Tag Archives: Cape Traverse

The Rite of Passage: Crossing the Strait by Iceboat

Almost all visitor accounts of travel to Prince Edward Island in the 19th century included mention of the winter isolation and the iceboat service which was a unique experience.  However most travellers came or went in the summer so their accounts were second- hand. What is rarer are those who actually experienced the icy passage. While there were a number of dangerous and prolonged crossings in the more than 80 years that the system operated most were routine although still cold and exciting. On a good day some crossings were made in under four hours from shore to shore.

Iceboat Service from P.E.I. to Mainland. Haszard & Moore postcard. Author’s collection

One of the most interesting and detailed is that of Father Edward Osborne, an Anglican brother of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist which had a monastery in Boston.  Osborne came to the Island in a mission in January of 1883.   An excerpt from the diary kept on the trip appeared in the 8 March 1883 edition of the Examiner.  After detailing the trip from Amherst to Cape Tormentine and his frustration with a three-day wait for favourable weather at the Cape Father Osborne records with some relief that the boats finally set out for the Island.

After the drive over the board ice, all the boats were loaded, and we were ready to go at the word. Mrs. —– and little girl went in the Captain’s boat. I went with his son. We had five boats in all, ours being the heaviest with ten men including myself. Of course, Mrs. —– and little girl were packed in with bags, fur coats and hot bricks, not to move until we got over to the other side. I could have gone the same way if I had liked, and had paid a little extra; but am I not a man among my brethren? My place was third on the left of the boat, between two men passengers who had both crossed before. The man next behind me had a brother on the other side of our boat, who jokingly said that he did not think that his brother had ever followed a clergyman before – better for him if he had! Every man has a strong strap passed over his shoulder and under his arm. By this he pulls the boat along and is himself kept safe in case of accident; so with one hand on the boat we are to run along.

Crossing the Ice. P.E. Island. Real photo postcard. UPEI Collection.

It is curious as we stand waiting, to see the huge fields of ice drifting majestically past us, the great hummocks standing out sharp against the blue sky from ten to twenty feet high. The Captain and to men stand on heaps, watching for our chance. At last a huge ice field, a mile or more along – “Now boys if we are to take this field we must go” – and with a rush we are off. There are about ten or twelve feet of water with floating ice and slush between us and the solid field and as the boat crashes down into this I supposed all would get on board, and accordingly got in. But the men rushed on, stepping on the floating blocks, shouting and heaving, and in two minutes we were on the solid ice in front. We were now fairly off and settled down to our work, the boats were formed in line, the Captain leading and our boat second. The stem of each boat was kept close to the stern of the boat in front, so that we looked like some enormous reptile winding its way along over the silent snow. The work was heavy, for the snow on the ice-field was fully eighteen inches deep, and through this we had to plod dragging our boats with their burdens.

Crossing at the Capes, Prince Edward Island, PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation. Earl Taylor collection.

Very little was said by anyone, so that the stillness in the quite morning air was striking. We were soon warm, and in fact too warm. In half an hour from starting every man had an icicle from each end of his moustache, while I had a little circle of them around the edge of my fur cap.  The men made me put my boots under my trousers and tie the trousers down. By this means all snow was prevented from getting into the tops of my boots, and if I happened to slip into water the thick trousers I wore would throw it off. I got over thus quite dry.

Our ice-field was not all smooth; in many places the ice was overshot, that is, one sheet over another. These were concealed under the snow and before we knew it we might stumble and slip over them. Sometimes there were holes ever so deep, into which you might sink in snow and water to your waist. We got over our first field without mishap. The there was a short space of blue water to be crossed to the next field. As we neared the edge the word was given “straps off,” and we threw then off into the boats. Then accelerating the speed of the boat she crashed down into the water and we all jumped in hastily and were soon rowing on. We had to repeat this several times. In some places the water had a very thin coating of ice, through which we easily rowed the oars, leaving a mark like a V in the ice on either side. Sometimes the ice was just too thick to row in, and then we had to break the way. This was done by rolling the boat rapidly and striking the ice in front with an oar or boathook. In one instance two of the men got over the bows of the boat, and jumped up and down smashing the ice with their feet. This was very curious to see, and looked very dangerous. They kept fast hold of the boat, and kept their straps on, and no harm happened. While they did this the others pulled the boat by means of boathooks. These hooks were of curious shape, like two spuds put opposite ways. Then hooked spud was struck into the ice so as to get a purchase to pull on. It was very funny to see the boats going thus, the six hooks in each boat striking rhythmically together. After the first start, our boat was the leading boat all the way, so we had the honour and toil of breaking the way for the others. The men were very civil to me addressing me as “Reverence,” whenever we came to any hard place it was always, “In with your Reverence,” and then I jumped into the boat and they followed. Now and then the ice was very rough and in great hillocks, and the boats had to be dragged up and down, bumping and crashing. This was very thicklish [sic] work for the hillocks were often only piles of loose lumps of ice. And on these we had to step. Sometimes they gave way under us and then we had to look very sharp, for we might slip under the boat and strain an ankle or break a leg.  Where the ice was thin or indeed where we dragged the boat in water, we ourselves stepping on floating lumps, the sensation was very curious when you found your footing sinking beneath you. There was nothing for it then but to hold onto the boat and jump or step to the next piece. Indeed, we had to keep our eyes open and our wits about us all the time.

Striking Board Ice. Warwick and Rutter Postcard #2669. This image is from a Cyrus Lewis photograph dated from about 1895.

About 12 we halted for ten minutes in the middle of an ice field, and eat the little refreshments we had brought with us and took a drink of water from the bung-hole of the little keg with which each boat was provided. At this halt the passengers exchanged greetings and experiences, and all paid a visit to Mrs. —– and the little girl, in the captain’s boat. This was the only pause we made, pressing on all the rest of the time.

About one we passed the party going in the opposite direction, about one-quarter of a mile south of us, with only one boat. They raised a hat on an oar as a signal, which we returned. Towards the end of our journey we had some long stretches of water, on which the boats raced one another. Near the further shore we came to what seemed to me to be the most exciting and dangerous of all. This was the thin ice, which the day before was “lolly,” and was now about three inches thick. It was glassy on the surface; but when broken – and it broke easily – it looked like the almond icing of wedding cake. This was thick enough to bear a man, but not enough to bear the boats if they stood still. The boats now kept far apart so as to distribute the weight and we started at a run skimming over the thin ice. Oftentimes the boat would break in and then we had to lift her if we could, and if not drag her on, crashing and breaking the ice as she went, the water flowing over our boots. The men hurried on but kept quite calm, so that it did not seem as if there was any real danger and I do not know that there was except that we might have all smashed in together and got a ducking. Only one man of our boat got really wet. One of the other boats fared much worse.

Crossing to Prince Edward In Winter. Taylor’s Bookstore postcard. UPEI collection. Although several cards show boats with small sails they were not often used during the crossing as conditions were seldom right.

The last half mile we rowed in clear water until we reached the beach ice again and then there was one strong and heavy pull over bumps and hillocks and we were safe ashore.

The full account from Osborne’s diary can be found here.  It includes other details of the trip such as the extended stay in Cape Tormentine.  Other accounts of the iceboat crossing can be found from earlier Sailstrait postings can be found here and here

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.

P.E.I. Ferry Terminal was a Major Infrastructure Project

Ferry Terminal Pier at Carleton Head. Note the third rail on the pier. There was no need of a roadway as everything went back and forth by rail. Several temporary buildings of the construction camp can be seen on the point.

In 1912 Carleton Point was little more than the sea-side edge of a farm located three miles or so to the north and west of Cape Traverse. The latter community was the jumping off point for New Brunswick. The undersea cable of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company landed at Cape Traverse and the community was also the Island end of the winter ice-boat route. It boasted a pier that extended into the Strait and in 1885 a branch line had been added to the Prince Edward Island railway to join the pier to the Island’s rail system.

Pier-head during storm conditions. At least one of the pier cribs can be seen through the spray.

By the summer of 1913 the farm at Carleton Point had been converted to the site of a work camp for the building of the ferry pier. After years of agitation and delay the Dominion Government had committed to the development of an ice-breaking rail ferry service to the Island. Even before the issuing of a contract for construction of the vessel government engineers had been examining options for the route. On the New Brunswick side the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Railway ran from Sackville to Cape Tormentine and as this was the narrowest part of the strait the choice of the Cape was a foregone conclusion.

Winter scene at Cape Tormentine with barges and tugs. The existing rail line and wharf made construction here easier than on the Island side

On the P.E.I. side it was not as clear. Although Cape Traverse had a pier and rail connection the waters of Traverse Cove were shallow and unprotected. In fact, there was little protection on the Island side at all and the decision was made to create a new port where deep water could be reached fairly easily.  However the prevailing south-west winds and strong currents meant that the exposed shore would have to be well-protected by artificial means.

Strom waves at Carleton Head. The inner tower of the tramway can be seen on the still-wooded point.

Carleton Point (Carleton Head on some maps) had been named in 1765 by Samuel Holland for Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester and for the next 150 years appears to have escaped notice. It was here however that in 1913 work began on what was to be a massive project. The contract for the Island side construction was awarded to the Roger Miller Company of Toronto.  At a time when there were no services in the area everything, telephone lines, roads, wells, housing for workers and the building of construction  equipment had to be undertaken at the site. The nearest rail access was three miles away and no wharf or breakwater stood on the exposed shore. Transport of goods and equipment was hampered by the ban on automobiles and trucks on the roads from the main port at Summerside.

Outer tower of the tramway. It had its own steam power station with two boilers and an engine as well as generators to provide lighting. The stone blocks were positioned using the cable and then dropped into place.

One of the first tasks was the building of a powerhouse to supply electrical services and the electric generators and the steam machinery were continuous consumers of coal. On of the most evident pieces of equipment was a cableway carrying the huge stone blocks making up the pier and breakwater.  An island was created 1800 feet from shore and one end of the cableway built there with a 110 foot tower, the other end was on shore. At the peak of operations eighty railcar loads were put in place each 24 hour period.  The stone was brought on scows shuttling between Carleton Head and a quarry on the Scoudouc River near Shediac.  Work continued day and night lit by 43,000 candlepower searchlight on the top of the high cable tower. At a time when the brightest light was an oil lamp the glow from the towers could be seen for miles around.

Derrick placing stones on the breakwater at Carleton Head.

The Carleton terminal structure was just over 1/2 mile long; a 2,000 foot pier and the landing slip of 740 feet.  The slip consisted on nine concrete cribs 100 x 30 feet joined together on site.  The cribs were built in Shediac and towed to Carleton where they were put in place and filled with quarry stone.  By the time the terminal was completed over 250,000 tons of quarry stone, some weighing as much as 10 tons,  had been put in place.  The transfer platform linking the rails on shore to the rails on the ferry itself was built by the Dominion Bridge Company  of Montreal and erected on-site. The mechanism raising and lowering it to adjust to the tide was powered by another steam powerhouse located on the wharf.

Tugs hauling cribs from Shediac where they were built. Once positioned they were filled with rock to form the actual terminal structure.

By the close of operations in December of 1914 the breakwater had been constructed up to low water and the pier had reached some 1500 feet from shore.  The new branch line connecting with existing Cape Traverse subdivision, a distance of 2 1/2 miles had been constructed but grading had been almost completed and the rails had been laid. In September 1915 tenders were called for the building of the rail facilities at the shore end of the terminal. A station, water tank, engine house, transfer platform, standpipe, ash-pit and turntable foundations were built to accommodate rail operations. Initially all tracks had a third rail to carry both narrow-gauge PEI Railway cars and the standard gauge Intercolonial Railway cars which would come across on the ferry.  A transfer station allowed goods to be moved between one type of car to the other.

Carleton terminal structure as it neared completion. Dredges and derricks are still at work but the apron for loading cars onto the boat is in place along with the steam powerhouse which controlled its movement.

The turning basins at both piers had been dredged to a depth of twenty feet at low tide but as the S.S. Prince Edward Island drew that much there was little margin for error and continuous dredging became an almost permanent part of the operation of the port for the next few years.

Completed pier as seen from the breakwater.

In August 1916 a Guardian writer foresaw a fine future for the town. Beautifully situated in the midst of a prosperous farming district, possessing natural attributes as a summer resort with a broad sandy beach, excellent sites for a golf course and summer cottages, having the potential to be a warehousing and distribution centre for the province. By November a decision had been made by the Dominion Government about the name for the town to be built on the cliff overlooking the ferry terminal and rail yard. It was to become Port Borden, named after Robert Laird Borden, the country’s Prime Minister.  Carleton Point became Borden Point at the same time.

When the regular ferry service began in October of 1917 the outlook was bright but town failed to fulfil its earliest expectations.  Rather than stopping at Borden travellers lost little time passing through to Charlottetown, Summerside and tourist destinations. Although planned using modern design principles, possibly by leading town planner Thomas Adams of the Canadian Conservation Commission it did not develop its potential as a regional centre and was primarily a dormitory town for the ferry workers. The busy work of being a distribution centre and transfer point disappeared when the standard gauge rails were extended across the province.

NOTE – Photographs used in this posting are from the Robinson Collection at the P.E.I,. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 3466/74.91