Tag Archives: Brule

From hub to spoke: Charlottetown as a transportation centre

Today we tend to think of Prince Edward Island as being at the end of something – a long drive, a flight, a ferry crossing. In the world of hubs and spokes we are clearly a spoke. You don’t go to Prince Edward Island on your way to anywhere. It is a destination.

However, for one period in the Island’s history this was not the case. In the mid-19th century especially, Prince Edward Islanders saw themselves as, if not the centre of the world, then at least the centre of something.  And looking at a map of the region it is not hard to see why.  A case in point is the outlook of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company. In an economy of wood, wind and water, sea transportation was the most effective (and in some cases the only) way to move goods and people. The Island sat in the centre of a large basin from northern New Brunswick in the west to Cape Breton in the east. Northumberland Strait touched the long shorelines of three provinces and Charlottetown was the largest port on the Strait.

Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company – ports of call 1865-1869. The Company also had services to Orwell and Crapaud.

The Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company’s steamers did much more than connect Prince Edward Island to the mainland. They were the moving parts of a communications web and Charlottetown, rather than being at the end of a spoke, was in fact the hub. Most voyages began or ended at Charlottetown and by passing through the port one could travel aboard ship from one end of the Strait to the other.

Until the railway lines in the region took their final shape the most effective way to get from Saint John to the Miramichi was to cross the Bay of Fundy, travel through Nova Scotia to Pictou and take a steamer up the Strait, touching at Charlottetown and Summerside. The same was true of travel to Cape Breton. A requirement of the earliest subsidies sought by the first Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company from the colonial governments of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia was that western and eastern ports in those colonies would be served.

Early photo of the Princess of Wales in Charlottetown Harbour. the building behind the funnel is the Methodist Church

In the 1860s the Steamers Princess of Wales and Heather Belle were tried on a variety of routes to accommodate the changing transportation patterns. When the railway reached Shediac in 1860 Point du Chêne  became much more important for transshipment of goods and passengers destined for points south and west such as Boston and Montreal.

Heather Belle

In 1865 the Princess of Wales and the Heather Belle were both providing service across the Strait four days a week.  Besides two trips to Pictou the steamers also went to Brule, directly across from Charlottetown, twice. From there the express wagon carried mails on a shorter road to Truro.  A year later the Princess of Wales sailed weekly from Charlottetown to Summerside, Shediac, Richibucto and Miramichi, with service to Pictou and Shediac more often.

The following year the schedule published in the Island’s newspapers revealed the full extent of the Company’s attempt to provide a full regional transportation service.


Steam Navigation Company schedule. Summerside Journal 8 July 1869

On Mondays one of the company’s larger steamers, the Princess of Wales or the new-to-the-Strait St. Lawrence, left Charlottetown for Pictou, then on to Port Hood in  Cape Breton returning to Charlottetown via Pictou on Tuesdays.  Wednesday morning saw a steamer leave Charlottetown for Pictou then on to Port Hawkesbury on the Gut of Canso, returning on the same route the following day.  Another boat sailed Thursdays from Charlottetown to Pictou, Georgetown and Souris and the next day from Georgetown to Pictou and back to Charlottetown. Tuesdays and Saturdays had a steamer from Charlottetown sailing to points west; Summerside and Shediac, returning the following day. The company’s third boat, the Heather Belle, sailed Mondays for Crapaud (soon to become the port of Victoria), Tuesdays for Port Selkirk (Orwell Brush Wharf) and on other days back and forth to Mount Stewart Bridge.

Sailing times at Pictou and Shediac were determined by great measure by the arrival of the trains from Halifax and Saint John. Integrating passenger traffic with both mainland rail services and the Prince Edward Island Railway timetable was a sound business decision – even if waiting for a late train resulted in late sailings.  The service to smaller ports on the island such as Crapaud could vary according to the tides.

In contrast to the old joke, if your destination was up or down Northumberland Strait “you could get there from here,” and most likely how you did it was on a Charlottetown-based steamer. With confederation and the completion of the intercolonial railway from Halifax to Quebec the trains began to displace ships as the most common carrier. The rail line ran up the shore to northern New Brunswick and there was a falling-off of water traffic to that area and so the Steam Navigation Company ceased its western service, while at the same time maintaining its connections with Point du Chêne, now even more important for its links with both the New England and Canadian rail lines.  Confederation also brought the subsidized Pictou to Magdalen Islands steamship service which stopped at Souris. One result was that vessels based in Pictou rather than Charlottetown were used on new routes to Cape Breton and the Strait of Canso. Increasing Island demands for daily round-trips between Charlottetown and Pictou and Summerside and Shediac meant that the steamers were unable to continue their routes to other ports and they were gradually abandoned.  By the late 1870s the extended routes of the Steam Navigation Company and been subsumed by what had become a shuttle service across the Strait which continued until 1916. What traffic that existed between the eastern part of P.E.I. and Cape Breton enabled the local service of the Three Rivers Steamship Company to continue from 1892 to 1917.

In an ironic twist the improvements in transportation between 1860 and the Great War meant that in some ways Prince Edward Island became more isolated than it had been at the beginning of the period.




He came over on the Mayflower

The steamship service between Prince Edward Island and the mainland had two primary routes: from Pointe du Chene or Shediac to Summerside, and from Pictou to Charlottetown. There was however, no lack of proposals for alternate ports.  The primary driver for port choice after the 1860s was the proximity to rail connections once the mainland was reached. Shediac was connected with a system that went to Saint John in time for the Prince of Wales visit in 1860 and that connection eventually extended right through to Boston.

The extension of the Nova Scotia Railway to Pictou Landing in 1867 gave steamers access to the rail service to Halifax and with the completion of the Intercolonial Railway following Confederation the route offered an all-rail service to Quebec and the Canadian heartland.

The little community of Brule on the shore near Tatamagouche was touted well into the 20th century as another possibility for the “trans-strait” passage, one which was promoted long and hard by Charlottetown’s member in the House of Commons.  Its success would have been dependant on the creation of a new branch of the Midland Railway from Truro to Brule but the road was never built and the route was hypothetical at best.

Location map showing Pugwash location and steamer route (blue). From I.C.R. timetable ca. 1905.

There was another route which actually was tried, and once again the connection with the rails was the basis for the proposal.  By 1891 a “short line” had been constructed which left the main line of the Intercolonial at Oxford Junction and skirted the Northumberland Strait shore before terminating at Pictou.  Prior to its construction, Pictou was linked to the rails by a ferry to Pictou Landing and thence by a branch line to New Glasgow and the Intercolonial line between Truro and Cape Breton.

Inter Colonial Railway Steamer Mayflower in Pictou harbour photo:http://haggis.mccullochcentre.ca/document/2503

The ferry, named the Mayflower, had been built in 1875 in Montreal. She was 125 feet long by 23 feet wide and displaced 377 tons. Her main salon provided accommodation for sixty passengers. By 1879 the Mayflower had been replaced by a new boat on the run across the harbour. In that year the Dominion authorized a loan of the ferry to the P.E.I., Government for the purpose of linking Georgetown and Montague by a steamer service on the Montague River which would provide access to rails services for the rapidly developing town of Montague. It does not appear, however, that the offer was taken up.

Charlottetown Guardian 29 December 1891. p. 3

In 1887 the Pictou Town Branch finally saw rail connections established between the Intercolonial at Stellarton and the town of Pictou making the Pictou Landing ferry redundant and the Intercolonial put the Mayflower up for sale by tender.  The twelve year old vessel was acquired by J.O. Reid of Pugwash. The ship was rebuilt with new boilers in early 1891 and a published report gave her capacity as 300 passengers and 400 barrels of freight.  It appears she was purchased with the intention of establishing Pugwash as a third mainland connection with Prince Edward Island with steamer service linking the Nova Scotia port and Charlottetown.  In promoting the service its owners asserted that the staunch, twin-screw vessel had ice-cutting capacity and would be able to run a month later and begin service and a month earlier than the steamers of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company.  A further benefit would be better timed connections with the I.C.R. trains both coming and going so that passengers and mails would reach Charlottetown nine hours earlier.  A better connection with Pugwash had been supported at the annual meeting of the Charlottetown Board of Trade and the Guardian editor noted that the new route would “put the Steam Navigation Company on its mettle.”

Service was scheduled to begin on 1 October 1891 and advertisements for the Pugwash and P.E. Island Steamboat Company continued to appear in the Charlottetown Guardian through December 1891 showing service three days per week and pledging that “This is the, shortest, most direct, and cheaper than any other route to or from Prince Edward Island.”

True or not, it seems that the Mayflower failed to pry business away from the Steam Navigation Company and there is no further word of the Pugwash to Charlottetown Service. It is not clear if the ship’s previous experience as a ferry across the mile-wide harbour of Pictou may have been limiting factor in the minds of potential passengers. Later she may have been used elsewhere in the region and served for a time in 1892 as a ferry at Canso. In 1895 it was rumoured that the Mayflower was to run between Summerside and Cape Tormentine connecting with the New Brunswick and P.EI. Railway which ran between the Cape and Sackville but it seems to have remained nothing more than a rumour.

In the spring of 1899 the Mayflower appeared on the Pictou-Souris-Magdalenes service but when it was discovered that the ship had been condemned by authorities as unseaworthy for transportation of passengers it was hastily replaced. Later that year the vessel was reported to be owned by F.P. Ronan of Halifax and was slated to run between Summerside, Cape Tormentine and Crapaud.  Another report noted the planned formation of a steamship company in Summerside to purchase the Mayflower and operate it between Summerside and West Cape winter and summer.  Neither proposal seems to have reached the action stage and the vessel was under Ontario ownership by 1901. It was re-built in 1904 and last operated on the Great Lakes in 1910.

Today large freighters seeking cargos of salt still visit Pugwash but to dream of being the main link between the mainland and Prince Edward Island died when the Mayflower left the port for the last time.  In addition, the rails which were so important for determining which ports would serve the Island have vanished from all the harbours on Northumberland Strait.  Shediac, Cape Tormentine,  Pugwash, Tatamagouche, and Pictou – none have rail links that survived the end of the 20th century.

Mr. Warburton’s obsession

When Alexander Bannerman Warburton, the member for Queens County Prince Edward Island rose in the House of Commons on 20 February 1911 his speech began with the ominous words “It may be wearisome to hon. members of this House to hear this matter brought up periodically…”


Detail, from Bayfield’s chart of Amet Sound and Tatamagouche harbour showing the anchorage at Brule. Although protected there is an absence of any wharves or dockages.

Warburton was speaking of the issue of the “continuous steam communication” which had been part of the Confederation agreement but the member from Queens had his own hobby-horse to ride. For him the issue of dependable transportation could be most simply dealt with by changing to port to which the steamers travelled. At the time there were several routes in use: Summerside to Shediac, Charlottetown to Pictou,  Cape Traverse to Cape Tormentine, and Georgetown to Pictou. The summer steamers of the Steam Navigation Company used the first two to link the train services of the Island with those of the mainland. In winter the Dominion Government ice-breaking steamers used all the ports and shifted between them as ice conditions allowed. Usually the ice thickened and became impassable west to east so that the Georgetown to Pictou route was the last one to be used each winter.

The map makes it clear. Proposed steamer route (green) and railway branch (orange)

The map makes it clear. Proposed steamer route (green) and railway branch (orange)

For Warburton the map told the story. Directly across Northumberland Strait from Charlottetown lay Amet Sound or Tatamagouche Bay with communities of Cape John, Brule and Tatamagouche. Any fool could see that the twenty-four miles across the Strait was shorter  than making the dog-leg to Pictou.  And from any one of the communities on the shores  of Tatamagouche Bay it was a much shorter direct route to Truro and the Intercolonial Railway junction making a short route to Halifax and from there to the wide world.

It was not pre-ordained that the gateway to Prince Edward Island should lead through Pictou. Although the harbour was a good one it was not the only one with favourable conditions for sailing ships and the early steamers. The Brule shore developed a trade with Prince Edward Island that lasted for many years with schooners hauling agricultural goods and limestone back and forth across the strait into the 20th century. It was the discovery of coal that made Pictou an important port and with increased trade and settlement as well as industry, mail and coach routes with Halifax developed.

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Brule wharf about 1960. The wharf has been completely eroded and is difficult to locate today.

The shorter distance from Charlottetown to Halifax by travelling as the crow flies was attractive to some of the early steamboat operators. Heard’s Rosebud, the first steamer to be built on the Island, ran between Charlottetown and Tatamagouche in the 1850s in an effort to take trade away from the government-subsidized government steamers.  The route had been studied by the P.E.I. Colonial government in 1856 and Admiral Bayfield’s observation that Brule harbour was “the safest and best for direct intercourse with Nova Scotia…” was quoted.  In 1864 the Halifax Chronicle carried an advertisement for the “Short and Cheap route between Halifax and P.E.Island” meeting the steamer Heather Belle at Brule and when the Nova Scotia delegates came to what would become known as the confederation conference in 1864 it was from Brule on the steamer Heather Belle, rather from Pictou. The Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company steamers called regularly at Brule Wharf as well as Pictou until 1867. The port was used as an occasional excursion destination from as the trip there and back could be made in one day.


Advertisement for excursion to the proposed winter port. Guardian 24 July 1909 p.2

However Pictou’s dominance on the strait was greatly strengthened with the construction of the Nova Scotia Railway from Truro to Pictou Landing in 1867 and its incorporation into the Intercolonial Railway after Confederation but it was not until 1887 that the railway actually ran into Pictou town.  The same year what came to be known as “the short line” (The Montreal and European Railway) was built from Oxford Junction to Pictou along the north shore passing through Tatamagouche. However this was far from the direct link between Northumberland Strait and Truro.  Proponents of the route were excited by the construction of the Midland Railway between the Annapolis Valley and Truro and its acquisition by the Dominion Atlantic Railway (DAR) in 1905.  Extension of the line straight through the 28 miles to Brule could only be a matter of time and the vision of fast steamers across the Strait and a DAR express to Yarmouth and waiting Boston steamers was fodder for editorial comment and political postures.  The Halifax Herald wrote of trips from Charlottetown “To Halifax and return in a day” and “a new route to Boston.”  In the summer of 1909 things had progressed to the point where the owners of the Harland laid on an excursion to allow everyone to view the proposed port.


Alexander Bannerman Warburton, a champion of the Brule route.

Alexander Warburton had been a M.L.A. from 1891 to 1898 and served as premier for a brief period before accepting an appointment as county court judge. Resigning in 1904 to run for politics he was not successful until the 1908 general election and he served only until 1911 when he was defeated.

He may have been infected by the Brule bug when running for Dominion office in 1904. By May 1909 he was in full support of the Charlottetown – Brule route. He first raised the matter in the House that year speaking for almost an hour in a discourse which recounted the history of the colony, his experiences waiting in Pictou for ice-trapped vessels, “a severe and lengthy condemnation of the suitability of Pictou as a winter port” and again and again referring to the shortened distance. The same year his stance was adopted by the Maritime Board of Trade which passed a resolution supporting a trial of the route by the icebreaker Earl Grey.

Emerging like a groundhog seeking his shadow every February  for the next two years Warburton rose to his feet to repeat his lengthy but impassioned plea which would introduce an equally lengthy and impassioned rebuttal from the member from Pictou and then the House would return to its normal business for another year.

The route question was rendered moot by the creation of the car ferry service between Cape Tormentine and Port Borden which introduced a dependable winter crossing using the S.S. Prince Edward Island but it refused to die away completely. Even after Warburton went to his reward in 1920 (as Judge of the Probate Court) there were outbreaks of interest in the Brule route.  Charlottetown businessman J.O. Hyndman was a proponent suggesting a seven-month steamer service to replace the Hochelaga coupled with the long-sought Truro-Brule direct rail line. A fast steamer could make two round trips per day compared with only one on the Pictou route. The plan was endorsed by the Truro Board of Trade in 1929. However the branch line to Brule was never built and the steamers continued to go to Pictou.

The Brule route was only one of a number of map-induced proposals in the region. There were costly failures such as the Chignecto Ship Railway and those like the Brule route and the PEI rail tunnel which never quite got off the ground.  Often what was missing was an appreciation of the demand. In the case of the Brule route the market was simply not there. Even before the car ferry, Pictou was quite adequate. The line on-the-map may have been perfect, but the good was good enough.

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Site of Brue wharf today. Image – Google Earth