Tag Archives: ferries

Late 19th Century ferries – the Elfin and the Southport

The Elfin 1873-1906

Elfin approaching Prince Street Ferry Wharf.

Elfin approaching Prince Street Ferry Wharf.

For the quarter century, between confederation with Canada and the launch of the Hillsborough in 1898 Charlottetown harbour crossings were provided by two paddle-wheel steamers; the Elfin and the Southport.

In 1873 the Elfin, was launched in Joseph Fairchild’s shipyard in Georgetown in late April and was put on the Southport ferry route in May.  The boat had a gross tonnage of 122 tons  and was 81 feet long by 22 feet in width. The Semi-weekly Patriot praised the government for its action in engaging the steamer as it was a considerable improvement on the Ora. The new ferry had capacity for 18 horses and vehicles and they were separated from the area for foot passengers. Another improvement was the addition of shelter for the passenger seating to protect them from the rain and cold winds.  However even with a new boat the service was not immune from criticism. In the 23 October 1973 issue of the Patriot it was noted that the Elfin could not run when the tide was low  and that the steamer service ended at 8 p.m. and later travellers had to be sculled across the harbour.

The Elfin was not built by the government but by a group of businessmen including Daniel Gordon, L.C. Owen, A.A. MacDonald, J.L. Westaway.  Early in 1874 Gordon responded to a request from government to lease the vessel to run between Charlottetown and Southport and quoted a subsidy request of $1000.  At some later date the government appears to have purchased the craft outright.

With the launch of the Southport in 1875 the Elfin serviced the run to Rocky Point and also became a spare boat for Charlottetown. Occasionally she could be dispatched for duties elsewhere. In September 1877, for example, she was in use between Aitken’s wharf (Lower Montague) and Georgetown to help with the expected crowds for the King’s County Exhibition. Her normal schedule in 1877 was for service to Southport  twice an hour from 6 to 9 a.m. and four times an hour from then until 10 p.m.

In 1895 she was on the Rocky Point route leaving the city  at 6:30, 8 and 10 am, 12 noon and 2, 4 and 6 pm.

She was destroyed by fire on 7 October 1906 and the register was closed the following day. Firemen on the scene reported that the fire was intense, probably because of the thirty years of oil dripping from the gears and machinery having soaked into the timbers. She was succeeded on the route to Rocky Point by the Hillsborough.

Although the fire left the Elfin as a hulk it was still a fixture on the waterfront until at least 1911. The wreck had been sold to Thomas Doyle of Rustico who apparently soon gave up on removing the partially sunken vessel and it sat as an obstruction and unsightly object between the Ferry Wharf and the Railway Wharf.  Although purchased by Doyle it remained registered to the provincial government and the Guardian called the attention of the administration  to the “spectacle of ruin and dilapidation” urging them to take action but it is not known when it finally disappeared.

The Southport 1875-1905

Southport in Charlottetown Harbour from Picturesque Canada

Southport in Charlottetown Harbour from Picturesque Canada

The steamer Southport was a government-owned vessel built in Summerside in 1875 but her machinery was built and and installed in Pictou. The vessel arrived in Charlottetown in mid-June 1875 after a six hour passage from Nova Scotia. and went into service later that month following modifications to the wharves at Charlottetown and Southport.  At 102 feet in length by twenty-six in beam, she was considerably longer that the Elfin and twice her displacement. The steam engine driving the paddle wheels was rated at fifty nominal horsepower. In 1877 her schedule saw the boat leaving Charlottetown early on Tuesday and Friday mornings for Shaws Wharf on the West River and making a second return trip in the afternoon. Two years later she sank at the Prince Street Ferry Wharf.  After her day’s service she had been tied to the east side of the wharf and as the tide rose she caught on the side of the wharf. Water rushing in through one of her ports filled the boat so that in the morning all that could be seen of the boat was the smokestack and the top of the deckhouses. The accident was discovered by delegates of the Baptist association who had been scheduled for a West River excursion. Faced with the conversion and total immersion of the vessel the Baptists had to make other plans. Charles Haszard, operator of the boat, was able to secure the use of the City’s steam-powered fire engine to pump her out and re-float the ferry.

By 1891 the boilers in the steamer were worn out but because the government had been late in calling for tenders for repair or replacement it was not available to start the season and the service had to be provided by Batt Brothers tug. In 1897 the Southport was replaced on the East and West River services by Alex Strang’s Alameda, built in 1885, which had for several years provided service between Cape Traverse and Cape Tormentine.  That boat served through 1899.

Following the launch of the Hillsborough, the Southport provided regular river service to Westville and to Mt. Stewart and after the wreck of the Jacques Cartier in 1902 she also filled in on the run to Orwell.

The Southport was not built to replace the Elfin which continued on the ferry run to Southport but to supplement it and provide new services across the harbour and up the rivers. Like most of the other harbour ferries the Southport was also used for other purposes on occasion. In 1878 she was used to tow a 360 foot raft with 186 tons of timber belonging to Peake Bros. from Pinette to Charlottetown. A few weeks later it broke local records by towing a raft measuring over 400 feet. The same year it ran a special trip to North River Bridge to carry spectators to the trotting races at Upton Park track. In 1880 it carried excursionists to the Loyal Orange Lodge picnic at Wood Islands but West River Bridge, Westville and Shaw’s wharf on the West River were the favoured locations. It seems to have been a special favourite for Sunday school outings and in the 1890s advertisements for Methodist, Baptist and Church of England groups can easily be found in the newspapers. A day ticket for the return trip cost 25 cents.

In 1903 the Southport was on the route between Charlottetown and Mt. Stewart on the East River as well as up the West River.  In April of that year she broke the paddle shaft on one side of the boat and drifted with six passengers and a full load of freight until a boat was lowered and a line carried ashore at Hickey’s wharf.  She was rescued by the Hillsborough and towed to Charlottetown.  It later emerged that the 27 year-old vessel had not been inspected for eight years, she had inadequate life-saving equipment and was run by engineers who did not have engineering certificates.

In April 1905, with the opening of the Hillsborough Bridge the hull, boiler and machinery of the 30 year-old Southport was offered for sale by tender and she was acquired by Bruce Stewart. The boat was anchored off Victoria Park in July of 1905 and used for a fireworks display during “Home Comers Week.”  That was her last known use. The machinery may have been more valuable than the boat itself, as it was broken up and the registry closed in December 1905.

Other ferries

This concludes a series of postings on the steam-powered ferries of Charlottetown Harbour. For earlier vessels  click on the following links: Fairview  1936-1958, Hillsborough 1894-1936,  Ora 1856-1873, Ino 1856, Arethusa 1853-185?, Isla 1849-1851.  Information can also be found on the short-lived ferry service to York Point.

The first steam-powered Southport ferries: Isla, Ora, Ino and Arethusa

Residents of Charlottetown may remember the Fairview or have heard of the Hillsborough. They were part of the provincial government’s navy of little ferries. The boats were owned by the colony and sailed by government employees or contracted out for operation. But it was not always so and ferries with less familiar names such as the Isla, the Arethusa, the Ora and the Ino were part of the harbour’s mid-19th century history. These were not government boats but were owned and operated by private businessmen.

The operation of ferries across the harbour was not always an expense for the government. Indeed, by legislation a monopoly on the service was created and the rights to the ferry operation was a revenue source for government. In 1832 for example the rent of the Hillsborough Ferry brought in £50 for the colony. Although the fares were regulated it was still seen as a profitable venture and the rights to the operation could be hotly contested.


Islander 3 August 1849 p.3

In 1849 the exclusive right to operate the ferry was held by Thomas Boggs Tremain. His contract was to run for twenty years, provided he could supply a steam boat of at least twelve horsepower suitable for passengers, cattle and luggage as well as other (and presumably smaller and unpowered) boats for the passage of passengers and their luggage.  The ferry was to cross once every half hour except when it made two trips each day to Canso (Rocky) Point – whenever the government got around to building a wharf there. Tremain had a long association with the ferry service, having been the proprietor of a horse-powered teamboat in the 1830s and 1840s.   In compliance with the requirements of the act Tremain provided a 70 by 14 foot vessel called the Isla which had the necessary twelve horsepower engine imported from England. She had begun service in August of 1849.  A notice stated the new steam ferry-boat would run between Charlottetown and Richmond. The latter name must have been a short-lived name for the area which came to be known as Southport in the mid-1850s.  Tremain’s hold on the contract did not last long. In 1851 complaints were made to the government about the irregularity of the service and the condition of the boat. An investigation found that the complaints were well-founded and Tremain’s contact was cancelled.  An ad appeared in the Haszards Gazette in August 1851 offering the Isla for sale.


Haszard’s Gazette 9 September 1851 p. 3

An advertisement for a successor to Tremain received only one tender, from John Haszard, but he refused to sign unless the government provided docks and slips on both sides of the river which it declined to do. A debate in the legislature resulted in funds being allocated for improvements but by then Haszard’s  offer had been withdrawn. It was only a few years later that the government made the necessary infrastructure investment in the Prince Street Ferry Wharf


Haszard’s Gazette 18 July 1855 p.7

The contract passed to John Roach Bourke who announced in February 1853 that he intended to place a steamer on the Charlottetown Ferry. An engine of about 20 horsepower had already been ordered in England and was to be shipped to A. Duncan & Co. to be placed in a new boat  built in the Duncan yard.  By mid-August the ferry was in operation and was described ay a writer in the Islander as “all but equal to a bridge across the river” and “a mere moving continuation of the highway, and like it, has no covering save the canopy of heaven.”   However the newspaper noted that the next boat on the run (which would surely be needed in a year or so) would benefit from “some place which may afford a shelter from a passing shower….”  Details concerning the vessel are scarce but it appears she was the Arethusa which was also advertised for excursions such as the Temperance Pic Nic at the picnic grounds at Block House Point. The fate of the Arethusa is not known but she was probably replaced by another boat after only a few years of service.

In 1856 the contract was held by Henry Pope Welsh, probably using a ferry called the Ora.,  However his exclusive right was contested by William Crilly Bourke, son of John Roach Bourke. His steamer, the Ino, was on the route from Charlottetown to Mount Stewart Bridge twice a week during 1856.  In May of 1856 Bourke was using the ferry wharf at Minchin’s Point to take on passengers and was charged under the legislation. A trial in the Mayor’s Court gave the decision to the complainants and a charge of 82 shillings but in the Supreme Court it was overturned, among other reasons, on the technicality that the ferry was a boat, not a vessel, and the legislation referred to vessels only.

It is quite possible that by 1861 both the Ino and the Ora were both under Bourke ownership. A moonlight excursion in August of that year saw the two vessels gaily lit with lamps and fireworks fastened together for a trip up and down the river. It was reported in the Examiner that the participants had enjoyed themselves “by agreeable conversation, by promenading the decks, and by a liberal indulgence in the pleasures of the dance.”

By 1862 the Ino had become the property of William Aitken and others operating as the Georgetown Ferry Company. Fifty pounds had been voted by the government in aid of a ferry service “between Georgetown , Montague and adjacent rivers” but when the company sought the funds the fact that the boat was “not fit for the service” was held against it and the full grant was not given.  Thus the Ino seems to have bene the first steam ferry at Georgetown. The boat did not continue in Georgetown for long and was later the subject of a lawsuit when then-owner James Pope attempted to sell it for use as a harbour ferry in Pictou.

1856 saw the building of the Ora in a Charlottetown shipyard of Clement White & Co. This ferry steamer was 73 tons and 73 feet in length by 17 feet wide. The original owner was Henry Pope Welsh but a year later a half interest in the ferry had been transferred to Charles Welsh and in 1861 he sold his interest to William Crilly Bourke who had formerly contested Welsh’s exclusive right to the ferry  route. An inspection of the Ora in 1862 noted that the owners were Bourke and Welsh. This 1862 certificate, incidentally, is one of the few records that refers to the ferry between Charlottetown and Stratford, rather than Southport.  The previous year the two had put another vessel into service in lieu of the additional sail-powered ferry and in a petition to the Legislative Council requested compensation for the increased costs. This boat was possibly the Experiment, a New Brunswick built craft which was larger than the Ino. By this time the ferry and steamer traffic was no more noteworthy than a passage down a city street and so we know even less about these vessels than those of earlier times. I have been able to find no photos or drawings of these little boats that linked the two sides of the harbour for a nearly forty-year period.

Why the arrangement for the private ownership of the ferries was changed is not known. It may be that the government, which received all of the complaints about the ferries, thought they might was well run them since they were going to be criticized anyway. It may be that the purchase of the Ora and the goodwill was a political favour. It may be that the Ora was getting old and had to be replaced and it was unlikely that anyone would invest the funds for a new boat. Or it may be that it was recognized that the ferry was a public utility and should be owned by the government. Whatever the reason in 1871 funds were appropriated by the legislature to purchase the ferry operation from the rights holders for the not insubstantial sum of £500 and an additional sum was allocated for the ferry Ora itself and all related “appurtenances”. The sum arrived at the following year for the purchase of the boat was $1462.31, decimal currency having been introduced in the interim.

The registry for the vessel was changed to the Government of Prince Edward Island in 1871. The Ora appears to have run until at least 1873 but her fate is not recorded. By then government had  invested in a new vessel, the Elfin, which was to operate into the 20th century.

Elfin, first of the government-built ferries

Elfin, first of the government-built ferries