Tag Archives: Heather Belle

April on the waterfront 1891

Charlottetown’s Busy Waterfront. Detail from a Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878.

Although by 1890 the days of busy ship yards on Prince Edward had long since past the industry did not vanish overnight. The Island still possessed a large fleet of sail and steam providing services and connections between the Island and the mainland, as well as overseas. Besides the building of ships the industry had a large suite of related trades whose importance would continue for many years.  The waterfront was still the place of industry as a report from the waterfront in 1891 will show. Shipyards gave rise to related businesses which continued to operate and serve the fleet. In the 1890s we still had sailmakers, ships carpenters, chandlers and boatbuilders. Once the shipping season ended many of the warehouses were taken over by boatbuilders and shipwrights. There was also a large inshore fishery which had strengthened by the lobster industry. While it was sill almost exclusively sail powered by the end of the decade engines were beginning to make their appearance. Small steam engines, some built by local engineers, were just beginning to appear in steam launches and small yachts.

In the spring as the ice deteriorated into cakes and floes smashed and tossed about by the tides and waves the warehouse and boat-building shops were opened to reveal a winter’s labour and an assertion that while the harbour was asleep its craftsmen had been busy.

Here is what was happening on the waterfront in April of 1891:  Extensive repairs had been completed on Ronald McMillan’s steamer William. The ship was raised up on the ice between the wharves and a number of iron plates replaced and the whole bottom re-riveted, a task which kept eleven men employed for the winter.  The P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company paddle steamers; Princess of Wales and St. Lawrence were overhauled and completely re-painted over the winter and the St. Lawrence received new 2 inch deck sheathing. By mid-April both ships were loaded with cargo and were waiting for the ice to clear from Hillsborough Bay. The ferry steamers Southport and Elfin were also overhauled and the Inland Steam Navigation Company’s Heather Belle had also been prepared for the 1891 season.  Numerous schooners had also over-wintered in the harbour of Charlottetown and were repaired and overhauled by their crews and Charlottetown shipwrights.

On the pleasure boat side three steam yachts had been completed over the winter. One, for Jefferson Gardiner was 56 feet overall and 11 feet wide and had a 20 horse power steam engine built by the McKinnon & McLean of Charlottetown. It was estimated she could reach speeds of 10 knots. The hull had been constructed by McPhee Bros. of Souris and had 1 1/2 inch planks and had two sleeping berths and seating for fifty people.  Another steam yacht, also boasting an engine from McKinnon & McLean was built by H.H. Crossman for a buyer in Newfoundland. She was 38 feet overall, was  half decked and also had sleeping accommodation for two and seating for 20. A third yacht was completed by builder Angus McDonald. She was also 38 feet long  and would be fitted with an engine built by White & Sons.

McPhee Bros also completed eight fishing boats for the Portland Packing Company to be used in the lobster fishery. These were of an identical design with 17 1/2 foot keel and 20 1/2 overall length. The three boats were completed in less than three months.

Another local boat builder, James Griffin, had a busy winter. He completed a four-oared lapstreak boat for John Collins intended to be used for the boy’s crew at the rowing club. Griffin had built seven or eight four-oared boats over the last several winters. The is one was 32 feet long and had a beam of 3 feet. The previous fall he had completed a rowing craft 34 feet long and 3 feet 8 inches wide, copper fastened throughout and reported to be the finest boat he had ever produced and was offered for sale. He also complete two pleasure rowing boats which had already been sold.

Today once the last cruise ship leaves, the sailing yachts and powerboats are snatched from the water and the ice begins to close in Charlottetown turns its back to the water. In the 1890s however, winter was a time when harbour-life continued, although to a different pattern. It was a time when shore-based marine trades barely paused in their quest to ready the harbour for its next season.


A Toast to the Paddle Steamer Heather Bell

Island poet John LePage (1812-1886) is perhaps best known for the awfulness of his rhymes (“Fire! Fire!” said the Crier. “Where? Where?” said the Mayor) but he seems to have a soft spot for the activities in Charlottetown Harbour. He had a long poem celebrating the arrival of B.W.A. Sleigh’s steamer Albatross in 1852 and another celebrating the arrival of the PEI Steam Navigation Company’s new steamer Princess of Wales in 1864.

Included in the 1867  second volume of his collected poems, The Island Minstrel, is a poem dedicated to the paddle steamer Heather Belle. The poem is well hidden under the forgettable  title “Lines addressed to the thoughtful young lady who sent the Bard a forget-me-not.”

Paddle Steamer Heather Belle   Detail from the 1878 Bird’ eye view of Charlottetown

The poem provides an idyllic picture of the paddle steamer as an excursion vessel for those with few cares and places her in the context of a history of steamships which served the port of Charlottetown. The poem attests to the importance that steamers had on Charlottetown life in the 1800s. Today we simply take our ease of communication as a given; one would have a hard time imagining a poem written on the subject of the passage of the carferry  from Wood Islands to Caribou or the AIr Canada flight to Halifax. In 1860 the Heather Belle represented both communications and, as the poem shows, a vehicle of escape from the city to “spend an hour devoid of care, and view the prospect, passing fair.”

Steaming at fourteen knots along
Sets fertile fancy ‘workin’ strong;
Advancing science claims a song,
Her progress fair to tell, lady;
Then listen to the Poet’s lays,
Who, while he thinks of other days,
May proudly sing his country’s praise,
On board the Heather Belle, lady.

You can’t throw back your thoughts, I know,
Some five and thirty years ago,
Ere giant steam his arms could throw
across the Atlantic swell, lady;
When once a quarter came the news;
When fancy seldom stirred the Muse;
And Indians paddled their canoes,
Where swims the Heather Belle, lady!

At last, to break our slumbers tame,
Across the strait a “smoke boat” came,
The Pocahontas was her name,
Ah! I remember well, lady,
How the elite of Charlottetown,
Dress’d in their best of coat and gown
With eager haste came running down
The Queen’s old Wharf, pell mell,lady.

To view that wonder of her day,
That without wind could work her way,
And up and down our River play,
As if by magic spell, lady, —
But on the Hillsboro’s sparkling tide —
That still rolls on in peerless pride —
Full many a steam boat has since plied
Before the Heather Belle, lady.

The shaky old “St. George” we’ve seen,
The English “Rose” and “Rosebud” green;
And lack a day! the “Fairy Queen,
You know what her befell, lady!
The “Lady Le” her name wont rhyme,
The Westmorland in later time,
From old and rotten, up to prime,
And that’s the Heather Belle, lady.

In her, we gladly steam away,
This lovely, lucky Autumn day, —
And not a single cent to pay!
This cheapness can’t excel, lady
To spend an hour devoid of care,
And view the prospect, passing fair,
On either side a landscape rare,
Seen from the Heather Belle, lady.

How briskly blows the healthful, breeze,
How swiftly part the tiny seas,
How richly Autumn tints the trees,
With lovely changing dyes, lady,
What cause for gratitude is found,
To Him, who spreads these beauties round,
And scatters plenty o’er the ground,
Where’er we turn our eyes, lady.

But see! Here the Elliot River flows,
The sun is sinking to repose
‘Tis time my melody should close,
One toast! and pledge me well, lady,
“Success to commerce and to trade,
To loving swain and trusting maid,
May skill and enterprise be paid
Here’s to the Heather Belle,” lady.

The Heather Belle (sometimes “Bell”) was launched in September of 1862 from the Duncan shipyard near the Rocky Point Ferry Wharf at the foot of Prince Street. She was a tidy, wooden, shallow draft, paddle steamer, 118 feet long and 19 feet wide displacing 185 gross tons. The 50 horse power engine had been made in Glasgow Scotland and shipped to P.E.I.  Although primarily designed for use as a river steamer serving the Hillsborough and Eliot rivers as well as the coastal ports of Orwell and Crapaud (the Port of Victoria had not yet been created), she was soon pressed into service by the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company for the regular service to Pictou and Brule, alternating with the company’s new vessel the Princess of Wales. She also was used from time to time as a tug to tow ships up and down the Hillsborough or out to the harbour mouth to catch favourable tides and winds.

Boyde Beck’s article “Song for the Heather Belle” in the Island Magazine  No, 17 Summer 1985 p. 12, recounts the concern of the American Consel at the time of her launching  that the steamer was at risk of being sold foreign for use as a Confederate blockade runner.

The ship had been replaced by the St. Lawrence in the Steam Navigation fleet and was sold to John Hughes in 1875 and she was later owned by the Inland Steam Navigation Company. By the 1880s the Heather Belle was beginning to show her age and the Company decided to replace her.  The 1883 replacement (confusingly also called the Heather Belle) was considerably larger although the length was almost the same. Increased width meant that the tonnage was about 50% larger than the first vessel.  By early June 1883 the Daily Examiner reported that the old Heather Belle was being taken to pieces and not a vestige of her would remain.




From hub to spoke: Charlottetown as a transportation centre

Today we tend to think of Prince Edward Island as being at the end of something – a long drive, a flight, a ferry crossing. In the world of hubs and spokes we are clearly a spoke. You don’t go to Prince Edward Island on your way to anywhere. It is a destination.

However, for one period in the Island’s history this was not the case. In the mid-19th century especially, Prince Edward Islanders saw themselves as, if not the centre of the world, then at least the centre of something.  And looking at a map of the region it is not hard to see why.  A case in point is the outlook of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company. In an economy of wood, wind and water, sea transportation was the most effective (and in some cases the only) way to move goods and people. The Island sat in the centre of a large basin from northern New Brunswick in the west to Cape Breton in the east. Northumberland Strait touched the long shorelines of three provinces and Charlottetown was the largest port on the Strait.

Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company – ports of call 1865-1869. The Company also had services to Orwell and Crapaud.

The Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company’s steamers did much more than connect Prince Edward Island to the mainland. They were the moving parts of a communications web and Charlottetown, rather than being at the end of a spoke, was in fact the hub. Most voyages began or ended at Charlottetown and by passing through the port one could travel aboard ship from one end of the Strait to the other.

Until the railway lines in the region took their final shape the most effective way to get from Saint John to the Miramichi was to cross the Bay of Fundy, travel through Nova Scotia to Pictou and take a steamer up the Strait, touching at Charlottetown and Summerside. The same was true of travel to Cape Breton. A requirement of the earliest subsidies sought by the first Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company from the colonial governments of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia was that western and eastern ports in those colonies would be served.

Early photo of the Princess of Wales in Charlottetown Harbour. the building behind the funnel is the Methodist Church

In the 1860s the Steamers Princess of Wales and Heather Belle were tried on a variety of routes to accommodate the changing transportation patterns. When the railway reached Shediac in 1860 Point du Chêne  became much more important for transshipment of goods and passengers destined for points south and west such as Boston and Montreal.

Heather Belle

In 1865 the Princess of Wales and the Heather Belle were both providing service across the Strait four days a week.  Besides two trips to Pictou the steamers also went to Brule, directly across from Charlottetown, twice. From there the express wagon carried mails on a shorter road to Truro.  A year later the Princess of Wales sailed weekly from Charlottetown to Summerside, Shediac, Richibucto and Miramichi, with service to Pictou and Shediac more often.

The following year the schedule published in the Island’s newspapers revealed the full extent of the Company’s attempt to provide a full regional transportation service.


Steam Navigation Company schedule. Summerside Journal 8 July 1869

On Mondays one of the company’s larger steamers, the Princess of Wales or the new-to-the-Strait St. Lawrence, left Charlottetown for Pictou, then on to Port Hood in  Cape Breton returning to Charlottetown via Pictou on Tuesdays.  Wednesday morning saw a steamer leave Charlottetown for Pictou then on to Port Hawkesbury on the Gut of Canso, returning on the same route the following day.  Another boat sailed Thursdays from Charlottetown to Pictou, Georgetown and Souris and the next day from Georgetown to Pictou and back to Charlottetown. Tuesdays and Saturdays had a steamer from Charlottetown sailing to points west; Summerside and Shediac, returning the following day. The company’s third boat, the Heather Belle, sailed Mondays for Crapaud (soon to become the port of Victoria), Tuesdays for Port Selkirk (Orwell Brush Wharf) and on other days back and forth to Mount Stewart Bridge.

Sailing times at Pictou and Shediac were determined by great measure by the arrival of the trains from Halifax and Saint John. Integrating passenger traffic with both mainland rail services and the Prince Edward Island Railway timetable was a sound business decision – even if waiting for a late train resulted in late sailings.  The service to smaller ports on the island such as Crapaud could vary according to the tides.

In contrast to the old joke, if your destination was up or down Northumberland Strait “you could get there from here,” and most likely how you did it was on a Charlottetown-based steamer. With confederation and the completion of the intercolonial railway from Halifax to Quebec the trains began to displace ships as the most common carrier. The rail line ran up the shore to northern New Brunswick and there was a falling-off of water traffic to that area and so the Steam Navigation Company ceased its western service, while at the same time maintaining its connections with Point du Chêne, now even more important for its links with both the New England and Canadian rail lines.  Confederation also brought the subsidized Pictou to Magdalen Islands steamship service which stopped at Souris. One result was that vessels based in Pictou rather than Charlottetown were used on new routes to Cape Breton and the Strait of Canso. Increasing Island demands for daily round-trips between Charlottetown and Pictou and Summerside and Shediac meant that the steamers were unable to continue their routes to other ports and they were gradually abandoned.  By the late 1870s the extended routes of the Steam Navigation Company and been subsumed by what had become a shuttle service across the Strait which continued until 1916. What traffic that existed between the eastern part of P.E.I. and Cape Breton enabled the local service of the Three Rivers Steamship Company to continue from 1892 to 1917.

In an ironic twist the improvements in transportation between 1860 and the Great War meant that in some ways Prince Edward Island became more isolated than it had been at the beginning of the period.