Tag Archives: Elfin

Ferry Hillsborough was last paddle-wheel steamer in harbour


Ferry Wharf in the 1930s

Ferry Wharf in the 1930s

When the ferry steamer Hillsborough (often spelled the Hillsboro) was launched in 1894 there was still a variety of steamer services in Charlottetown. Besides the subsidized service up the east and west rivers there were ferries linking the capital with Southport and with Rocky point and even some service to York Point. The ferry wharf at Prince Street could be a busy place, especially on market days when the ferry would be crowded by teams and wagons and even flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. 

Hillsborough ferry tender. Guardian 4 April 1902

Hillsborough ferry tender. Guardian 4 April 1902

The Hillsborough Ferry had a long history. Originally passage to the south side of the river was served by sail and oar. In the 1830s the development of horsepower on a turntable or treadmill (a teamboat) gave more reliable and regular service. By the 1850s small steam-powered vessels became the norm. Initially the route was tendered out or assigned by legislation and contract but eventually the unreliable service and the poor quality of craft offered led the government to purchase the ferry and contract out the operation. Later ferries were built for government and leased out for the season or a term of years.  Ferries under government ownership in Charlottetown Harbour included the Ora, the Elfin, the Southport, the Hillsborough  which were all steam vessels, and the Fairview which had a diesel engine. The season was set for the period as long as the harbour was clear of ice and so the annual start and end dates varied considerably. One of the first long-term contracts called for the ferry to cross to Southport every half hour except for the times it ran to Canso Point which it was required to do twice a day.

S.S. Hillsborough ca. 1900 PARO #4466/2 Edison Horton Coll.

S.S. Hillsborough ca. 1900 PARO #4466/2 Edison Horton Coll.

Screen Shot 05-12-19 at 04.51 PM

Hillsborough Launch Tea Party  Daily Examiner 16 July 1894

Tenders were called for a new ferry in May of 1893 and the government obviously knew what they wanted for the builders could examine both a model and specifications. The tenders were for the hull only so either there was an engine in hand or the government wanted to tender that separately.

The Hillsborough was launched in Mount Stewart in July 1894 by Pisquid shipbuilder Angus MacDonald. The event was celebrated by a public tea with transportation provided by the Southport and the P.E.I. Railway. The boilers and engine were later installed in Charlottetown by MacKinnon and MacLean. The 225 ton steamer was 105 feet long and had a beam of 25 feet. The steam engine provided thirty and a half horsepower. Like both the Elfin and the Southport she was propelled by paddle wheels on either side of the hull.  She was double-ended with helm positions at either end of the vessel.  The Hillsborough was later reported to have cost the Province $17,800.

The Elfin (left) and Hillsborough heading for the Prince Street wharf ca. 1903. Photo is taken from the fabrication yard for the Hillsborough Bridge east of the Railway Wharf.

The Elfin (left) and Hillsborough heading for the Prince Street wharf ca. 1903. Photo is taken from the fabrication yard for the Hillsborough Bridge east of the Railway Wharf.

In 1895 the Southport, which had formerly been running across that harbour to …(as might be expected) …Southport, was moved to provide service to the East and West Rivers. The ferry to Rocky Pont at the time was the Elfin and the new  ferry steamer Hillsborough took over the cross-river route. She left Charlottetown first at 6:30 a.m. and then at half hour intervals until 9:00 p.m. She left the Southport wharf at quarter to and quarter past the hour. However there were several alterations or exceptions over the years to allow the Hillsborough to undertake excursions and to visit other ports. In 1901, for example, the Hillsborough visited Victoria where she went aground and a year later she was used to provide passenger service to Fort Augustus for the St. Patrick’s Church Tea Party.

Abandoned Ferry wharf at Southport ca. 1915

Abandoned Ferry wharf at Southport ca. 1915

In 1906 when the Murray Harbour railway line opened with service across the recycled Hillsborough Bridge a chapter in the harbour history closed. The bridge (which carried both rail and road traffic) was originally scheduled to be taken over by the provincial government on the first of July but the ferry ran for some time after that. A notice from the Secretary of Public Works simply stated “On and after Saturday, September 29th, the Ferry Steamer, Hillsborough will cease to run on the Southport Ferry.” With only one ferry route to service the ferry Southport was redundant and was disposed of. A week later the Elfin was destroyed by fire and the Hillsborough was transferred to the Rocky Point crossing and continued to operate on that route for almost thirty more years.

In the 1930s the deterioration of the ferry meant that it spend several lengthy periods on the marine slip in Pictou being re-planked and sheathed to extend its life. In mid-June 1935 it was announced that the ferry would no longer carry motor or horse traffic and a few days later the Guardian noted that the boat had been replaced by a motor sloop owned by MacDonald Brothers. With the ice-up of the harbour in January 1936 it was clear that the Hillsborough had made her last trip. The new ferry, the Fairview,was nearing completion at Capt. Charles Fitzgerald’s boatyard in Georgetown and it was hoped she would be in place when the ice went out in the spring.

In early May 1936, when the old Hillsborough left the harbour of Charlottetown for the last time the fires in the boiler had long gone cold. The ferry made its last trip towed by the government tug Bally. She was en route to Pictou where the discarded Hillsborough was dismantled and sold for scrap. She had been on the ferry route longer than any other vessel in the history of the harbour and was the last paddle wheel vessel seen in the harbour.

An Afternoon on the Elliott

Island newspapers took particular delight in publishing accounts penned by visitors to the Province.  The Island was sufficiently distant and yet accessible from New England that the area was frequently profiled by American periodicals. Armchair travellers could access Harper’s Monthly Magazine or Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and see the Island through a tourist eye. In September 1877 the Patriot published the following anonymous account of a summer trip up the West River written by an American visitor.


Charlottetown from the Southport Ferry Wharf. Detail from illustration for “The Garden of British North America” Frank Leslie’s Weekly 1887

Perhaps you are ignorance of that river generally called the West. Well, should you ever be in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, owning allegiance to our neighbouring Dominion, step aboard the Government Ferry Steamer Southport on Tuesday and Friday, they being market days, and, for twelve cents “good and lawful money of Her Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria,” you will be taken through twelve miles of the most charming scenery in the Lower Canadian Provinces.

Leaving the Queen’s Wharf and the City, resounding with business, for some time the eyes are charmed with the harbor out-look, a little ferry-boat, aptly named the Elfin, putting across to Southport on the opposite shore,  fishing schooners making in and out, and small boats of all shapes and sizes running across the steamer’s bows, then racing alongside, etc. Right down the harbor we go viewing Government House embowered in trees, looking like many a southern plantation residence. Battery Point with a few ancient guns, and a small red brick arsenal flanking it, then across the mouth of the North or York River, on the right hand, and a view of the harbor’s mouth and Light House on the other hand, shut out immediately by entering the river of our story.

Gov house

Government House from the harbour. Illustration from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine – September 1877

Just as the harbor is left for the river is passed Rocky Point, to and from which and the city a fine, large sail boat, ably manned, plies hourly every day, affording a splendid chance for luxurious coolness through sweltering days; and in the evening we heard that the same boat carries large parties of young people about the harbor for a few hours, one of the many pleasant ways in which Islanders thoroughly enjoy life.  Just above the Point is an old fort dating from the French occupation, the earthworks overgrown with large evergreen trees.   …  Although none of the Rivers in this Gem of the Gulf are very long, yet the alluvial soil causes deep cuttings, many  bends, and attendant “points”  opening up variety at every half mile. Passing along we disturb families of crane, standing solemnly on one leg fishing, and now and then a flock of ducks who rise from the water and sail away in “Indian file,” each one with its head on one side looking at the intruders with that inquiring gaze that hens bestow upon a hawk hovering around in chicken time.

There is a clearness in the atmosphere here that makes everything beautifully distinct, outlining the landscape on the sky and making an Indian Summer day just delightful, while beneath is flowing the river of water, silently, steadily onward to the sea.  Having asked the Captain the names of one or two Points, we were agreeably surprised to receive a civil answer, but we found afterwards it was one of the boat’s universal belongings.   We had always imagined that captains of steamers  had such a load of responsibility resting upon them, in the way of mint juleps and gin cocktails &c, that poor, common, travelling humanity must travel in silence but here was one almost ready to go to the other extreme, in fact, it gave rise to the thought that he was trying to gain the same end by means of an overpowering flow if descriptive language. “That’s Ferguson’s Point on the Port Side and McNeill’s just above , with White’s and Hyde’s  on the big bend just opposite, and there’s Patterson’s, Crosby’s and Wilson’s Points.” 


Chart of Elliott River from the harbour to Dog [now Clyde] River from George Wrights 1839 Chart of Hillsborough Bay

We next stepped forward to interview the Engineer just as the steamer crossed Dog River mouth, every stream from that turning a mile. The engineer and Pilot said it was ” not much fun going up river now,” but when the geese and other wild fowl were in season, and good trout fishing could be had  and he was just warming to the subject, and introducing us (in imagination) to the landed proprietors along the river bank, when the Gong sounded for a landing, and, in a few minutes we were tied up to Farquharson’s Wharf, one of these peculiar structures made by piling fir trees (or Var) on the ice in the winter time allowing it to sink, and then building up with timber and ballast in summer, and they are said never to rot. A large Saw and Grist Mill is at the head of the wharf. A family is migrating up river to fresh fields and pastures new … the party consisting of a man and wife, an overgrown lump of a boy, a little golden-haired, dirty-faced girl, and a baby in arms, neutral gender, but of undoubted lung power. Their household effects were limited, yet occupied the whole of the attention of the owner and two deck hands to remove them from the wharf to the steamer’s deck. There was a cradle with a rocker and a half, a cooking stove with three legs and a brick, four chairs, two of which were backless and the other two minus several rungs, two bundles of sundries done up in patchwork quilts, the makings of a bedstead, one iron pot and a tea kettle. About three miles further up the whole interesting family was landed and went on their way rejoicing.

Just above the wharf two men were raking oysters from a bed uncovered at low tide, as are others in the same river, and some of the crew shouted themselves hoarse endeavouring to induce them to come down and let the strangers stand treat, but they would not come, and we are in doubt to this day as to the true merits of an Elloitt river bivalve, though able to endorse fully all encomiums , past or present upon Island oysters generally …

But the shades of night are coming down swift, it is time to be up and steaming, so the captain thinks and orders it so, that in a minute or two the boat, swing from a hawser as upon a pivot, heads downstream, and stopping only once to pick up a small boat passenger who had put out to intercept us, we were soon going up the harbor again, a soft mist falling. We could see the lights of the city gleam through the mist and rain, and were anon in the Hotel well satisfied with our afternoon’s enjoyment while outside.