Tag Archives: Albatross

Commerce and Franconia – The first of the Boston Boats

Steamer Commerce at Boston’s T Wharf c. 1870. Although only the wheelhouse of the small vessel can be seen its diminutive size is clear.

In yet another connection between Prince Edward Island and the Civil War, the steamer Commerce was the first of many vessels* trading to Prince Edward Island which had begun life on one side or the other of the Union blockade of the southern states. She was built in England on the river Tees by the firm of Backhouse and Dixon and launched, carrying the name Pet, in October 1862. In all probability she was designed specifically for blockade running. A relatively small vessel, 141 feet long and 20 wide, she had engines which gave her a top speed of 11 1/2 knots. Although not the name on her ownership papers she was the property of the Manchester firm of Alexander Collie & Co. who owned more than fifteen blockade runners, many of which were to be eventually seized by the Union forces.

The Pet arrived in Nassau Bahamas, the main port for blockade runners, in early 1863 and was one of 28 new vessels noted by the U.S. Consul that season. The Consul calculated that each of these vessels could make a profit of $119,000 per trip which meant that the full cost of building the Pet was covered by a single round-trip. A good blockade captain could be paid $7,000 in gold for each round trip. She was a very successful commercial blockade-runner and made between fifteen and twenty trips over the next year. However, in February 1864 she was intercepted on her way from Nassau to Wilmington, Delaware by the U.S.S. Montgomery. She was close enough to shore to land her passengers and pilot before the navy boarding party could stop them. The crew were captured but as British nationals were later released.

As a prize of war the Pet was sent to Boston to be auctioned off and in April 1864 she was purchased by Franklyn Snow of Boston for $35,500. The new owner changed her name to the Commerce and she began a new life as the first of the Boston Boats shuttling between Charlottetown and Boston under the name of the Boston and Colonial Steamship Company. On her arrival in Halifax one newspaper there described her as a gentlemen’s yacht but noted her appearance had been spoiled by the addition of increased accommodation although the writer did concede that her cabins were “nicely fitted”. She arrived in Charlottetown in late May accompanied by her owner who, according to the Islander,  “made himself most agreeably acquainted with the many citizens of Charlottetown.”

Islander 9 September 1864

Beginning with a bi-weekly service, the Commerce, ex Pet, was joined in early August by a larger vessel, the steamer Franconia. This ship was American-built, and at 179 feet, was considerably larger than the Commerce. Her arrival at Charlottetown seems to have been accorded more coverage than that of the Commerce, perhaps because owner Franklyn Snow provided an excursion to Point Prim for, as the Islander stated, “all the world and his wife” and most of the leading politicians of the colony provided entertainment for the captive audience in the form of speeches praising the enterprise.  George Coles noted this was the first attempt at providing regular service since the visits of the Albatross  more than twenty years earlier. The addition of the Franconia to the Boston and Colonial fleet meant that Charlottetown would have regular weekly service to Boston with each of the vessels leaving their respective ports every Monday and arriving on Friday.

The provision of regular service was a major advancement for the colony. Previously shippers had to take advantage of what ever opportunity presented itself, often not knowing when a ship would arrive until it appeared in the harbor.  This was especially welcome for shippers of perishable goods such as oysters, eggs, meat and produce which could go directly to market in Boston or Halifax. While an alternative route using the ships of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company and several Canadian and American rail lines was available, the cargo would have to be handled several times as it had to be transferred from ship to wagon or rail several times. Another advantage was speed. The steamers could reach their port within four days, including stops at Pictou, Canso, and Halifax. Sailing vessels could take much longer. The direct service also suited passengers who could make the trip for as little as eight dollars – with additional cost for cabins and meals.

The question of the day was whether or not the trade would support the venture. The Islander’s editor noted that “The Americans have been, and are, our best customers” and suggested that by inducing the American fishing fleet, which annually visited Island waters, to harvest the herring and ship their catches on the fast steamers rather than having to return to their ports, could provide additional trade.

An added concern was that the Boston service would have a negative impact on the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company which had just made a major investment in a new vessel, the Princess of Wales.  However, at the close of navigation the Islander was able to report that the Boston run had been “well patronized” and that the receipts for the Steam Navigation Company had not fallen off.

That year, navigation closed on December 21st with the Franconia being the last vessel to work its way through the harbour ice to the open channel.  She carried some 12,500 bushels of oats, 150 sheep and a quantity of poultry as well as other goods.

The following year the Commerce returned but the Franconia did not. She was replaced on the run by the Greyhound. By 1870 the Franconia had become the property of the Maine Steamship Co. and was used on their Portland to New York route for many years.  For the next half-century the Boston Boat was a vital part of the Island’s communication  system. During the period many vessels and several companies served on the route  and they both responded to, and helped forge, the close linkages between the Island and the Boston States.

* Vessels in the P.E.I. service which had a civil war connection include the Greyhound, Oriental, Miramichi, St. Lawrence, Worcester, Carroll, Somerset, Westmoreland and Lady Le Marchant,

 

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The Albatross Lands in Charlottetown

The Albatross Arrives

Charlottetown had rarely seen such enthusiasm. The arrival of the steamer Albatross in July of 1852 heralded the beginning of a new era of communication with the Island capital being linked with bi-monthly sailings with both New York and Quebec. The ship itself was one of the largest and most powerful which had ever visited the city. Built in Philadelphia the previous year by Wm. Cramp & Sons and described as “magnificent”  the 1100 ton vessel boasted 250 horsepower and first class accommodation for 120 first class passengers. When she visited Quebec the local newspaper described her as “Long, narrow high out of the water, exceedingly sharp at the bow, rounded stern, rather wall-sided.”

It was a bold experiment as little was known about the amount of traffic that could be expected. An earlier routing for the Albatross between Philadelphia and Charleston had failed because the expected business never materialized. However the Quebec plan was not short on one essential element – publicity. The main proponent of the new route was one Burrows Wilcocks Arthur Sleigh who apparently had the ability to charm the most cautious investor and to create dreams out of nothing.

The Rise and Fall of a Dreamer

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B.W.A. Sleigh

Sleigh ([pronounced “Slee”) was born in Quebec thanks to his father’s short-lived residency there and spent several years in the British Army serving in the West Indies, Canada and Nova Scotia. He sold his commission in 1848 and retired with the rank of Captain. From then on he appears to have lived by his wits and other people’s money. From 1848 to 1851 he was floating a scheme for the Halifax and Quebec Railroad and another the establishment of a settlement in New Brunswick for retired army and naval officers. An investigation found that the land had never been purchased and that Sleigh had declared bankruptcy a few months earlier.   That did not prevent him from moving on to several new schemes.  He made a down payment to purchase the 70,000 acre Worrell estate in Kings County and visited the Island in March of 1852 travelling by ice boat across the strait. While on the Island he announced the formation of a new steamship line which would include Charlottetown as a stop on the New York – Quebec route.

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Haszard’s Gazette 27 July 1852

One of the biggest promoters of the new line was the American Counsel in Pictou, Major Norton who, in some reports, was the originator of the scheme.  New York newspapers wrote of the great wealth of extensive landownership of Captain Sleigh who took over the enterprise from Norton and proceeded to expand the vision to include the possibility of additional ships on the line.  The International Journal wrote of Sleigh “No man in the colonies has a deeper interest at stake there than Captain Sleigh.” In this telling the land held by Sleigh had swelled to 100,000 acres of the best agricultural land.  The Albatross touched at Charlottetown on its way to Quebec in mid-July  and while the steamer was in port Sleigh announced the formation of the Bank of Charlottetown. On the return of the Albatross from Quebec Sleigh was the guest of honour at a grand banquet with Hon Charles Hensley in the chair held in the colony’s House of Assembly. One hundred and three of the leading gentlemen of the colony heaped praise on Sleigh for his initiative.  Additional honours included the naming of Sleigh as a Justice of the Peace and an appointment as Lieutenant-Colonel of the 2nd Kings County Regiment of Militia.

Alas, the progress and prospects of Prince Edward Island did not immediately improve. After two round trips the voyages of the Albatross between New York and Quebec were cancelled and the ship was seized by creditors. Sleigh probably didn’t own the ship anyway.  He ended up in jail on Halifax. He never completed his purchase of the Worrell estate. The Bank of Charlottetown issued a few banknotes in New York now highly praised by collectors but otherwise worthless.  On the Island the worthies backed quickly away from their association with Sleigh and a nasty bit of name-calling resulted from a map published which included Sleigh’s name among the land proprietors.  He was stripped of his militia post but Sleigh thereafter refereed to himself as Colonel Sleigh. He returned to England and published a self-inflating book of his time in Canada under the title Pine Forests and Hackmatack Clearings which included several rather unflattering descriptions of the Island and its people.

The Flight of the Albatross is Halted

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Haszard’s Gazette 7 September 1852

And what of the Albatross?  With the failure of the New York – Quebec venture still fresh the owners turned to other possibilities. The gold fields of Australia looked promising and in late August of 1852 an advertisement appeared headed “Steam for Australia.”  The Albatross would head for Melbourne in late September with an added deck to accommodate 491 passengers in 30 private cabins and curtained berths on the saloon deck at only $200 per berth.  Improvements would “render her one of the finest vessels that has ever sailed for the Golden Regions of Australia.”  The notice was signed by the owner, sporting his newly awarded rank as  Colonel Sleigh.

Perhaps the uptake was not as good as had been hoped but instead of Australia the Albatross was next spotted on the route between New York and Vera Cruz, Mexico where she connected with the land route to Acapulco which was a port of call for the Panama-San Francisco steamers.  Because the ship had been owned in Sleigh’s name and the registration transferred to a British registry an act of Congress was required to re-register the ship as an American vessel, owned by Sleigh’s one-time agent/partner Simeon Draper.  However the Albatross was not destined to last long. On 18 April 1853 a strong cross-current carried the ship off her course and she piled up on the Cabezas Reef, some 26 miles from the port of Vera Cruz.  Although the passengers were saved the ship slipped into deeper water and was a total loss. She carried a wide cargo of dreams with her to the bottom.

The Aftermath

As for Sleigh the Albatross was a mere ripple in the pond of his life. In 1855 he and others founded the Daily Telegraph newspaper in London. He bought out his partners a few months later and sold the paper in 1857. It was destined to become one  of the leading newspapers of the United kingdom and is still published. It is perhaps Sleigh’s sole legacy. He ran unsuccessfully for Parliament on a number of occasions and was in and out of Bankruptcy Court. In 1861 he set up the fraudulent British Columbia Overland Transit Company to “help” those trying to get to the goldfields. In 1869 he died at age 48.

Further Reading

Harry Baglole’s article “The Icy Passage” in the Island Magazine for Fall/Winter 1976 outlines Sleigh’s career and has an excerpt from Pine Forests and Hackmatack Clearings. P.B. Waite’s work on Sleigh in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography has more details but George William Newkey-Burden’s 2011 PhD thesis on Sleigh and the Daily Telegraph contains much new information.