Tag Archives: Cunard

No Room at the Inn when Cunard Steamer Came to Call

The first visit was quite unexpected. On 19 June 1840 a large paddle steamer appeared a the entrance to the harbour and made its way to the wharf. As she approached, her decks could be seen to be crowded with British troops in their bright red uniforms. It was a changing of the guard as a detachment from the 8th Regiment sent from Halifax to replace the men of the 37th Regiment who had spent most of the past year in Charlottetown.

Advertisement for Atlantic steamship service for which the Unicorn served as a feeder. Colonial Herald and Prince Edward Island Advertiser 4 July 1840

Even more interesting than the new troops was the vessel on which they had arrived. The Unicorn was the first of the line of Cunard steamers to cross from Liverpool to Boston, via Halifax. The ship, which was slightly smaller than the purpose-built fleet of four vessels which later took on the trans-Atlantic packet service which led to the Cunard fame, had been built on the Clyde in 1836 for the Liverpool to Glasgow service. When the plan for the Atlantic packet service was developed the Unicorn was leased by the Cunard partners from the British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company.  Leaving Liverpool on 16 May 1840 with 27 passengers, the Royal Mail and 450 tons of coal the Unicorn, after battling heavy weather, entered Halifax  on the first of June and arrived in Boston on 3 June to be greeted at the wharf by thousands of spectators and by  banquet at which poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described the vessels – “Steamships! The pillars of fire by night and cloud by day, which guide the wanderer over the sea.”   The regular four-vessel “Atlantic railway” began about a month later.

The 163 foot Unicorn, the largest paddle steamer to visit Charlottetown to that date, was powered by a 2 cylinder engine producing 260 horsepower. The Colonial Herald, at a loss for its own words, copied a description of her interior from one of the English papers;

Her salon is spacious and finished in the style of the days of “Good  Queen Bess,” in solid rosewood, with panels or centre pieced in each compartment, formed by richly gilded antique foliated frame-work, within each of which is a Chinese view on a bright green ground, in the finest japan. The furniture corresponds, and the smaller cabins and sleeping-rooms are finished in corresponding style, and fitted with every possible convenience.

The Unicorn returned to Halifax with the departing troops – or at least some of them as their numbers had been reduced at a quarter through death and desertion.  Another unexpected visit from the steamer in July brought the Governor-General for a quick visit on his way to Halifax.

Sir Samuel Cunard

After her initial Atlantic voyage the route was handed off to Cunard’s newer and larger vessels. The Unicorn was assigned to a contract which served as a feeder, carrying mails and passengers from Pictou to Quebec. Hopes on the Island that they were to be a stop on that route were dashed by the news that the vessel would sail from Pictou around East Point and across the Gulf to Quebec.  The slightly longer route avoided the danger of sailing Northumberland Strait at night, at that time without any lighthouses.

Another impediment  to regular visits may have been revealed at what was possibly the Unicorn’s last visit in September of 1840.  The steamer had come from Halifax in a record time of 27 hours. In an earlier visit Cunard told the editor of the Colonial Herald that there were other problems facing steamer passengers to Charlottetown:

[Cunard] was struck at the want of accommodation in Charlottetown for travellers. A number of those who had previously arrived in the Pocahontas were in town, and when the Unicorn arrived with upwards of forty more, although some were accommodated in private homes, many were unable to procure beds, and during the two nights the vessel remained here were under the necessity of sleeping on board. From the influx of strangers who visit the island in pursuit of business or amusement  and which may be expected greatly to increase, as additional facilities for travelling are afforded, it must be apparent to everyone  that something ought to be done to remove us from the reproach of suitable accommodation being provided when they arrive.

Cunard offered to help in the establishment of a hotel, pledging a subscription of £100 towards the project. Although endorsed the Colonial Herald the suggestion does not appear to have been acted on. The newspaper’s editor noted another deficiency in the harbour facilities;

We may also add that the want of a separate wharf at which steam boats can load at all times and take on board passengers, with their luggage &c. without interruption is much complained of.  On Wednesday evening the passengers by the Unicorn had to scramble in the dark over the decks of two square-rigged vessels before they could reach the wharf, and when they did effect a landing, they had then, at the risk of their limbs, to pick their steps over huge heaps of limestone ballast, which had been previously thrown on the wharf.  If we are really desirous of getting a-head, something must be done to remedy this inconvenience also.   

Although there was a gradual improvement in the wharf situation over the next twenty years the want of proper hotel accommodation in Charlottetown was to be a constant complaint for almost a century and was frequently cited as a barrier to the development of tourism on the Island.

The Pictou to Quebec Royal Mail subsidy was ended in 1845 as the mails were routed through Boston to Montreal. Although the Unicorn had seldom stopped in Charlottetown after 1840 the change had an impact on the island mails  as they were no longer given the express treatment in the coach from Halifax to Pictou and had to wait an extra day or so for the regular stage.

The Unicorn was purchased from its British owners in 1845 by James Whitney of Saint John and by Samuel Cunard in 1849 She appears to have been used in connection with trade to Newfoundland. Purchased by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in 1849, probably to take advantage of the California gold rush traffic, she sailed between San Francisco and Panama City.  In 1853 she was sent to Australia. A year later she sailed for Canton and Shanghai and there the trail seems to run out.

Although the Cunard family had ties with Prince Edward Island – he was associated with the General Mining Association which had operated the steam packet service to the Island, his land company owned over 100,000 acres, and his daughter married James Horsfield Peters, lawyer and later judge, the Island never featured highly in the Cunard steamship story. Perhaps they should have built that hotel!

 

 

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“The wines were also very good…” James Peake and the Steamer Rose

The Rose at Pownal Wharf ca. 1849 from a painting by George Hubbard in the collection of the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation

The Rose at Pownal Wharf ca. 1849 from a painting by George Hubbard in the collection of the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation

At the mercy of the winds

By the mid 1840s Islanders were well used to the convenience of having a regular steam packet service connecting them with the mainland through Pictou and the Miramichi. The steamers Pocahontas belonging to Nova Scotia interests and the St. George of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company had carried on when the earlier Cape Breton was taken off the route. By 1846 however the St. George was under the control of William Stevenson of Quebec and was moved the following year to Quebec and the Gaspe.  The Steam Navigation Company was searching for another boat and in March 1847 James Peake wrote to Thomas Bolton, his agent in Halifax “…we now have to be dependant on the uncertainty of a sailing vessel for our mails…” The hunt for a new boat for the Company was not going well and by May he informed Bolton that the efforts had “…been entirely defeated…”  and that the Island “…shall, I fear, be at the mercy of the winds for at least for the present season.”

James Peake was in a good position to know the details of the issue. He was an enterprising shipbuilder and merchant who had come to the colony in 1823 and before his death in 1860 he was identified as the owner of 151 vessels, almost all of them sailing ships.  As a merchant he was aware of the need for good and dependable communications and the steamers on the Strait made regular correspondence with suppliers, insurers and financiers a little more secure.  He had been a major shareholder in the Prince Edward Island Stream Navigation Company but it was he, rather than the company, that was able to fill the communications gap. His father and brother Thomas operated the British end of the trans-Atlantic business from their base at Stonehouse, now part of Plymouth, in Devon and in spite of earlier failures they had been able to find a steamer for the Charlottetown – Pictou route.

The Rose is announced

Announcement of Dinner for James Peake - Islander 25 May 1849

Announcement of Dinner for James Peake – Islander 25 May 1849

On arrival of the news in Charlottetown there was general rejoicing and relief. A public dinner  on 25 May 1849 honouring Peake was oversubscribed. Fifty gentlemen sat down to a “very superior” meal produced by James Davis, landlord of the Victoria Hotel. The Islander reported that “The wines were also very good, particularly the champagne.”  Eight toasts were drunk, a band was in attendance, “past political differences were buried” and the party broke up at a late hour.

The Plymouth Herald carried an item in 27 July 1849 announcing that the Steamer Rose was ready to set sail for Prince Edward Island.  The Rose was a 103 foot, 88 ton, paddle steamer built at Blackwall on the Thames in 1832.  Constructed of English oak and teak she was been equipped with new boilers in Plymouth and her two 24 horsepower engines had been tested by a voyage from Plymouth to Falmouth.  On her trip the engines would not be used and the passage was conducted under sail. Thomas Peake proudly reported to his brother in Charlottetown that the little vessel “looks like a Man of War Steamer.”

The Rose arrived in Charlottetown on 9 August, 35 days from Plymouth, and work immediately began to fit her paddles and make repairs to the damages suffered in the passage. By the 24th of August she was running back and forth to Pictou twice weekly.  She was reported to have excellent accommodation for passengers, three dozen in the main cabin with an additional cabin for “Lady passengers.”  Although unable to get insurance at what he considered a reasonable cost Peake was anxious to put her on the line as soon as possible. He reported to John Pitcairn in England “I was obliged to get her on the packet line for mails with as little delay as possible and are pleased to be able to say that she acts well and hope from the anticipated increase in passengers she will pay her way next year.”

Schedule for Steamer Rose - Islander

Schedule for Steamer Rose – Islander 27 April 1850

Like most of the small steamers the Rose was available for pleasure excursions which were fitted in between her scheduled trips. In September 1851 for example, the Rose took 150 people on a pleasure excursion to Mt. Stewart and a few weeks later carried a “numerous and respectable party of ladies and gentlemen” across Orwell Bay to Port Selkirk accompanied by the Sons of Temperance band who played “right merrily some new and favorite airs” throughout the trip. The Rose continued to prove satisfactory for a several years but in June 1853 she left the port for Halifax. The newspaper report hints at a loss of the government subsidy or mail contract and noted that Peak had sold the vessel “at considerable sacrifice.” A testimonial to the Rose’s skipper, Captain Matheson noted the “undeviating punctuality and satisfaction to the commercial community of this town” that had been provided.

The short hereafter

The Rose was sold to Samuel Cunard of Halifax who leased her to the government for the protection of the fisheries. However she was not long employed in that task for in October she was caught in a gale, lost one of her paddles and came ashore on the eastern end of Peter’s Island, Rustico. All of the crew were saved but the vessel was a total loss.  Although the Rose was more than twenty years old the purchaser of the wreck, William Heard, stated “from the stern to the stem, from the gunnel to the keel, there was not two inches of unsound wood in her…”

The Rose had been replaced on the Pictou service by the Fairy Queen and the change of steamers was to have disastrous consequences for only a month later that vessel sank with loss of life.  That story will be told in a future chapter in the history of the strait steamers.

 

 

First Across the North Atlantic

Cape Breton001

Medal struck to recognize the voyage of the Cape Breton as one of the significant events in the history of Great Britain and the sea

Although commercial steamboats had been to great extent developed in North America beginning with Robert Fulton’s Clermont, by the 1830s the technology was world-wide. Even in Charlottetown the steam boat was the coming thing and in 1832 the first of the revolutionary vessels, the steamer Pocahontas, began a regular service between that port and Pictou in Nova Scotia.

However it was the appearance of a new vessel the following year that gave Islanders a real glimpse into the future of transportation.  In mid August 1833 a vessel that had been built on the banks of the Thames the same year sailed, or rather steamed, through the channel at the harbour’s mouth. The vessel was called the Cape Breton and her voyage across the ocean  is the first known passage of a vessel equipped with steam engines across the North Atlantic.

The steamer Cape Breton had been built by Benjamin Wallis & Company at a shipyard in Blackwall on the Thames and was launched early in 1833. She was a schooner rigged paddle vessel 104 ft long and with a beam of just under 21 feet. Her registration particulars described her as having one deck, one funnel, three masts, a standing bowsprit, a square, stern and a bird figurehead. Her engines were 35 horse power each and were probably side levers, each comprising a single cylinder with the associated transmission mechanism, an early engine design. Her service speed was rated at only 6 knots.

She began her voyage in London and she arrived at Plymouth in the south of England on 4 June 1833, “damaged and leaky”, but on 20 June, she sailed from Plymouth, arriving at Sydney, Nova Scotia on 4 August 1833, 44 days later.  During her pioneer North Atlantic voyage her engines would have been used intermittently when conditions suited and the rest of the time she would have sailed under her schooner rig. This was the normal practice with early steam ships. A fortnight later the Cape Breton made her first voyage from Pictou to Charlottetown.

The Cape Breton, like the smaller, North American-built Pocahontas was owned by the General Mining Association of London which had major mineral concessions and controlled most of the mining in Nova Scotia. On her record trip across the Atlantic she carried a cargo for the Company’s mines at Sydney and at Stellarton near Pictou. In addition to its coal interest the General Mining Association was also involved in other development in the area.

In the 1830s Miramichi was a major timber port and the whole area was being rapidly developed.  Ships regularly sailed direct from Miramichi to the United Kingdom and linking the New Brunswick port to other developing areas of the Northumberland Strait provided passenger and freight service in the region.  The Cape Breton and the Pocahontas both traveled the route from Pictou to Charlottetown to Miramichi and return.

In June 1835 the  Cape Breton sailed back across the Atlantic to England, arriving at Plymouth on 2nd August. She was damaged in a gale on her return passage to Nova Scotia but soon was once again a regular visitor to Charlottetown providing a packet service carrying the mails and passengers.  In 1838, she was sold to Joseph Cunard, brother of the founder of the Cunard Line. By this time her attractiveness may have paled. In August of 1840 Sir George Seymour on his visit to the Island described her as “a small & short & particularly dirty steam Vessell.”  At the end of the 1840 sailing season she returned England, where her engines were removed  and she became a fully-rigged sailing ship. She continued in trade until she was lost at sea in May 1857.

The service gap caused by the return of the Cape Breton to England in 1840 and her subsequent replacement by the unsatisfactory Pocahontas provided an opportunity for the newly-incorporated Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company to place the steamer St. George on the route in 1842.

The historic first crossing of the North Atlantic by the steam-powered Cape Breton has been recognized as one of the top 100 events in the history of Great Britain and the sea and a special medal (pictured above) has been struck the recognize the event.