One of the 1935 aerial photos of the Hillsborough River at Charlottetown shows a fascinating image. The docks of Charlottetown are shown and a vessel, probably warship, is moored in mid stream. On the Southport side a little village is seen on the road leading to the site of the ferry wharf which had not been in use since the building of the bridge. The Langley shore is devoid of the summer cottages which would appear after the war. From the height of the plane the channel can be clearly seen, the shallows delineated sharply by a change in the colour of the water. There is a dredged channel leading to the Southport ferry wharf and the dredges have clearly been at work on the Charlottetown side.
But there is an anomaly in the photo. Just to the east of the ferry wharf another dredged channel can be seen which simply ends at the shore. This is all that remains of a scheme to bring industry and marine security to the Island – a scheme that had not one but several incarnations.
Since beginning of steam communication a regular problem for the Island vessels was the necessity of periodic visits to a dry dock or haul-out slip for hull repairs and maintenance. While some work could be done by beaching ships at high tide but this was not an effective solution. So ships would have to take time off their routes each year for trips to dry-docks and slipways in Pictou, Sydney or Halifax or even Quebec, leaving the Island with temporary back-up vessels, or no vessels at all. When there were a number of ships, as in the case of the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company’s summer ships such as the Northumberland or Empress or the Dominion government’s Stanley, Minto and Earl Grey it was less of a problem. However with the announcement that a single vessel, the car-ferry Prince Edward Island, would replace all of the other ships the problem became acute. When the Prince Edward Island went to dry dock the Island held its collective breath in hopes that the S.S. Scotia would be able to fill in.
Even before the establishment of the Borden ferry service Charlottetown felt aggrieved. There were 170 steam and sail vessels registered in Charlottetown before the Great War and few facilities for repair. The Board of Trade passed a motion in the fall of 1912 calling for investigation of a marine slip for Charlottetown and at the beginning of the next year a study was announced. However, it must have come as a surprise that when the plan passed through the Dominion Privy Council Office it was for funds for the purchase of land on the other side of the harbour. W.P. Mutch who owned much of the Southport shoreline (and was perhaps a supporter of the Conservative government) was to get $300 per acre for the needed land and in December 1913 tenders were called for dredging at the site and removal of 130,000 yards of material. The privately owned dredge Edmond Hall began the work of clearing a channel to a depth of 20 feet linking the water of the river to the shore facility. The work continued through 1915 and into 1916 and the dredging part of the project was completed before the end of the war.
The proposal called for a 5,000 ton marine slip whose main client was clear from the blueprints prepared in 1915. Although these prints deal primarily with measurements and depths, an elevation clearly shows the unmistakable profile of the Island’s new ferry the S.S. Prince Edward Island on the cradle. However, the scheme fell prey to the war effort and no additional funds were voted. In 1917, J.O. Hyndman, who had been a major supporter of the initiative received word from one of the Island MPs that “owing to the high cost of steel, tenders will not be called.” After the war it was clear that the number of vessels which might use the facility was sharply reduced and the land-side construction was not proceeded with.
In spite of occasional interest from the Board of Trade the matter lay dormant until 1937 when the plan was dusted off as a possible employment and infrastructure initiative to counter the effects of the depression. The head of Bruce Stewart and Company noted the loss of employment opportunity through not having dry dock facilities but it was clear that the thousands of dollars of repair work going to mainland marine slips was of primary interest to the company. However, at the time there were too many other labour intensive competing projects to make the investment in a marine slip a priority.
With the outbreak of the Second World War the issue of ship repair capacity again became timely. Bruce Stewart and Company had a number of defence contracts but were not able to take on major underwater work owing to the lack of a slipway. In 1942 the Maritime Board of Trade endorsed a motion calling for action on the matter. The loss of the car-ferry Charlottetown on its way to dry-dock in Halifax provided one more reason for a local facility as proponents argued that the ship would not have been lost if it was dry-docked in Charlottetown.
With post-war reconstruction another campaign was mounted in favour of the project. The Dominion government offered to transfer surplus equipment from either Shelburne N.S. or Bay Bulls Newfoundland to Charlottetown but the $100,000 cost of moving and erecting the material would have to be carried by the province which quickly backed away from support. In 1947 the federal Progressive Conservatives under John Bracken included the Marine Slip along with the Brighton Bridge and a Grain Elevator as promises to the electorate. The Tories were not successful in the next election and none of the projects on their list were picked up by the new Prime Minister, Louis St. Laurent. In fact all three remain unfulfilled.
The last hurrah for the marine slip was in 1953 when the employees of Bruce Stewart and Company called a public meeting in Charlottetown on the marine slip. By this time the Southport site had been discarded in favour of land near the railway round house (and not far from the Bruce Stewart plant) and the size had been scaled back from 5,000 tons to 1,200 tons. The project was no longer about the car-ferries which had grown too large to be considered as customers but about smaller commercial, fishing and pleasure craft. The more modest proposal still failed to attract Ottawa interest and the matter finally died.
When the air photos for 1958 are examined there is still a faint outline of the dredged channel, more than 40 years after the project was begun and abandoned. The federal government held on to the land in Southport until at least the late 1950s and it is now a neighbourhood of shore front homes with a view of Charlottetown instead of an industrial site. Today the dredged channel appears to be completely silted up and not a single trace remains of the Southport Marine Slip.