Tag Archives: City of Ghent

“Life on Our Harbor” 1899

As one looks out on Charlottetown Harbour today, empty except for the occasional oil tanker or gravel boat, it is very difficult to imagine how busy the port would have been at the end of the Victorian era. Even in a normal year with cruise ships entering and leaving there is not real sense of a busy port except for the crowded streets and souvenir shops. In the late 1800s it was a different story as everything and everybody coming to or leaving the Island had to come by boat. Charlottetown was connected by passenger steamers to Boston and Halifax, to Montreal and Quebec and across the Strait to Nova Scotia. Freight boats visited with cargos to and from Montreal, Sydney, St. John’s and other Atlantic Canadian ports. Smaller steamers also linked Charlottetown to other Island ports such as Orwell, Montague and Souris. And almost unnoticed among the steamers were scores of schooners visiting ports all along the Atlantic seaboard and into the Caribbean. These visits were seldom the subject of front page news coverage but every now and again we get a hint of how busy the port could be. Following is a story from the Charlottetown Examiner from 5 August 1899.

Life on Our Harbour

Seldom do so many steamers enter Charlottetown Harbor on one day as came in on Thursday afternoon and evening.  Those who were out in the park on that day, in addition to watching the cricket match and tennis playing had the pleasure of seeing an unusually large number of steamboats coming in.

Jacques Cartier

S.S. Jacques Cartier at harbour mouth

First of all came the Electra, and as she was coming in the Jacques Cartier was going out crowded with excursionists — all bound on enjoying the beautiful sail to Orwell. The the little government launch Sir Louis came in and shortly after her the City of Ghent, whose coming was not only known to those looking on  — her delightful sirene [sic] whistle proclaimed to all the city she was here on her regular weekly visit. Closely following the Ghent was the Sentinel, that trim little American Yacht which attracted the admiration of all that saw her.  Many were the suppositions as to what her name could be, but as she was not expected no-one knew until she got close to the wharf.


Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company’s Princess

After her the familiar form of the Princess was seen coming in at full speed until she was almost up to the wharf. Just as onlookers adjourned for something to eat, last but greatest of all, the Halifax steamed in at a lively rate, sending side waves to wards the shore, and bringing to the Island tourists, who came to enjoy the refreshing breezes of our summer clime. 

HalifaxThis number of steamers, in addition to our regular ferry boats, tugs and steamers, coming in, is for Charlottetown Harbor something out [of] the ordinary.  After tea it still kept up, the Jacques Cartier returning from Orwell shortly after eight o’clock and she neared her berth the old time strains of “Home Sweet Home” could be herd across the water with pleasing effects, being sung by upwards of one hundred and thirty excursionists who crowded her deck.

Bonavista 2

Black Diamond Steamship Company’s Bonavista in Montreal

At ten o’clock the Bonavista, of the Black Diamond Line arrived from Montreal and she was the last one for Thursday night. At Friday morning at five o’clock, the Campana, that splendid steamer owned by the Quebec Steamship Company arrived from Quebec and Montreal with one hundred and twenty five passengers, and as she came in the Electra sailed for Montague. 


S.S. Campana in Pictou ca. 1903. Warwick & Rutter postcard

It is enjoyable to watch the steamers as well as sailing vessels coming and going. But those who had the luck to be about the wharves or park at 7 o’clock on Friday morning might see a sight not often equalled in our harbor.  First of al the City of Ghent left her wharf, immediately after her the yacht Sentinel glided out and following the Sentinel the Princess started. One behind the other they steamed out the harbor and just as they were going out the three-masted schooner Evelyn, with every stitch of canvas set, was coming in sixteen days from Barbados. That was a sight which would make many a confirmed land lubber wish that the were a sailor, with “a life on the ocean wave and a home on the rolling deep.”

The yacht Sentinel which was noted above was also the subject of an enthusiastic report . Described as “A thing of beauty in the sailing line” it certainly caught the attention of the Examiner’s reporter. At the time the vessel belonged to Chicago millionaire C.K.G. Billings who had made a fortune in gas and electric utilities.

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Sentinel under a previous owner. Chicago Tribune 24 June 1895

She probably leads anything that has ever entered Charlottetown Harbor  — she’s so trim, so neat and so spotlessly clean. Everything about her is got up in the costliest manner. She is lighted with electricity, has a powerful searchlight, all the woodwork is  of mahogany and the fittings of brass and her naptha launch  and small sized cannon came in for not little share of attention from the number who who had the pleasure of seeing her as she lay at Poole & Lewis’ Wharf. Her length is 124 feet and she maintains a cruise speed of 10 knots. Her owner is Mr. Billings, who is now in Boston, and two friends of his on board. While at the wharf she was supplied with water, with ten tons of egg anthracite coal by C. Lyons & Co. and with a quantity of fresh provisions by Blake Bros.  

Pickford and Black’s PEI steamer service 1888-1912

The Murphy Hospitality Group (MHG) of Charlottetown has recently re-branded one of their Halifax  restaurants as Pickford & Black. The change makes some sense as the restaurant, located in Halifax’s Historic Properties, is actually on the Pickford & Black wharf. It may also make sense as it seems to distance the operation from the Murphy / Gahan brand which appears on an inordinate number of restaurants in Charlottetown and others in Halifax and Moncton.

Pickford and Black house flag

However, Pickford and Black resonates not just with Halifax as it also boasted a connection more than a century ago with Prince Edward Island when the shipping firm operated steamers providing freight and passenger service between Summerside and Charlottetown and Halifax.  The firm was established in Halifax in 1875 as a ship chandlery and hardware firm and the following year purchased Seaton’s wharf on the Halifax waterfront which soon became known as the Pickford and Black Wharf. They took early advantage of the transition from sail to steam and aggressively developed a fleet.

Beginning in 1887 the firm expanded into the steamship business and became best-known for their services between  Halifax and Caribbean islands including Bermuda, Turks, St. Croix, St. Kitts, Antigua,  Trinidad, Demerara,  Jamaica, and Cuba. The first vessels acquired were former Cunard steamers Alpha and Beta which had been on the trans-Atlantic run.  The following year Pickford & Black set up the Halifax and Prince Edward Island Steamship Company. One of their first purchases was a 270 ton steamer, the Princess Beatrice, for a weekly service along the Eastern Shore, through the Strait of Canso and calling at ports in Prince Edward Island. This was a route which had been used by the Fishwick steamer M. A. Starr until the firm was drawn into the Pickford and Black operations.  The Princess Beatrice, and the later Pickford and Black boats, called at several intermediate ports including Summerside, Souris, Port Hood, Port Hastings, Port Hawkesbury , Arichat, Canso, Isaacs Harbour, Salmon River, Sonora and Sheet Harbour.  The Princess Beatrice was unfortunately wrecked in her second year of operation near Isaac’s Harbour in September 1890.

Fastnet at the Pickford and Black Wharf, Halifax

She was replaced the following year by the Fastnet, a 145 foot screw steamer which had been built in Glasgow in 1878 for the Clyde Shipping Company for service in South West Ireland and had been bought by Pickford and Black for the Charlottetown run. During her first year of operation the Fastnet collided in fog with the Heather Belle which resulted in the sinking of the latter vessel. The Fastnet continued to call at Charlottetown through 1897. Discovery of gold in the Yukon Territory in 1896 created a market  for vessels to accommodated the rush of travellers to the north and in 1898 the Fastnet she was sent around Cape Horn with a party of gold seekers bound for the Yukon. The vessel was sold to a company in British Columbia and again to a Mexican firm in 1898 when she was re-named the Alamo.  In 1909 she was wrecked on Tortuga Island in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pickford and Black advertisement. Charlottetown Guardian 20 July 1898

Meanwhile the City of Ghent, which had been sailing from Halifax to a number of eastern mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton ports as well as Souris since 1892 became the only Pickford and Black connection between the Island ports of Summerside and Charlottetown, and Halifax.  The City of Ghent had been built in 1871 in Grimsby and the little iron vessel had limited passenger capacity but a large cargo space not unlike the fishing vessels built in that port. She was originally used on a run from Grimsby to Ghent in Belgium.  At 135 feet with a displacement of 198 tons she was even smaller than the Fastnet. An advantage for some of the smaller ports was that she drew less then ten feet.  She was refurbished by Pickford and Black to carry twenty first class and ten second class passengers with large staterooms and modern improvements including a “handsome little saloon.” It is unlikely that the passenger service would have been of great interest for Prince Edward Islanders who had daily service to Pictou and Shediac but it would have been a boon to those in the smaller ports in Nova Scotia with no access to rail service and indifferent roads. The City of Ghent had a “shrill and peculiar hyena whistle” which echoed in the harbours of Summerside, Charlottetown and Souris whenever she arrived and left.

By 1900 Pickford and Black were the second largest ship owners on the Atlantic Provinces. While most of their fleet serviced the Caribbean they established several feeder service including the ones to Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island which were able to direct West Indies traffic from coastal areas through Halifax to southern ports. Much of the cargo reflected a century-old triangular trade – saltfish and produce shipped out and rum, molasses and salt on the return.

In 1912, after operating to Island ports since 1888, Pickford and Black ended their service when they were unable to find a suitable replacement ship for the City of Ghent. She was sold to Captain Beattie of Pictou. He ran her as a tramp steamer through the Gulf area and Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast for a year or so but she was laid up and offered for sale and lay idle for three years in Halifax until 1916. Remarkably in the scramble for vessels in the early years of the Great War the City of Ghent, then 45 years old, sold for £700 more than her cost when she was launched.  Sent to England with a cargo of lumber she was employed carrying cargos of coke for the allied forces through the port of Rouen until she was sunk by a German submarine in September 1916.

Pickford and Black continued to maintain links with the West Indies for many years. They also became agents for several leading marine insurance underwriters and European steamship lines. The company continues today under the name of F.K. Warren Limited.