Tag Archives: Albatross

The unfulfilled promise of a Montreal to Charlottetown steamer connection

The mid-1850s were a period of optimism in Prince Edward Island. Population had increased, responsible government had been put in place, a free education act was in operation and in Charlottetown, the incorporated city had replaced the town.  In the harbour, communication with the mainland had become reliable with a steamer connecting with Pictou on a regular basis. There was a sail packet between Charlottetown and Boston. In 1857 there were even two competing ships on the route, the schooner Eglantine and the clipper brig Gelena, and in 1858 a new schooner, the Carrie M. Rich, 129 tons engendered the enthusiasm of the Examiner newspaper “We have never seen anything destined to walk the waters that appeared to us better calculated for her work than she is.”  There were also vessels that plied the direct route between Charlottetown and English ports. All looked positive on the communications front – with one exception.

The Island was less well-connected with Canada. In the early 1830s the Royal William, later to be one of the first vessels to cross the North Atlantic under steam power, made several stops in Charlottetown while operating between Pictou and Quebec. Another false start occurred in 1852 when the steamer Albatross, ostensibly owned by B.W.A. Sleigh made two voyages between New York and Quebec with a stop in Charlottetown but the attempt was unsuccessful, if not fraudulent.  Direct connection with Montreal was more of a problem as the shallow Lake St. Pierre in the St. Lawrence River between Quebec and Montreal had restricted passage to vessels drawing less than eleven feet. However, under the direction of the Montreal Harbour Commission a program of dredging had been begun, and by 1853 a channel had been deepened to 16 feet allowing direct passage of ships of up to 500 tons. This opened Montreal to the world, but not necessarily with Prince Edward Island  

While several steamship lines were established at this time to exploit the possibility of direct connection to England, the advantage of links to what at the time were called “the Lower Provinces” was also given attention. In 1858 the Montreal Gazette noted:

We are glad to observe, that our rising trade with the Lower Provinces is attracting attention. An effort is being made to obtain the advantages of direct steam communication … This could be efficiently secured by a line of three strong steamers adapted for steam navigation with good passenger accommodation and of sufficient power to make a weekly trip from Montreal to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and vice versa, touching at Riviere du Loup and Rimouski, and thus securing and accommodating the large Canadian travel to the watering places of the Lower St. Lawrence, then at Gaspe, affording outlet to the important trade of that district, and and next at ports in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia before arriving at the terminus of Prince Edward Island. Such a line would command a large and remunerative business. It would attract a tide of ocean pleasure travel and it would develop and build up our interprovincial trade.  Besides the passenger traffic, it would have down freights of flour and provisions, and return cargos of fish, sugar, and molasses. With the legitimate businesses that would speedily be developed, and subsidies from the Lower Provinces and Canada to foster it until self supporting, the interprovincial line would be a feeder in the ocean line of steamers, and would do much to advance the interests of all the provinces.   

The editorial opinion was picked up by other Montreal and Quebec newspapers and was re-printed in Charlottetown’s Islander, and the idea of Charlottetown as a terminus of interprovincial trade was no doubt attractive and would provoke the attention of Island merchants and shippers. However there was at the time little trade between the Island and Quebec, and the limited cargos of oats and other produce moving west, and even less from Canada to Prince Edward Island. Halifax and New England provided adequate outlets for Island surpluses and the Island’s merchants were serviced by direct shipment from the United Kingdom or New England. Moreover passenger traffic from Canada to the Island was slight at best, and Island family links with Montreal, later to increase significantly, were limited.    

The idea of a direct steamer service between Prince Edward Island and Montreal was not sufficiently attractive to attract the investment of the Montreal capitalists who were funding a number of new steamship lines such as the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company and the Canadian Steam Navigation Company. The former company, under the direction of Hugh Allan was the most successful, becoming known as the Allan Line and later as Canadian Pacific Steamships and it was for many years a serious competitor to the Cunard and White Star lines on the profitable North Atlantic route. 

Examiner 6 September 1869

In 1860 the steamer Lady Head, owned by the government of Canada and operated as the Royal Mail Line began a subsidized regular service between Quebec and the Maritimes but the terminus for the service was Pictou and the vessel only rarely stopped at Prince Edward Island.  Instead, the smaller cross-strait steamers such as the Westmorland, and later the ships of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company; the Saint Lawrence and the Princess of Wales provided connecting services for Island-bound passengers and freight at Pictou and Shediac.  It would be almost ten years after the Montreal Gazette writer wrote about the promise of direct steam communication between Prince Edward Island that it became a reality. The Quebec and Gulf Ports Steamship Company established a regular service in 1869 with vessels such as the Miramichi, and Secret, and later the Campana , Orinoco, and the Trinidad. links were considerably strengthened with the Island entering the confederation in 1873. Other passenger and freight lines provided service even after the Quebec-based company creased operation.  The steamer links would endure into the second half of the 20th century.        

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 which was incorporated in the State of Massachusetts in 1865. 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,

 

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.