Tag Archives: Cape Breton

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.

SNC004

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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Too Big for Success – The Paddle Steamer St. George

Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Advertiser 2 July 1842

Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Advertiser 2 July 1842

What had fourteen egg spoons, two paddles and over one hundred owners?

In 1842 Prince Edward Island was set to leap into the modern age. For far to long it had depended on either the winds or the kindness of strangers to provide the vital link with the rest of North American and with the Mother Country. It was time to Islanders to become masters (or at least crew members) of their own fate. A group of the leading merchants lobbied for legislation and at the spring sitting of the Legislature “An Act for the Incorporation of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company” was passed.  The legislation was one of the first acts in the colony to make used of the joint stock concept and limited liability for the owners so that their assets outside their investment would be protected in case of failure.  But how could failure occur? The need was clear. Northumberland Strait needed reliable transportation and Georgetown, Pictou, Charlottetown, Bedeque and Miramichi were all growing communities linked by the Strait.

Merchants, politicians, publicans and even clergy flocked to the company office to make their investments.  The leading merchants all signed up. Not just in Charlottetown but across the Island. The company owners came from Bedeque, Malpeque, Princetown, North River, Covehead, Tryon, St. Eleanors, Stanhope, Port Hill, Morrell. and to make sure that the general populace did not lose out the Government of the Colony took 150 of the 450 shares on offer. With the exception of one shareholder in St. John’s and one in England this was an all-P.E.I. company.

Since 1833 the Strait had been served by the Cape Breton, a steamer owned first by Pictou’s General Mining Association and later by Joseph Cunard and by the smaller Nova Scotia-built Pocahontas but neither appear to have been satisfactory. And besides they were owned off-Island!

If you are going to have a steam navigation company the first thing you need is a boat. Luckily Francis Longworth was going to England on other business and agreed to keep a look-out for one. He found one in the port of Liverpool.

the_monas_isle

This is not the St. George but is a vessel of similar size which was also operated in the Irish sea. The St. George would have looked much like this.

The St. George paddle steamer was just over ten years old and had an excellent service record. The  “large and elegant” steamer had been launched with much fanfare and before a large crowd of spectators from the Wilson and Sons yard at Cornhill, now part of Liverpool, on 21 November 1831. She was built for the St. George Steam packet Company which had an active service between Liverpool and Irish ports such as Dublin and Cork. The single deck vessel had displacement of 157 tons and was 135 feet long by 20 in breadth. The engines were built by Fawcett Preston & Co. of Liverpool. Its primary use was on the 120 nautical mile Liverpool to Dublin passage across the Irish Sea which took 18 – 20 hours.  The company added to its fleet throughout the 1830s and early 1840s with larger vessels and routes between the Uni9ted Kingdom and Europe. In 1838 the company’s ship the Sirius was the first steamer to cross the Atlantic.  Faced with losses it was later reformed as the City of Cork Steam Ship Company.  When Francis Longworth was searching for a vessel for the newly formed Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company in 1842 the St. George was on the market.  It was quickly purchased and the vessel was scheduled to leave Liverpool for St. John’s and Charlottetown on 9 July the same year, stopping at Cork for passengers.

The St. George,  “cheered  by the multitude,” arrived in Charlottetown on 14 August 1842 and was almost immediately pressed into service with the first trip to Pictou just a week later. Those who took the trips on the St. George were amazed at the luxury that the vessel provided. A partial list of the steward’s supplies gives a hint of how well-outfitted the ship was:  41 plated forks, 2 sauce ladles, 1 pair sugar tongs, 16 mattresses, 49 hair pillows, 36 feather pillows, 35 counterpanes, 8 crumb cloths, 77 sheets, 62 towels, 29 blankets etc. etc. etc..

screen-shot-02-04-17-at-03-23-pm

Islander 17 May 1844

The Company had been set up with the assurances (incorporated into the incorporation act) that it would make regular stops at Georgetown and the rising town of Bedeque, the latter to be a stop on the regular semi-monthly trips to Miramichi which community was otherwise somewhat isolated from the main population of New Brunswick.

 

Within a year problems of managing the company with the government being a large minority shareholder began to emerge.  Georgetown had generated insufficient business either in passengers and freight to warrant continued service except at a great loss. At Miramichi “the almost total abandonment of the timber and lumber trade” had resulted in a reduction in the demand for trips to that port.  Business at Bedeque was no better and an 1845 report noted that on one trip into the port “the only thing in the shape of freight procured was a basket containing hens eggs”.    More significantly the hoped-for subsidies from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had not been forthcoming and the company had no guarantees that they ever would be paid.  The main problem was that the St. George was too big for the modest demands of the Strait communities and was too expensive to operate.  It was also the wrong sort of ship as the majority of the business was in passengers and only about one-sixth of the revenue from freight.

In 1843 the legislation was changed so that the company could abandon the Georgetown route. The Government bought out the shares of the Georgetown investors as well as the remaining unsold shares bring their investment up to over 40% of the company. It was suggested that the company could buy another smaller boat to serve the Georgetown route but that never happened.   A year later, the attempt to regulate routes was completely abandoned and the Company was empowered to decide their routes and schedules to be “most beneficial and advantageous for the interests of this Colony; and of the Shareholders”.

After limping through the 1844 shipping season with increased losses the Company came back to the Legislature pleading that with the St. George “the present traffic is scarcely sufficient to bear the expense of maintaining the vessel on station and she is altogether unproductive of profit to the shareholders and it is advisable that vessel be sold.” Since the government still held a large proportion the shares it was allowed that these could be sold at a loss and any proceeds used to acquire a smaller and more suitable ship.

Service was continued through 1845 at a continuing loss and with the increasing age of the ship and the need for major repairs fast approaching the need to get rid of the St. George became acute.  A search was begun for a smaller, faster ship which could be operated for less but nothing was found.   By October 1845 the St. George had been sold to Quebec interests and left Charlottetown for the last time at the end of that month.

screen-shot-02-04-17-at-03-21-pm

Islander 4 April 1846

Although the Colonial Government advertised for a steamer to take the route it appears to have continued to be serviced by sailing vessels until 1849 when the Rose, a much smaller and perhaps more appropriate ship made its  way across the Atlantic.

The constraints placed by government ownership on the effective operation of the Steam Navigation Company  by requiring specific routes and schedules were certainly not the only challenge that the Company faced but they hardly contributed to success. It would not be the last time that government participation in a public/private partnership would lead to failure.
As for the St. George it lasted in Quebec only until 1850 when it was sold to become a towboat in Newfoundland.  In January 1852 it left St. John’s for Cork, Ireland and was never heard from again.

Note: An expanded history of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company is available as a detailed research paper which can be found here.

 

 

“The wines were also very good…” James Peake and the Steamer Rose

The Rose at Pownal Wharf ca. 1849 from a painting by George Hubbard in the collection of the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation

The Rose at Pownal Wharf ca. 1849 from a painting by George Hubbard in the collection of the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation

At the mercy of the winds

By the mid 1840s Islanders were well used to the convenience of having a regular steam packet service connecting them with the mainland through Pictou and the Miramichi. The steamers Pocahontas belonging to Nova Scotia interests and the St. George of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company had carried on when the earlier Cape Breton was taken off the route. By 1846 however the St. George was under the control of William Stevenson of Quebec and was moved the following year to Quebec and the Gaspe.  The Steam Navigation Company was searching for another boat and in March 1847 James Peake wrote to Thomas Bolton, his agent in Halifax “…we now have to be dependant on the uncertainty of a sailing vessel for our mails…” The hunt for a new boat for the Company was not going well and by May he informed Bolton that the efforts had “…been entirely defeated…”  and that the Island “…shall, I fear, be at the mercy of the winds for at least for the present season.”

James Peake was in a good position to know the details of the issue. He was an enterprising shipbuilder and merchant who had come to the colony in 1823 and before his death in 1860 he was identified as the owner of 151 vessels, almost all of them sailing ships.  As a merchant he was aware of the need for good and dependable communications and the steamers on the Strait made regular correspondence with suppliers, insurers and financiers a little more secure.  He had been a major shareholder in the Prince Edward Island Stream Navigation Company but it was he, rather than the company, that was able to fill the communications gap. His father and brother Thomas operated the British end of the trans-Atlantic business from their base at Stonehouse, now part of Plymouth, in Devon and in spite of earlier failures they had been able to find a steamer for the Charlottetown – Pictou route.

The Rose is announced

Announcement of Dinner for James Peake - Islander 25 May 1849

Announcement of Dinner for James Peake – Islander 25 May 1849

On arrival of the news in Charlottetown there was general rejoicing and relief. A public dinner  on 25 May 1849 honouring Peake was oversubscribed. Fifty gentlemen sat down to a “very superior” meal produced by James Davis, landlord of the Victoria Hotel. The Islander reported that “The wines were also very good, particularly the champagne.”  Eight toasts were drunk, a band was in attendance, “past political differences were buried” and the party broke up at a late hour.

The Plymouth Herald carried an item in 27 July 1849 announcing that the Steamer Rose was ready to set sail for Prince Edward Island.  The Rose was a 103 foot, 88 ton, paddle steamer built at Blackwall on the Thames in 1832.  Constructed of English oak and teak she was been equipped with new boilers in Plymouth and her two 24 horsepower engines had been tested by a voyage from Plymouth to Falmouth.  On her trip the engines would not be used and the passage was conducted under sail. Thomas Peake proudly reported to his brother in Charlottetown that the little vessel “looks like a Man of War Steamer.”

The Rose arrived in Charlottetown on 9 August, 35 days from Plymouth, and work immediately began to fit her paddles and make repairs to the damages suffered in the passage. By the 24th of August she was running back and forth to Pictou twice weekly.  She was reported to have excellent accommodation for passengers, three dozen in the main cabin with an additional cabin for “Lady passengers.”  Although unable to get insurance at what he considered a reasonable cost Peake was anxious to put her on the line as soon as possible. He reported to John Pitcairn in England “I was obliged to get her on the packet line for mails with as little delay as possible and are pleased to be able to say that she acts well and hope from the anticipated increase in passengers she will pay her way next year.”

Schedule for Steamer Rose - Islander

Schedule for Steamer Rose – Islander 27 April 1850

Like most of the small steamers the Rose was available for pleasure excursions which were fitted in between her scheduled trips. In September 1851 for example, the Rose took 150 people on a pleasure excursion to Mt. Stewart and a few weeks later carried a “numerous and respectable party of ladies and gentlemen” across Orwell Bay to Port Selkirk accompanied by the Sons of Temperance band who played “right merrily some new and favorite airs” throughout the trip. The Rose continued to prove satisfactory for a several years but in June 1853 she left the port for Halifax. The newspaper report hints at a loss of the government subsidy or mail contract and noted that Peak had sold the vessel “at considerable sacrifice.” A testimonial to the Rose’s skipper, Captain Matheson noted the “undeviating punctuality and satisfaction to the commercial community of this town” that had been provided.

The short hereafter

The Rose was sold to Samuel Cunard of Halifax who leased her to the government for the protection of the fisheries. However she was not long employed in that task for in October she was caught in a gale, lost one of her paddles and came ashore on the eastern end of Peter’s Island, Rustico. All of the crew were saved but the vessel was a total loss.  Although the Rose was more than twenty years old the purchaser of the wreck, William Heard, stated “from the stern to the stem, from the gunnel to the keel, there was not two inches of unsound wood in her…”

The Rose had been replaced on the Pictou service by the Fairy Queen and the change of steamers was to have disastrous consequences for only a month later that vessel sank with loss of life.  That story will be told in a future chapter in the history of the strait steamers.