Tag Archives: Charlottetown

No Room at the Inn when Cunard Steamer Came to Call

The first visit was quite unexpected. On 19 June 1840 a large paddle steamer appeared a the entrance to the harbour and made its way to the wharf. As she approached, her decks could be seen to be crowded with British troops in their bright red uniforms. It was a changing of the guard as a detachment from the 8th Regiment sent from Halifax to replace the men of the 37th Regiment who had spent most of the past year in Charlottetown.

Advertisement for Atlantic steamship service for which the Unicorn served as a feeder. Colonial Herald and Prince Edward Island Advertiser 4 July 1840

Even more interesting than the new troops was the vessel on which they had arrived. The Unicorn was the first of the line of Cunard steamers to cross from Liverpool to Boston, via Halifax. The ship, which was slightly smaller than the purpose-built fleet of four vessels which later took on the trans-Atlantic packet service which led to the Cunard fame, had been built on the Clyde in 1836 for the Liverpool to Glasgow service. When the plan for the Atlantic packet service was developed the Unicorn was leased by the Cunard partners from the British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company.  Leaving Liverpool on 16 May 1840 with 27 passengers, the Royal Mail and 450 tons of coal the Unicorn, after battling heavy weather, entered Halifax  on the first of June and arrived in Boston on 3 June to be greeted at the wharf by thousands of spectators and by  banquet at which poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described the vessels – “Steamships! The pillars of fire by night and cloud by day, which guide the wanderer over the sea.”   The regular four-vessel “Atlantic railway” began about a month later.

The 163 foot Unicorn, the largest paddle steamer to visit Charlottetown to that date, was powered by a 2 cylinder engine producing 260 horsepower. The Colonial Herald, at a loss for its own words, copied a description of her interior from one of the English papers;

Her salon is spacious and finished in the style of the days of “Good  Queen Bess,” in solid rosewood, with panels or centre pieced in each compartment, formed by richly gilded antique foliated frame-work, within each of which is a Chinese view on a bright green ground, in the finest japan. The furniture corresponds, and the smaller cabins and sleeping-rooms are finished in corresponding style, and fitted with every possible convenience.

The Unicorn returned to Halifax with the departing troops – or at least some of them as their numbers had been reduced at a quarter through death and desertion.  Another unexpected visit from the steamer in July brought the Governor-General for a quick visit on his way to Halifax.

Sir Samuel Cunard

After her initial Atlantic voyage the route was handed off to Cunard’s newer and larger vessels. The Unicorn was assigned to a contract which served as a feeder, carrying mails and passengers from Pictou to Quebec. Hopes on the Island that they were to be a stop on that route were dashed by the news that the vessel would sail from Pictou around East Point and across the Gulf to Quebec.  The slightly longer route avoided the danger of sailing Northumberland Strait at night, at that time without any lighthouses.

Another impediment  to regular visits may have been revealed at what was possibly the Unicorn’s last visit in September of 1840.  The steamer had come from Halifax in a record time of 27 hours. In an earlier visit Cunard told the editor of the Colonial Herald that there were other problems facing steamer passengers to Charlottetown:

[Cunard] was struck at the want of accommodation in Charlottetown for travellers. A number of those who had previously arrived in the Pocahontas were in town, and when the Unicorn arrived with upwards of forty more, although some were accommodated in private homes, many were unable to procure beds, and during the two nights the vessel remained here were under the necessity of sleeping on board. From the influx of strangers who visit the island in pursuit of business or amusement  and which may be expected greatly to increase, as additional facilities for travelling are afforded, it must be apparent to everyone  that something ought to be done to remove us from the reproach of suitable accommodation being provided when they arrive.

Cunard offered to help in the establishment of a hotel, pledging a subscription of £100 towards the project. Although endorsed the Colonial Herald the suggestion does not appear to have been acted on. The newspaper’s editor noted another deficiency in the harbour facilities;

We may also add that the want of a separate wharf at which steam boats can load at all times and take on board passengers, with their luggage &c. without interruption is much complained of.  On Wednesday evening the passengers by the Unicorn had to scramble in the dark over the decks of two square-rigged vessels before they could reach the wharf, and when they did effect a landing, they had then, at the risk of their limbs, to pick their steps over huge heaps of limestone ballast, which had been previously thrown on the wharf.  If we are really desirous of getting a-head, something must be done to remedy this inconvenience also.   

Although there was a gradual improvement in the wharf situation over the next twenty years the want of proper hotel accommodation in Charlottetown was to be a constant complaint for almost a century and was frequently cited as a barrier to the development of tourism on the Island.

The Pictou to Quebec Royal Mail subsidy was ended in 1845 as the mails were routed through Boston to Montreal. Although the Unicorn had seldom stopped in Charlottetown after 1840 the change had an impact on the island mails  as they were no longer given the express treatment in the coach from Halifax to Pictou and had to wait an extra day or so for the regular stage.

The Unicorn was purchased from its British owners in 1845 by James Whitney of Saint John and by Samuel Cunard in 1849 She appears to have been used in connection with trade to Newfoundland. Purchased by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in 1849, probably to take advantage of the California gold rush traffic, she sailed between San Francisco and Panama City.  In 1853 she was sent to Australia. A year later she sailed for Canton and Shanghai and there the trail seems to run out.

Although the Cunard family had ties with Prince Edward Island – he was associated with the General Mining Association which had operated the steam packet service to the Island, his land company owned over 100,000 acres, and his daughter married James Horsfield Peters, lawyer and later judge, the Island never featured highly in the Cunard steamship story. Perhaps they should have built that hotel!




The Albatross Lands in Charlottetown

The Albatross Arrives

Charlottetown had rarely seen such enthusiasm. The arrival of the steamer Albatross in July of 1852 heralded the beginning of a new era of communication with the Island capital being linked with bi-monthly sailings with both New York and Quebec. The ship itself was one of the largest and most powerful which had ever visited the city. Built in Philadelphia the previous year by Wm. Cramp & Sons and described as “magnificent”  the 1100 ton vessel boasted 250 horsepower and first class accommodation for 120 first class passengers. When she visited Quebec the local newspaper described her as “Long, narrow high out of the water, exceedingly sharp at the bow, rounded stern, rather wall-sided.”

It was a bold experiment as little was known about the amount of traffic that could be expected. An earlier routing for the Albatross between Philadelphia and Charleston had failed because the expected business never materialized. However the Quebec plan was not short on one essential element – publicity. The main proponent of the new route was one Burrows Wilcocks Arthur Sleigh who apparently had the ability to charm the most cautious investor and to create dreams out of nothing.

The Rise and Fall of a Dreamer


B.W.A. Sleigh

Sleigh ([pronounced “Slee”) was born in Quebec thanks to his father’s short-lived residency there and spent several years in the British Army serving in the West Indies, Canada and Nova Scotia. He sold his commission in 1848 and retired with the rank of Captain. From then on he appears to have lived by his wits and other people’s money. From 1848 to 1851 he was floating a scheme for the Halifax and Quebec Railroad and another the establishment of a settlement in New Brunswick for retired army and naval officers. An investigation found that the land had never been purchased and that Sleigh had declared bankruptcy a few months earlier.   That did not prevent him from moving on to several new schemes.  He made a down payment to purchase the 70,000 acre Worrell estate in Kings County and visited the Island in March of 1852 travelling by ice boat across the strait. While on the Island he announced the formation of a new steamship line which would include Charlottetown as a stop on the New York – Quebec route.


Haszard’s Gazette 27 July 1852

One of the biggest promoters of the new line was the American Counsel in Pictou, Major Norton who, in some reports, was the originator of the scheme.  New York newspapers wrote of the great wealth of extensive landownership of Captain Sleigh who took over the enterprise from Norton and proceeded to expand the vision to include the possibility of additional ships on the line.  The International Journal wrote of Sleigh “No man in the colonies has a deeper interest at stake there than Captain Sleigh.” In this telling the land held by Sleigh had swelled to 100,000 acres of the best agricultural land.  The Albatross touched at Charlottetown on its way to Quebec in mid-July  and while the steamer was in port Sleigh announced the formation of the Bank of Charlottetown. On the return of the Albatross from Quebec Sleigh was the guest of honour at a grand banquet with Hon Charles Hensley in the chair held in the colony’s House of Assembly. One hundred and three of the leading gentlemen of the colony heaped praise on Sleigh for his initiative.  Additional honours included the naming of Sleigh as a Justice of the Peace and an appointment as Lieutenant-Colonel of the 2nd Kings County Regiment of Militia.

Alas, the progress and prospects of Prince Edward Island did not immediately improve. After two round trips the voyages of the Albatross between New York and Quebec were cancelled and the ship was seized by creditors. Sleigh probably didn’t own the ship anyway.  He ended up in jail on Halifax. He never completed his purchase of the Worrell estate. The Bank of Charlottetown issued a few banknotes in New York now highly praised by collectors but otherwise worthless.  On the Island the worthies backed quickly away from their association with Sleigh and a nasty bit of name-calling resulted from a map published which included Sleigh’s name among the land proprietors.  He was stripped of his militia post but Sleigh thereafter refereed to himself as Colonel Sleigh. He returned to England and published a self-inflating book of his time in Canada under the title Pine Forests and Hackmatack Clearings which included several rather unflattering descriptions of the Island and its people.

The Flight of the Albatross is Halted

Albatross 1001

Haszard’s Gazette 7 September 1852

And what of the Albatross?  With the failure of the New York – Quebec venture still fresh the owners turned to other possibilities. The gold fields of Australia looked promising and in late August of 1852 an advertisement appeared headed “Steam for Australia.”  The Albatross would head for Melbourne in late September with an added deck to accommodate 491 passengers in 30 private cabins and curtained berths on the saloon deck at only $200 per berth.  Improvements would “render her one of the finest vessels that has ever sailed for the Golden Regions of Australia.”  The notice was signed by the owner, sporting his newly awarded rank as  Colonel Sleigh.

Perhaps the uptake was not as good as had been hoped but instead of Australia the Albatross was next spotted on the route between New York and Vera Cruz, Mexico where she connected with the land route to Acapulco which was a port of call for the Panama-San Francisco steamers.  Because the ship had been owned in Sleigh’s name and the registration transferred to a British registry an act of Congress was required to re-register the ship as an American vessel, owned by Sleigh’s one-time agent/partner Simeon Draper.  However the Albatross was not destined to last long. On 18 April 1853 a strong cross-current carried the ship off her course and she piled up on the Cabezas Reef, some 26 miles from the port of Vera Cruz.  Although the passengers were saved the ship slipped into deeper water and was a total loss. She carried a wide cargo of dreams with her to the bottom.

The Aftermath

As for Sleigh the Albatross was a mere ripple in the pond of his life. In 1855 he and others founded the Daily Telegraph newspaper in London. He bought out his partners a few months later and sold the paper in 1857. It was destined to become one  of the leading newspapers of the United kingdom and is still published. It is perhaps Sleigh’s sole legacy. He ran unsuccessfully for Parliament on a number of occasions and was in and out of Bankruptcy Court. In 1861 he set up the fraudulent British Columbia Overland Transit Company to “help” those trying to get to the goldfields. In 1869 he died at age 48.

Further Reading

Harry Baglole’s article “The Icy Passage” in the Island Magazine for Fall/Winter 1976 outlines Sleigh’s career and has an excerpt from Pine Forests and Hackmatack Clearings. P.B. Waite’s work on Sleigh in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography has more details but George William Newkey-Burden’s 2011 PhD thesis on Sleigh and the Daily Telegraph contains much new information.

“The people would prefer going to a quiet and unobstructed wharf”


An isolated capital

The location of colonial Charlottetown at the junction of three rivers meant that the rivers were both a highway and a hindrance. For water-borne traffic the routes to the east, west and north meant that farm produce and firewood could be easily transported from the interior and in winter the rivers became sleigh routes.

However for the rest of the year the rivers could be a barrier. Except to the north the town was not accessed by land. The Hillsborough was a particular barrier as it went north-east and almost cut the Island in two. Land traffic had to go around the head of the river which added miles to the trip.  Across the river from Charlottetown the roads were soon in place to link with the farming settlements in Vernon, the Selkirk settlements in Belfast and the southern part of Queen’s and King’s Counties. As well, the quickest and easiest route to Georgetown, the county capital, started right across the river from Charlottetown.  It is hardly a surprise that one of the earliest ferries in the colony was across the Hillsborough to Minchin’s Point where the government had built a wharf at an early date.  On the Charlottetown side wharf building was slower.  As late as 1839 the harbour chart shows only Queen’s Wharf extending to the channel and the stub of a wharf just west of the foot of Great George Street. The Charlottetown ferry tied up to these docks or landed passengers directly on shore.

Almost all of the town properties south of Water Street had “water lots” which gave ownership of the land below the high-water mark to the channel. This encouraged development of private wharves and by the early 1840s a wharf had been developed by the Steam Mill Company, and Reddin’s Wharf and the first of the several Peake’s Wharves had been built.  In 1844 the government, facing overcrowding at the Queen’s Wharf built a wharf at the foot of Pownal Street.  Both the Queen’s Wharf and the Pownal Wharf were built on the extensions of streets where there were no water lots.

Team-boats and steam-boats

The ferry in early years was sailed or rowed and later took the form of a “team-boat” where harnessed horses were used to turn paddle wheels.  However, just as steam had supplanted sail across Northumberland Strait, by 1848 there was talk of a steam boat service across the Hillsborough.  Legislation in that year provided for a 20-year exclusive grant of the ferry service for a person supplying “a good and sufficient Steam-Boat of not less than twelve horse-power” to convey “Passengers, Cattle and Luggage” across the river. The boat was to cross every half hour sunrise to sunset except for the time it took to make a morning and evening trip to Canso Point (now Rocky Point).  If no steam boat was tendered then government was empowered to contract for a Team Boat to be propelled by four horses [four horse-power?] and which was not less than fifty feet in length.

There were several failed attempts at providing regular service.  Among others,  contracts had been let to Thomas Tremain with the ferry steamer Isla, and to  John Roach Bourke for his little steamer Arethusa. By 1856 however, the contract had been annulled and declared forfeited,  owing, in part, to the fighting in regards to the use of the wharves for the ferry.  To address the problem the Legislature conducted a lengthy debate on the subject.  Dennis Reddin had offered to allow the ferry to operate from his wharf for payment of 40 pounds per year which appealed to the more frugal members of the House.  However, others pointed out that it was “inexpedient to connect public with private property.” Moreover the busy activity at the wharf, with vessels coming and going, and goods piled high, would be an impediment to ferry passengers. The same problem existed in regard to the proposal to use the Queen’s wharf for the ferry. For Edward Palmer there was a clear need for a new and proper ferry wharf:

The want of proper accommodation had long formed matter for complaint against the government. Strangers were astonished at the state of the Ferry. Contractors blame the government for not affording the requisite facilities. A comparison with similar places on other colonies would put us to shame. 

While a couple of members of the House of Assembly felt that this was the newly incorporated City of Charlottetown’s problem, most recognized that the project was to the greater public benefit and was properly the responsibility of the Colonial Government. If there was relatively little doubt about the need for a new wharf the more contentious question was:  where should it be?

The eastern gateway to the City


Prince Street Wharf. Detail from Albert Ruger’s Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878.

There seemed to be little room for a new wharf at the foot of Great George Street and Pownal wharf was at the other end of town and becoming busier.  Prince Street had both advantages and disadvantages. The mud flats were wider here and the wharf would have to be longer to reach the channel and it would therefore have greater cost. It was further from the centre of town. On the other hand, it would be sheltered from the prevailing south-west winds and from being carried away by ice. The site had the shortest and most direct route to Minchin’s Point and the ferry would be completely out of the path of vessels coming into and leaving the other wharves.  There was some suggestion that the crowding on Queens Square with new public buildings might mean that the market could be moved to Hillsborough Square and this would benefit the country people.  A wharf at Prince Street would bring prosperity to the growing eastern part of town.

In the end the Prince Street location only narrowly edged out the options. Construction started soon after and the Prince Street wharf served as the ferry wharf for more than a century. A fleet of boats from the Ora to the Fairview shuttled back and forth, not just across the Hillsborough but across to Rocky Point and up the rivers as well. Although busy when the ferries arrived and left there was no other traffic there.  The Hillsboro Boating Club had a building on the east side of the wharf in the early part of the century but it had disappeared by the 1930s.  It was indeed “a quiet and unobstructed wharf.”


Air Photo of Charlottetown ca 1933.

Today with infill of the shallows, the shoreline has crept out a great distance from the former edge of the harbour and the long walk along the wharf from the ferry to the shore has disappeared. Visitors to the lobster restaurant at the foot of Prince Street puzzle over the rocks exposed at low tide with “Y” shape embracing the memory of steamers long gone. For many Islanders however, a remembrance of the ferry ride across the harbour brings back their youth.