Tag Archives: Commerce

Commerce and Franconia – The first of the Boston Boats

Steamer Commerce at Boston’s T Wharf c. 1870. Although only the wheelhouse of the small vessel can be seen its diminutive size is clear.

In yet another connection between Prince Edward Island and the Civil War, the steamer Commerce was the first of many vessels* trading to Prince Edward Island which had begun life on one side or the other of the Union blockade of the southern states. She was built in England on the river Tees by the firm of Backhouse and Dixon and launched, carrying the name Pet, in October 1862. In all probability she was designed specifically for blockade running. A relatively small vessel, 141 feet long and 20 wide, she had engines which gave her a top speed of 11 1/2 knots. Although not the name on her ownership papers she was the property of the Manchester firm of Alexander Collie & Co. who owned more than fifteen blockade runners, many of which were to be eventually seized by the Union forces.

The Pet arrived in Nassau Bahamas, the main port for blockade runners, in early 1863 and was one of 28 new vessels noted by the U.S. Consul that season. The Consul calculated that each of these vessels could make a profit of $119,000 per trip which meant that the full cost of building the Pet was covered by a single round-trip. A good blockade captain could be paid $7,000 in gold for each round trip. She was a very successful commercial blockade-runner and made between fifteen and twenty trips over the next year. However, in February 1864 she was intercepted on her way from Nassau to Wilmington, Delaware by the U.S.S. Montgomery. She was close enough to shore to land her passengers and pilot before the navy boarding party could stop them. The crew were captured but as British nationals were later released.

As a prize of war the Pet was sent to Boston to be auctioned off and in April 1864 she was purchased by Franklyn Snow of Boston for $35,500. The new owner changed her name to the Commerce and she began a new life as the first of the Boston Boats shuttling between Charlottetown and Boston under the name of the Boston and Colonial Steamship Company which was incorporated in the State of Massachusetts in 1865. On her arrival in Halifax one newspaper there described her as a gentlemen’s yacht but noted her appearance had been spoiled by the addition of increased accommodation although the writer did concede that her cabins were “nicely fitted”. She arrived in Charlottetown in late May accompanied by her owner who, according to the Islander,  “made himself most agreeably acquainted with the many citizens of Charlottetown.”

Islander 9 September 1864

Beginning with a bi-weekly service, the Commerce, ex Pet, was joined in early August by a larger vessel, the steamer Franconia. This ship was American-built, and at 179 feet, was considerably larger than the Commerce. Her arrival at Charlottetown seems to have been accorded more coverage than that of the Commerce, perhaps because owner Franklyn Snow provided an excursion to Point Prim for, as the Islander stated, “all the world and his wife” and most of the leading politicians of the colony provided entertainment for the captive audience in the form of speeches praising the enterprise.  George Coles noted this was the first attempt at providing regular service since the visits of the Albatross  more than twenty years earlier. The addition of the Franconia to the Boston and Colonial fleet meant that Charlottetown would have regular weekly service to Boston with each of the vessels leaving their respective ports every Monday and arriving on Friday.

The provision of regular service was a major advancement for the colony. Previously shippers had to take advantage of what ever opportunity presented itself, often not knowing when a ship would arrive until it appeared in the harbor.  This was especially welcome for shippers of perishable goods such as oysters, eggs, meat and produce which could go directly to market in Boston or Halifax. While an alternative route using the ships of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company and several Canadian and American rail lines was available, the cargo would have to be handled several times as it had to be transferred from ship to wagon or rail several times. Another advantage was speed. The steamers could reach their port within four days, including stops at Pictou, Canso, and Halifax. Sailing vessels could take much longer. The direct service also suited passengers who could make the trip for as little as eight dollars – with additional cost for cabins and meals.

The question of the day was whether or not the trade would support the venture. The Islander’s editor noted that “The Americans have been, and are, our best customers” and suggested that by inducing the American fishing fleet, which annually visited Island waters, to harvest the herring and ship their catches on the fast steamers rather than having to return to their ports, could provide additional trade.

An added concern was that the Boston service would have a negative impact on the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company which had just made a major investment in a new vessel, the Princess of Wales.  However, at the close of navigation the Islander was able to report that the Boston run had been “well patronized” and that the receipts for the Steam Navigation Company had not fallen off.

That year, navigation closed on December 21st with the Franconia being the last vessel to work its way through the harbour ice to the open channel.  She carried some 12,500 bushels of oats, 150 sheep and a quantity of poultry as well as other goods.

The following year the Commerce returned but the Franconia did not. She was replaced on the run by the Greyhound. By 1870 the Franconia had become the property of the Maine Steamship Co. and was used on their Portland to New York route for many years.  For the next half-century the Boston Boat was a vital part of the Island’s communication  system. During the period many vessels and several companies served on the route  and they both responded to, and helped forge, the close linkages between the Island and the Boston States.

* Vessels in the P.E.I. service which had a civil war connection include the Greyhound, Oriental, Miramichi, St. Lawrence, Worcester, Carroll, Somerset, Westmoreland and Lady Le Marchant,


Civil War Blockade Runner was one of the first of the “Boston Boats”

In an earlier post I expressed amazement that the Oriental, one of the early Boston Boats had been a Confederate Blockade Runner. I should have know better than to start writing before ending my research. The Oriental had a predecessor….


The Boston and Colonial Steamship Wharf in busy Boston Harbour about 1875. The wheel house of the steamer Carroll can be seen and the sign on the warehouse reads “Halifax, Canso, Pictou and Prince Edward Island Steamship Line”

With the end of the American Civil War in 1865 there was an immediate surplus of sailing craft and steamers.  The U.S. Navy no longer had need for hundreds of vessels that they had commissioned or purchased. More than a thousand blockade runners that had tried and failed to sustain the South were on the market – either because they had been intercepted and seized, or because they no longer had a role to play. In addition, the privately owned steamers that had been part of the northern war economy faced a reduction in shipping.

It was a good time to start a shipping company.

In spite of the strong links between Prince Edward Island and the Boston States there was no was a regular service line running between Charlottetown and Boston before 1865. Up to that year passengers could take the Steam Navigation Company boat to Pictou and then by carriage to Truro or Halifax to meet Boston steamers. The Nova Scotia Railway was extended to Pictou in 1867 which reduced the trip time considerably.  The other main route used by Islanders heading to New England was to cross the Strait from Summerside to Pointe de Chene  near Shediac and after 1857 along the European and North American Railway to Saint John and by steamer from there  to Boston.

The Massachusetts firm of F. W. Nickerson and Company saw an opportunity.  Starting with a service linking Boston and Halifax in 1864, the ships Franconia and Commerce made experimental trips to Charlottetown through the Strait of Canso as well. Finding adequate business a regular weekly services was begun in 1865.  The Nickerson interest operated under several corporate structures, one of the earliest of which was the Boston and Colonial Steamship Company formed in 1866. The service later was operated as the Boston, Halifax and Prince Edward Island Steamship Company.  Nickerson’s also had trading interests with the West Indies and were agents for the Boston and Savannah Steamship Company.  Their ships operated on a variety of routes.


The Steamer Greyhound was known as “a fast sailer” and was conspicuous owing to her light lead coloured hull with a characteristic red streak.

The almost-new steamer Greyhound was placed on the Boston – Charlottetown run in 1865. She had been built at Port Glasgow on the Clyde in Scotland only two years before.  The sleek 201 foot, 460 ton vessel, built by Kilpatrick. McIntyre & Co., carried a full set of sails  but was an iron screw steamer with compound engines by Caird and Company. She was probably built specifically as a blockade runner. Launched late in 1863 her Liverpool owners quickly sold her and by early in January 1864 she headed across the Atlantic for the contested waters off the Confederate States of America. She made one trip into Wilmington North Carolina but her luck ran out on 10 May 1864 as she was leaving Wilmington with 800 bales of government cotton, 35 tons of tobacco and a number of passengers including Confederate spy Belle Boyd who later capitalized on her fame and had a theatrical career.  Intercepted by the U.S.S. Connecticut the Greyhound was seized and sent to Boston to be sold to help meet war costs.  She was assessed for $484,000 the highest valuation of a seized vessel ever reached at Boston!  By this time the South was well in retreat. When the northern army entered Charleston they found near starvation conditions and on learning of the city’s plight the citizens of Boston raised $30,000 for food relief in four days. The supplies were sent to the southern city using a chartered vessel – the former blockade runner Greyhound.

The following year found the Greyhound along with the steamer Commerce on the Boston – P.E.I. service  but the handsome vessel was not destined to have long service.  On what was to be her last trip of the year to Charlottetown for 1865  she struck the treacherous Bird Rock Ledges off Nova Scotia and was lost in 11 fathoms of water, Captain Nickerson, the crew and passengers and crew were saved and landed at Beaver Harbour. The vessel was reportedly insured for $100,000.  The company was able to place her successor, the Oriental, on the P.E.I. run the following spring.