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.
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.
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!