Tag Archives: City of London

Port Selkirk – A Model Commmunity

In the 1880 Meacham’s Atlas of Prince Edward Island there are two planned towns. One was Victoria which continues to be a viable community albeit a little empty of residents in the winter owing to the high percentage of summer landowners. The other is Port Selkirk in lot 57, just down the road from Orwell Cove.

Port Selkirk from Meacham''s Atlas, 1880

Port Selkirk from Meacham”s Atlas, 1880

Neatly laid out with 76 lots on five blocks, carved up by five streets, only some of which carried names, Port Selkirk was never to fulfill the landowner’s expectations.

What it shared with Victoria was an easy point of access  to the sea. Orwell Brush Wharf was the best quay serving the farmers and merchants of the Orwell and Belfast districts.  The port was on the Orwell River just below where the Vernon River flowed into it.  The deep channel, which still shows depths of more than thirty feet, was well sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds. There was a tee-shaped government wharf at the end of the road which linked the port to communities such as Orwell Corner, Kinross, Uigg, Vernon and Newton.  There was an established ferry crossing to China Point and in winter it was a good point to cross the ice on the way to town.  But being at the end of the road was a bit of a problem because only a mile or so to the East was another community which was already established as a service centre for the area. Orwell Cove was never more than a rural cross-roads but it had all that Port Selkirk would like to provide.

Orwell Cove about 1907

Orwell Cove about 1907

While Orwell Cove was not actually on the water – the cove itself is shallow and some distance from the cross-roads –  the community was already recognized as the commercial centre of the area and it had the district school.  Merchants and tradesmen were already living there and if someone was to build on the small village lots of Port Selkirk it would be have to be these folks – farmers didn’t live in towns.

Port Selkirk (Brush Wharf) 1935

Port Selkirk (Brush Wharf) 1935

Port Selkirk simply failed to develop. Although it was visited by the ships of the steamboat fleet such as the City of London and the Jacques Cartier in the late 19th and early 20th century the shore-side potential of the site was not realized. The period after 1880 was a bad one for the Island with  economic reversals and in the following decades many left the Island to the Boston States or the West . Population had dropped by almost 20% by the Great War and the greatest loss was in farming areas where lower quality soils and steep slopes made agriculture un-economic. One of the areas hardest hit was in the southern part of Kings and Queens Counties.  In addition the building of the Murray Harbour Branch of the PEI Railway and the building of a station at Uigg gave farmers and travelers an alternative to Brush Wharf for getting their goods to market.

By 1935 it was clear that Port Selkirk had ceased to be anything but a dream.  Although the field pattern which can be seen in the aerial  photograph mirrors the 1880 plan, the streets, lots and busy businesses were conspicuously absent. What few houses and buildings that had been there earlier had been mostly abandoned and it is doubtful if any of the streets were actually laid out.

Harland leaving Halliday's Wharf ca. 1910. Michael Costa photo

Harland leaving Brush Wharf ca. 1910. Michael Costa photo

Brush Wharf, however, continued to be used. It was a port of call for the Harland into the 1930s but after the end of the regular steamer service and the improvement of the road network little shipping activity was seen. Even the occasional schooner loading potatoes or grain became a rare event. However, between steamer visits it was likely a lonely place.

The development of the mussel industry meant that the wharf was saved unlike so many others such as the one across the river at China Point which is now nothing but a rock pile at the edge of the channel. Thanks to a large and thriving mussel operation using the Orwell River and Bay Brush wharf is today a very busy spot even if it stands alone at the end of the road. There are no steamers or schooners but the oddly shaped specialized craft designed to service the cultivation of the blue mussel shuttle back and forth from to the beds to the pier and the large processing facility on the shore is a major employer in the area.

I visited China Point and the Orwell River on one of my sailing excursions and found it to be an exceptional anchorage. With the sun rising the next morning over what would have been Port Selkirk it was easy to imagine what might have been.

Time has not been kind to many of our small Island communities. Compare this photo taken today of Orwell Cove with the postcard image seen above:

Orwell Cove May 2016

Orwell Cove May 2016

I am indebted to Dave Hunter, one of the few residents of Port Selkirk, and to followers of his several facebook and web pages for information in identifying the exact site of the 1907 postcard image.  He was able to provide background historical information for every one of the structures seen in that photograph.



The Paddle-steamer Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier passing through harbour mouth.

Jacques Cartier passing through harbour mouth.

Following the sinking of the Heather Belle after a collision with the steamer Fastnet in 1891 the Inland Steam Navigation Company was forced to find another ship. While Island shipbuilders had, in the past, shown themselves capable of producing fine vessels time had passed them by and the Directors of the Company lost no time in looking elsewhere. They temporarily put the Halifax-owned M.A. Starr on the route but ships of the right size and price were hard to come by. More importantly they had to secure continued access to the subsidy which the province had pad for the service and by early April a grant of $2,300 per year for three years was in place. They chased after a screw steamer called the Blue Hill which was then in Yarmouth but their offer of $15,000 was refused. Another vessel, the Egertine, was leased but was unable to get a seaworthiness certificate.  Finally in July company director L.C. Owen traveled to Quebec where he was able to secure the purchase of the paddle steamer Jacques Cartier for $13,000. The ship arrived in Charlottetown on 29 July 1892.

The Jacques Cartier had been built by T. Paradis at his Lévis shipyard in 1888 and had been employed up and down the St. Lawrence river including overnight excursions between Quebec and Malbaie. The wooden vessel was 122 feet long by 23 feet wide and a depth of hold of 7 1/2 feet. With her 150 horsepower steam engine she was said to be able to sustain a speed of 11 knots.

Guardian 8 August 1892

Guardian 8 August 1892

The ship was described by the Charlottetown Guardian as a “commodious steamer” and was immediately put on the company’s routes up and down the Hillsborough and Eliott Rivers stopping at the several wharves along the way and through the mouth of the harbour and across the bay to China Point, Brush Wharf Orwell, Hallidays and up the Strait to the rising village of Victoria. In addition to the commercial links provided a most important and popular revenue source was the many excursion charters, the first of which took place only a few days after the arrival on the ship in Charlottetown when the Jacques Cartier carried the participants to the Masonic Picnic at Halliday’s Wharf, Belfast. With registered capacity of 300 passengers there was room for everyone and a band or orchestra as well. Excursions on the Jacques Cartier and her successors continued to be a feature of the inland steamers for an entire generation.

Although satisfactory for the St. Lawrence River the ship had issues in P.E.I. waters.  Company records noted that she drew too much water and did not meet public expectations. She was unable to go up the East River farther than Appletree Wharf. Late in the year there were complaints to the government that passengers could not keep warm and the Commissioner of Public Works directed that proper fires be kept in the heating stoves aboard.  The government addressed these shortcomings by running one of their own harbour ferries up the east river.  Business fell off and by the end of 1893 the Company was losing money.

Left -Jacques Cartier at Steam Navigation Wharf. Right - Plant Line wharf with Boston Boat and DGS Brant

Left -Jacques Cartier at Steam Navigation Wharf. Right – Plant Line wharf with Boston Boat and DGS Brant

There were squabbles between the Inland Steam Navigation Company and the government after the initial subsidy contract came to an end and the Company threatened to stop the service. They put their vessel up for public auction early in 1897 but the government caved in to what may well have been a bluff and the service continued.  Financial problems regarding the subsidy continued and in 1901 it was noted that the Jacques Cartier would be on her old route but that the company would receive only $1200, half the old subsidy, and the ship would perform a third less service. Late in the following year the Jacques Cartier was wrecked – luckily without loss of life – at Cape John on the other side of Northumberland Strait.  Her loss mean another scramble for replacement and the appearance in the harbour of the City of London. Aside from the paddle-wheel ferries the Jacques Cartier was the last of the side-wheelers  to regularly be seen in Charlottetown.


There are a few surviving records of the Inland Steam Navigation Company (note – Inland, not Island) in the Welsh and Owen Papers at the Public Archives and Records Office. Other references are from P.E.I and Quebec newspapers. Details of the sinking of the Heather Belle and the wreck of the Jacques Cartier can be found in other postings on this site.



The City of London and the Acadia

West River tuckAlthough the S.S. Harland may be the best-remembered steamship on the run up and down the East and West Rivers  and across the Bay to the Brush Wharf at Orwell it was only one in a long series of vessels serving these communities.

Immediately preceding the Harland, and often mistaken for it, was the City of London which was on the run from 1903 until the building of the Harland in 1908.

The City of London was the replacement for the ill-fated Inland Steam Navigation Company ship, Jacques Cartier, which was carried onto the rocks and wrecked at Cape John Nova Scotia late in 1902.

At 120 feet in length and with a beam of 27 feet the City of London was the largest vessel to have made the regular stops  at the several wharves on the rivers cutting into the interior of the Island.  The City of London had been built in Kingston Ontario in 1888 and re-built in 1892 and was registered in Montreal Quebec, from which port she was leased by the P.E.I. operators.  She carried a crew of nine and had capacity to up to 500 passengers although she had only two small lifeboats.

westriver1The City of London was considered luxurious. It had a carpeted cabin complete with a piano.  Her regular service took her to Orwell Brush Wharf , stopping at Halliday’s Wharf near Eldon and China Point Wharf as required every Tuesday and Wednesday; up the West River stopping at Westville and West River Bridge on Thursday; up the East River as far as Mt. Stewart every Friday and to Victoria on Saturday. Fares ranged from 20 cents for the East and West Rivers, to 25 cents to Orwell and 40 cents to Victoria.

On the completion of her lease the City of London  she was returned to Quebec.  She appears to have been broken up before 1921. Although the City of London and the Harland share the same general appearance the latter vessel has an open stern on the lower deck, windows and not ports on the lower deck and more lifeboats.

The City of London was not the only vessel serving the city and the river ports. In April 1904 George and Frank Batt, who operated several tug boats out of Charlottetown,  purchased the S.S. Acadia from Capt. Farquhar of Nova Scotia. The ship had previously operated out of Pictou and had visited Charlottetown a number of times. Described by the Guardian as the “trim little river steamer”  the boat had been built in Hantsport N.S. in 1887 and served as a ferry between Windsor and Parrsborough and later in Sydney. At 74 feet by 21 feet the Acadia was a little more than half the size of the City of London.  Her regular schedule in 1904 saw her leaving Peake’s # 1 wharf early Tuesday mornings for the East River, returning to Charlottetown and then heading up the West river at supper time.  On Fridays (when the City of London went to Victoria) she went up the West River in both morning and afternoon and enabled the West River population to reach Charlottetown on market day.

Although the Acadia, like most other steamers, carried excursionists from time to time to several destinations near Charlottetown, the business faced strong competition from the City of London and did not appear to be a success. By 1907 the Acadia had new owners and was back in Nova Scotia waters sailing from Pictou to Cape Breton ports.

I have not been able to find a photo of the ship either in her short-lived P.E.I. service or in other ports.