Tag Archives: Duncan

James Duncan – Charlottetown’s Biggest Bankrupt

The Duncan shipyard property in 1878 at the time of Duncan’s bankruptcy. Duncan’s house was on the corner of Prince Street with its conservatory. The property also included a residence to the west which dated to the 1820s. Image from the Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878.

Between the Steam Navigation Wharf (which had carried the names of Reddin’s Wharf and Pope’s Wharf) and the Ferry Wharf at the end of Prince Street  lies a property of some significance to the history of Prince Edward Island. Here the foreshore stood at the foot of a high embankment and the waters were relatively shallow so that any wharf would have to be quite long to reach the channel.  Instead of a wharf the property became the site of one of the few shipyards on the waterfront.

The Duncan shipyard saw the building of a number of ships but most of the vessels owned by James Duncan were built elsewhere and  closer to the raw materials required, many in the Mt. Stewart area.   However the Duncan shipyard was the site of the building of the largest ship ever launched on Prince Edward Island, the Ethel, which displaced 1795 tons when she slid down the ways and promptly went aground in June 1858. Luckily the 205 foot ship had to wait only until the next spring tides before she was freed.

Duncan Shipyard property in 1863. Detail from D.J. Lake Topographical Map of Prince Edward Island

Andrew Duncan and James Duncan (who may have been brothers) were both involved in shipbuilding in the 1840s. Andrew had a shipyard in Elliot River and was one of the Directors of the Steam Navigation Company. Their firm A.& J. Duncan & Co., which also included James Duncan Mason who may have been another relation, was dissolved in 1855 and reconstituted as Duncan, Mason & Co. with Robert Robinson Hodgson as a new partner. One of their first projects was the building of a large 3 1/2 story brick store on the corner of Dorchester and Queen Streets which still stands.

Duncan Building on corner of Queen and Water Streets. Meacham’s Atlas of Prince Edward Island 1880.

For the next two decades the firm reaped the benefits of the wood, wind and water economy  building and selling or managing dozens of vessels. James Duncan became a member of the Island’s Council and participated in a wide range of civic activities. Shipbuilding in PEI reached a peak in the late 1860s but leveled off and was relatively steady at a lower level through to the mid 1870s. However Island builders had difficulty matching their output with the market and prices and production dropped after 1875.  In 1878 only 35 vessels were built in the Island and about half were sent to Great Britain for sale. By the end of 1879 only 10 of these had sold and at unfavourable prices. James Duncan and Co. were caught with large debts and ships they were unable to sell at other than a loss. 

James Duncan House in 2005. Photo: City of Charlottetown

In October 18978 the Merchant’s Bank of Prince Edward Island pushed Duncan & Co. into bankruptcy and a loss of confidence in the bank, which was one of Duncan’s largest creditors, meant it almost went under as well, saved only by investment from other Island banks.  There were many significant losses. Two creditors were each owed more than $100,000; Sir James Malcolm who was Duncan’s British agent was owed $119,000, and the Merchants Bank was owed $146,000 (3.1 million and 3.8 million respectively in todays funds) Another 17 companies were owed more than $1000 each and many others faced losses at lesser amounts. For small businesses even a slight loss could tip them from profit to loss. The Duncan bankruptcy had a ripple effect as the effects spread across the community. The total amount of liabilities of bankrupt firms on Prince Edward Island more than doubled over the previous year.  Duncan & Co. was soon wound up but the assets brought in far less than was needed and the settlement was only 32 cents on each dollar owed. Carvell Bros., who had not been a major Duncan creditor, suspended their operations blaming the failure of many of their customers but they were able to re-open their doors by the end of 1879. Two of the Island’s marine insurance companies stopped writing new policies and crossed their fingers that they would have no major claims which would bankrupt them and luckily both survived.

James Duncan was briefly jailed and his assets were seized by creditors and liquidated.  These assets which included several ships, the Duncan shipyard property, and the Duncan property on Water Street including the contents were all sold for the benefit of creditors. Much of the property was purchased by Captain Ronald McMillan who built a coal depot on the shipyard site.

James Duncan Property 1873 (outlined in green). Note how the shoreline comes almost up to the buildings. Note building wing “form’ly the Foundry” and the blacksmith shop. The solid red line shows the property of the Prince Edward Island Railway. Dotted line shows possible route of railway extension to Great George Street. This land was expropriated in the 1880s.

Several of the Duncan properties still stand; the large brick double store on the corner of Queen and Dorchester Streets, Duncan’s residence at the corner of Prince Street and Water and the large building (now apartments) next door to the west which had originally been the store of Messrs. Waters & Birnie and which was likely built in the early 1820s.  It was also the site of the Phoenix foundry. The foundry and a blacksmith forge were still on the property in 1873 and were likely used in conjunction with the shipyard.  Other than the two residences traces of the estate and shipyard have disappeared under the Confederation Landing Park. James Duncan left Prince Edward Island soon after the bankruptcy and died in Scotland in 1889.

Coal, Steam and Seals: Captain McMillan’s Steamer Elliott

I have written in an earlier posting about Captain Ronald McMillan and the steamer William but this was only one chapter in the story of McMillan’s forays into the world of steamships. – forays that in general did not have happy endings.

It was rare for Island ship-owners to make the transition from sail to steam. One well-funded venture in the late 1870’s saw a number of Island capitalists come together to form the Ocean Steamship Company but the venture into trans-Atlantic trade was ultimately unsuccessful. However late in the 19th century a market began to open up in the coastal trade for new steamers. With the decline in shipbuilding across the region the fleet of schooners and brigs which carried much of the bulk cargo and which served smaller ports was aging and the response was not to build more sail-powered replacements but to shift some of the carrying capacity to steamers.  Builders such as Joseph McGill in Shelburne and the Burrill- Johnson Iron Works in Yarmouth put a number of small wooden vessels on the market, several of which, including the Electra, the Magdalen and the Harland,  ended up serving P.E.I. ports. Another response was to purchase older British-built steamships and bring them across the Atlantic to enter the maritime coastal trade.

Advertisement for McMillan’s coal business. Daily Examiner 15 February 1889 p.2

One of the most active shippers on Prince Edward Island was Captain Ronald McMillan of West River. He had been a successful captain who had built and operated a number of coastal schooners before the became a partner with Donald Farquharson in the steamer William in 1888.  The sinking of that vessel in December of 1891 did not mean the end of his activity.  In 1881 he had begun a coal business and had purchased the Duncan shipyard property just west of the Prince Street ferry wharf. With the end of waterfront shipbuilding the property had deteriorated and MacMillan converted  it to a coal yard with a wharf which was reported by the Daily Examiner in 1892 to be “second to none in the city.”  The wharf housed two large coal sheds served by trollies holding three-quarters of a ton moving  bulk coal from ships to storage. Instead of using horse powered hoisting gear he had the latest steam-powered donkey engines which could unload 150 tons from a vessel in a single day. McMillan was reported to be the largest coal dealer in the province at the time.

After the loss of the William McMillan may have had insurance proceeds and he moved to replace her. In the spring of 1892 he sought out a vessel in England but not satisfied with what he was able to find there he decided not to use another British-built steamer but have one built on Prince Edward Island.  Late in that year he made a request to Charlottetown City Council for permission to use the area between his property and the Prince Street Wharf to build a vessel during the winter months.

3218.67 launch 2

Launch of the Steamer Elliot. November 1893. H.B. Sterling Photo. Public Archives and Records Office

Permission appears to have been granted and in November 1893 a ship, named the Elliott after the Elliott River, slid down the ways of the shipyard. Built by veteran shipbuilder Kimble Coffin of Mt. Stewart the vessel was one of, if not the largest steamer built on the Island. The 367 ton vessel was 160 feet long, 25 feet beam and an 11 foot depth of hold. Constructed of spruce, juniper, pitch pine and American oak  she had galvanized iron fastenings throughout.

Advertisement for maiden voyage of the S.S. Elliott. Daily Examiner 15 November 1893 p.2.

Within a week the maiden voyage of the Elliott was advertised. She would make a trip to Barbados and Trinidad calling at Bermuda. For the rest of the decade the Elliott continued to call at ports such as Philadelphia and Halifax up and down the Atlantic seaboard but given the other business  interests of her owner one of the most frequently hauled cargos would have been coal from Cape Breton or Pictou She often carried livestock on the out-bound legs.  In 1897 McMillan took the Elliot to the Strait of Belle Isle where a steamer the Baltimore City had been wrecked and salvaged the bulk of the cargo and fixtures of the steamer which were taken to Charlottetown and sold.

In 1904 McMillan decided to try something different with the steamer.  January found the ship in Halifax fitting out for a trip to the sealing grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The ship would pick up about 100 sealers at Channel – Port Aux Basques and head for the sealing grounds around Meat Cove Cape Breton and St. Paul Island just off the Cape Breton coast. She was to only Canadian steamer to be engaged in the fishery that year. On 18 March a report was received that the ship had received damage from the ice to her stern post, keel and shaft, was aground at Atlantic Cove on St. Paul Island. The sealers and crew had been put ashore on the tiny island but Captain Farquharson was able to get word to the mainland that he hoped she could be saved and by 26 March the crew had returned to the ship and she had re-started for the sealing ground. However about four or five miles from the Island she was nipped by the ice and all aboard had to take to the boats and with a favourable winds were able to return to the Island. Strangely the following day the steamer was blown back into the cove, leaking and with the rudder torn away. They attempted to keep her afloat and beach her but she sank in fourteen feet of water just off the shore and was a total loss.

Sale notice for McMillan properties. Charlottetown Guardian 12 August 1905 p.2.

The loss of the Elliott may have been one blow too many for McMillan.  The following year “intending to make a change in business” he advertised his business and property for sale. This consisted of the property with 110 foot frontage on the south west corner of Prince and Water Streets which included The Plazza House Hotel, two large dwellings and barns and two vacant building lots.  On the other side of the railway siding which ran through the property was the coal business with a roller mill, offices, coal scales, two coal sheds which could hold 2000 tons, warehouses and a blacksmith shop. There was also a wharf and water lot which extended to the channel of the Hillsborough.

McMillan appears to have become insolvent in 1906 with his estate assigned to W.H. Aitken and by 1908 he was living in Vancouver where he died in 1915.

There are few reminders of McMillan and his ships and businesses left on the Charlottetown waterfront. The wharf, shipyard, warehouses and coal yard have been knocked down and the land now forms the eastern half of the Confederation Landing Park.  The two buildings which faced on Water street have long histories and were part of the James Duncan property before being acquired by McMillan and they both survive.  The “Plazza House” had, by 1909, become the Lennox Hotel and operated under that name for many years, for part of the time by the Misses McMillan who may have been relatives of Capt. Ronald.