Tag Archives: Arethusa

The first steam-powered Southport ferries: Isla, Ora, Ino and Arethusa

Residents of Charlottetown may remember the Fairview or have heard of the Hillsborough. They were part of the provincial government’s navy of little ferries. The boats were owned by the colony and sailed by government employees or contracted out for operation. But it was not always so and ferries with less familiar names such as the Isla, the Arethusa, the Ora and the Ino were part of the harbour’s mid-19th century history. These were not government boats but were owned and operated by private businessmen.

The operation of ferries across the harbour was not always an expense for the government. Indeed, by legislation a monopoly on the service was created and the rights to the ferry operation was a revenue source for government. In 1832 for example the rent of the Hillsborough Ferry brought in £50 for the colony. Although the fares were regulated it was still seen as a profitable venture and the rights to the operation could be hotly contested.


Islander 3 August 1849 p.3

In 1849 the exclusive right to operate the ferry was held by Thomas Boggs Tremain. His contract was to run for twenty years, provided he could supply a steam boat of at least twelve horsepower suitable for passengers, cattle and luggage as well as other (and presumably smaller and unpowered) boats for the passage of passengers and their luggage.  The ferry was to cross once every half hour except when it made two trips each day to Canso (Rocky) Point – whenever the government got around to building a wharf there. Tremain had a long association with the ferry service, having been the proprietor of a horse-powered teamboat in the 1830s and 1840s.   In compliance with the requirements of the act Tremain provided a 70 by 14 foot vessel called the Isla which had the necessary twelve horsepower engine imported from England. She had begun service in August of 1849.  A notice stated the new steam ferry-boat would run between Charlottetown and Richmond. The latter name must have been a short-lived name for the area which came to be known as Southport in the mid-1850s.  Tremain’s hold on the contract did not last long. In 1851 complaints were made to the government about the irregularity of the service and the condition of the boat. An investigation found that the complaints were well-founded and Tremain’s contact was cancelled.  An ad appeared in the Haszards Gazette in August 1851 offering the Isla for sale.


Haszard’s Gazette 9 September 1851 p. 3

An advertisement for a successor to Tremain received only one tender, from John Haszard, but he refused to sign unless the government provided docks and slips on both sides of the river which it declined to do. A debate in the legislature resulted in funds being allocated for improvements but by then Haszard’s  offer had been withdrawn. It was only a few years later that the government made the necessary infrastructure investment in the Prince Street Ferry Wharf


Haszard’s Gazette 18 July 1855 p.7

The contract passed to John Roach Bourke who announced in February 1853 that he intended to place a steamer on the Charlottetown Ferry. An engine of about 20 horsepower had already been ordered in England and was to be shipped to A. Duncan & Co. to be placed in a new boat  built in the Duncan yard.  By mid-August the ferry was in operation and was described ay a writer in the Islander as “all but equal to a bridge across the river” and “a mere moving continuation of the highway, and like it, has no covering save the canopy of heaven.”   However the newspaper noted that the next boat on the run (which would surely be needed in a year or so) would benefit from “some place which may afford a shelter from a passing shower….”  Details concerning the vessel are scarce but it appears she was the Arethusa which was also advertised for excursions such as the Temperance Pic Nic at the picnic grounds at Block House Point. The fate of the Arethusa is not known but she was probably replaced by another boat after only a few years of service.

In 1856 the contract was held by Henry Pope Welsh, probably using a ferry called the Ora.,  However his exclusive right was contested by William Crilly Bourke, son of John Roach Bourke. His steamer, the Ino, was on the route from Charlottetown to Mount Stewart Bridge twice a week during 1856.  In May of 1856 Bourke was using the ferry wharf at Minchin’s Point to take on passengers and was charged under the legislation. A trial in the Mayor’s Court gave the decision to the complainants and a charge of 82 shillings but in the Supreme Court it was overturned, among other reasons, on the technicality that the ferry was a boat, not a vessel, and the legislation referred to vessels only.

It is quite possible that by 1861 both the Ino and the Ora were both under Bourke ownership. A moonlight excursion in August of that year saw the two vessels gaily lit with lamps and fireworks fastened together for a trip up and down the river. It was reported in the Examiner that the participants had enjoyed themselves “by agreeable conversation, by promenading the decks, and by a liberal indulgence in the pleasures of the dance.”

By 1862 the Ino had become the property of William Aitken and others operating as the Georgetown Ferry Company. Fifty pounds had been voted by the government in aid of a ferry service “between Georgetown , Montague and adjacent rivers” but when the company sought the funds the fact that the boat was “not fit for the service” was held against it and the full grant was not given.  Thus the Ino seems to have bene the first steam ferry at Georgetown. The boat did not continue in Georgetown for long and was later the subject of a lawsuit when then-owner James Pope attempted to sell it for use as a harbour ferry in Pictou.

1856 saw the building of the Ora in a Charlottetown shipyard of Clement White & Co. This ferry steamer was 73 tons and 73 feet in length by 17 feet wide. The original owner was Henry Pope Welsh but a year later a half interest in the ferry had been transferred to Charles Welsh and in 1861 he sold his interest to William Crilly Bourke who had formerly contested Welsh’s exclusive right to the ferry  route. An inspection of the Ora in 1862 noted that the owners were Bourke and Welsh. This 1862 certificate, incidentally, is one of the few records that refers to the ferry between Charlottetown and Stratford, rather than Southport.  The previous year the two had put another vessel into service in lieu of the additional sail-powered ferry and in a petition to the Legislative Council requested compensation for the increased costs. This boat was possibly the Experiment, a New Brunswick built craft which was larger than the Ino. By this time the ferry and steamer traffic was no more noteworthy than a passage down a city street and so we know even less about these vessels than those of earlier times. I have been able to find no photos or drawings of these little boats that linked the two sides of the harbour for a nearly forty-year period.

Why the arrangement for the private ownership of the ferries was changed is not known. It may be that the government, which received all of the complaints about the ferries, thought they might was well run them since they were going to be criticized anyway. It may be that the purchase of the Ora and the goodwill was a political favour. It may be that the Ora was getting old and had to be replaced and it was unlikely that anyone would invest the funds for a new boat. Or it may be that it was recognized that the ferry was a public utility and should be owned by the government. Whatever the reason in 1871 funds were appropriated by the legislature to purchase the ferry operation from the rights holders for the not insubstantial sum of £500 and an additional sum was allocated for the ferry Ora itself and all related “appurtenances”. The sum arrived at the following year for the purchase of the boat was $1462.31, decimal currency having been introduced in the interim.

The registry for the vessel was changed to the Government of Prince Edward Island in 1871. The Ora appears to have run until at least 1873 but her fate is not recorded. By then government had  invested in a new vessel, the Elfin, which was to operate into the 20th century.

Elfin, first of the government-built ferries

Elfin, first of the government-built ferries

“The people would prefer going to a quiet and unobstructed wharf”


An isolated capital

The location of colonial Charlottetown at the junction of three rivers meant that the rivers were both a highway and a hindrance. For water-borne traffic the routes to the east, west and north meant that farm produce and firewood could be easily transported from the interior and in winter the rivers became sleigh routes.

However for the rest of the year the rivers could be a barrier. Except to the north the town was not accessed by land. The Hillsborough was a particular barrier as it went north-east and almost cut the Island in two. Land traffic had to go around the head of the river which added miles to the trip.  Across the river from Charlottetown the roads were soon in place to link with the farming settlements in Vernon, the Selkirk settlements in Belfast and the southern part of Queen’s and King’s Counties. As well, the quickest and easiest route to Georgetown, the county capital, started right across the river from Charlottetown.  It is hardly a surprise that one of the earliest ferries in the colony was across the Hillsborough to Minchin’s Point where the government had built a wharf at an early date.  On the Charlottetown side wharf building was slower.  As late as 1839 the harbour chart shows only Queen’s Wharf extending to the channel and the stub of a wharf just west of the foot of Great George Street. The Charlottetown ferry tied up to these docks or landed passengers directly on shore.

Almost all of the town properties south of Water Street had “water lots” which gave ownership of the land below the high-water mark to the channel. This encouraged development of private wharves and by the early 1840s a wharf had been developed by the Steam Mill Company, and Reddin’s Wharf and the first of the several Peake’s Wharves had been built.  In 1844 the government, facing overcrowding at the Queen’s Wharf built a wharf at the foot of Pownal Street.  Both the Queen’s Wharf and the Pownal Wharf were built on the extensions of streets where there were no water lots.

Team-boats and steam-boats

The ferry in early years was sailed or rowed and later took the form of a “team-boat” where harnessed horses were used to turn paddle wheels.  However, just as steam had supplanted sail across Northumberland Strait, by 1848 there was talk of a steam boat service across the Hillsborough.  Legislation in that year provided for a 20-year exclusive grant of the ferry service for a person supplying “a good and sufficient Steam-Boat of not less than twelve horse-power” to convey “Passengers, Cattle and Luggage” across the river. The boat was to cross every half hour sunrise to sunset except for the time it took to make a morning and evening trip to Canso Point (now Rocky Point).  If no steam boat was tendered then government was empowered to contract for a Team Boat to be propelled by four horses [four horse-power?] and which was not less than fifty feet in length.

There were several failed attempts at providing regular service.  Among others,  contracts had been let to Thomas Tremain with the ferry steamer Isla, and to  John Roach Bourke for his little steamer Arethusa. By 1856 however, the contract had been annulled and declared forfeited,  owing, in part, to the fighting in regards to the use of the wharves for the ferry.  To address the problem the Legislature conducted a lengthy debate on the subject.  Dennis Reddin had offered to allow the ferry to operate from his wharf for payment of 40 pounds per year which appealed to the more frugal members of the House.  However, others pointed out that it was “inexpedient to connect public with private property.” Moreover the busy activity at the wharf, with vessels coming and going, and goods piled high, would be an impediment to ferry passengers. The same problem existed in regard to the proposal to use the Queen’s wharf for the ferry. For Edward Palmer there was a clear need for a new and proper ferry wharf:

The want of proper accommodation had long formed matter for complaint against the government. Strangers were astonished at the state of the Ferry. Contractors blame the government for not affording the requisite facilities. A comparison with similar places on other colonies would put us to shame. 

While a couple of members of the House of Assembly felt that this was the newly incorporated City of Charlottetown’s problem, most recognized that the project was to the greater public benefit and was properly the responsibility of the Colonial Government. If there was relatively little doubt about the need for a new wharf the more contentious question was:  where should it be?

The eastern gateway to the City


Prince Street Wharf. Detail from Albert Ruger’s Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878.

There seemed to be little room for a new wharf at the foot of Great George Street and Pownal wharf was at the other end of town and becoming busier.  Prince Street had both advantages and disadvantages. The mud flats were wider here and the wharf would have to be longer to reach the channel and it would therefore have greater cost. It was further from the centre of town. On the other hand, it would be sheltered from the prevailing south-west winds and from being carried away by ice. The site had the shortest and most direct route to Minchin’s Point and the ferry would be completely out of the path of vessels coming into and leaving the other wharves.  There was some suggestion that the crowding on Queens Square with new public buildings might mean that the market could be moved to Hillsborough Square and this would benefit the country people.  A wharf at Prince Street would bring prosperity to the growing eastern part of town.

In the end the Prince Street location only narrowly edged out the options. Construction started soon after and the Prince Street wharf served as the ferry wharf for more than a century. A fleet of boats from the Ora to the Fairview shuttled back and forth, not just across the Hillsborough but across to Rocky Point and up the rivers as well. Although busy when the ferries arrived and left there was no other traffic there.  The Hillsboro Boating Club had a building on the east side of the wharf in the early part of the century but it had disappeared by the 1930s.  It was indeed “a quiet and unobstructed wharf.”


Air Photo of Charlottetown ca 1933.

Today with infill of the shallows, the shoreline has crept out a great distance from the former edge of the harbour and the long walk along the wharf from the ferry to the shore has disappeared. Visitors to the lobster restaurant at the foot of Prince Street puzzle over the rocks exposed at low tide with “Y” shape embracing the memory of steamers long gone. For many Islanders however, a remembrance of the ferry ride across the harbour brings back their youth.