Tag Archives: Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company

A Harbour Full of Sails

Charlottetown wharves about 1910. Even though sail was in decline, masts of about 10 vessels (including one full-rigged ship) can be seen in this image. Pugh postcard #898-8. Private collection.

It is hard to appreciate how different Charlottetown’s harbour is today from the scene that would have greeted observers a century ago.  With a dozen wharves still in operation and the Island almost wholly dependant on shipping for imports and exports the vessels were as important to commerce as is the tractor-trailer today.

However even by 1913 there had been a change from the days of wooden ships and iron men.  Much of the commerce was being carried by steamers which connected the province with Sydney, Halifax, Boston and Montreal as well as carrying goods and passengers across the Strait to Pictou and Shediac.  What was left for the aging fleet of wooden schooners was the high volume, low value bulk cargo such as limestone, wood, and especially coal.  The same vessels carried away agricultural goods – potatoes, turnips, wheat, oats and livestock – to nearby ports and to Newfoundland.  Higher value goods such as tinned lobster, oysters, eggs and the few manufactured goods  usually went to more distant markets and they increasingly went by steamer.

Like many declines, the change was gradual.  However once in a while an event occurred which moved perspective beyond the day-to-day.  In late October 1913 the Island was visited by an extended period of unusually high winds and as time passed eyes began to turn toward the harbour.  While not exactly a front page story, the Guardian felt that the phenomenon  was worthy of note.

23 October 1913 – AN INTERESTING SPECTACLE – In the Charlottetown Harbour yesterday morning was witnessed a spectacle of great interest and of a like unequaled in recent years. The rough weather that has prevailed during the past week has caused a number of small and large sailing craft alike to seek shelter within the haven afforded by Charlottetown’s splendid harbour, and also there were a number of vessels that had discharged and loaded here that would not venture out in the heavy seas and high winds that were reported to be raging in the Strait. There was one vessel indeed which entered the harbour under bare poles, a condition in which she had driven before the wind for many hours previous to her seeking the shelter of Charlottetown. Thus there was quite a fleet anchored within the mouth of the harbour awaiting the abatement of the stormy weather outside. Yesterday’s fine weather gave them an opportunity they awaited. Taking immediate advantage of the fine spell, the whole fleet set sail early in the morning. There were between twenty and thirty of them and they made sail almost simultaneously; the scene of so many vessels sailing out of the harbour at practically the same time being exceptionally animated and interesting.

It was probably the last time that so much working sail was seen in the harbour although the schooners, and even some rigged ships continued to visit until the 1940s.  The commonplace had become the interesting and then the unusual.

The future was also to be seen in the harbour of Charlottetown. In the same month when schooners sheltered from the wind the port saw a steady stream of regular steamers paying monthly or even weekly visits: Furness Lines’ Swansaea Trader, Black Diamond Shipping’s Morwenna, the Plant Line steamer A.W. Perry, the Cascapedia of the Quebec Steamship Line and the daily Northumberland owned by the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company. By the mid-point of the century working sail was completely gone.

Although we have a romantic notion of the age of sail the reality of worn ships with patched sails barely surviving on the edges of commercial traffic is perhaps more realistic. Working schooner in Charlottetown Harbour about 1900. Photo – Public Archives and Records Office.

 

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Delight in the Details; One Photo – Many Stories

The winter of 1905 was a long one for the Island. The ships of the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company, faced with ice forming in the Strait, ceased crossing and were laid up on 12 December 1904. They would not begin to run again until 24 April 1905. Their cross-strait duties were taken over by the Dominion Government Steamers; the Stanley and the Minto, and crossings soon shifted from Charlottetown to Summerside and Georgetown although it was not long before the ice blocked the harbour of Summerside as well.  Government steamers without ice protection such as the survey vessels working on mapping the coastline of Newfoundland had tied up even before the Steam Navigation Company boats and their crews were discharged for the season.

The photo above, taken sometime in 1905, shows the wharves as completely ice-locked.  The unknown photographer is standing in the track of a horse and sleigh which has crossed from the Southport shore. In close-up bushing can be seen on the ice marking the safe routes which began at  the foot of Great George Street extended up the West River and across the harbour.

In this detail you can see the Plant Line terminal building with its characteristic truncated gables and moored alongside the Plant Line Wharf are the three-masted Royal Navy survey ship Ellinor and ahead of her the Canadian Government Steamship Gulnare. In winter ships were not tied tightly to the wharves to allow ice to form around them and ride up and down with the tide. What appears to be a canvas cover has been erected over the decks of the Ellinor to protect them from the snow. Ships boats and other removable equipment have been moved from the ships to indoor storage.   The scene is overseen by St. Dunstan’s Cathedral and the Christian Brothers School at the head of Great George Street. If you look closely you can see the spruce poles marking the bushed route across the ice.

Moored across the end of the Steam Navigation Company wharf is the S.S. Princess. Behind her are the shops and warehouses of the Bruce Stewart and Company foundry and factory. There appears to be a major overhaul of the Princess underway. The funnel has been removed from the ship and a derrick is in place over the boiler and engine room space. Annual re-fitting of steamers was a mainstay of the Bruce Stewart business.  Above the Princess the five-story tower of the Victoria Hotel at the corner of Great George and Water streets, and the spires of the Presbyterian and Anglican churches can be seen.

The easternmost section of the photo shows the area between the Steam Navigation wharf and the Prince Street Ferry Wharf.  In front of the bow of the Princess, the wooden City of London and the Steam Navigation Company’s flagship, the S.S. Northumberland, are lying in the basin between the two wharves.  The funnel of the Northumberland has been topped with a large cone to keep snow from filling the funnel and causing rust in the engine area. The two masts of a schooner show that another vessel is frozen in just ahead of the City of London. The huge roof of the Methodist Church (now Trinity United) looms over smaller buildings. Just visible to the right is the cupola of the roundhouse of the Prince Edward Island Railway at the south-east corner of Prince Street and Water Street.

Owing to the quality of the glass-plate negatives used to take photographs at the turn of the twentieth century and before, details can be found buried in the background of many period pictures.  While the overall scene and the beauty of the composition can be seen from a distance the real stories often require a magnifying glass.

The History of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company

Princess of Wales in Summerside Harbour 1878. Detail From Panoramic View of Summerside

Princess of Wales in Summerside Harbour 1878. Detail From Panoramic View of Summerside

In 1878 Panoramic Views of both Summerside and Charlottetown were published. The views gave an accurate depiction of the two Island communities and highlighted the commercial and industrial progress being made. Because of the perspective view the largest items on the sheets are the paddlewheel steamers then proudly plying Island waters – the Princess of Wales (mislabeled in the drawing as the Prince of Wales) in Summerside Harbour and the St. Lawrence in Charlottetown Harbour. Also seen in Charlottetown Harbour lithograph was the smaller Heather Belle.

These three boats constituted the fleet of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company which had been organized in 1863 and was incorporated the following year to take over the contract for service between the colony of Prince Edward Island and the mainland from a New Brunswick company operating the Westmorland. The company was capitalized at £20,000 and shares were held mostly by Island shipbuilders, lawyers and capitalists

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

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

The company started operations with the Heather Belle and a new steamer called the Princess of Wales which had been built in Carleton New Brunswick and launched early in 1864. Newspaper advertisements in February said service would begin in April 1864 but in May she was still in Saint John being outfitted The vessel finally arrived in Charlottetown in June and went into service immediately.  At 192 feet and almost 1000 tons she was considerably larger than the Westmorland and there were some fears that she was too large for the trade. However the editor of the Islander noted that the Island had much to draw visitors  “…and if its attractions can be made known to the many thousands who yearly leave the cities of the United States in search of a pleasant retreat, for some months at least, a steamer quite as large as the “Princess of Wales” will be required to convey to our shores the thousands of tourists who will visit us.”  The two steamers each had a weekly route with the Princess of Wales visiting Pictou, Port Hood, Summerside and Shediac from the home port of Charlottetown and the Heather Belle traveling to Pictou , Murray Harbour, Georgetown and Souris.

Paddle Steamer Princess of Wales. The funnel seems to be removed in this photo.

Paddle Steamer Princess of Wales. The funnel seems to be removed in this photo but the walking beam which connected the engine with the paddles can be clearly seen.

General Whiting as she might have looked as a Confederate blockade runner. ship image drawn by Petr Merkulov based on the best available evidence and documentation.

General Whiting as she might have looked as a Confederate blockade runner. Ship image drawn by Petr Merkulov based on the best available evidence and documentation.

The Princess of Wales was joined in 1868 by another steamer, the St. Lawrence.  This paddle wheeler had been built in Mystic, Connecticut in 1863 and used as a blockade runner during the American civil war under the name General Whiting. Whiting was a general in the Confederate States Army who was captured and later died a prisoner. Under ownership of the Consolidated Steamship Company the General Whiting made at least four successful passages between Nassau and the Southern States and survived the war. Between 1866 and 1868 she was lying in Saint John and probably had been re-built to increase her accommodation. At 201 feet in length and 33 feet in width she was just slightly larger than the Princess of Wales. With a nominal power of 250 horsepower it was claimed she could have an average speed of 10 knots but also be “light on fuel.” Both the Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence carried about 25 crew members.

Paddle steamer St. Lawrence in Charlottetown Harbour 1878. Detail from Panoramic View of Charlottetown.

Paddle steamer St. Lawrence in Charlottetown Harbour 1878. Detail from Panoramic View of Charlottetown.

By 1869 the Steam Navigation Company was running its vessels on several routes: The Princess of Wales and St. Lawrence visited Pictou, Cape Breton, Georgetown, Souris, Summerside and Shediac from Charlottetown on a regular weekly schedule, while the Heather Belle served Mount Stewart, Port Selkirk (Orwell) and Crapaud (Victoria).  In the early years the steamers also provided service to Miramichi and Richibucto.

The 1869 season was not a good one of the company. In early August the two steamers collided at night off Seacow Head.  The St. Lawrence was holed below the waterline and was saved only by being towed to shoal water by the Princess of Wales, which had also been damaged in the collision.  Although the Princess of Wales resumed service the next day the St. Lawrence required extensive repair. She was patched in Summerside and then towed to Pictou to be put on the marine slip for an overhaul.

Steam Navigation Company advertisement in the P.E.I. Directory 1889-1890.

Steam Navigation Company advertisement in the P.E.I. Directory 1889-1890.

Confederation in 1873 was good for the company. Although they had lost much of the Charlottetown to Summerside traffic through the building of the Prince Edward Island Railway, they benefitted from a 20-year $10,000 annual subsidy which was part of the Dominion’s commitment to furnish “continuous steam communication” and the railway links between Island towns and villages made the strait crossing routes more lucrative. In 1884 the Princess of Wales was substantially re-built with new steel boilers, more efficient but lighter and smaller, which allowed expansion of the passengers area to accommodate an additional 100 in the main saloon, as well as increased capacity on the freight deck.  The company was re-incorporated in 1890 under Dominion legislation as the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company, this time with $400,000 in capital stock.  John Ings, L.C. Owen, and William Richards, all of whom had been connected with the shipbuilding and ship-owning activities were the first directors.

In the 1890’s, with improved rail connections the routes of the steamers were simplified. One vessel made daily trips from Charlottetown to Pictou to connect with the Halifax train, the other ran from Summerside to Pointe du Chene to meet the train from Saint John with connections to Boston. In 1895 the subsidy was renewed and continued to be paid until the S.S. Prince Edward Island was launched in 1915.  By this time the fleet had changed. The Heather Belle had been sunk in fog in 1891. The other wooden paddle steamers were thirty years old and feeling their age. In 1893 the St. Lawrence had suffered from a broken shaft which kept her off the routes for about six weeks and required leasing of a replacement.  The Princess of Wales had been the first of the large side-wheelers to go – replaced by the iron steamer Northumberland in 1891.  The St. Lawrence, described the same year  by the American  Counsel in Charlottetown as having “good accommodation for freight and passengers” was kept running until 1896  when the Princess arrived.

The last days of the Princess of Wales were inglorious. After being replaced by the shiny new S.S. Northumberland she was purchased by James Lantalum of St. John and partly broken up. However the hulk was left on the beach near the ferry slip in Charlottetown. In the winter of 1897 she was carried by the ice into the dredged channel and became a hazard to navigation. It was not until 1901 that a dispute about jurisdiction and costs was resolved and the wreck finally removed.

The St. Lawrence was likewise a far cry from her romantic past at the end of her days. Replaced by the S.S. Princess in 1896, her registry was closed in 1897 and her engine was transferred to the Victoria, a Saint John River steamer. By 1903 she was being used as a barge transporting cattle to waiting steamers in the port of Saint John. Her once spacious passenger accommodation had been replaced by stalls for cattle.

In 1907 the last artifacts of the Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence were put on the market. Auctioneer R.B. Norton was selling off surplus and unclaimed goods at the Steam Navigation Company warehouse. Included was the mahogany and walnut furniture from the two steamers; dining tables, chairs, washstands and sinks, 8 mahogany sofas, tables, arm chairs and “a large lot of stuff that cannot be classified. ”

The company itself did not last much longer.  Although it seems to have been profitable to the end, the termination of the subsidy and the arrival of year-round ferry service certainly placed the company at a cross roads.  After disposing of their ships the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company sold their wharf by tender and in August of 1916 the enterprise was wound up after a half-century of service. It was truly the end of an era.

NOTE: More on the panoramic views of Charlottetown and Summerside can be found in the Fall-Winter 1988 issue of The Island Magazine