Tag Archives: Charlottetown Harbour

Imperfectly Known Dangers: Sailing Directions for Hillsborough Bay 1855

The 1830s and 1840s saw a major improvement in the aids to navigation on Northumberland Strait and Hillsborough Bay. A black can buoy was in place at Fitzroy Rock to mark one known hazard by the late 1830s. The Bay was surveyed under direction from the Colonial Government in 1839 and a chart published in 1842.  In 1841 Captain Henry Wolsey Bayfield transferred the headquarters of the Hydrographic Survey from Quebec to Charlottetown and quickly began to chart the Strait as well as the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence. In 1845 the colonial government commissioned the building of a lighthouse at Point Prim which showed the entrance to the Bay. The following year a chart of the Bay was published based on Bayfield’s survey.

Prior to this activity the only charts were those of J.F.W. DesBarres published in the 1780s  and they contained little more detail than the information from the Holland survey in 1764, twenty years earlier. Since the Holland survey dealt with the land, the chart contained little marine detail and only a few soundings.

Detail from J.F.W. DesBarres Chart of the South-Eastern Coast of the Island of St. John. Published as part of the Atlantic Neptune ca. 1785. Detailed soundings are rare and many hazards are not shown.

One essential aid to navigation, then as now, was the series of published “Sailing Directions” or “Pilots” which added navigation details to the charts. These were often complied from the observations of ship’s captains.  For example many of the observations on the navigation of the waters of the Maritimes are from the log of H.M. Sloop Ranger which was on fisheries patrol in the area in 1831. The Sailing Directions could be extremely detailed or frustratingly vague. An edition of 1810 said only this of Hillsborough Bay:

Hillsborough Bay is the finest bay in the island, and the River Hillsborough is a fine navigable river; but timber here is not plentiful.  Before Charlotte Town in this river, there is good anchorage in from 6 to 9 fathoms.  

We praise Bayfield for the excellence of his charts but the first edition of his Sailing Guide which includes Prince Edward Island, published by the British Admiralty in 1847 is a magnificent achievement and is as much a contribution to navigation as the charts themselves.  He introduces the section on Hillsborough Bay thusly: “The numerous dangers it contains, having hitherto been very imperfectly known and represented have rendered its navigation extremely difficult to strangers in a large ship; but this will now be obviated, it is conceived, by the Admiralty Chart accompanied by the following directions.” He then goes on for a full ten pages describing the hazards of the bay and the directions for avoiding them.

Detail of Bayfield’s 1846 Chart of Hillsborough Bay showing Huntley Rock, Fitzroy Rock and Astyanyx Rock. Detailed soundings can easily be seen.

The sailing directions were a very marketable item and every ship, except perhaps those in the local coastal trade, would have had a copy for the area for which they were destined.  Copies were published using Bayfield’s information with no regard for the copyrights of the Admiralty. There were English and American editions, both official and otherwise, as well as dozens of other editions, reprints, additions, improvements and condensations. A French-language of the Bayfield volume was published in 1864. One English version by hydrographer J.S. Hobbs published in 1855, had the remarkably comprehensive and descriptive title:

Part of the title page of an 1855 edition of Sailing Directions

A small sampling of the information contained (condensed from the Bayfield edition)  follows:

Hillsborough Bay is the finest bay in the island; within it is the principal harbour and capital town of Charlotte Town, which is advantageously situated on the northern bank of the Hillsborough, where the deep water approaches nearest to the shore. The town is well laid out with squares and its streets at right angles; the houses are generally of wood, and the population about 5000. All kinds of supplies may be obtained here, and there is sufficient water in the harbour for the largest ships; and the Hillsborough River is navigable for large ships 7 or 8 miles above Charlotte Town; smaller vessels may go farther up: the shores are all well settled. It is high water full and change, at 10h. 45m. ; spring-tides rise 9 1/2 feet, neeps 7 feet. Ships generally lie off the wharves of the town, where the channel is nearly 10 fathoms deep and 280 fathoms wide.

Strangers or those unacquainted, when bound to Charlotte Town, should take a pilot; but in the event of not meeting one outside, the bay may be safely entered, and good anchorage will be found N.W. of Governor Island, until a pilot can be obtained. When entering the bay from the westward the leading mark is Pownall’s Point, just touching the north point of Governor Island, bearing E. by N. run in with this mark, until you see the Presbyterian Church , and as soon as it is in one with Block-house Point  N. by E. 1/2 E. steer N.E. by E. or N.E. 1/2 E., according to the tide, until the west side of Government-house and Battery Point come in one bearing N. 1/2 E.; these latter marks lead up the deep-water channel to Trout Point, at the entrance of the harbour. If you cannot see the leading marks, keep along the southern and eastern edge of the St. Peter’s Shoals, in 5 fathoms, up to near the Spit Head buoy, then anchor.

When coming from the eastward at night, Point Prim Light must not be brought to the westward of N.N.W., to avoid the Rifleman Shoal; and Prim Reef should be rounded at 10 fathoms, in a large ship; smaller vessels may cross it in 4 or 5 fathoms. As soon as the light bears to the southward of E. by S. 1/4 S. , and in not less than 10 fathoms of low water, or with Point Prim E. by S. , you will be to the northward of the reef. The course across the bay must be north or N. 1/2 E. , in thick weather or at night; the object being to strike soundings on the southern edge of the bank off St. Peter’s Island, and following it to the north-eastward, in 5 fathoms , till about 1 1/2 miles within the Fitzroy Rock, where you may anchor off Governor Island, in good holding ground, and wait for daylight, or a pilot. In clear weather, your course from the outer end of Prim Reef, in 10 fathoms, will be N. by E 1/2 E., about 5 miles.

Except in areas where there was silting in the harbours or where sandbars and shoals shifted with wind and tide the hazards to navigation changed little over the years. Although published over 170 years ago Bayfield’s sailing guide could still be used today to bring a ship into safe harbour in Charlottetown.


“This is a good harbor” Charlotte Town in 1785


Charlotte Town in 1778. watercolour by Capt. Charles Randall. Library and Archives Canada #1951-5589-1. The view would not have much changed by the time of Lt. Booth’s visit seven years later. Patterson’s Battery can be seen at the left, beneath the flag.


From uncleared forest at the time of Holland’s survey in 1764 Charlotte Town grew slowly. It was inhabited mostly by colonial officials and a few merchants but the military presence was important to the capital. During and following the revolt of the Americans defense of the British colonies was a pre-occupation of the authorities.  In 1785 General John Campbell made a tour of the region from his headquarters in Halifax. One of the earliest accounts of Charlotte Town was left by Lieutenant William Booth of the Royal Engineers who was a member of the inspection party.

The itinerary of General Campbell’s tour was decided by the prevailing winds. The party embarked on the brig Maria not exactly knowing which direction they would take.

July 25th 1785
The wind continued against us for Shelburne tho’ quite in our favor for stretching to the Northward, the General’s intended route, after having finished his Tour to the Westward ‘t was now given out that; should the wind be North or South, on our clearing the Harbour, We were to sail.
We clear’d the Beach by 12 oClock, and finding the wind So. Wst we altered our course for the Island of St. John’s, where we arrived by the 28th without anything remarkable on our passage, except our, fortunately, passing between the main land and a Shoal of Rocks near the entrance of the Gut of Canso, which our pilot, who was a Fisherman we met with on our way, declared, was “only whale playing” on the Water, and that, for his part, he had been more than a hundred times, Fishing about the Coast, with his Boy, and Shallop, and never met with any accident, so that, in his idea, our, Poor Brig, was diminished to a Boat. We kept our Eyes, for several miles, upon this whale, as he term’d it, but found the appearance still the same, which confirmed our opinion of its being, a Breaker.

July 28th
This morning Captain Calbeck, the Attorney General of this Place, and two Gentlemen with him visited us. This is a good harbour, having in the middle of the Entrance, from 12 to 14 fathoms Water, and not less than 8 up to Charlotte Town, the Capital of this Island. The entrance of the Harbor is 1000 Yards in width, and runs, about a mile before it opens to the Town, and three fine Rivers viz. : one on the left call’d Elliot River, that in front, and due North, in the direction of the Entrance, is call’d Yorke River, and by some the North River, and that which runs from the Town to the Eastward, is named Hillsborough River. These Rivers are said to be full of Fish, of every kind, common to this Climate, great quantities of Oysters, are Bedded here, and Trout are found in vast abundance. There are between 60 and 70 Houses in Charlotte Town. The Governor has a small House there, and one at this Farm, situated near Fort Amherst, on the west side of the entrance of this Harbour [There has been a Barrack in this Fort, but no remains of it are at present to be seen, and the Fort quite in ruins, an old french Mortar is the only piece of ordnance in this Fort or rather Redout, bring Square, without Flanks.]


Thomas Wright’s 1780 map of Charlottetown. Made 5 years before Booth’s visit it shows only about half the number of structures noted by Booth suggesting that the town had doubled in size in 5 years. The defensive works at Patterson’s Battery, including the barracks can be seen at the west end of what would become Water Street. The only named street is Queen Street running from Patterson’s Field to a wharf which did not even extend to the edge of the flats exposed at low tide. A copy of the map can be found at the P.E.I. Public Archives and Records Office

To-day we dined with the Chief Justice; the Brigade Major Gordon, was not of the Party, having rode to St. Peters, to explore that part of the Country. I walk’d round the Town, and examined the Ground on which part the of the Barracks, that had been built for the Troops, Garrison’d here, in the war, are still standing, vizt. one wing of a Pile of Barracks, that were never completed, the other wing, and return, having been taken away by the Refugee’s, and others, for fire wood etc.  Capt. Calbeck says, the part that is gone, was only Framed. There are also standing a barrack, in front, and near Patterson’s Battery, a Guardhouse , an Hospital, and a Commanding officer’s Quarter. In the rear of the Town, has been a Field Fort, thrown up for the Inhabitants to retire to, in case of an Enemy taking possession of their Works in front. [The Inhabitants set fire to it, saying twas a harbor for muskito’s. Capt. Calbeck inform’d me this on my observing the Fascines burnt & also a Gun Carriage partly destroyed.] This Fort is now totally in ruins, as is the battery above mention’d  The Fort consisted of 4 confined half Bastions; the whole faced, and lined with Fascines, having, on each Flank, a Gun; but the Ground, in the rear again of this Work, has too great a command to render it a permanent Post. Patterson’s Battery consists of 9 Guns of different Calibres, tis 30 feet or so above the Water and is well situated for defending the approach to the Town, on that side.

Agreeably to General Campbell’s orders, I examined the state of the Officers’ and Soldiers’ Barracks , in order to have them repaired, for the Two Companies of the 33rd Regiment expected to arrive in three weeks; the General desired that this business might be done by contract: I accordingly agreed with a Mr. Clark, master Carpenter, for the completion of those Quarters, and when done, to enclose the whole with a good Palisade forming a handsome Parade; this estimate amounts to £363/7/6 H. Cy.

Dined with the Governor, and the principal  Gentlemen of the Town.

1st August
Dropt down to the Governor’s Farm, near the entrance of the Harbor, where we remained during this day, the wind being unfavorable for our intended voyage to Spanish River [In the Island of Cape Breton.] The soil of St. John’s Island is good, and the Country remarkably level, the inhabitants say there are only two Hills, of any note, in it, and they lay near the centre; some Seasons the Farmers have their Grain surprisingly destroyed, by the sudden appearance of an astonishing number of a reddish kind of Mice. By way of amusement today I made a Sketch of the Governor’s Farmhouse, & Barn, and also a rough Drawing of the Town and part of the Harbor [The latter I lost by sending by the B. Major Gordon’s request to a Gent on Shore to look at.

Sail’d this morning

After leaving Charlotte Town the military group proceeded to Cape Breton and then back to Halifax. William Booth (1748-1826), author of these observations had joined the Royal Engineers as an ensign in 1771. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1779 and served at Gibraltar before being transferred to Halifax in 1782. He retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1800.  A number of his watercolour sketches survive but unfortunately none are of his brief visit to Charlotte Town. As a part of an official military visit Booth was more concerned about the state of defences of the town than its civil aspect but because so little is recorded about the history of the town, as opposed to the political infighting of its officials, his diary remains an important document .

The original of Lt. Booth’s report is at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, MG1 Vol 44 pp 2-7.  Other details of the military history of the colony can be found in David Webber’s A Thousand Young Men, published by the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation.



Charlottetown Yacht Club – A History in Five Photos

Last month I had the opportunity to sit down with Ron Atkinson who was a Yacht Club Board Member for several years and was Commodore in 1964 – one of the most exciting years in the history of the club.  Besides his memories of the Club activities Ron has a collection of materials which he willingly shared with me.  The following photos were ones that I had not seen before but which cover a forty-year period in the Club’s history and which Ron allowed me to copy.


Although this photo was taken in 1959 it shows a structure which pre-dated the Yacht Club by many years.   Remembered by Ron as “Carvell’s salt shed”  the building which shows up in few other photos sat on Pownal Wharf  where the Club parking lot now stands. Carvell’s had leased the wharf in the 1920s but the building may be older than that. Probably used for the storage of salt which was sold for fish preservation, the building was typical of the waterfront structures which received little or no maintenance after shipping dropped off in the late 1930s.  Before that Carvell’s Wharf was a busier spot and the regular steamers using the wharf included Clarke Steamships Gaspesia.  By the time this photo was taken the wharf had crumbled with only the rock pile visible to the right of the picture.

CYC001aThis photo was taken sometime before 1937 when the Yacht Club clubhouse was built on the stub of what had been Lord’s Wharf. Work undertaken through the depression works program had made a great job of clearing the site and restoring the pilings and infill for the wharf. The float which was the boarding point for boats was already in place and anchored yachts were beginning to fill the basin.  To the left of the picture, moored at Carvell’s, or Pownal wharf, are two of the boats essential to the history of the Club; Hal Bourke’s Restless and Mac Irwin’s Roamer.   The wharf had an extension running east and west to enable large steamers to tie up and given the perspective this photo must have been taken from the deck of one of the steamers.  The wharf would have provided excellent shelter from to south-east winds for the yachts in the basin. Note that the area to the north of the Club is almost empty with neither the City Barn nor the Eastern hay and Feed warehouse yet constructed.

CYC002aProbably copied from a newspaper this picture can be dated between 1938 and 1940. the new architect-designed clubhouse overlooks the snipe fleet and a small schooner. The ground is still almost empty between the Club and Water Street. In June 1940 the City of Charlottetown let a contract to Albert MacKinnon for a new City Barn to be built just north of the Club. The design for the structure had been drawn by architect James Harris.  The building was to house the city’s public works equipment and horses.  CYC003a

With a group of members launching one of the club’s Snipe fleet changes to the club’s surroundings can be spotted in the background. The City Barn, very recently built but already looking old, is in place and visible behind it is the Eastern Hay and Feed warehouse, later Atlantic Wholesalers. The photo is probably from the early 1940s. Several of the participants seem to have military-style dress and the Club was a popular spot for airmen training at the R.A.F. and R.C.A.F. facilities at what is now the Charlottetown Airport. Although not absolutely clear it is likely that the gentleman in the leather jacket to the left of the boat is Mac Irwin who was involved in almost every Club activity.


Jump ahead about thirty years. With the fleet at anchor in what must have been a very high tide the changes that time has brought can be seen. Several additions (clearly without the influence of an architect) have been made to the clubhouse to add to the facilities and increase the bar revenue. The scotch derrick which served as the mast crane is to the right of the building and a number of finger piers extend east from Lords’s Wharf.  The City Barn and the Atlantic Wholesale warehouse still stand and the various sheds, barns and warehouses on Pickard’s wharf all seem to be awaiting demolition and redevelopment as Harbourside. Experienced club members will recognize many of the boats afloat and ashore; Plumb MacDonald’s boat is in what is now the ‘hood, Mac Irwin’s last Roamer is moored just west of Pownal wharf, and that looks like the Hunk A Dory in the parking lot. It is amazing to see how much the view is dominated by the bulk of St. Dunstan’s Cathedral.