Tag Archives: Borden

The Carferry meets the Car: The S.S. P.E.I. and the auto

When I was young in the 1950s any ferry trip was an exciting journey, but even more so if we caught the Prince Edward Island. In those care-free days of hands-off parenting we seemed to have the run of the ship while our elders relaxed in the lounge or restaurant. We were up and down ladders and companionways, poked our heads into the engine room and visited all sorts of places which today would strike fear into the hearts of the ship’s insurers (and our parents if they had known). Near the stern of the S.S.Prince Edward Island we discovered a mysterious pair of stairways which went up into nothing but a blank steel wall.  On an engraved plaque over the arched entry-way to the stairs and very nearly obscured by dozens of coats of paint could be seen the legend “Second Class Passengers.”   It was one of the few remnants of the two class system of accommodation around which the ship had been built. What was lost was destroyed to suit the automobile.

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SS PEI in 1960s with a full load of autos.

Almost as long as it was operating the ferry service the railway never seemed to ‘get” the automobile. For them cars, and later trucks, were simply another commodity to be loaded onto rail cars and shunted aboard the ferry.  The passenger service was designed to handle folks descending from the steps of a passenger car or sleeper with the assistance of a porter or conductor.  How one clambered down from an auto atop a flatcar was not a question that needed to be addressed. When goods began to arrive on trucks the railway saw it as competition and the rates charged for trucks continued to be an irritant for many years. However by the 1920s it was clear that the auto was here to stay and had to be grudgingly dealt with.

In 1931, with the launch of the S.S. Charlottetown the S.S. Prince Edward Island became obsolete. The new, larger, and even grander ferry had something that the P.E.I. lacked – dedicated services for automobiles. The rail deck was larger than on the older ship but the chief innovation was a circular drive around the upper deck so that cars could be driven on and off. Elaborate ramp systems at Port Borden and Cape Tormentine which could be raised and lowered dealt with the tidal changes.

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SS PEI before 1938. An auto aboard a flat car is visible on the rail deck.

The Prince Edward Island was demoted to a back-up function, taking over from the Charlottetown for the six weeks or so that the Charlottetown was in dry-dock or supplementing the newer ferry for busy periods such as Old Home Week. On both the older boat and the new ferry automobiles and trucks which did not fit on the auto deck still had to be loaded on to flat-cars to be moved onto the ferry. This was fine as long as there were only three of four round tips each day and there was lots of time for shunting.  With each passing year the volume of automobiles carried and it was clear that using flat cars was limited as a solution to the problem.

Stern of the SS PEI ca. 1917. Note the absence of the docking station.

Stern of the SS PEI ca. 1917. Note the absence of the docking station.

Over the years a number of changes had been made to the S.S. P.E.I.  Early in its service the upper decks had been extend to better enclose the stern and to provide space for a small deckhouse with controls for the officers backing to vessel into the dock. However the general appearance of the ship remained the same. In the spring of 1938 the decision was taken to add auto capacity to the S.S. P.E.I. This was to make a big difference in the look of the ship. Aft of the funnels the second class facilities and officers quarters were torn off the stern of the boat to create an auto deck but lacking the circular deck lay-out of the Charlottetown it was the bane of drivers who sometimes had difficulty backing their vehicles into the tight spaces allocated. While the Charlottetown could accommodate 44 cars the P.E.I. had space for only about 40 vehicles.

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S.S. Charlottetown ca. 1935. Note the auto ramp allowing vehicles to drive up to the auto deck.

In 1941 the situation suddenly changed as the Charlottetown sank off Nova Scotia and the Prince Edward Island was once again the only year-round vessel linking the Island with the mainland. With half of the passenger facilities eliminated to make for the automobile deck and the realization that under war conditions the S.S. Charlottetown was not likely to be replaced until the conclusion of hostilities it was apparent that more changes to the Prince Edward Island were warranted. This was heightened by the steamer’s use in winter conditions which meant that passengers could be on the vessel for many hours while it negotiated heavy ice. In November 1941 a contract was given to Bruce Stewart and Company for the construction of a new deck-house for the ferry. However for some reason the work was actually done when the ship was in dry-dock in Lauzon Quebec in July 1942. During the re-fit the Scotia II took over the route  The deck house was created above the auto deck and provided a lounge area of about thirty feet wide by sixty feet long.  At the same time officers quarters which had also been lost were replaced on the upper deck. In spite of the fact that a number of years elapsed between the building of the auto deck in 1938 and the deckhouse in 1942 I have not been able to find a picture showing the ship in this period.

Over the winter of 1941-42 Bruce Stewart’s workers were in the midst of converting the boilers from coal burning to oil burning. The old bunkers were being cut away and replaced with oil tanks. The work was being done in Borden and it was expected that the work would not interfere with regular crossings. After two of the boilers had been converted the work was halted owing for the need to conserve oil for war efforts and for several years the ferry operated with two oil-fired boilers and four still using coal.

S.S. P.E.I. ca. 1960 running without any autos aboard. It can be clearly seen that everything aft of the funnels was removed to provide parking for cars. Compare this to the original design at https://sailstrait.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/the-steam-ferry-prince-edward-island-in-charlottetown/

S.S. P.E.I. ca. 1960 running without any autos aboard. It can be clearly seen that everything aft of the funnels was removed to provide parking for cars. Compare this to the original design at https://sailstrait.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/the-steam-ferry-prince-edward-island-in-charlottetown/

Even with the new auto deck the Prince Edward Island could not keep up with the demand for auto space and plans were developed in 1942 to plank part of the rail deck between the tracks so that trucks and additional autos could be carried if there was not a full load of rail cars aboard. This seems to have been a temporary solution as in 1946 the Guardian reported that autos loaded on flat cars would be used to address the high volume of autos associated with Old Home week.  In 1948, after the Abegweit came into operation the rail deck of the S.S. P.E.I. was planked for about 75 feet from the stern so that large trucks and more autos could be carried without having to load them on rail cars. Even the new Abegweit (with room for 100 cars on the auto deck) was designed with the lower deck reserved for rail use only. However, after a year in operation the deck was planked about half-way from the stern to accommodate trucks. Eventually the planking was extended to cover the entire rail deck. By the 1950s transfer of autos to flat cars was ended.

Each of the changes made to accommodate the auto seemed to take away from the steamship atmosphere of the S.S. Prince Edward Island but for as long as I was able to sail on her she was still my favourite of the P.E.I. ferries.

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Scotia and Scotia II helped link New Brunswick and P.E.I.

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Steam Rail Ferry Scotia, probably on sea trials 1901. Photo: Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums #467156

With its separate first and second class facilities and luxury public area finishes the S.S. Prince Edward Island represented one end of a spectrum of passenger comfort. On the other end were two vessels which had made no pretence as to services to the travelling public – in fact as built they were not intended to have passengers at all.

Scotia

The S.S. Scotia, like the Prince Edward Island, was built in the Low Walker Yard of Armstrong Whitworth but was launched thirteen years earlier, on 6 April 1901. It was fitted with screw propellers fore and aft and  was driven by two triple-expansion engines giving a total of 292 horsepower. The double propeller configuration was intended to help with ice breaking but within the narrow confines of Canso Strait separating Cape Breton Island from the rest of Nova Scotia rather than the wider Northumberland Strait. In reality the vessel was a self-propelled barge with two parallel rail lines, each of which could accommodate three large passenger cars or a few more smaller freight cars. The rail cars were shunted onto the boat using a two-railed apron, a similar system to the one to be used by the rail ferry on the PEI run.

The vessel was  254 feel long and 47 feet wide but was hardly seaworthy enough for the North Atlantic crossing necessary to get it to its working port but it had to get there. For the crossing the low bulwarks were raised with wooden walls and the ends of the rail deck were closed off.  It is probable that in addition to the filled bunkers the ship would have needed additional coal on deck to keep up the fires on the crossing.

Building the Scotia. Click on any image for slide show.

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Builders model of the S.S. Scotia showing the double propellers. Photo: Tyne and Wear Museum #467154

The 1901 Scotia was easily identifiable by its four stacks and mid-ship bridge. The 1500 ton ship was a car ferry (the cars in question being rail cars) and most of the cars carried were hauling freight or coal. However the vessel was also responsible for carrying the regular passenger trains and many of the surviving photos and post cards show passenger rail cars aboard.  The rail passengers were not expected to leave their cars during the one-mile crossing so the ship had no facilities except for the crew and these were very limited. The characteristic funnel and bridge configuration was changed about 1920 and it became even more difficult to tell the ships apart.

Scotia gallery. Click on any image to enlarge

 

Photo showing both Scotia 1 (left) and Scotia 2 (right) ca. 1930. Note that Scotia 1 now has only 2 funnels

Photo showing both Scotia 1 (left) and Scotia 2 (right) ca. 1930. Note that Scotia 1 now has only 2 funnels

Scotia II

In October 1914 a similar vessel, the Scotia II, slid down the ways at the Armstrong Whitworth yard destined for the same Canso crossing.  Although somewhat alike and sometimes confused the two vessels had one striking difference, at least until modifications were made to the Scotia in the 1920s. The Scotia II had only two stacks for its boilers and the bridge high over the bow of the ship was mirrored by a life-boat platform at the stern.

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Scotia II Builder’s photo 1914. Note the two stacks and forward bridge position. Photo: McCord Museum #5540

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Dock at Mulgrave showing both Scotia I and Scotia II. Ca. 1930

The Scotia II was almost thirty feet longer and a few feet wider than the Scotia and was able to carry eighteen 45-foot rail cars on three tracks significantly increasing its rail car capacity.  Because the aprons had only two sets of tracks the switch for third track was on the ship. She was also more powerful with larger engines giving 454 horsepower to the 292 hp for the Scotia . She also drew a little more water with a draft of 18 feet.

Stern of the Scotia II. Neither of these vessels was double ended although they both had fore and aft propellers.

Stern of the Scotia II. Neither of these vessels was double ended although they both had fore and aft propellers. Photo: http://www.tynebuiltships.co.uk

Both of these vessels, although intended primarily for the Cape Breton crossing began appearing in Island waters even before the opening of the Borden Cape Tormentine service. Initially used for hauling equipment and rock for construction the role changed after the service became regular. The S.S. Prince Edward Island required regular servicing in dry dock (usually in Halifax) at least once each year and one of the Scotias replaced her.  In 1918 for example the Scotia was travelling between the two terminals but owing to differences in the shape of the ships meant that she could not dock in the regular manner and goods had to be transferred by hand-trucks as had been done when the SS P.E.I. docked in Charlottetown and Pictou from 1915 to 1917. As the freight traffic increased the Scotia began to  supplement the service provided the Prince Edward Island. In the summer of 1925 when the re-building of the rail bed to accommodate the wider standard gauge was in full swing the Scotia I was in constant use to carry rail cars with ballast for improving the bed of the wider right of way.

The Scotias were regularly employed whenever the Prince Edward Island went to dry dock or for repairs until the launch of the S.S. Charlottetown in 1931 when the Prince Edward Island became the back-up vessel. When the newer vessel sank after hitting a reef ten years later the system reverted to using the Prince Edward Island and the Scotia.

Passage on the Scotia was no treat.  In 1943 while the S.S. P.E.I. was in dry dock passengers returning to the mainland from Old Home Week activities by rail sat for 16 hours waiting for winds to subside. In the meantime auto travellers had their cars loaded onto flat cars and sent aboard the Scotia  but several had their windscreens smashed and cowlings torn away by the force of the waves. In addition the funnel of the ship was damaged during the trip.  Even at the best of times the Scotia was spartan. Intended for rail traffic only there was no decking, only the bare rails on the deck. It was not until 1958 that a deck was added so that some trucks could be driven on to the ship. Even then auto traffic was restricted as the passenger license was limited to 12 persons.

Scotia II onb the Canso Gut route prior to the opening of the Canso Causeway in 1955. Photo: www.tynebuiltships.co.uk

Scotia II on the Canso route prior to the opening of the Canso Causeway in 1955. Photo: http://www.tynebuiltships.co.uk

A major change to the service came in 1955 with the opening of the Canso Causeway. The ferries between Mulgrave and Point Tupper were no longer needed. The Scotia (which had been re-named Scotia 1 in 1920) was disposed of.  In 1957 it was owned by the Saint John Tugboat Company and it was wrecked at Port Cartier, Quebec in September 1959. The Scotia II became a permanent part of the Borden fleet. Originally serving as a back-up vessel with increasing traffic it became a constant summer fixture on the crossing. A full deck was finally installed and the ship was used for both rail and automobile traffic.

The Scotia II had been significantly refitted in 1956 at a cost which grew from an estimate of $50,000 to almost a quarter of a million. The major change was made to the bow to better provide for the rails. Although the boilers and engines were in good shape the electrical and other systems were replaced and changes made to the accommodations to bring them up to standard. Of course the accommodations referred to were for the crew. No provision was made for passengers. In later years a tiny ticket office and washrooms were wedged into the sides of the ship.

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Scotia II in Welland Canal on her way to the Windsor-Detroit ferry route. Photo http://www.tynebuiltships.co.uk

After being made redundant by the building of new ferries such as the Confederation and the John Hamilton Grey in the 1960s the Scotia II was moved to Ontario late in 1968 where it was used between Windsor and Detroit by Canadian National Railways.  In 1994 the completion of a new rail tunnel under the river meant the end of rail ferries but I have been unable to learn the fate of the Scotia II.

The two ships were never intended to be used on the crossing to Prince Edward Island but from the time that the terminals were built until the mid 1960s they were indeed a part of the Island’s lifeline to the mainland. The Scotia ran for 58 years and the Scotia II for at least 53 years and possibly as many as 79 years. Not bad for a couple of coal-fired self-propelled barges!

Note 1:  My first job with CN Marine was in the summer of 1965 on the Scotia II where I was taken an as deck crew. The vessel was one of the last to still run on coal with the coal being dumped into the bunkers through hatches on the deck. Loaded rail cars were simply run onto the boat, the hatches opened and the coal dropped through the deck. As can be imagined the result of the efficient operation was a thin layer of coal dust all over the ship and those members of the crew who were forced to work that shift.  Luckily within a few days I was asked to work as Assistant Purser and I moved on to the S.S. Prince Edward Island.