Tag Archives: Borden

The Unhappy Afterlife of the S.S. Prince Edward Island

Whitby 1991

S.S. Prince Edward Island in Whitby Harbour 1991. Toronto Star photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive.

In 1968 the arrival of the new carferry John Hamilton Gray the railcar ferry S.S. Prince Edward Island was finally made redundant. Now this had happened before. In 1933 the S.S. Charlottetown was launched and the Prince Edward Island was relegated to stand-by back-up service, taking over when the Charlottetown was sent to its annual refit in drydock or on those rare occasions such as Old Home Week when traffic began to back up. It was on a trip to Saint John for re-fit in 1941 that the Charlottetown sank after hitting a reef on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.  The Prince Edward Island was once again lead boat with only the Canso Strait ferries Scotia and Scotia II available to take over for the Prince Edward Island’s own annual trips to re-fit. 

With the launch of the Abegweit (the real Abegweit, not the trumped up, banana- shaped,  seagoing bus station that replaced it) in 1947, the Prince Edward Island once again became the second boat, spending much of the year forlornly tied up either at the old slip in Tormentine or on the Borden side. Increasing auto, passenger, and rail traffic meant the Prince was more and more frequently called to assist in the summer and shoulder seasons so that for part of the year, at least, there was effectively a two-boat ferry service. 

As a child I was always delighted when we caught the Prince Edward Island as it was a much more interesting ship to explore. We, with the abridged parental responsibilities of the period, had the full run of the ship from bow to stern and from lifeboats to engine room. Everything, from engines to winches to the ventilation fans ran on steam and the ship had a peculiar atmosphere of condensing steam, even when the coal boilers were replaced by bunker-C oil tanks. A strange blocked off stairway near the stern spoke of another time aboard as it was labeled “First Class Passengers Only.” I was only later that I learned that this was from the days before the vessel was disfigured to create an auto deck from the handsome passenger lounge. 

In the flurry of changes in the later 1960s with new boats and new terminal facilities the Prince Edward Island disappeared from Northumberland Strait. The veteran vessel was moved the Halifax waiting for final disposition and although seen with a slight list its profile with the unusual four funnels was one of the sights of the Halifax waterfront that Islanders remarked on until 1971.

Halifax 1970 copyright Mac Mackay

The S.S. Prince Edward Island awaiting its fate. Halifax 1970. Photo – Shipfax. Copyright Mac Mckay

It was at that time that the vessel was acquired by McNamara Marine, a dredging and marine facilities concern with an operation base on Lake Ontario.  The company, which was established in 1954 had a shipyard and dry-dock  on the east side of Whitby Harbour. In 1972 McNamara was one of a consortium of companies that had successfully bid on a major dredging contract to deepen the waters near the Isle of Orleans, just downstream from  the city of Quebec, so that larger ocean-going vessels could access the port.

The companies assembled a fleet of bulk carrying lake boats to carry dredging spoils as well as a number of dredgers. The latter vessels were powered by powerful electric motors to handling the dredging. The Prince Edward Island became a sort of mother ship for the fleet. With her superstructure removed, six diesel generator sets, each producing 1,200 horsepower, provided power for the dredges. The mother ship also served as the receiver for the spoils which were piped to the vessel from the dredges and transferred to the lakers for dumping. With the completion of the Quebec project the vessel continued to be used by McNamara for other projects. One source suggests it was once towed to the Caribbean for use as a mobile generating station. However it ended up at the company dock in Whitby.  Sometime before the company was wound up in 1988 the ship (or what remained of it) to was sold to another owner. 

The now derelict hulk came with a host of problems. Two transformers still on board contained  500 gallons of cooling chemicals containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The transformers were in common use across the country but in the 1970s the chemical was found to be a dangerous source of cancer agents and its use was banned.  Aside from the problem of the unsightly hulk, the Town of Whitby was alarmed by the presence of the chemicals on the waterfront and in 1987 began a campaign to have the vessel and its contents removed. The wharf, however, was owned by the federal government and the vessel’s owner had continued to pay dockage so the Town’s efforts were stymied. 

In 1990 the Prince Edward Island sank causing additional concern but when it was refloated it was inspected by the Canadian Coast Guard which concluded that the ship was in “relatively good condition” and was safe to continue to be used for storage of the transformers. In the meantime the Town has been successful in its bid to have the wharf property transferred to the municipality and began proceedings to evict the vessel. It was removed by court order in June 1992 and appears to have been moved to Toronto.  It is possible that at a later date it was moved to St. Catherine’s but the exact location after 1992 has been hard to determine. 

Whitby 1987

S.S. Prince Edward Island in Whitby 1987. The graffiti message “adios” was not to be fulfilled for another five years. Toronto Star photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive

Whitby 1990 tpl

Bow view of the S.S. P.E.I. Three transformers filled with dangerous chemicals can be seen on the upper deck. Toronto Star Photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive

At this writing, more than a century since the launch of the once-proud ship, it has in all likelihood, been long since scrapped. I would be pleased to hear from anyone who can tell me more about the vessels fate. The ship beloved by Islanders was a vital link with Canada for more than half a century and it is a surprise to find that it existed in its much altered form for another 25 or more years. Today aside from memories and photographs little remains of the S.S. Prince Edward Island. Little, that is except for one  large artifact.          


Wheelhouse of the S.S. Prince Edward Island at the National Museum of Science and Technology, Ottawa . Photo Paul Martin / Ingenium

At some time during the removal of the ship’s superstructure the entire wheelhouse and its equipment was removed. Today it is in the collection of Canada’s Museum of Science and Technology. The wheel, binnacle, telegraph and rudder indicator are the original equipment, installed during the ship’s building in 1914-1915 and are retained as artifacts of the age of steam.  

If you found this posting on the S.S. Prince Edward Island of interest you may want to look at other pages concerning the ship. These include a detailed examination of the building and launch of the vessel here, and to story of her conversion to accommodate automobiles which can be seen by clicking here.

I am grateful to researcher Gary Carroll who passed on information with two of the photos of the Prince at Whitby  which led to my quest to discover the fate of the vessel. 

P.E.I. Ferry Terminal was a Major Infrastructure Project

Ferry Terminal Pier at Carleton Head. Note the third rail on the pier. There was no need of a roadway as everything went back and forth by rail. Several temporary buildings of the construction camp can be seen on the point.

In 1912 Carleton Point was little more than the sea-side edge of a farm located three miles or so to the north and west of Cape Traverse. The latter community was the jumping off point for New Brunswick. The undersea cable of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company landed at Cape Traverse and the community was also the Island end of the winter ice-boat route. It boasted a pier that extended into the Strait and in 1885 a branch line had been added to the Prince Edward Island railway to join the pier to the Island’s rail system.

Pier-head during storm conditions. At least one of the pier cribs can be seen through the spray.

By the summer of 1913 the farm at Carleton Point had been converted to the site of a work camp for the building of the ferry pier. After years of agitation and delay the Dominion Government had committed to the development of an ice-breaking rail ferry service to the Island. Even before the issuing of a contract for construction of the vessel government engineers had been examining options for the route. On the New Brunswick side the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Railway ran from Sackville to Cape Tormentine and as this was the narrowest part of the strait the choice of the Cape was a foregone conclusion.

Winter scene at Cape Tormentine with barges and tugs. The existing rail line and wharf made construction here easier than on the Island side

On the P.E.I. side it was not as clear. Although Cape Traverse had a pier and rail connection the waters of Traverse Cove were shallow and unprotected. In fact, there was little protection on the Island side at all and the decision was made to create a new port where deep water could be reached fairly easily.  However the prevailing south-west winds and strong currents meant that the exposed shore would have to be well-protected by artificial means.

Strom waves at Carleton Head. The inner tower of the tramway can be seen on the still-wooded point.

Carleton Point (Carleton Head on some maps) had been named in 1765 by Samuel Holland for Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester and for the next 150 years appears to have escaped notice. It was here however that in 1913 work began on what was to be a massive project. The contract for the Island side construction was awarded to the Roger Miller Company of Toronto.  At a time when there were no services in the area everything, telephone lines, roads, wells, housing for workers and the building of construction  equipment had to be undertaken at the site. The nearest rail access was three miles away and no wharf or breakwater stood on the exposed shore. Transport of goods and equipment was hampered by the ban on automobiles and trucks on the roads from the main port at Summerside.

Outer tower of the tramway. It had its own steam power station with two boilers and an engine as well as generators to provide lighting. The stone blocks were positioned using the cable and then dropped into place.

One of the first tasks was the building of a powerhouse to supply electrical services and the electric generators and the steam machinery were continuous consumers of coal. On of the most evident pieces of equipment was a cableway carrying the huge stone blocks making up the pier and breakwater.  An island was created 1800 feet from shore and one end of the cableway built there with a 110 foot tower, the other end was on shore. At the peak of operations eighty railcar loads were put in place each 24 hour period.  The stone was brought on scows shuttling between Carleton Head and a quarry on the Scoudouc River near Shediac.  Work continued day and night lit by 43,000 candlepower searchlight on the top of the high cable tower. At a time when the brightest light was an oil lamp the glow from the towers could be seen for miles around.

Derrick placing stones on the breakwater at Carleton Head.

The Carleton terminal structure was just over 1/2 mile long; a 2,000 foot pier and the landing slip of 740 feet.  The slip consisted on nine concrete cribs 100 x 30 feet joined together on site.  The cribs were built in Shediac and towed to Carleton where they were put in place and filled with quarry stone.  By the time the terminal was completed over 250,000 tons of quarry stone, some weighing as much as 10 tons,  had been put in place.  The transfer platform linking the rails on shore to the rails on the ferry itself was built by the Dominion Bridge Company  of Montreal and erected on-site. The mechanism raising and lowering it to adjust to the tide was powered by another steam powerhouse located on the wharf.

Tugs hauling cribs from Shediac where they were built. Once positioned they were filled with rock to form the actual terminal structure.

By the close of operations in December of 1914 the breakwater had been constructed up to low water and the pier had reached some 1500 feet from shore.  The new branch line connecting with existing Cape Traverse subdivision, a distance of 2 1/2 miles had been constructed but grading had been almost completed and the rails had been laid. In September 1915 tenders were called for the building of the rail facilities at the shore end of the terminal. A station, water tank, engine house, transfer platform, standpipe, ash-pit and turntable foundations were built to accommodate rail operations. Initially all tracks had a third rail to carry both narrow-gauge PEI Railway cars and the standard gauge Intercolonial Railway cars which would come across on the ferry.  A transfer station allowed goods to be moved between one type of car to the other.

Carleton terminal structure as it neared completion. Dredges and derricks are still at work but the apron for loading cars onto the boat is in place along with the steam powerhouse which controlled its movement.

The turning basins at both piers had been dredged to a depth of twenty feet at low tide but as the S.S. Prince Edward Island drew that much there was little margin for error and continuous dredging became an almost permanent part of the operation of the port for the next few years.

Completed pier as seen from the breakwater.

In August 1916 a Guardian writer foresaw a fine future for the town. Beautifully situated in the midst of a prosperous farming district, possessing natural attributes as a summer resort with a broad sandy beach, excellent sites for a golf course and summer cottages, having the potential to be a warehousing and distribution centre for the province. By November a decision had been made by the Dominion Government about the name for the town to be built on the cliff overlooking the ferry terminal and rail yard. It was to become Port Borden, named after Robert Laird Borden, the country’s Prime Minister.  Carleton Point became Borden Point at the same time.

When the regular ferry service began in October of 1917 the outlook was bright but town failed to fulfil its earliest expectations.  Rather than stopping at Borden travellers lost little time passing through to Charlottetown, Summerside and tourist destinations. Although planned using modern design principles, possibly by leading town planner Thomas Adams of the Canadian Conservation Commission it did not develop its potential as a regional centre and was primarily a dormitory town for the ferry workers. The busy work of being a distribution centre and transfer point disappeared when the standard gauge rails were extended across the province.

NOTE – Photographs used in this posting are from the Robinson Collection at the P.E.I,. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 3466/74.91




Fulfilling a Confederation promise – Ferry service began 100 years ago this week

One of the earliest photos of the S.S. P.E.I.leaving port. Much of the upper deck with the first-class lounge was removed when the ship was altered to carry automobiles in the 1930s.  Photo: National Museum of Science and Technology.

On 15 October 1917 the first scheduled round trip of the S.S. Prince Edward Island between Port Borden P.E.I. and Cape Tormentine N.B. took place – achieving the goal of “continuous steam communication” which had been part of the Confederation conditions under which the Dominion joined the Island in 1873. Without a ribbon cutting and an official ceremony (unthinkable today)  the first trip was a modest beginning for an Island travel tradition which did not end until the opening of the Confederation Bridge in 1997.

In reality the ferry had operated on the route for several weeks but the freight consisted only of supplies and materials for the completion of the wharves, tracks and rail yard on the Borden side. The project had been a massive undertaking and had been the biggest construction seen on the Island since the building of the Hillsborough Bridge and the Murray Harbour branch railway.  Although there had been a rudimentary wharf on the Cape Tormentine side built when the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Railway reached the end of the peninsula in 1886 the wharf, and the entire rail line had to be upgraded. On the Prince Edward Island side a branch line had been built to Cape Traverse from Emerald so only a short addition was required to bring the line to the site at Carleton Head. This extension was built in part by using German prisoners of war.  Wharves extending to a minimum low-water depth of 20 feet had to be extended into Northumberland Strait as there was no natural harbour on either side.  At the same time the rail marshalling yard where goods were transferred from standard gauge mainland rail cars to the narrow gauge PEIR cars had to be built.  Another feature of the site was the development of Port Borden, the first planned community on the Island since the county towns were laid out in the 1770s.  On the streets of the new town, named for Primer Minister Robert Borden, buildings were constructed while others were hauled from Cape Traverse to their new sites. All of this activity was a draw for excursionists and visitors.

P.E.Island New Ferry Service showing Cape Tormentine and (erroneously) Cape Traverse. Raphael Tuck postcard ca. 1917

The benefits for the Island started immediately. The difference in capacity of the mainland line and the diminutive P.E.I Railway is illustrated by the fact that on the first trip from Cape Tormentine to the Island the S.S. P.E.I. carried 12 Intercolonial cars which represented loads for 24 cars of the Island’s railway.  Loading and unloading the rail cars unto the ferry took only 25 minutes and it is perhaps fitting that the first commercial crossing to New Brunswick consisted entirely of rail cars of potatoes. Twelve Intercolonial cars easily carried  what it had taken twice that number of the narrow-gauge cars.

Even with the need to transfer goods from one type of car to another the new ferry reduced the bottleneck for shipping which had previously required that everything be taken off the rail cars by hand, loaded on board ships, taken off the ships and re-loaded unto the mainland rail cars. Now, in the Borden rail yard the cargos could be transferred directly from rail car to rail car and loaded directly aboard the ferry to connect at Sackville with mainland trains.

Smoking room aboard the S.S. Prince Edward Island

For passengers the S.S. Prince Edward Island was a luxurious interval in their rail journey  it had a smoking room, ladies cabin, first and second class lounges and a dining room.  The interior resembled a scaled down ocean liner with mahogany panelling and carpeted decks.  The ship had been launched in England in 1914 and travelled between Charlottetown and Pictou for two years while waiting for the Borden and Tormentine piers to be completed. For more photos of the building of the vessel and the interior views of the ship see here. The S. S. Prince Edward Island remained on the route for more than fifty years, finally being retired in 1968.

Initially there were only two round trips per day. One could leave Charlottetown at 6:00 am, take the morning ferry at 8:55  and be in Sackville before noon to connect with the Ocean Limited to Montreal. The afternoon ferry trip at 4:20 allowed rail passengers to connect with the Maritime Express.

With the new service finally established, the Island’s pleas to the Dominion changed. Like Oliver Twist we didn’t want much – we just wanted more.  Agitation for another boat and more service started almost immediately. With the completion of a third rail for standard gauge cars between Borden and Charlottetown and Summerside in 1919 through passenger car service so that passengers did not have to disembark from the PEI Railway cars at the ferry and re-board the Intercolonial cars at Tormentine became a goal – one that was not achieved until the 1930s. Another issue dealt with at the same time was the elimination of the need and cost to transfer autos to railway flat cars before loading them on the ferry.

I was fortunate to have been one of the hundreds of Islanders who served on the S.S. Prince Edward Island over her lifespan. Working as a purser on the vessel in her final years she became my favourite of all of the ferries and like many Islanders I have fond memories of crisscrossing the Strait and the many days and nights aboard the old “Prince”.