In the late 1930s the West or Eliot River was the playground of the Charlottetown Yacht Club’s motor boaters. The sailboats had the harbour and the bay with their races and regattas. Powerboat racing had come and gone in the first decade of the century (and would come again with the advent of powerful outboards in the 1950s and 60s) and motorboaters were for the most part more interested in comfort than speed.
On the river itself there was little traffic and still less commerce. The regular trips of the Harland to Westville had ended in 1936 and the motor boat packet service of sorts which extended as far as Bonshaw with boats such as the Derry, Dolphin and the Hazel Ruth came to a halt about the same time because road travel had become more popular. The wharves along the river at Shaws, Westville and further west were seldom used.
Above Dunedin the Bonshaw hills pinched the river which had carved out large “S” bends as it wore its way through the soft sandstone. As the crow flies from Dunedin Bridge to Bonshaw is just over four kilometers but as the river flows it is about double the distance. With banks too steep for cultivation the upper part of the West River retained (and still retains) the appearance of a virgin forest, although the woods have been logged continuously since the early 1800s. A few massive pines and hemlocks on the steepest slopes give a taste of what the shoreline might have looked like in earlier years.
There were a few spots on the inside of the meanders where the ground was flat enough for fields and these had been used by the adventurous from Charlottetown as camping and fishing spots since the time of confederation. While large power cruisers such as Mac Irwin’s Roamer were stopped by the bridge at Bonshaw the head of navigation was a mile or so up-stream at Crosby’s Mill. Just before reaching the mill the steel girder bridge over the river at Green Road made another barrier for larger boats. At high tide this could easily be reached by rowboats or by the outboard powered runabouts.
The Irwin album has a large number of photos featuring one of these runabouts in particular. The Mae West was owned by Charlie and Eileen Bentley, a couple who were among the early members of the Charlottetown Yacht Club. They appear to have been particular friends of Mac Irwin and often accompanied him on his excursions up the West River. Charlie kept the Mae West in immaculate condition. The Irwin albums attest to the fact that within the group there was at least one avid photographer. Although the quality of the photos is not always studio standard there is no mistaking the level of interest. The photos were widely shared and copies of some of them appear in the Fred Small Collection and in the photos which once were displayed in the old Yacht Club building. Some of the latter have been transferred to the Yacht Club collection at the Public Archives and Records Office.
The Bentley family have a large number of photos of the West River activities and I am indebted to Eric Bentley for giving me access to his collection and for supplying identification for a number of the vessels and people.
The selection below represents some of the West River activities documented in the Irwin albums. Click on any image to see the photos as a slide show.