Tag Archives: coal

All Over in a Minute -The sinking of the Polar Star

By the second decade of the 20th century the trading schooners serving the Port of Charlottetown were tired and under-crewed. This in-named vessel was probably typical of the type. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

By the second decade of the 20th century the trading schooners serving the Port of Charlottetown were tired and under-crewed. This un-named vessel was probably typical of the type. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

The first of the bodies was discovered on the beach at Crown Point on the P.E.I. shore across from Governors Island.  A search of the pockets for identifying papers found only a tobacco pipe filled with sand and seaweed but a missing thumb and familiar clothing showed that it was the schooner’s captain, Fred Cormier of Souris. The families of the two crew members were not as fortunate.  Before bodies of the two Charlottetown men were found, one at Governor’s Island and the last, the two months after the accident on the shore of St. Peters Island, they had both deteriorated to the point where they could not be identified and so it was not known which grave held the remains of Henry Bushy and which was that of Andrew MacDonald.

The three men had constituted the entire crew of the Polar Star. She was a small schooner, just 76 register tons. Even with the simple schooner rig this was a small crew, especially as everyone aboard was between 45 and 55 years of age.  Small crews and old ships that were cheap to operate were what made sail still viable in the early 1900s when faced with competition from steamers. There were almost no new sailing vessels available as the shipbuilding industry had been in sharp decline for thirty years.

The Polar Star was a tired ship. She had been launched at Brooklyn Nova Scotia, not far from Bridgewater in 1875 and in 1897 was almost lost when she foundered at sea  Recovered and rebuilt in 1898 she was owned and sailed for some time out of Richibucto New Brunswick.  She occasionally appeared in P.E.I. ports carrying timber and other products. In late summer 1901 she fetched up on Tryon Shoals carrying a cargo of boards from Richibucto to Sydney. She capsized and filled with water and was believed to be a total loss as the tug Fred M. Batt was unable to haul her off. However a year later she was once more in service and it may have been at this time that ownership passed to coal merchant Charles Lyons of Charlottetown.  From 1906 she was a regular arrival at the port of Charlottetown, usually with coal from Inverness, Sydney or Pictou and now and then the odd cargo of limestone.  In 1912 she set a record of sorts by making three round trips with coal from Pictou within one week. In 1913 the wooden vessel had been at sea for thirty-eight years.

When she left Pictou just after daybreak on the 10th of June it was her regular run. A cargo of 105 tons of Pictou coal for the owner Charles Lyons, for his business on Queens Wharf. Just ahead of her on the outbound track was another coal schooner, the Boreas. Both schooners were passed by the steamer Northumberland on her way to Pictou in the morning and nothing was amiss.  As the two sailing vessels neared Point Prim at about 6 o’clock in the evening they were nearly abreast although the Polar Star was about three-quarters of a mile to the windward. The wind had piped up but had not reached gale force and the seas were choppy. Both vessels had gone through heavier weather. The crew of the Polar Star was seen to be reducing sail by taking in the flying jib and the peak of the mainsail but did not seem to be in  any danger. The Boreas was heavily loaded and was taking on water with a stoged pump so the crew were making all haste for sheltered waters of the harbour.  Shortly after the scene was described by a crew member of the latter vessel;

About twenty minutes after we saw the Polar Star taking in her jib, we saw her suddenly go down. She did not do any settling at all. She went down forward till her foremast head went in. She just almost turned a somersault, I guess. then I suppose her fore-foot must have struck bottom , and then settled down by the stern. She went down with all her sails hoisted with the exception of those that had been taken in shortly before.  . . .  I never saw anything so quick in all my life as how she went down. She must have parted forward somewhere. She might have been full of water same as ourselves, but unless some such thing happened she could not have gone down as quickly as that. And we could not go to her as we had to look out for ourselves.

The following day the Marine Department sent out Captain Batt in the tug Amherst with the lifeboat to search for bodies. The wreck was easily located as the masts of the ship were sticking about 15 feet above the water but they found no floating wreckage or bodies.  The ship lay on the bottom with all the sails still set although some of the rigging had been loosened by the wave action.  The wreckage lay in the harbour track and thus constituted a danger for other ships but it is not noted how, or if, the wreckage was removed.  Charles Lyons stated that no salvage would be attempted which is hardly surprising given the age of the ship.

A little more than a week after the sinking the site was already attracting the curious. Rowland Paton, son of a former mayor of the city had gone out to capture what the Guardian termed “a very pretty snapshot taken of the portion of the ill-fated Schooner” which featured the contrast between calm in which the photo was taken and the storm which sent the ship to the bottom “particularly suggestive of the cruelty as well as the beauty of the sea.” The mast tops above the water would have been visible to passengers on the Northumberland on daily passage between Charlottetown and Pictou.

There appears to have been no inquiry or inquest into the sinking of the Polar Star. The ship was partially insured and Charles Lyons may have received some compensation for the loss.  The reasons for the sinking were hardly in doubt. A wooden ship almost forty years old which had foundered once and gone ashore reckoned as a total loss had gone to the bottom with 105 tons of coal making sure that the sinking was fast, final and fatal.  It was a simply another reminder that the age of wooden ships and iron men could be a hard life and not necessarily the romance often attributed to the time.


P.E.I. Stereoviews 1922

Loading sheep for Newfoundland -  Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

Loading sheep for Newfoundland – Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

Loading cattle  Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

Loading cattle Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

Late in the summer of 1922 a photographer from the Keystone View Company of Meadville Pennsylvania visited Prince Edward Island. The company was preparing a series of photographs of industries across the country.  In addition to Charlottetown the photographer visited farms and took photos in Emerald, Mount Albion, and Augustine Cove as well as at the Experimental Farm in Charlottetown.  Most of the photos from Prince Edward Island, aside from shots of the Provincial Building, Prince of Wales, Prince Street School and St. Dunstan’s were not-so-riveting shots of turnip harvesting, old and new methods of potato picking and hen houses for comparative egg-laying experiments.

Loading Coal Keystone Mast UCR (2)

Coal handling in Charlottetown – Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

Following the agricultural theme the photographer also captured several images on the waterfront. At the Buntain & Bell wharf a steamer with stalls built on the deck (possibly the Canadian Steamships Line  S.S. Morona which had a regular service from Montreal to St. John’s, stopping at Charlottetown) was loading livestock for Newfoundland and images of sheep being driven aboard and cattle winched from the wharf are included in the collection. Besides being a labour-intense operation the loading was also of considerable interest to boys and other by-standers for whom the wharf-side activity was a source of entertainment.    At the next wharf over several coal schooners were in port and although hardly picture-postcard material shots of coal carts being loaded were captured by the lens.  They give a good view of Charlottetown’s working waterfront in 1922. These types of shots are rare because most photographers of the time focused on streetscapes, dramatic events or the impressive public buildings of the city.

Rosebank fur farm 1

Dr. Leo Frank at Rosebank Fur Farms – Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

Across the harbour on the Langley shore another type of farm was in operation,  The early 1920s were the height of the fox farming boom and Dr. Leo Frank’s Rosebank Fur Farms was one of the leading fox ranches in the country. The Keystone photographer took a whole series of images at the fox farm and the black silver foxes were clearly of interest. Silver fox breeding had been developed in Prince Edward Island like no where else in the country and it is not surprising that a series concentrating on industries would include photos of this type.

Indians Langley

Indian basketmakers at Langley shore – Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

Another image, probably taken at about the same time shows aboriginal basketmakers, in an encampment at Rosebank, with Minchin’s Point and the ferry wharf at Southport in the background

Indians Detail

Detail showing Minchins Point and Ferry Wharf – Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

st-view-viewerThe photos taken in 1922 were stereoviews, taken with a dual lens camera that resulted in a double image. When viewed through a stereo viewer the image appeared as a three dimensional representation of the subject.  Beginning in the mid-19th century the views were popular. Series of views of exotic locations, dramatic events and even pornography were produced. Besides being a parlour entertainment the views were promoted as an educational tool.   Several factors which helped increase stereography’s popularity was the novelty of experiencing explicit three-dimensional detail in a stereo card and the potential for card owners to frequently revisit views of world events in private or during social gatherings. By enabling armchair observers to have vicarious experiences in faraway places stereographs became to the later nineteenth century, what television and the Internet are to contemporary culture.  Some stereoviews were produced by local photographers and even amateurs but most were created by companies with traveling photographers and the views were marketed in series. Special boxes and furniture were also produced to house collections of images.  The standard stereocard was about 3.5 x 7.0 inches with a curved surface to enhance the 3-D effect and a variety of viewers produced to provide the 3-D effect.


Some Keystone images from a local collection.

The Keystone View Company was founded  in 1892 by an amateur photographer, B. L. Singley of Meadville, Pennsylvania. Starting with a series of thirty views of a local flood he soon expanded his work and eventually became the largest producer of stereocards in the world and by 1905 was offering 20,000 different views. Taking over the collections of competitors the company eventually gathered a established a collecton of over 2 million negatives and continued to produce images into the 1950s.  In the 20th century Keystone specialized in educational stereocard sets and promoted their use for teaching of geography, social studies, science, history and reading.  Their educational nature can be seen in this excerpt from the text on the back of Charlottetown lamb loading view:

Did you ever play “follow the leader”? Lambs and sheep always follow their leader. In this picture their leader has gone on board this boat and the lambs are crowding each other to follow. You wonder where they are going.  They have been raised on an Island and are going to be shipped to the mainland., There they will be taken to the stockyards. 

After 1955 the company moved into other lines of business and In 1978, the company’s records, prints, and inventory of negatives, weighing more than 30 tons, were donated to the UCR/California Museum of Photography at the University of California Riverside, where they are now known as the Keystone-Mast collection.  Of the more than 250,000 glass plates and negatives and 100,000 images some 40,000 are available on line and can be searched here.  In the on-line selection some 2700 items are from Canada and  about 60 are from P.E.I.  The collection includes duplicate views as the photographer tried to get the best exposure and framing.  Not all of the shots were turned into finished stereo cards.

Some of the raw PEI images are shown below:  Click on any item to start the slide show:

All images from  Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

Down on the Coal Wharf

Loading Coal Keystone Mast UCR (2)

Waterfront coal yard, probably A. Pickard & Co. ca. 1913. Photo from Keystone Mast Collection, University of California at Riverside.

While agricultural produce including livestock was probably the most frequently exported commodity at the Charlottetown wharves at the beginning to the 20th century, the incoming volume was dominated by coal.  The number of shipments up to the mid-19th century was small. Heat for houses and businesses was supplied by firewood brought down the rivers by small schooners in summer and on sleighs across the ice in winter. What coal there was, was used for heat in a few upper-class homes but primarily to fire forges of blacksmiths in both rural and city establishments. Every shipyard needed forged iron fittings and although some coal was delivered directly to outports much came first to Charlottetown.

That began to change as steamboats started to visit the port. Unlike American inland steamers which depended on wood most of the early boats serving PEI had coal-fired boilers.  Coal was most easily accessed at the Pictou end of the route which was close to the mines of the General Mining Association.  But after 1854 coal began to be imported in large quantities. In that year the Charlottetown Gas Light Company opened its plant at the eastern edge of the city.  Over the next half-century coal was turned into gas and pumped through the mains laid beneath the streets to houses, streetlights and business across the city.

Even when the domination of gas was challenged, and eventually, replaced by electricity the dependency on coal did not change. The steam generators and dynamos in the several electric plants all used coal and even when the companies were amalgamated and centralized on the gas works property it was still coal that provided the power.

Large's Coal Yard

Large’s Coal Yard. Connolly’s wharf ca. 1930. Photo PARO Accession 2320 18-16

The other big coal consumer was the Prince Edward Island Railway. Its steam engines continued to be coal-fired until the province became the first part of the Canadian National Railway System to be entirely diesel-powered in 1949.  While the railway  carried coal to small communities across the Island and took some business away from small coal schooners visiting outlying ports the coal cars meant that even more coal came into the province through the port of Charlottetown.

In 1856, seizing on its new powers after incorporation the City of Charlottetown enacted a by-law to create coal-meters and weighers who had the responsibility of weighing all coal sold in the city, whether directly from a ship or from a wharf or coal yard. The city scales was moved from the head of Pownal Wharf to Queens Square to underscore the growing importance of coal in the city. Besides providing a consumer service the coal distribution oversight provided revenue for the city.

Coal007At first almost all of the many wholesale merchants handled coal as one of their commodities, but by the beginning of the Great War it was becoming more specialized. Buntain and Bell took over the coal and shipping business of Peak Bros. in 1913, along with the wharf near the foot of  Queen Street which became known through to the 1960s as the Buntain and Bell Wharf.  Several of the wharves became almost exclusively coal wharves. George E. Full’s Coal Yard  was on the old Duncan property next to the ferry wharf.  A. Pickard and Company was located on what had been the Plant Line Wharf and was one of the last to be in operation into the 1960s.  Another coal merchant in the early 20th century was Charles Lyon and in mid-century W.D. Gillis, Arnfast Coal Company  and the Weeks Coal Company were in operation, the latter near the Hillsborough Bridge. Some of the companies erected large sheds to protect the coal from the weather but most of the coal was simply stored in large heaps. The coal wharves were black, dirty, dusty places. Most of the loading and unloading was by men with shovels with the coal carried through the streets by small horse-drawn tip-carts.

The photo of the beginning of this piece shows that coal was an intensely manual activity (at least in 1913 when the photo was taken) but some companies tried to keep up with modern technology. A puff piece in the Charlottetown Guardian in 1930 touted A. Pickard & Co.’s 7 1/2 horsepower electric conveyor  which could load coal at the rate of a ton a minute! [surely this must be per hour?] Their wharf (now buried under the massive DOT wharf east of the yacht club) could accommodate vessels up to 3000 tons and had a 300 foot rail siding which held eight rail cars.  At the time the Pickard firm was handling Scotch, Welsh, and American Anthracite Coal as well as Dominion Coke, Old Sydney, Inverness, Acadia and Springhill Coal.  Coal was delivered to consumers by 20 horse teams and carts.  Conscious of the public image the article noted “The neat and clean appearance of the Yard and Wharf show that the workmen are good men and are taking an interest in their work.”

The persistence of newspaper advertising shows this was a competitive business and it was not long before there were only a few companies that had the wharfage to support the shipping requirements.  After the Second World War  coal was a declining business on P.E.I.. Home heating as well as industrial users such as Maritime Electric were switching petroleum fuels and the coal years on the wharves were displaced by huge oil storage tanks.

Coal advertisements from 1913-1953  (click for enlargement & slide show)

Few city residents visited the actual waterfront yards. The remaining firms had uptown storefronts. I can remember passing Arnfast’s display of dusty Blue Coal in the window of their shop on Great George Street across from the Capitol Theatre. Within a generation the coal business as a waterfront activity disappeared and disappearing with it was the particular coal vocabulary with which everyone was once familiar. Who today can tell the difference between round, stove, egg and chestnut coal, much less the heating qualities differentiating Albion Nut from Reserve Runamine or from Old Sydney Round?  The closing of the coal yards was one of the last activities on the waterfront before the revitalization of the area by the Charlottetown Area Development Corporation in the 1970s.