Tag Archives: Cape Tomentine

Going With the Floe 1876

There are few accounts of winter travel to Prince Edward Island but for those that were published a consistent theme is the iceboat crossing to or from the province.  Seldom routine and often dangerous, the crossing was not for the faint of heart. Lives and limbs had been lost when weather, tides and waves conspired to force crews and passengers to spend the night on the Strait with only the slight protection of an upturned iceboat.(1)

Taylor Manufacturing Dry Styeam Engine ca. 1875

The following account dates from April 1876 and is part of a letter published in the Democratic Advocate in Westminster Maryland by an unidentified correspondent who had spent much of the winter on the Island, apparently as an agent for the Taylor Manufacturing Company which was based in Westminster. The company built portable steam engines for use with sawmilling and working operations running circular saws, planers and band saws. He reported that 15 of the engines had been put in operation over the winter and that they were having a beneficial impact on the construction costs for shipyards,  The account includes a testimonial from shipbuilder James Yeo.

In 1876 communication for the mails and passengers was supposed to have been provided by a contracted steamer, the SS Albert. The Albert, however was not up to the task and so the iceboat service, which had existed since at least the 1830s was the fallback.

On March 2d, we started to cross the Northumberland Strait, which from Cape Travers on the Island to Cape Tormentine on the New Brunswick coast is 9 miles across. These straits are filled at all times from December to March with floating fields of ice, in many instances, acres in size. Waited till Sunday, (which by the way they call fine day to cross) and started. The crossing is made in a common boat, some 15 feet long, made as light as possible, with runners on bottom, so as to haul it on the ice. Each boat has its captain, and 3 men, with places for passengers; each man is harnessed to the boat by means of a strap over the shoulders and breast so in case the ice is bad he can only go through the length of strap; it does not save from a complete wetting, but saves from drowning. This Sunday was not, unfortunately not one of the good days. We left board ice, that is, ice that always stays on each shore, at 9 0’clock in the morning, two boats and 20 passengers, and found no ice bergs but thin ice, which in salt water means very unreliable stuff. Now passengers are taken across at $2.50 a piece, from $5 to $20 for baggage if in much bulk, and they are required to pull, haul and shove the boat along, to work same as boatmen; while if detained a week waiting as your correspondent was, it means from $20 to $30, besides hard work to get over. The first man that took a bath a got the laugh, but before noon the laugh was general, as there were but few who had not had the pleasure of taking a wistful look, with chin just over the gunwale of the boat. At 2 p. m. we were scarcely 4 miles from shore, the wind was starting up, our captains consulted, and decided to turn the boats back for the same shore. We started with the pleasent [sic] news that it looked very bad, and unless we worked very hard we must stay out that night. It had the desired affect. Such shoving and hauling with boat hooks I never wish to participate in again. At 6.30 we struck board ice, completely exhausted, with the whole thing to be done over again. Tuesday we took another prospecting tour on the gulf; out four hours and gave up. Wednesday we started again, came over in fine shape, much open water and struck large bergs of ice with pinnacles higher than church steeples, then flat fields of ice, then lanes of water. The day was cold but no one wore coats or vests, they all had business that kept them warm without extra clothing, and all were very happy to be once more on the main land. Forty miles staging brought us to the Intercolonial Railroad where we took cars, which carried us to a land where travel not so difficult in winter. About May 10th ice will disappear, and steamers and the ships and vessels will begin to trade with Island.

SS PEI at Borden showing iceboat (detail). Image courtesy Phil Culhane

Even after improved winter steamers were introduced they too, proved unable to cope with the ice of Northumberland Strait. Up until  about 1920 the winter steamers carried iceboats so that passengers could be transported to land if the boat became stuck in the ice floes. It was not until the arrival of the SS Prince Edward Island in 1915 that the service became dependable and the iceboats finally stopped running after the completion of port facilities at Port Borden and Cape Tormentine.

(1) An earlier and more detailed account of the crossing can be found in B.W.A. Sleigh’s Pine Forests and Hacmatack Clearings [1853]. The section dealing with the “The Icy Passage” can be found in The Island Magazine  #1, Fall-Winter 1976 p.23-29.

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


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.


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.


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.

McCord v5540

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


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.


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.