Tag Archives: Ferry

The Unhappy Afterlife of the S.S. Prince Edward Island

Whitby 1991

S.S. Prince Edward Island in Whitby Harbour 1991. Toronto Star photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive.

In 1968 the arrival of the new carferry John Hamilton Gray the railcar ferry S.S. Prince Edward Island was finally made redundant. Now this had happened before. In 1933 the S.S. Charlottetown was launched and the Prince Edward Island was relegated to stand-by back-up service, taking over when the Charlottetown was sent to its annual refit in drydock or on those rare occasions such as Old Home Week when traffic began to back up. It was on a trip to Saint John for re-fit in 1941 that the Charlottetown sank after hitting a reef on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.  The Prince Edward Island was once again lead boat with only the Canso Strait ferries Scotia and Scotia II available to take over for the Prince Edward Island’s own annual trips to re-fit. 

With the launch of the Abegweit (the real Abegweit, not the trumped up, banana- shaped,  seagoing bus station that replaced it) in 1947, the Prince Edward Island once again became the second boat, spending much of the year forlornly tied up either at the old slip in Tormentine or on the Borden side. Increasing auto, passenger, and rail traffic meant the Prince was more and more frequently called to assist in the summer and shoulder seasons so that for part of the year, at least, there was effectively a two-boat ferry service. 

As a child I was always delighted when we caught the Prince Edward Island as it was a much more interesting ship to explore. We, with the abridged parental responsibilities of the period, had the full run of the ship from bow to stern and from lifeboats to engine room. Everything, from engines to winches to the ventilation fans ran on steam and the ship had a peculiar atmosphere of condensing steam, even when the coal boilers were replaced by bunker-C oil tanks. A strange blocked off stairway near the stern spoke of another time aboard as it was labeled “First Class Passengers Only.” I was only later that I learned that this was from the days before the vessel was disfigured to create an auto deck from the handsome passenger lounge. 

In the flurry of changes in the later 1960s with new boats and new terminal facilities the Prince Edward Island disappeared from Northumberland Strait. The veteran vessel was moved the Halifax waiting for final disposition and although seen with a slight list its profile with the unusual four funnels was one of the sights of the Halifax waterfront that Islanders remarked on until 1971.

Halifax 1970 copyright Mac Mackay

The S.S. Prince Edward Island awaiting its fate. Halifax 1970. Photo – Shipfax. Copyright Mac Mckay

It was at that time that the vessel was acquired by McNamara Marine, a dredging and marine facilities concern with an operation base on Lake Ontario.  The company, which was established in 1954 had a shipyard and dry-dock  on the east side of Whitby Harbour. In 1972 McNamara was one of a consortium of companies that had successfully bid on a major dredging contract to deepen the waters near the Isle of Orleans, just downstream from  the city of Quebec, so that larger ocean-going vessels could access the port.

The companies assembled a fleet of bulk carrying lake boats to carry dredging spoils as well as a number of dredgers. The latter vessels were powered by powerful electric motors to handling the dredging. The Prince Edward Island became a sort of mother ship for the fleet. With her superstructure removed, six diesel generator sets, each producing 1,200 horsepower, provided power for the dredges. The mother ship also served as the receiver for the spoils which were piped to the vessel from the dredges and transferred to the lakers for dumping. With the completion of the Quebec project the vessel continued to be used by McNamara for other projects. One source suggests it was once towed to the Caribbean for use as a mobile generating station. However it ended up at the company dock in Whitby.  Sometime before the company was wound up in 1988 the ship (or what remained of it) to was sold to another owner. 

The now derelict hulk came with a host of problems. Two transformers still on board contained  500 gallons of cooling chemicals containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The transformers were in common use across the country but in the 1970s the chemical was found to be a dangerous source of cancer agents and its use was banned.  Aside from the problem of the unsightly hulk, the Town of Whitby was alarmed by the presence of the chemicals on the waterfront and in 1987 began a campaign to have the vessel and its contents removed. The wharf, however, was owned by the federal government and the vessel’s owner had continued to pay dockage so the Town’s efforts were stymied. 

In 1990 the Prince Edward Island sank causing additional concern but when it was refloated it was inspected by the Canadian Coast Guard which concluded that the ship was in “relatively good condition” and was safe to continue to be used for storage of the transformers. In the meantime the Town has been successful in its bid to have the wharf property transferred to the municipality and began proceedings to evict the vessel. It was removed by court order in June 1992 and appears to have been moved to Toronto.  It is possible that at a later date it was moved to St. Catherine’s but the exact location after 1992 has been hard to determine. 

Whitby 1987

S.S. Prince Edward Island in Whitby 1987. The graffiti message “adios” was not to be fulfilled for another five years. Toronto Star photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive

Whitby 1990 tpl

Bow view of the S.S. P.E.I. Three transformers filled with dangerous chemicals can be seen on the upper deck. Toronto Star Photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive

At this writing, more than a century since the launch of the once-proud ship, it has in all likelihood, been long since scrapped. I would be pleased to hear from anyone who can tell me more about the vessels fate. The ship beloved by Islanders was a vital link with Canada for more than half a century and it is a surprise to find that it existed in its much altered form for another 25 or more years. Today aside from memories and photographs little remains of the S.S. Prince Edward Island. Little, that is except for one  large artifact.          


Wheelhouse of the S.S. Prince Edward Island at the National Museum of Science and Technology, Ottawa . Photo Paul Martin / Ingenium

At some time during the removal of the ship’s superstructure the entire wheelhouse and its equipment was removed. Today it is in the collection of Canada’s Museum of Science and Technology. The wheel, binnacle, telegraph and rudder indicator are the original equipment, installed during the ship’s building in 1914-1915 and are retained as artifacts of the age of steam.  

If you found this posting on the S.S. Prince Edward Island of interest you may want to look at other pages concerning the ship. These include a detailed examination of the building and launch of the vessel here, and to story of her conversion to accommodate automobiles which can be seen by clicking here.

I am grateful to researcher Gary Carroll who passed on information with two of the photos of the Prince at Whitby  which led to my quest to discover the fate of the vessel. 

Putting the “Port” in Southport

The photo below  shows that Southport Ferry Wharf at Minchin’s Point. Dating from about 1912 it shows the wharf in poor repair. The ferry service had stopped in 1905 and deterioration was rapid. The ferry service and its wharf had been the primary reason for the establishment of a community and the fortunes of the community to great measure mirrored those of the wharf itself.   

Southport Notman

Photograph | Charlottetown from Southport, PE, 1910 | VIEW-4820


1839 Wright 2

Detail from George Wright’s chart of Hillsborough Bay and Charlottetown Harbour 1842.

Yes. there really was a port at Southport – well, at least there was a wharf. Best known as the ferry landing for the Hillsborough Ferry, the wharf eventually was responsible for the creation of a village on the southern shore of the Hillsborough River opposite Charlottetown.  As it was on the route between Charlotte Town and  Georgetown the ferry was likely a feature from the earliest days of the colony.  The wharf, and the beginnings of the tiny settlement, first appear in George Wright’s 1842 chart of Hillsborough Bay and Charlottetown Harbour. 

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Detail from Capt. Bayfield’s chart of Charlottetown Harbour 1847

However the wharf was not at the high bluff, known as Minchin’s Point or Murphy’s Point but a little to the west avoiding the steep climb up the bank.  The wharf at Minchin’s Point was built following a call for tenders in 1842 and appears on Capt. Bayfield’s chart of Charlottetown Harbour which appeared in 1852.  In early years the wharf had a floating jetty to make it easier to access the ferry in spite of changing tides.  Thereafter there are a long series of extensions and re-buildings of the wharf to accommodate the succession of ferries which were used on the route. Steam powered vessels such as the Ora, the Ino, the Arethusa the Elfin, the Hillsborough and the Southport were familiar and regular visitors to the wharf at Minchin’s Point.  

The ferry traffic gave rise to the need to hotels and taverns as well as businesses serving the travellers. It also became a service centre for communities such as Keppoch Kinloch, and Cross Roads for those wishing to avoid having to cross the Hillsborough in order to meet their needs. By 1863 the community was well-established and the alternate names “Southport” and Stratford” appeared to both have been in use. 

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Stratford or Southport. D.J. Lake’s Topographical Map of P.E.I. 1863

An article in the 20 November 1878  Semi-Weekly Patriot documents further growth of the community.

Passing by the Church, Smithy and Schoolhouse at Alexandria, and the Church at the cross roads, we reach Southport, destined to be one of the fashionable and health-bearing adjuncts of Charlottetown. It is now quite a business centre , and when the new road is opened it will become still more important. The day is coming when the seaside from Farquharson’s point to the Harbour’s mouth will be studded with villas. Charles Haszard Esq., by the ferry facilities which he so obligingly affords, is doing much for Southport as well as for the health and pleasure seekers from the city. The Honourable the Speaker of the Assembly is a citizen of this place  – where he and H. Bovyer, W.H. Farquharson, and John Kennedy carry on mercantile business. An Episcopal Church, a school-house, a Tannery, two line kilns, a Post Office, three forges, two Houses of Entertainment, seven Brick Kilns, a Tailor’s Shop, one Harness and Saddlery establishment and two weigh scales are among our Southport notes. Beer, McIntosh, McKenzie, Alex. and Neil Stewart, Flood and Son, and the two Cardiffs manufacture Brick extensively; the blacksmiths are Allan Stewart, Allan Ham and Charles Walker; and the Carpenters and Carriage Builders are Angus and John McInnis, John Godfrey, James Wood, Isaac Turner, and James Costello. 

Notwithstanding the glowing 1878 report that the community was destined to be a “fashionable and healthy adjunct” it was clear that growth of the village had slowed if not stopped. There are scarcely more houses shown in the area in the 1880 Meacham’s Atlas than there had been 17 years earlier.  Although landowner John Picton Beete had ambitiously subdivided the property and laid out a street network the anticipated growth failed to arrive.  The area did, however had become the centre for brick making with a large number of brick yards and as the newspaper account above notes a large number of brickmakers had establishments near Southport. While most of the brick manufactured  would have been carried by ferry or across the winter ice to Charlottetown it is probable that some export of brick took place at the ferry wharf.    

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Detail from manuscript map of Lot 48 by C.R. Allen, prepared for Meacham’s Atlas 1880. Public Archives and Records Office.

The short-lived brick boom came to an early end as supplies of brick-clay were exhausted  and the community once again lapsed into a quiet stagnation. Comparing the plan above with the 1935 air photo below it is clear that Southport in the 1930s  was still stuck in the 1870s. Over the years the ferry wharf had been extended and re-built but the construction of the Hillsborough Bridge, which was completed in 1905, and the opening of new roads to the east, meant that traffic no longer stopped at Southport. The railway by-passed the hamlet and what services that were provided by merchants were for locals only.  There was a frisson of excitement in 1913 when construction of a marine railway large enough to carry the S.S. Prince Edward Island was begun close to the ferry wharf but work ceased in 1915 and was never completed. 

There were occasional reports of other vessels using the Southport wharf to load cargo. For example, in 1886  the steamer M.A. Starr crossed the harbour to Southport after unloading at Charlottetown in order to load potatoes for Halifax. Small schooners continued to load produce at the Southport Wharf into the 1930s, and the wharf was dredged n 1937.  The Dominion Department of Public Works used the wharf as a place to tie up scows used in dredging and construction but by the end of the Second War even this seems to have ended. With the end of activity the wharf soon eroded. A caution buoy marked a spot where a sunken scow rested on the bottom but even that marker was removed in the last few years. 

Southport 1935

Today few, if any, traces remain of the ferry wharf and it is no longer even buoyed as a hazard to navigation as no boats except those of oyster fishers have a reason to visit the Southport shore. However one part of the Patriot’s 1878 forecast has become true. The shores all along the edge of the Hillsborough, right to the harbour’s mouth and beyond are today “studded with villas.”   


P.E.I. Ferry Terminal was a Major Infrastructure Project

Ferry Terminal Pier at Carleton Head. Note the third rail on the pier. There was no need of a roadway as everything went back and forth by rail. Several temporary buildings of the construction camp can be seen on the point.

In 1912 Carleton Point was little more than the sea-side edge of a farm located three miles or so to the north and west of Cape Traverse. The latter community was the jumping off point for New Brunswick. The undersea cable of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company landed at Cape Traverse and the community was also the Island end of the winter ice-boat route. It boasted a pier that extended into the Strait and in 1885 a branch line had been added to the Prince Edward Island railway to join the pier to the Island’s rail system.

Pier-head during storm conditions. At least one of the pier cribs can be seen through the spray.

By the summer of 1913 the farm at Carleton Point had been converted to the site of a work camp for the building of the ferry pier. After years of agitation and delay the Dominion Government had committed to the development of an ice-breaking rail ferry service to the Island. Even before the issuing of a contract for construction of the vessel government engineers had been examining options for the route. On the New Brunswick side the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Railway ran from Sackville to Cape Tormentine and as this was the narrowest part of the strait the choice of the Cape was a foregone conclusion.

Winter scene at Cape Tormentine with barges and tugs. The existing rail line and wharf made construction here easier than on the Island side

On the P.E.I. side it was not as clear. Although Cape Traverse had a pier and rail connection the waters of Traverse Cove were shallow and unprotected. In fact, there was little protection on the Island side at all and the decision was made to create a new port where deep water could be reached fairly easily.  However the prevailing south-west winds and strong currents meant that the exposed shore would have to be well-protected by artificial means.

Strom waves at Carleton Head. The inner tower of the tramway can be seen on the still-wooded point.

Carleton Point (Carleton Head on some maps) had been named in 1765 by Samuel Holland for Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester and for the next 150 years appears to have escaped notice. It was here however that in 1913 work began on what was to be a massive project. The contract for the Island side construction was awarded to the Roger Miller Company of Toronto.  At a time when there were no services in the area everything, telephone lines, roads, wells, housing for workers and the building of construction  equipment had to be undertaken at the site. The nearest rail access was three miles away and no wharf or breakwater stood on the exposed shore. Transport of goods and equipment was hampered by the ban on automobiles and trucks on the roads from the main port at Summerside.

Outer tower of the tramway. It had its own steam power station with two boilers and an engine as well as generators to provide lighting. The stone blocks were positioned using the cable and then dropped into place.

One of the first tasks was the building of a powerhouse to supply electrical services and the electric generators and the steam machinery were continuous consumers of coal. On of the most evident pieces of equipment was a cableway carrying the huge stone blocks making up the pier and breakwater.  An island was created 1800 feet from shore and one end of the cableway built there with a 110 foot tower, the other end was on shore. At the peak of operations eighty railcar loads were put in place each 24 hour period.  The stone was brought on scows shuttling between Carleton Head and a quarry on the Scoudouc River near Shediac.  Work continued day and night lit by 43,000 candlepower searchlight on the top of the high cable tower. At a time when the brightest light was an oil lamp the glow from the towers could be seen for miles around.

Derrick placing stones on the breakwater at Carleton Head.

The Carleton terminal structure was just over 1/2 mile long; a 2,000 foot pier and the landing slip of 740 feet.  The slip consisted on nine concrete cribs 100 x 30 feet joined together on site.  The cribs were built in Shediac and towed to Carleton where they were put in place and filled with quarry stone.  By the time the terminal was completed over 250,000 tons of quarry stone, some weighing as much as 10 tons,  had been put in place.  The transfer platform linking the rails on shore to the rails on the ferry itself was built by the Dominion Bridge Company  of Montreal and erected on-site. The mechanism raising and lowering it to adjust to the tide was powered by another steam powerhouse located on the wharf.

Tugs hauling cribs from Shediac where they were built. Once positioned they were filled with rock to form the actual terminal structure.

By the close of operations in December of 1914 the breakwater had been constructed up to low water and the pier had reached some 1500 feet from shore.  The new branch line connecting with existing Cape Traverse subdivision, a distance of 2 1/2 miles had been constructed but grading had been almost completed and the rails had been laid. In September 1915 tenders were called for the building of the rail facilities at the shore end of the terminal. A station, water tank, engine house, transfer platform, standpipe, ash-pit and turntable foundations were built to accommodate rail operations. Initially all tracks had a third rail to carry both narrow-gauge PEI Railway cars and the standard gauge Intercolonial Railway cars which would come across on the ferry.  A transfer station allowed goods to be moved between one type of car to the other.

Carleton terminal structure as it neared completion. Dredges and derricks are still at work but the apron for loading cars onto the boat is in place along with the steam powerhouse which controlled its movement.

The turning basins at both piers had been dredged to a depth of twenty feet at low tide but as the S.S. Prince Edward Island drew that much there was little margin for error and continuous dredging became an almost permanent part of the operation of the port for the next few years.

Completed pier as seen from the breakwater.

In August 1916 a Guardian writer foresaw a fine future for the town. Beautifully situated in the midst of a prosperous farming district, possessing natural attributes as a summer resort with a broad sandy beach, excellent sites for a golf course and summer cottages, having the potential to be a warehousing and distribution centre for the province. By November a decision had been made by the Dominion Government about the name for the town to be built on the cliff overlooking the ferry terminal and rail yard. It was to become Port Borden, named after Robert Laird Borden, the country’s Prime Minister.  Carleton Point became Borden Point at the same time.

When the regular ferry service began in October of 1917 the outlook was bright but town failed to fulfil its earliest expectations.  Rather than stopping at Borden travellers lost little time passing through to Charlottetown, Summerside and tourist destinations. Although planned using modern design principles, possibly by leading town planner Thomas Adams of the Canadian Conservation Commission it did not develop its potential as a regional centre and was primarily a dormitory town for the ferry workers. The busy work of being a distribution centre and transfer point disappeared when the standard gauge rails were extended across the province.

NOTE – Photographs used in this posting are from the Robinson Collection at the P.E.I,. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 3466/74.91