Tag Archives: harbourmaster

Ballastmaster, Wharfinger, Harbourmaster

The incorporation of the City of Charlottetown in 1855 meant changes in how many activities in the  city were managed. The wharves and harbour were no exception and one of the first by-laws published by the city was “A law defining the duties of Harbour and Ballast masters, and wharfingers and the rates of wharfage.”


Detail of Charlottetown in 1839 from “Chart of Hillsborough Bay and the Harbour of Charlottetown” by George Wright. Note that only Queen’s Wharf extends to deep water.

In the mid-19th century the development of the waterfront echoed the increase in population and importance of Charlottetown as a port.  The single Tatars Wharf near the foot of Great George Street had been joined at an early date by the Queens Wharf running toward the channel from Queen Street and Pownal Wharf at the foot of Pownal Street (not yet constructed at the time of the 1839 chart). Both of these wharves were built by the colonial government and were handed to the City at the time of incorporation. In addition there were a number of private wharves dating from the 1840s. These included Lord’s Wharf (now the east jetty of the Charlottetown Yacht Club), Peake’s wharf, and Reddin’s Wharf (to the west and east of the foot of Queen Street respectively).

Although initially administered by the colonial government, following the incorporation of Charlottetown in 1855, many of the duties connected with the harbour and its wharves were delegated to the city.  Because the wharves were the trade and industry centres for the new city the by-law gives us a glimpse of the concerns of the day and activity on the waterfront. The by-law identifies three important officers controlling the harbour.


In the days of sailing ships handling ballast was a necessary part of managing a ship.  A ship carrying heavy goods did not need ballast but if the load was light (as in the case of immigrant ships) or non-existent  when there was not an incoming or outgoing cargo, ballast was necessary to ensure that the ship did not ride too high in the water which made her difficult – or in some cases too dangerous – to handle.  A ship coming to Charlottetown to pick up a cargo of timber or oats might have tons of ballast which would have to be discharged before the cargo was loaded. On the other hand a ship arriving laden with cargo but no out-going manifest might have to pick up ballast to take her to her next port.

The early wharves in Charlottetown barely extended the channel and it was not unusual in the days before dredging for ships to have to lie aground at low tide.  In ports where ballast was not properly managed it was frequently simply dumped over the side reducing even further the amount of water at the wharf or, if dumped elsewhere in the harbour creating a dangerous shoal.  The official managing the handling of ballast, was, not surprisingly, the ballastmaster.

The Charlottetown legislation gave the ballastmaster the duty of boarding every ship coming into the harbour, informing the ship’s master of the regulations and

…diligently attend the delivery or discharging or delivery of all stones, gravel or other ballast… and shall not knowingly permit any portion thereof to be cast, thrown or let fall into the waters where navigable, but shall direct and to the utmost of his power cause all such ballast to be carried and laid on shore where it will not obstruct navigation…  

The ballastmaster was entitled to collect a fee from the shipowner for his services and, in addition,  had the duty of overseeing the removal of any wrecks or obstructions in the harbour.


The wharfinger’s duties related to the city’s wharves themselves. He was the collector of fees levied for the use of the city wharves and in addition was required to keep the wharves in “due preservation and repair.” The legislation directed him to

… take care that neither of them is encumbered with articles or things of any kind, to the prevention of vessels loading or discharging thereat, or of ordinary business being performed thereon – prevent their encumbrance with any shed or building of any description, and cause such erections now thereon to be moved away – prohibit any quantity or quantities of weighty articles to be laid on or remain on any of the blocks or bridges of said wharves to the injury of the same…

He also had considerable power over the vessels at the city wharves. He controlled mooring and unmooring and could move vessels obstructing the passage of the public ferries, could arbitrate disputes between competing captains regarding dockage rights, and compel yards, bowsprits and martingales to be struck or removed.  The wharfinger also policed  the driving of any “horse mare, gelding, or any other beast of burden in any carriage coach, wagon, truck, cart, sled, sleigh or other vehicle for the transportation of persons or goods or either of them” and for proceeding at anything more than a walk the wharfinger could commit an individual to jail for not less than forty-eight hours or more than five days.

The main business of the wharfinger was to collect monies levied on the goods loaded and unloaded at the public wharves.  The by-law has an extensive list of charges for in-coming goods but the fees for out-going shipments give a hint as to the main exports of the colony in the mid 1850s: produce, lumber, livestock, hay and straw.


While the harbourmaster might be considered the most important of the triumvirate of officials his role was really much more limited. The duties enumerated included control over the buoys in the part of the harbour under control of the city and management of beacons within the city.  In Charlottetown the sole aid to navigation depicted in the 1839 chart of the bay and harbour was a front range beacon near what is now Beaconsfield which when lined up with the steeple of St. James Church gave a safe course from Battery Point to the wharves.

Anticipating that the volume of business for these three offices could vary the by-law allowed all three to be filled by a single individual.  Today the role of ballastmaster has disappeared and the duties of wharfinger and harbourmaster have, in great part, been taken over by the Charlottetown Harbour Authority which created in 2005.