St. Lawrence River with a high tidal range and river currents which kept the ice moving and broken. By contrast the ice in Northumberland Strait tended to be in large pans which rafted and created pressure ridges up to 5 metres high as the floes were jammed between the Island and the mainland. There was also an additional problem with the design. As the sole contact with the mainland the Northern Light was expected to carry large amounts and freight and many passengers throughout the winter. Loading freight made the bow of the boat ride much lower in the water and rather than ride up on the ice the ship simply battered it head on. Even when the ship did ride up it would often fail to break the thick ice and the crew had to use screw jacks and ice saws to back it into the water.  The voyage could be long and terrifying. A British naval officer who was trapped in the ice on the Northern Light for almost a month described his experience:

On the 28th a movement of the ice caused the ship to be heavily nipped, the field on one side remaining stationary, while that on the other kept pressing against the side. Remembering that the ice was quite a foot thick and was being forced on the ship by the movement of a field extending as far as the eye could reach, some idea may be formed of the Strain to which the vessel was subjected. The beams kept up a dismal creaking and bent up in some cases a couple of inches, and the ice cracked with frequent loud reports, as, unable to force the ship, it gave to the weight behind it and piled in big blocks alongside. The awful part of this nipping is the feeling of utter helplessness with which you see it. Nothing you can do with any human assistance appears likely to help, and there you stand, watching as calmly as you may the struggle between this natural force and that you have to pit against it; you know either you must give way or the ice must, and you anxiously wonder which it is to be. However, after about an hour of this, the running ceased, the beams gradually resumed their normal positions, and all of us breathed freely once more, thankful to that Providence which had rescued us.

Except in the mildest of winters the Northern Light stayed in port for much of the ice season and was the source of constant complaint from Islanders but it stayed in service until 1888 when the unrepairable ship was replaced by the D.G.S. Stanley.

northern-light-canada-stampThe end of the Northern Light, like that of so many steamships was inglorious.  Last used in the Strait crossing in 1887 she was sold by the Dominion Government in 1890  and seems to have disappeared from the record until  June 1892 when a note appeared in the St. John Telegraph under the title “The Mighty Fallen” informing readers that at one of the city wharves the machinery was being removed from the vessel in preparation to her being turned into a coal barge. A year later the engine-less hulk was burned on the beach at Carleton, across the river from St. John to recover the iron in the hull.