Tag Archives: cruising

River cruising in the 1870s

River cruising on the Rhine, Danube and other European rivers is an increasingly popular pastime but it is hardly new. Rivers have been exploited for their commercial potential for millennia and aside from their contribution to transportation their recreational potential has long since been recognized.

Heather Belle2

Early photo of the Heather Belle. P.E.I. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 2103/216

This is true even on the limited river systems of Prince Edward Island. Steamers such as the Heather Belle, the Jacques Cartier, and later the Harland, as well as the ferry steamers provided a working freight and passenger service up the rivers to head of tide.  In a two-part  article titled “Pleasant Ways and Days” which appeared in the 1877 Semi-Weekly Patriot a correspondent writes about the excursions available to those from the city. Besides the coastal trips to Crapaud and Orwell and visits to the islands of Hillsborough Bay the writer enthuses about the trips on the river steamers as if employed as a hack publicist for the steamship companies:

All who have taken the trip up the East and West (or Hillsboro and York [sic]) Rivers, but especially the latter, agree that it can hardly be surpassed for varied beauty, winding in and out as it does, through intervale and upland, here a “bank” and there a “brae,” clothed, now to the waters edge with varied forest  shades, anon, carpetted to the bank, with every tint of grass green of the splendid farms. Flocks of cranes and solitary specimens stand along the bank and sail slowly away as the boat draws near, snipe, flit, dicks and geese, in season, hover around and everything is beautiful.

This trip is performed on the government steam-ferry Southport, a large and substantial boat under the command of Capt. Henry Mutch. On Tuesday and Friday at morning and evening 5 a.m. and 3;30 p.m., the trips are made, touching at Farquharson’s wharf and going in sight of Bonshaw wharf, 12 cents each way, reduction in favour of large parties, and one has the advantage of the interesting study of mankind, to be had in the varied specimens of human nature of the one thousand, or fifteen hundred the boat will hold.

This is probably the most acceptable [trip] of the list as no fatigue is felt, the time occupied being about 1 1/2 hours each way. The view of the opening up of the North (or York) River and of the Straits, through the Harbours mouth, is very beautiful. In returning you pass Rocky Point, when the whole harbour, the city, Stratford shore, and the long reach of the “Hillsboro’s sparkling tide”  are seen at once , and well repay the pleasure seekers and fully assure them that “this little isle that gems the sea, is isle as fair as isle can be.”   

Heather Belle

Semi-Weekly Patriot 1879

The trip to Mount Stewart in the Heather Belle Hughes Bros. owners and agents on Wednesday and Friday either at 4 a.m. or 3 p.m., are most enjoyable touching at Apple Tree wharf if desired, but always calling at Fort Augustus, Cranberry, and Hicky’s wharf, and, if arranged for, a couple of hours can be had at the Bridge to see the enterprising little place, and its great industry – shipbuilding. As many as 25 vessels have been on the stocks there at one time.

Choosing a moonlight night the down trip is just perfection, Falconwood, the Stock Farm and New Insane Asylum are in sight from the River, Fort August Chapel looms up, and mayhap nearing Mount Stewart passengers may experience the excitement of a race with the Railway train that approaches the bank  near there, and returning to the city at 10 a.m. or 10 p.m., will readily acknowledge that 30 cents could not have been more profitably expended, but of course our readers will remember when we speak of these very cheap rates that they are for parties not less than twenty, but might even be lessened for larger parties.

Service and excursions up the West River were to continue almost to the middle of the 20th century. However the parallel routes of the railroad and steamship lines up the Hillsborough River mean that there was a duplication and the river business fell off dramatically. Today it is rare for even pleasure boats to pass upstream of the Hillsborough Bridge.


Crosby’s Mills was popular boating destination

On almost every Island stream where the tide reached furthest inland there was once a mill and a millpond. Many have disappeared but on the West or Eliot River the site of Crosby’s Mill can still be found.  The Green or Tryon Road which was cut through in the earliest years of the 19th century crossed the West River at the head of tide and in the early 1840s a mill site was developed just above the bridge. The steepness where the road dipped into the valley from the heights of Strathgartney was a difficult climb for heavily laden wagons and carts and in 1841 an alternate and more gradual route was developed just to the south at Bonshaw.

Green Road Bridge

Green Road Bridge at Crosby’s Mills before 1907

A new steel bridge was placed on the crossing in 1907 and the hill cut down but by then the road through Bonshaw was clearly the favoured route and there was little further improvement on the Green Road.

Green Road Bridge after 1907. PARO Accession 3466.

Green Road Bridge after 1907. PARO Accession 3466.

The steel span was in place until 1962 when it was washed away and floated down to Bonshaw. A temporary foot bridge using decking over two telephone poles provided access to the eastern bank of the river.


New footbridge under construction November 2014

Bonshaw was effectively the head of navigation and a wharf was soon established there. Most pleasure boats, including early craft such as the Houseboat Doris and later those from the Charlottetown Yacht Club could go no further than the Bonshaw Bridge but smaller motorboats and canoes could, at high tide, go right up to Crosby’s.  Mac Irwin took many photos in the area and it appears to have been a popular camping and excursion spot in the 1910s and 20s. One resident reported that in the 1920s upwards of 25 boats might come up the river on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  It was also a popular fishing spot. At the turn of the 20th century Indian guides could still be hired to help anglers find the best spots on the upper West River.  Possibly the largest fish caught in recent years was a 6 1/4 pound monster taken from the pool below the mill  in 1942 by Lloyd Weeks of Charlottetown. In the late 1940s it was not uncommon for trout weights to be up to 3 1/2 pounds.  Changes in the upper river arising from the partial blockage of the river by the West River Causeway in the early 1960s had a dramatic and damaging effect on siltation and flushing of the river which is only now beginning to change.

SCH2Charlottetown Architect Charles B. Chappell sketched the busy operation on a visit to the spot in 1907. A huge pile of slabs bark and sawdust from the mill spilled into the river and no doubt contributed to the silting up of the stream, a problem which persists to this day in spite of efforts by the local watershed group to improve the flow.

Bonshaw millIn 1937, after the death of Hugh Crosby the property was put up for sale. At the time the operation consisted of a grist mill with a four stand roller process flour mill, machinery for making oatmeal, and English wheat burrs for crushing grain; a sawmill with rotary bandsaw, planer and  shingle mill; an electrical generator which provided power to nearby house; 100 acres of land, 12 of which were cultivated the remainder in wood; and a two-storey house with plumbing and electric lights. The mill itself was in operation into the mid-20th century but has since crumbled into the ground leaving only a few foundation stones. The dam has been altered and the spillway and mill race removed, replaced by a by-pass channel.

In 1936 the area was promoted by local residents as the site of the new national park proposed for the province. A public meeting in Bonshaw adopted a resolution  “most earnestly and humbly craving their representatives in Parliament and all others interested in this matter to make an honest and earnest effort to secure to site of the proposed national park at Bonshaw.”  The reasons were made clear at the meeting

The scenery is rugged, almost sublime; lofty hills, sheltered valleys, with nice stretches of level spaces, splendid forests comprising almost all the trees native to the province; a large and smooth mill dam well sheltered by hills and forest, which gives a perfect reflection; pure spring water flowing steadily from the rocks, insuring a perpetual supply of good water for all culinary and laundry purposes, a very strong water power that can be easily utilized for making electricity and for other purposes; an abundant supply of fuel consisting of good hardwood, even the good sugar maple; the moss in some parts of this locality is wonderful, reminding a person of rich, green carpet. This would be an ideal home for a few deer and pheasants. The mill dam above mentioned is navigable for quite a distance for motorboats, canoes etc.   

The park was eventually located elsewhere. However, in the 1960s much of the Strathgartney estate and land on the east bank of the river above the Bonshaw bridge was acquired through the Cotton Trust and became two provincial parks although once-popular camping and picnic facilities and services are no longer provided at Strathgartney. Recent acquisition of additional land for a new highway alignment has meant that the park or wilderness area has been much expanded and much of the river frontage has been protected.  A log footbridge on the site of the old road bridge is being replaced by a more permanent structure and a new network of  hiking trails is planned for the area.

CrosbysOn the eastern side of the valley there was still a farmstead accessed by the Green Road into the 1960s. However, in 1962  the bridge was swept downstream in a storm-created flood  and was not replaced. The road, which was steep and easily eroded, was abandoned and gradually became overgrown. Today it is all but impassable but its route can be easily found owing to the deep cutting through which it passed. The farm buildings were abandoned and torn down.

By the time of the 1976 aerial photographs the steep hillside was becoming overgrown and traces of the farms were disappearing. Forty years on the fields have become mature field spruce stands and in the steeper forested areas mature hardwoods stand over a hiking trail which goes up the eastern side of the valley to the old bridge site.

Crosbys Mill 1958

Today few boats make it up as far as Bonshaw, even at high tide, and it is rare indeed to see any craft above the Bonshaw Bridge.  However the rationale for the siting of a national park in the area in 1937 still holds. The Green Road bridge and Crosby’s Mills are still worth a  visit:  The scenery is rugged, almost sublime; lofty hills, sheltered valleys, with nice stretches of level spaces, splendid forests comprising almost all the trees native to the province.


This entry started when I discovered the postcard view of the unidentified “Pastoral Scene” looked very much with the tide head of the West River.  Bill and Elizabeth Glen’s 1993 book on the history of the area “Bonshaw: A Stroll through its Past” is most easily accessed at the UPEI Robertson Library’s Island Lives site.  Many of the references are from to PEI newspapers.  Air photos can be found at the Government of PEI map site

The Restless and the Roamer

Small015From the Charlottetown Guardian 6 September 1932:

Last evening the writer had the privilege of being shown through two of the finest launches in our harbour, namely the “Restless” and the “Roamer”. The former is owned by Mr. Hal Bourke and the latter by Mr. Malcolm Irwin.

Both these launches have Kermath engines in them and are equipped with radios, electric lights, refrigerators and toilets, all the conveniences of a modern home. The former boat “the “Restless” is 33 feet long and ten feet beam and travels at a speed of nine knots.  She has cruising accommodation for seven persons.  

The latter boat, the “Roamer” is practically the same as the “Restless.” She has a speed of eight knots and is 31 feet 9 inches long 8 1/2 feet bream. She can also accommodate seven people.  

Both Hal Bourke and Mac Irwin were active in boating before 1920 and were two of the first members of the Charlottetown Yacht Club. The Bourke residence overlooked Charlottetown Harbour near Pownal Wharf just east of what is now the home of the Yacht Club.   Mac Irwin lived on West Street and had an extensive boat building shop at the rear of the family business – The Irwin Printing Company.


The Roamer at Red Gap ,probably in the 1920s. Note the other, smaller flush deck cruiser and the Flirt, a runabout owned by Hal Bourke

The Roamer and the Restless were fixtures in Charlottetown harbour – the Restless was still actively cruising into the 1960s. I have been unable to discover to date where and when the two vessels were built.  At the time the design with its flush deck and sloping deckline to the stern were the epitome of modern motor boat marine architecture as popularized by the American magazine, The Rudder (copies of which were to be found in corners of the old sail loft in the original Charlottetown Yacht Club when I was a junior member).  The boats probably date from the early 1920s. The Restless is reported to have toured to the Bras d’Or Lakes in the simmer of 1924, calling in at Pictou, New Glasgow, and Wallace on her return trip.  Given the similarity of design it is probable that the Roamer dates from the same period

Mac Irwin had a seemingly endless series of boats. One of his earliest motor boats was the family launch Hermes built in 1912 by L & N Paquet of Souris. This 22 foot open launch was powered by a 5 hp Imperial motor from Bruce Stewart.  In 1920 an account of a picnic at the Stewart property on the West River mentions a large boat used to transport attendees but it is not clear if this was the Hermes, the Roamer or some other boat.


Roamer at Murray Harbour ca. 1930

Under the care of its owner and his friends the Roamer, like the Restless, was also used for many extended voyages.  Snapshots from the Fred Small Collection show the motorboat in Murray Harbour and there are references in newspaper accounts to Mac Irwin being in attendance at regattas elsewhere in the eastern part of the Island.

Roamer ashore behind the Bourke property. Note starboard location of companionway.


One of the difficulties with these two boats is telling them apart. As the newspaper report above notes the boats are almost identical varying only in length by a few inches and in beam by a foot and a half.  Moreover there were modifications made throughout their lives with changes especially evident in the deckhouse. From a completely clear flush deck a canvas top was added to both boats with a spray shield to protect the companionway and finally (at least on the Restless) a wooden cabin. I have been able to find no photos showing both boats in the same picture.  The only clear difference seems to be in the site of the companionway with the location on the Roamer at the starboard while in the wider Restless it was centred.


Restless at Pinette ca. 1930 with external rudder and midships companionway

Another indicator may be the external rudder which is clearly evident in some photos but is frustratingly hidden in most of the-photos available.  On the other hand it is not inconceivable that modifications made to either boat could have included changing the rudder configuration.  I have assumed that pictures showing the rudder are of the Restless. A similar canvas canopy seems to have been used on boat boats to shelter the otherwise open cockpit.

Small011-2The two boats were frequently used as committee boats for regattas and races in Charlottetown Harbour and often served to tow snipes and other craft to regattas held elsewhere, especially after the formation of the Yacht Racing Association of Northumberland Strait in the late 1930s.

And when did the two boats disappear? We know that Mac Irwin launched a new plywood Roamer in 1956 so something must have happened to the old boat. The Restless survived for much longer but I do not know its fate. Perhaps a reader can assist in closing the chapter?

A few other Restless and Roamer photos. Click any image for a slide show.