Tag Archives: coal

Crushed by ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: the sinking of the steamer Tunstall

There are few better indicators of the reality of climate change than the state of sea ice. While there can be some variation from year to year it is clear that there are significant changes over the last few years which have seen far less ice both in Island harbours and in the Strait and Gulf. This change is dramatically illustrated by the story of the S.S. Tunstall which was crushed in the ice off the Island’s north shore in May of 1884.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

The Tunstall was an iron screw steamer of modern design launched in 1879 from the shipyard of Shore Bros. in Sunderland. The cargo steamer was 230 feet long, 32 feet wide and a depth of over 17 feet. She was powered by a 2 cylinder steam engine which drove a single screw propeller. She made a number of trips across the North Atlantic and in European waters and by 1881 was being operated by the Black Diamond Steamship Company of Montreal. Normally she operated between Montreal and coal ports such as Cow Bay (now Port Morien) and Sydney in Cape Breton, and Pictou but when Montreal was closed by winter she also carried coal to New York, Havana and other southern ports. She carried a crew of 20 officers and men.

Tunstall 2

Early May 1884 found the vessel loading at Pictou with a cargo of coal bound for Montreal. She completed loading about noon on Saturday the 3rd of May and steamed without difficulty but encountered a large field of ice at East Point. The vessel turned and made its way up Northumberland Strait hoping to avoid the ice but by noon on the 4th encountered heavy ice at Cape Traverse. In hopes the ice might move out she anchored but after a day she turned to try the East Point route once more. It was not until Friday the 9th of May that the Tunstall was able to round East Point and in company with another steamer, the Benona. With plenty of open water between the shore-fast board ice and the “running” ice of the floes she began to steam up along the North Shore, and by nightfall both vessels were near Cape Turner. On Saturday the captain reported the weather as “dirty, blowing hard and thick” and the ice, being pushed by the wind began to drive down on the land. The Tunstall turned and found open water again near Little Rustico, the channel at the east end of Robinson’s Island. The ship remained in that area all night fighting the wind which had shifted to the north west and was blowing hard with heavy snow. The vessel kept moving to keep clear of the largest pan bearing down on the Tunstall. By 10 am on Sunday morning the ship was completely pinched in the ice and the engines were unable to provide any movement. The Benona was about a mile and half distant but was in clearer water. Within an hour the ice had pinched the ship so tightly that it began to list and the ice began to pile up over the rails on deck. Suddenly the pressure caused the plates on the starboard side of the ship to give way and water began pouring in. To find and stop the leak the crew began desperately to unload the cargo of coal over the side but they soon discovered that the hole in the ship was larger than they had feared, about 2 feet square. Although the hole was plugged with ice if the ice moved the water would be impossible to stop.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

Concluding that the ship was doomed the captain ordered the lifeboats lowered and dragged away from the ship on the ice. Refusing to do any more work to save the doomed vessel the crew left the ship and gathered near the lifeboats. As the now-helpless ship slowly filled with water the crew were able to land some of their valuables, clothing, and food. It was at this point that the only loss of life occurred. Two pigs aboard the vessel to supply fresh meat for the crew were slaughtered. The Tunstall sank, bow first, beneath the ice at about four o’clock in the afternoon of the 11th. Leaving the boats on the ice the crew struck out for the shore, walking across the ice in the increasingly bad weather. However they were compelled to return to the boats by the ferocity of the winds. Left with little shelter from the lifeboats in the teeth of the storm the crew spent the night on the ice. During the night the ice continued to drift eastwardly and in the morning the crew found themselves on the ice about six miles off the St. Peter’s Bay Lighthouse.

On Monday morning the officers and crew began to cross the floes to the shore. The St. Peter’s lightkeeper and another man came out on the ice with a boat to meet them and seventeen men were guided ashore. However, three of the crew, separated from the main body by open water, decided not to run the risk the dangerous crossing on the ice and lolly and turned back to the safety of the lifeboats. A rescue party from St. Peters and area was organized the following day and succeeded in bringing the men to shore in spite of thick fog in the area. A number of men from the community were later awarded $5 each for their heroic efforts to save the three crew. One of the boats left behind on the ice later drifted ashore at St. Margaret’s and was auctioned off to benefit the crew of the ship.

The Benona had spotted distress signals from the Tunstall and noted when she sank but was unable to offer assistance. She herself was trapped in the running ice and was being swept towards East Point into the Northumberland Strait. It was not until 19th of May before she was able to get free of the ice and continue on her voyage to Montreal.

In the haste to abandon the Tunstall the Captain had neglected to get a fix on the location where the ship had gone down and for many years the wreck was lost. In June 1884 it was reported that divers would be sent to the wrecksite to see if the ship could be raised but they were either unable to find the vessel or decided it was not worth salvaging and no salvage was attempted. However in the 1930s fishermen in the Covehead area had been complaining of fouled gear and lobsters with discoloration from coal and the wreck was eventually spotted off Covehead Harbour.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

Resting in about 70 to 80 feet of water it has become a popular spot for recreational divers. Several videos have been posted to YouTube and Vimeo, one of the best being that of Justin Pater and can be accessed by following this link  

It is interesting to compare this real-life account with that of a fictional sinking some twenty-years later in W. Albert Hickman’s The Sacrifice of the Shannon

A Tramp Steamer out of Charlottetown

One of Prince Edward Island’s myths is that with the decline of wooden shipbuilding in the 1860s the province suddenly became a mercantile backwater. There were small schooners servicing smaller ports, especially where rails did not run, well into the mid-20th century but with few exceptions such as the Ocean Steamships S.S. Prince Edward and the Steam Navigation Company’s S.S. Summerside, Islanders failed to embrace the change from wood and wind to iron, steel and steam.

Like most generalizations this has a good deal of truth in it. However, there were exceptions and the experience of the S.S. William is an example of Islanders bucking the trend.  The steamer William, unlike local coastal boats like the Harland, City of London, and Electra was not a regular visitor to outports and did not possess a faithful following of farmers and excursionists.  She was part of a larger fleet of tramp steamers which went where there were cargos and carried anything that would pay the bills. For some she was simply a tired old steamer but for others she was as essential as rail cars and tractor trailers are today, carrying cargos of produce and cattle away from the Island and bringing back the coal and general goods that the Island needed.

The William was a small ship as steamers go, just 120 feet long and 20 wide and registered at 210 tons. And she was well used before she came to the Island. Built on the Tyne in 1876 she was a coal carrier sailing out of Bristol. After a dozen years in the British Isles she was “sold foreign” and came to Prince Edward Island. Her new owners were Donald Farquharson a Charlottetown merchant and MLA (and later premier) and Captain Ronald McMillan who had a coal yard on the Charlottetown waterfront as well as West River connections.

She reached the Island in May 1888 and was immediately put into service.  Unlike the arrival of new passenger steamers the new vessel in the harbour attracted little notice as she began an irregular service. In 1888 she visited Boston carrying potatoes, Cow Bay  (now Port Merion) Cape Breton picking up coal for the Island, Pictou, Mulgrave and other small ports  including Pownal. She solicited freight shipments to Boston or Montreal or cattle bound for St. John’s Newfoundland. Coming to the Island she usually had general goods or coal. 1889 trips included a delivery of 60 head of cattle from Stanley Bridge to St. Pierre and Newfoundland, shipments of coal from Sydney to Stanley Bridge, potatoes and produce to Boston and New York, and at least one trip to Montreal with general cargo.

Without surviving records it is difficult to know if the venture was profitable. Clearly one of the partners in the business had concerns. In May 1890 evidence was heard in Chancery Court where Donald Farquharson brought an action against Capt. Ronald McMillan, the managing partner, claiming that the steamer had not been managed in a careful and prudent manner and asking that the court appoint a new manager and have the accounts reviewed and disallow expenses.  The court however found that there had been no mis-management.  The action obviously suggested the lack of a harmonious partnership. The year had not been kind to the William as she required a new boiler and only weeks later she struck hard on Tormentine Reef on a voyage with coal from Sydney to Miramichi and had to be beached to prevent her from sinking. That may have ended her work for the season as she was hauled up on the hard in Charlottetown for extensive repairs including replacement of several broken hull plates and re-riveting of the ship from stem to stern, a job which kept eleven men employed for the whole winter. These were serious financial issues and led late in the year to an Admiralty Court action by the crew for unpaid wages. This resulted to a seizure and sale of the vessel. By early December ownership was in the hands of Captain Ronald McMillan and his brother Hugh from New Haven.

Re-launched in April of 1891 she returned to itinerant voyages to and from the Island with potatoes, produce coal and what ever other cargo she could secure. In June she carried 7,300 cases of lobster to New York, the largest shipment ever made by a single shipper. The end of that year was also the end of the McMillan Brothers William. The William was lost on the rocky shores of St. Pierre on 28 December and one unfortunate seaman lost his life. Seven others were saved by St. Pierre fishermen who were later rewarded for their actions by the Government of Canada – $3.00 each for 15 fishermen.

The experience with the William did not necessarily serve as a cautionary tale. The steamer was not Farquharson’s only shipping venture. In 1889 he had purchased a Clyde-built vessel, the 150 foot iron screw steamer Coila and it seems to have operated in competition with McMillan through 1891. The Coila was lost off Cuba in 1896.  After that there seems to have been little appetite on the Island for coastal vessel operations. Tramp steamers would come and go from Charlottetown harbour for decades to come but they would be owned and registered elsewhere.

Lillian E. Kerr – An icon of the age of sail?


Four-Masted Schooner “Lillian E. Kerr” Leaving Charlottetown Harbour, August 1941. Photo by George Coffin. Photo: Collection of National Museum of Science and Technology, Ottawa.

It is perhaps the most iconic and best-known image of the age of sail on Prince Edward island.

The reality is that the Lillian E. Kerr had little to do with either Charlottetown or with the Island’s long-passed age of sail.

Lillian Kerr at anchor

Lillian E. Kerr at anchor

In August 1941 a four-masted schooner arrived in Charlottetown with a cargo of coal from Weehawken New Jersey. The vessel was one of what may have been only two or three surviving ships with that rig still on the Atlantic.  No one could have known it at the time but it was the last four-master to ever visit Charlottetown. Although a coal-hauler, the ship retained a certain grace and in the early days of the Second World War she was a reminder to residents of the days of wooden ships and iron men.

The photo of the Lillian E. Kerr as she left Charlottetown Harbour was one of at least two taken by George Coffin at the request of B. Graham Rogers, then director of the P.E.I. Travel Bureau. The striking photo was doctored to include a little boy posed pensively on the seawall and was the image on a travel bureau calendar issued in March of 1942.  This was the first visit of the Lillian E. Kerr to the Island capital. There would never be another.

Lillian Kerr Deck

Lillian E. Kerr, deck view. Location unknown

The Lillian E. Kerr had been launched in 1920 from the large E. James Tull shipyard in Pocomoke City, Maryland. She was the last ship built in that yard. The age of the wooden ship was drawing to a close but the schooner rigged vessels were still popular in the early years of the twentieth century as they were affordable high-volume freighters which required only a few crew and no fuel other than the wind and were therefore cheap to operate. They hauled coal, lumber and fertilizer – cargos for which the speed and set delivery times were not essential.

In 1921 the Captain of the Kerr brought mutiny charges against a member of his crew following a fight aboard the ship. The Captain had found the crew member asleep at the wheel. The crew member attacked him with a knife and the two men fought on deck while the captain’s wife steered the vessel. The captain alleged that the crew member attacked him a second time and he was forced to shoot the violent man. The outcome of the charge is not known.

Built as a three-masted vessel the ship was later sold to Capt. James L. Publicover of Le Have Nova Scotia. He added her to his small fleet of cargo vessels and made a major change to the appearance of the schooner by having her re-rigged as a four-master.

“Lillian E. Kerr” in Charlottetown Harbour. Photo by George Coffin. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

A little more than a year after leaving Charlottetown the Lillian E. Kerr was transporting a cargo of timber to Boston. During the night of  12-13 November 1942 she was overtaken by a convoy carrying war materials overseas. Although the Kerr was carrying running lights the ships of the convoy were not. She was rammed by a steamer called the Alcoa Pilot and went to the bottom with all of her crew except for one person was recovered but died soon after. The owner, Capt. Publicover, lost his son, son-in-law, and two nephews in the sinking.

It was not until almost five years had passed that the Admiralty court in New York heard the case. The evidence showed that the Alcoa Pilot, one of the lead ships in the convoy, had overtaken the Lillian E. Kerr and ran her down without taking proper evasive action. She was also charged with failing to stop to pick up survivors. The Alcoa Pilot was held at fault for the accident. The decision was upheld on appeal and damages awarded to Publicover.

Besides the tourism calendar, the main reason why the image of a vessel not built here, and seldom sailed here, became so familiar to Islanders is most likely because the picture, complete with a short-panted boy posed on an imaginary seawall adorned the cover of the menu of a well-patronized eatery, the Rendezvous Restaurant during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Lillian E. Kerr at Pickard’s Coal Wharf, August 1941. Photo from Historic PEI Facebook Page, posted 3 January 2021.