Tag Archives: Empress

And then came the French

The decade prior to the beginning of the Great War was not an especially good one for the economy of the Island but you might hardly know it in Charlottetown Harbour. While shipbuilding was almost at an end on the Island there were still dozens of coastal schooners that visited the port carrying coal and wood and other bulk cargos and taking away the Island’s produce. But they were hardly the main act. In many ways it was the golden age of the steamer. Charlottetown was a stop for several steamship lines linking the Island with Sydney, Montreal, St. John’s and other ports. There was a direct connection with Halifax and Boston through the Plant Line. The Island Steam Navigation Company had boats such as the Empress and the Northumberland crossing to Pictou and Pointe de Chene. Local coastal boats including the Harland linked Charlottetown with Victoria and Orwell and the ferries criss-crossed the harbour and ventured up the rivers. The Department of Marine and Fisheries had a strong presence and even the humble government dredges added to the activity of the waterfront.

But the most dramatic visitors to the port were the occasional visits by the ships of the world’s navies. The period was one of great rivalry between the European powers and showing the flag was more than just a phrase. England’s Royal Navy came and went more frequently than others with the most impressive visit from the floatilla of Prince Louis of Battenburg in 1905. The German Cruiser Bremen visited in 1911. In the years between these two visits the French Navy was in the harbour twice.  Unlike the Germans, the French still had a vested interest in the area with the colony of St.Pierre and Miquelon serving as an anchor for the French fishing fleet and a claim on the bounty of the Grand Banks.

Cruiser Chasselopu-Loubat

Cruiser Chasseloup-Laubat

The first French visitor was the 308 foot 2nd class cruiser Chasseloup-Laubat in July of 1906. The vessel was by then twelve years old and with its plough bow and pronounced tumblehome curve of the sides was of a design that was quickly disappearing. The Guardian opined that with her three funnels and “dangerous looking ram tacked on to her bow, gives her quite a fighting air.” Not, of course, as threatening as the “grim and trim look of the men o’ war of the  British Navy.”  There were also other differences. There seemed to be a more relaxed atmosphere on board, less severe discipline. The Guardian writer was also fascinated by the appearance of “quite a farm on board, the livestock being required for feeding the men.” The on-board menu was a contrast to the Royal Navy which still included bully beef and rum.

The next year a more modern vessel of the Dupliex class came through the harbour mouth. The Kleber was completed in 1904 and the changes in vessel design in the eleven years between the vessels were obvious.  The Kleber was very much a modern cruiser with a “credibly neat and clean appearance” while the Chasseloup-Laubat was dated.  There was also considerable difference in size with the Kleber being 426 feet long, requiring a crew of 531 to the older ship’s 339.  Still, the armaments on the two vessels were similar.  The Guardian’s writer seemed more impressed with the quality of the ship’s band than the ship itself.

At sunset every night a very pretty ceremony was observed. Punctually as the sun went down a gun was fired and the bugle and drum sounded a call. Thereupon the flags came down, while the ship’s band played the time-honored short salutation with which the ceremony is always accompanied. The followed the first bar of the Marsellaise, while every sailor uncovered and listened with bare head until the tune was played through and was followed by God Save the King. The caps were resumed and the sailors went on with their usual skylarking.   


French Cruiser Kleber

While they may have impressed the residents of Charlottetown neither vessel made much of a contribution to the war effort once it began in 1914. The Chasseloup-Laubat had been removed from active service and was turned into an accommodation ship in 1911. It eventually ended up as part of a breakwater and harbour facility in Mauritania. The Kelber saw service but had little impact. She was stranded and re-floated under Turkish gunfire off Gallipoli in May 1915. Two months later she collided with a British cargo vessel. She was sunk by a submarine-laid mine off the harbour of Brest in June 1917.

Following the war in 1918 there was a significant reduction in the navies of the world. The small Canadian fleet had almost disappeared, the Germans had been defeated and many of the French and English ships were scrapped.  Courtesy visits to Charlottetown did not rank high on the priorities of a changing world.

The S.S. Empress on Northumberland Strait

It was an appalling loss. The fire which swept through the waterfront of Saint John New Brunswick on 22 June 1931 caused an estimated $10 million in damage. The entire west side waterfront was destroyed. The losses included 17 freight sheds, the immigration shed, the harbour pilot-boat, a number of fishing schooners, over 100 railway cars, two lives, a fire truck, several houses and a former Northumberland Strait steamer – the S.S. Empress.

Empress 4

The Empress had been built for the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company in 1906 at the Neptune Works of Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  At 215 feet in length and 34 feet in breadth she was the largest steamship that the company ever owned. Rated at 1342 tons and with a capacity of 500 passengers she more than met the Island company’s needs.

Empress 2With the development of efficient railway systems in the maritimes the transportation patterns of Prince Edward Island changed. The shortest crossing was from Summerside to Pointe du Chene in New Brunswick rather than the longer Charlottetown to Pictou route. With the opening of the European and North American Railway  service from Moncton to Shediac and its eventual extension to Saint John and linking with the Intercolonial Railway connecting the area with Ontario and Quebec it was the preferred route for travellers heading west and south. At Saint John there were links to cross-border railways as well as a speedy steamer service to Boston.  The Empress was built to serve this daytime short route and there were only a few private staterooms provided. Passengers were accommodated in a large deckhouse on the awning deck which also contained a Post Office, Ticket Office, Captain’s room and a large saloon. A special ladies cabin as well as a cozy smoking room completed the facilities.  Ample ventilation and steam heating gave a measure of comfort in the variable conditions of the passage. The propulsion was provided by twin screw triple expansion engines with two large boilers.


Empress002The launch of the steamer was on 7 April 1906 and there was a considerable degree of interest in how long it would be before the fit-out and passage across the Atlantic would take. The general merchants Beer and Goff capitalized on this interest by a contest which offered  a prize if free tea to the person guessing nearest to the time it would take the Empress to get from England to Prince Edward Island.  The only catch was that you had to buy at least a pound of “Island Blend Tea” to make your guess.

By all accounts (or by lack of accounts to the contrary) the S.S. Empress served on the route without incident for ten years.  It was mostly on the Pointe du Chene route but she also travelled from Charlottetown to Pictou when the Northumberland was unavailable because of maintenance.

Empress 6The Empress was the first of the Charlottetown Steam Navigation ships to be directly  effected by the “continuous steam communication” which would be provided by the Canadian Government rail-car ferry S.S.Prince Edward Island.  Even before the port facilities at Port Borden and Cape Tormentine  it was obvious that the subsidies which had kept the Steam Navigation Company alive, if not profitable, would either be reduced or disappear completely once the government-operated service began and the Company officials began looking for buyers for their ships.

Empress 5 The Canadian Pacific Railway ran a service from Saint John New Brunswick to Digby Nova Scotia connecting with their Dominion Atlantic Railway running from Halifax to Yarmouth. In 1916 they purchased the S.S. Empress to replace the aging steamer Yarmouth and after minor modifications placed the Empress on the Bay of Fundy route.

Interior of Empress while on the Digby run  ca. 1925

Interior of Empress while on the Digby run ca. 1925

Fifteen years later it may have been simply bad luck that she was tied to the Saint John wharf when the fire broke out. The CPR had commissioned a new boat for the route, the S.S. Princess Helene in 1930. She was larger than the Empress and  in keeping with changing transportation needs, was fitted out to carry up to fifty automobiles.  The Empress was tied to the Saint John wharf awaiting a decision as to her fate.

The Empress’s passenger accommodation and engines were destroyed in the fire but she was not sunk. She was sold to the Dominion Coal Company in 1934 and registered as a hulk before she disappeared from the record, probably broken up for scrap.