Tag Archives: Batt

Tugging and Towing – The Story of the William Aitken


The William Aitken. This may be a builder’s photo as the rocky shore locates the picture in Nova Scotia. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

While it is easy to imagine the romance of the sea when looking at a picture of a full-rigged ship or a proud steamer it is harder to do so when faced with a tugboat. These vessels however were an essential part of Charlottetown harbour activity for more than a hundred years beginning at the mid-point of the 19th century.

Tugs did much more than simply pull barges or push steamers into place at the dock. They were an essential of the nautical infrastructure of the harbour and the Strait.  One of the best known of the 19th and 20th century tugs was the William Aitken.

The William Aitken was built in Yarmouth Nova Scotia by George W. Johnson, possibly the Johnson connected with the Burrell Johnson Iron works who supplied the engines for a number of other boats associated with Prince Edward Island including the Harland, the Magdalen and the tug Islander. The wooden vessel was launched in 1887 and the registration was changed to Charlottetown two years later but she was probably operating from Charlottetown from the year of her launch.  As tugs go the William Aitken was a decent size; 74 feet long, 18 feet wide and had a gross tonnage of 75 tons.  She was powered by a compound steam engine which generated 38 horsepower. It is not entirely clear where the name came from.

Screen Shot 01-26-18 at 07.36 PMThe owners of the ship were the Batt brothers, William H., George E. and Frank C. Batt but there is not clear connection to the Aitken family. A William Henry Aitken was a prominent businessman in Charlottetown at the time and the tug may have been named for him.  Compounding the mystery is the name of an earlier tug owned by the Batt Brothers. The Henry Aitken was another wooden tug which was built in Charlottetown in 1874. Somewhat smaller at 60 feet and 38 tons she was broken up and taken off the register in 1889 so it is likely that the William Aitken was her replacement. The Guardian, ever ready to award accolades noted in 1891 that the vessel was “not surpassed by any tug-boat in the Maritime Provinces for power” although it is hard to imaging that the ports of Halifax and Saint John would not have bigger boats.

Tug in Charlottetown Harbour. Detail from 1878 birds eye view of Charlottetown.

Tug in Charlottetown Harbour. Detail from 1878 birds eye view of Charlottetown. This could be the Henry Aitken.

The William Aitken arrived in the harbour at the close of the age of sail but there were still a large number of schooners serving the port, especially when handling bulk cargo such as produce, lumber, coal and limestone. Few of these sailing vessels had auxiliary engines so tugs were often needed to bring them into the wharves.  Tugs and other steamers were also used to get sailing vessels up and down the narrow rivers leading from the harbour. Ships launched in Mt. Stewart and area were often towed to Charlottetown for completion and fitting out.  In addition, it was not unusual for sail vessels to be towed to and from the harbour mouth when faced with unfavourable tides or winds. The building of the Hillsborough Bridge meant that tugs were needed more than ever as negotiating the narrow gap of the swing span was very difficult for a large vessel under sail. The William Aitken was not alone in the harbour. In 1900 for instance, the fleet of small towing vessels included the May Queen, the T.A. Stewart, and the Fred M. Batt in addition to the Aitken. Even the harbour ferries were occasionally pressed into service towing ships from the wharves to the open water.

However the span of duties of the William Aitken went far beyond the tugging and towing. In its life it was more of a general purpose vessel and was often referred to as a “steamer” rather than a “tug”.  She was a general salvage vessel towing a disabled ship from Canso to the marine slip in Pictou in 1892, freeing a coal schooner from the ice at Governor’s Island in 1898, floating the barge Grandee off the sands of Miscouche a year later.  In 1905 she was in the Magdalen Islands assisting a vessel ashore on the sands. In 1918 she hauled another coal schooner off the rocks at Governor’s Island and in 1920 freed the schooner Minnie Mae from the shore at Murphy’s Point just inside the harbour. In 1898 she was handling small cargos taking 3000 bushels of oats from Summerside to Charlottetown. The next year saw her taking 120 barrels of oysters from Summerside to Cape Traverse and in 1901 she sailed to Sydney carrying a large boiler built by Bruce Stewart & Co.  She had a contract to tow a timber raft from Pugwash with material for the Hillsborough Bridge in the same year. In 1912 she was employed by the Anglo-American Telegraph Company to try to fix a break in the undersea cable between the Capes.  In 1918 it was the William Aitken that towed the Columbus replica Santa Maria from Charlottetown to Montreal on its way back to Chicago.  She was often contracted to the Dominion government for marine duties such as retrieving navigation buoys that had broken loose from their moorings.   When in late 1912 the ferry Hillsborough had to be taken off the route for repairs it was the William Aitken that provided service until the ice closed the route in mid-January.

After 1910 much of her work was in connection with the Dominion Government dredges. These “works on a barge” had to be shifted from harbour to harbour and the William Aitken was kept busy with these transits and also served as a tender moving scows and barges for the dredging activity.

The William Aitken with an excursion party aboard, probably somewhere up the Hllsborough River

The William Aitken with an excursion party aboard, probably somewhere up the Hillsborough River. The only concession to passenger safety seems to be a single life ring on the upper railing. It is interesting to note that this photo shows sails bent to the two masts, which are not even shown on the earlier picture.

Throughout the period the tug, like most of the other steamers in the harbour was available for charter for excursion trips and many church and social groups were carried off to tea parties and socials with the thrill of an “ocean voyage” across the harbour or up one of the rivers. The William Aitken was allowed by the steamboat inspectors to carry 40 passengers.

As a utilitarian vessel, the William Aitken was seldom mentioned except bare facts in reference to her work but at least once she did cause a journalist to rise to what, in the Daily Examiner at least, passed for eloquence. Wednesday December 16 1896:

On Monday morning the report was telephoned from Fort Augustus that the East River was free of ice as far up as Hickey’s wharf, and that from there to Haggarty’s the ice was thin and of no solidity.  Relying on the truth of this report the tug “William Aitken” left here for the purpose of towing down the schooner “FOAM” frozen in at Haggarty’s wharf.

Unfortunately the report of the condition of the river was not justified by facts, for when the mouth of Johnston’s River was reached the ice was found solid and in abundance.  From there to Haggarty’s wharf the ice was firm and solid; in many places as much as five inches thick.  Not withstanding this state of affairs the tug battled nobly with the ice.  She pushed through it and crushed it down while it ground under her with a sound resembling the grumbling of thunder.  Now and again when the ice of a firmer and more unyielding composition was met, the noble boat straining with all her might, would force herself up on it, crush it for a foot or so in front of her, then leap at it almost as a tiger would spring on it’s prey.

This, if I may term it, “struggle of giants” was maintained all the way from Johnston’s River to Haggarty’s wharf, a distance of about five miles.  In all the long and fierce combat the tug never stopped.  True, her speed was often reduced to a very low rate but still she was always forcing her way ahead.

She got the vessel and brought her to Town safe and unharmed.  It can with truth be said that there is not another boat in the lower Provinces, with the exception of the Stanley, that could force the ice as the William Aitken did on Monday.  The ice was bound solid between the two shores of the river.  It was not as would be the case in an open sea where was room to push the ice out of the way.  Here there was no chance to do anything of the kind, everything was jammed solid.

Captain Batt had interests in a number of other vessels during the period including the Amherst, a 35-year-old steamer half again as big as the William Aitken that he acquired in 1912. The tug itself is seldom referenced after 1920. Batt died in 1925 and three years later the registry was closed on the William Aitken “deemed unseaworthy, dismantled and broken up in Charlottetown…”

I am indebted to Ron Smith for the reference to the William Aitken and her ice breaking on the Hillsborough in 1896.

All Over in a Minute -The sinking of the Polar Star

By the second decade of the 20th century the trading schooners serving the Port of Charlottetown were tired and under-crewed. This in-named vessel was probably typical of the type. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

By the second decade of the 20th century the trading schooners serving the Port of Charlottetown were tired and under-crewed. This un-named vessel was probably typical of the type. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

The first of the bodies was discovered on the beach at Crown Point on the P.E.I. shore across from Governors Island.  A search of the pockets for identifying papers found only a tobacco pipe filled with sand and seaweed but a missing thumb and familiar clothing showed that it was the schooner’s captain, Fred Cormier of Souris. The families of the two crew members were not as fortunate.  Before bodies of the two Charlottetown men were found, one at Governor’s Island and the last, the two months after the accident on the shore of St. Peters Island, they had both deteriorated to the point where they could not be identified and so it was not known which grave held the remains of Henry Bushy and which was that of Andrew MacDonald.

The three men had constituted the entire crew of the Polar Star. She was a small schooner, just 76 register tons. Even with the simple schooner rig this was a small crew, especially as everyone aboard was between 45 and 55 years of age.  Small crews and old ships that were cheap to operate were what made sail still viable in the early 1900s when faced with competition from steamers. There were almost no new sailing vessels available as the shipbuilding industry had been in sharp decline for thirty years.

The Polar Star was a tired ship. She had been launched at Brooklyn Nova Scotia, not far from Bridgewater in 1875 and in 1897 was almost lost when she foundered at sea  Recovered and rebuilt in 1898 she was owned and sailed for some time out of Richibucto New Brunswick.  She occasionally appeared in P.E.I. ports carrying timber and other products. In late summer 1901 she fetched up on Tryon Shoals carrying a cargo of boards from Richibucto to Sydney. She capsized and filled with water and was believed to be a total loss as the tug Fred M. Batt was unable to haul her off. However a year later she was once more in service and it may have been at this time that ownership passed to coal merchant Charles Lyons of Charlottetown.  From 1906 she was a regular arrival at the port of Charlottetown, usually with coal from Inverness, Sydney or Pictou and now and then the odd cargo of limestone.  In 1912 she set a record of sorts by making three round trips with coal from Pictou within one week. In 1913 the wooden vessel had been at sea for thirty-eight years.

When she left Pictou just after daybreak on the 10th of June it was her regular run. A cargo of 105 tons of Pictou coal for the owner Charles Lyons, for his business on Queens Wharf. Just ahead of her on the outbound track was another coal schooner, the Boreas. Both schooners were passed by the steamer Northumberland on her way to Pictou in the morning and nothing was amiss.  As the two sailing vessels neared Point Prim at about 6 o’clock in the evening they were nearly abreast although the Polar Star was about three-quarters of a mile to the windward. The wind had piped up but had not reached gale force and the seas were choppy. Both vessels had gone through heavier weather. The crew of the Polar Star was seen to be reducing sail by taking in the flying jib and the peak of the mainsail but did not seem to be in  any danger. The Boreas was heavily loaded and was taking on water with a stoged pump so the crew were making all haste for sheltered waters of the harbour.  Shortly after the scene was described by a crew member of the latter vessel;

About twenty minutes after we saw the Polar Star taking in her jib, we saw her suddenly go down. She did not do any settling at all. She went down forward till her foremast head went in. She just almost turned a somersault, I guess. then I suppose her fore-foot must have struck bottom , and then settled down by the stern. She went down with all her sails hoisted with the exception of those that had been taken in shortly before.  . . .  I never saw anything so quick in all my life as how she went down. She must have parted forward somewhere. She might have been full of water same as ourselves, but unless some such thing happened she could not have gone down as quickly as that. And we could not go to her as we had to look out for ourselves.

The following day the Marine Department sent out Captain Batt in the tug Amherst with the lifeboat to search for bodies. The wreck was easily located as the masts of the ship were sticking about 15 feet above the water but they found no floating wreckage or bodies.  The ship lay on the bottom with all the sails still set although some of the rigging had been loosened by the wave action.  The wreckage lay in the harbour track and thus constituted a danger for other ships but it is not noted how, or if, the wreckage was removed.  Charles Lyons stated that no salvage would be attempted which is hardly surprising given the age of the ship.

A little more than a week after the sinking the site was already attracting the curious. Rowland Paton, son of a former mayor of the city had gone out to capture what the Guardian termed “a very pretty snapshot taken of the portion of the ill-fated Schooner” which featured the contrast between calm in which the photo was taken and the storm which sent the ship to the bottom “particularly suggestive of the cruelty as well as the beauty of the sea.” The mast tops above the water would have been visible to passengers on the Northumberland on daily passage between Charlottetown and Pictou.

There appears to have been no inquiry or inquest into the sinking of the Polar Star. The ship was partially insured and Charles Lyons may have received some compensation for the loss.  The reasons for the sinking were hardly in doubt. A wooden ship almost forty years old which had foundered once and gone ashore reckoned as a total loss had gone to the bottom with 105 tons of coal making sure that the sinking was fast, final and fatal.  It was a simply another reminder that the age of wooden ships and iron men could be a hard life and not necessarily the romance often attributed to the time.


The City of London and the Acadia

West River tuckAlthough the S.S. Harland may be the best-remembered steamship on the run up and down the East and West Rivers  and across the Bay to the Brush Wharf at Orwell it was only one in a long series of vessels serving these communities.

Immediately preceding the Harland, and often mistaken for it, was the City of London which was on the run from 1903 until the building of the Harland in 1908.

The City of London was the replacement for the ill-fated Inland Steam Navigation Company ship, Jacques Cartier, which was carried onto the rocks and wrecked at Cape John Nova Scotia late in 1902.

At 120 feet in length and with a beam of 27 feet the City of London was the largest vessel to have made the regular stops  at the several wharves on the rivers cutting into the interior of the Island.  The City of London had been built in Kingston Ontario in 1888 and re-built in 1892 and was registered in Montreal Quebec, from which port she was leased by the P.E.I. operators.  She carried a crew of nine and had capacity to up to 500 passengers although she had only two small lifeboats.

westriver1The City of London was considered luxurious. It had a carpeted cabin complete with a piano.  Her regular service took her to Orwell Brush Wharf , stopping at Halliday’s Wharf near Eldon and China Point Wharf as required every Tuesday and Wednesday; up the West River stopping at Westville and West River Bridge on Thursday; up the East River as far as Mt. Stewart every Friday and to Victoria on Saturday. Fares ranged from 20 cents for the East and West Rivers, to 25 cents to Orwell and 40 cents to Victoria.

On the completion of her lease the City of London  she was returned to Quebec.  She appears to have been broken up before 1921. Although the City of London and the Harland share the same general appearance the latter vessel has an open stern on the lower deck, windows and not ports on the lower deck and more lifeboats.

The City of London was not the only vessel serving the city and the river ports. In April 1904 George and Frank Batt, who operated several tug boats out of Charlottetown,  purchased the S.S. Acadia from Capt. Farquhar of Nova Scotia. The ship had previously operated out of Pictou and had visited Charlottetown a number of times. Described by the Guardian as the “trim little river steamer”  the boat had been built in Hantsport N.S. in 1887 and served as a ferry between Windsor and Parrsborough and later in Sydney. At 74 feet by 21 feet the Acadia was a little more than half the size of the City of London.  Her regular schedule in 1904 saw her leaving Peake’s # 1 wharf early Tuesday mornings for the East River, returning to Charlottetown and then heading up the West river at supper time.  On Fridays (when the City of London went to Victoria) she went up the West River in both morning and afternoon and enabled the West River population to reach Charlottetown on market day.

Although the Acadia, like most other steamers, carried excursionists from time to time to several destinations near Charlottetown, the business faced strong competition from the City of London and did not appear to be a success. By 1907 the Acadia had new owners and was back in Nova Scotia waters sailing from Pictou to Cape Breton ports.

I have not been able to find a photo of the ship either in her short-lived P.E.I. service or in other ports.