Tag Archives: Heather Belle

Searching for a Ship – the Short Sorry Story of the Steamer Summerside

I thought I had pretty much tracked down the ships of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company when I wrote a history of the company for this blog several months ago. Several of the ships even had been given entries and I was not sure how much more could be said on the subject.

Although the Company advertised its regular passenger services the S.S. Summerside’s short life was scarcely noticed. Steam Navigation Company advertisement in the P.E.I. Directory 1889-1890.

However, last week while searching on a New Zealand-based shipping database called the Miramar Ship Index I plugged in the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company expecting to find the usual suspects. Instead the only entry that popped up was for a 360 ton vessel registered in Prince Edward Island. She was registered as the SS Summerside.  I had never come across the vessel before.  Resorting to other on-line resources including Lloyds List and the Mercantile Naval List I came up with a blank.  However armed with a name I was able to search an index called the “Mills List” which is maintained at Queens University. This contains steamship information culled from Canadian registers and I was able to get an official number and a year of construction – 1883. Of more importance were a few indications of her size (155 x 22) and tonnage (360). She had been built in London.  A search of the Marine Engineer for 1884 revealed that she had been launched by Messrs Forrestt & Sons from the Britannia Yard, Millwall, London in 1883. The Britannia Yard was located on the Isle of Dogs, not far from Canary Wharf.  She was built of iron and had a 60 horse power steam engine.   Another vessel launched from the same yard, the Kinnaird Castle may have been a sister ship as she had the same dimensions.

With a few of the ships details pinned down I was keen to learn about her history but owing to few sources there is much reading between the lines.  In 1883 the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company had three ships, all wooden sidewheelers and all about 20 years old: the Princess of Wales, the St. Lawrence and the Heather Belle.  A new iron steamer would have represented a significant investment in the future of the company.   Her arrival was duly noted in the local press.

Daily Patriot  28 August 1883

As announced the new screw steamer Summerside recently purchased at the Clyde by the Steam Navigation Company of this province, arrived at the port yesterday at half past 3:00 p.m. The Summerside left London on the 5th inst. Making this passage out in 21 days She is 161 feet in length, 22 feet beam, depth of hold 11 feet; 60 horse power and 370 tons register with a carrying capacity of 520 tons. She is designed exclusively for carrying freight, and will therefore enable the company’s other steamers to carry mails and passengers with greater comfort and dispatch than heretofore.

Her owners claim for her a fair rate of speed and Captain Cameron speaks highly of her performance on this her first voyage. Owing to a slight leaking in her condenser she was obliged to put into Falmouth on the 8th,thus causing some delay, and after leaving there experienced heavy gales; but under these unfavorable circumstances she proved herself capable of providing good satisfaction.

The Daily Examiner’s report noted as well that her auxiliary sailing gear was a schooner rig and that she had a “nice appearance”, black with a red bottom.

Charlottetown Herald 29 August 1883

The new iron screw steamer Summerside purchased in London England by the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company arrived her on Monday afternoon after a passage of twenty-one days. She was commanded by Capt. Cameron who pronounced her a good “sea boat” she is one hundred and sixty-one feet long, twenty-two foot beam, eleven feet of hold, sixty horsepower and registers three hundred and eighty tons, and has a freight capacity of over five hundred tons. The Summerside was mainly intended to carry freight but will no doubt, be fitted for passenger accommodation, which is very necessary. She will act in conjunction with the St. Lawrence and Princess of Wales in removing freight and will, we understand, also engage in other work.

There is little information about the ship after the publication of the arrival notces. The small steamer does not appear to have been fitted for passenger services, contrary to what the Herald suggested and if her chief role was to act as a supplementary freight hauler she did so without notice.  It is more likely that her owners put her into the coastal service. One report suggests she made voyages to Newfoundland in 1884.  At any rate, the summer of 1885 found her on a voyage from Montreal to Fogo Island with general merchandise. She rounded Cape Race and headed up the coast and took on a pilot as she neared her destination on 20 August 1885. However, due to “the ignorance of the pilot” she ended up on the rocks at Western Tickle near the entrance to the harbour albeit without loss of life.  Owing to the lack of communications it was some time before the information reached Prince Edward Island.

Daily Patriot 24 August 1885

A telegram was received Saturday evening by the Steam Nav. Co. Stating that the S.S Summerside had run ashore in Fogo Harbour, and that the greater part of the cargo, consisting of general merchandise had been saved. Another telegram was received this morning from Capt. Cameron, which stated that the engine room and after hold were full of water and asking for instructions. This is all that is known at present respecting the position of the boat; and as that place is some distance from telegraphic station it may be some time before anything further will be known.

The steamer was on her passage from Montreal to Fogo Harbor with a general cargo and thus her destination was the scene of her misfortunes. Fogo is a small Island about ten miles to the north of Newfoundland and separated from it be Hamilton Sound.

The Summerside is comparatively a new vessel, having been built in the year 1883 by Messers Forrest & Sons of London, Eng.   She is built of iron and is classes 100 A at English Lloyds and her registered tonnage is 223. She arrived here in command of Capt. Cameron in August 1883. She is, we hear, partially insured.

Daily Patriot 27 August 1885

The Steam Navigation Company received information today to the effect that the S.S. Summerside had been condemned and will be sold on Saturday next.

The wreck was sold a few days later. The two-year old ship was valued at $40,000 but would have fetched only a small fraction of that as she lay on the rocks of Fogo.  A year later the wreck had been stripped but still lay close to the channel.

New York Times 21 November 1886

ST. JOHN’S, Newfoundland, Nov. 20.–The direct northern mail steamer Hercules, while passing through the Western Tickle, near Fogo, Notre Dame Bay, struck the sunken steamer Summerside. She proceeded toward Dean’s Rock, fast filling and with all her fires out but one, and reached Fogo with 10 feet of water in her hold. The steam pumps were working constantly, and she barely reached the shore when she sank.

The Summerside was likely at least partially insured but her loss still must have been a major blow to the company. Perhaps it was a financial crisis brought about by her loss that led to the recapitalization and change of ownership of the company which was incorporated five years later under Dominion legislation as the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company.  The new Steam Navigation Company was able to make the transition to modern steel vessels and continued operations until the arrival of the rail-car ferry Prince Edward Island.

I have been unable to find any images of the Summerside and it is entirely possible that none exist.  Short as the life of the Summerside was she did last a year longer than her sister ship the Kinnaird Castle which sank after a collision in the Thames Estuary in 1884.

Mr. Warburton’s obsession

When Alexander Bannerman Warburton, the member for Queens County Prince Edward Island rose in the House of Commons on 20 February 1911 his speech began with the ominous words “It may be wearisome to hon. members of this House to hear this matter brought up periodically…”

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Detail, from Bayfield’s chart of Amet Sound and Tatamagouche harbour showing the anchorage at Brule. Although protected there is an absence of any wharves or dockages.

Warburton was speaking of the issue of the “continuous steam communication” which had been part of the Confederation agreement but the member from Queens had his own hobby-horse to ride. For him the issue of dependable transportation could be most simply dealt with by changing to port to which the steamers travelled. At the time there were several routes in use: Summerside to Shediac, Charlottetown to Pictou,  Cape Traverse to Cape Tormentine, and Georgetown to Pictou. The summer steamers of the Steam Navigation Company used the first two to link the train services of the Island with those of the mainland. In winter the Dominion Government ice-breaking steamers used all the ports and shifted between them as ice conditions allowed. Usually the ice thickened and became impassable west to east so that the Georgetown to Pictou route was the last one to be used each winter.

The map makes it clear. Proposed steamer route (green) and railway branch (orange)

The map makes it clear. Proposed steamer route (green) and railway branch (orange)

For Warburton the map told the story. Directly across Northumberland Strait from Charlottetown lay Amet Sound or Tatamagouche Bay with communities of Cape John, Brule and Tatamagouche. Any fool could see that the twenty-four miles across the Strait was shorter  than making the dog-leg to Pictou.  And from any one of the communities on the shores  of Tatamagouche Bay it was a much shorter direct route to Truro and the Intercolonial Railway junction making a short route to Halifax and from there to the wide world.

It was not pre-ordained that the gateway to Prince Edward Island should lead through Pictou. Although the harbour was a good one it was not the only one with favourable conditions for sailing ships and the early steamers. The Brule shore developed a trade with Prince Edward Island that lasted for many years with schooners hauling agricultural goods and limestone back and forth across the strait into the 20th century. It was the discovery of coal that made Pictou an important port and with increased trade and settlement as well as industry, mail and coach routes with Halifax developed.

The shorter distance from Charlottetown to Halifax by travelling as the crow flies was attractive to some of the early steamboat operators. Heard’s Rosebud, the first steamer to be built on the Island, ran between Charlottetown and Tatamagouche in the 1850s in an effort to take trade away from the government-subsidized government steamers.  The route had been studied by the P.E.I. Colonial government in 1856 and Admiral Bayfield’s observation that Brule harbour was “the safest and best for direct intercourse with Nova Scotia…” was quoted.  In 1864 the Halifax Chronicle carried an advertisement for the “Short and Cheap route between Halifax and P.E.Island” meeting the steamer Heather Belle at Brule and when the Nova Scotia delegates came to what would become known as the confederation conference in 1864 it was from Brule on the steamer Heather Belle, rather from Pictou. The port was used as an occasional excursion destination from as the trip there and back could be made in one day.

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Advertisement for excursion to the proposed winter port. Guardian 24 July 1909 p.2

However Pictou’s dominance on the strait was greatly strengthened with the construction of the Nova Scotia Railway from Truro to Pictou Landing in 1867 and its incorporation into the Intercolonial Railway after Confederation but it was not until 1887 that the railway actually ran into Pictou town.  The same year what came to be known as “the short line” (The Montreal and European Railway) was built from Oxford Junction to Pictou along the north shore passing through Tatamagouche. However this was far from the direct link between Northumberland Strait and Truro.  Proponents of the route were excited by the construction of the Midland Railway between the Annapolis Valley and Truro and its acquisition by the Dominion Atlantic Railway (DAR) in 1905.  Extension of the line straight through the 28 miles to Brule could only be a matter of time and the vision of fast steamers across the Strait and a DAR express to Yarmouth and waiting Boston steamers was fodder for editorial comment and political postures.  The Halifax Herald wrote of trips from Charlottetown “To Halifax and return in a day” and “a new route to Boston.”  In the summer of 1909 things had progressed to the point where the owners of the Harland laid on an excursion to allow everyone to view the proposed port.

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Alexander Bannerman Warburton, a champion of the Brule route.

Alexander Warburton had been a M.L.A. from 1891 to 1898 and served as premier for a brief period before accepting an appointment as county court judge. Resigning in 1904 to run for politics he was not successful until the 1908 general election and he served only until 1911 when he was defeated.

He may have been infected by the Brule bug when running for Dominion office in 1904. By May 1909 he was in full support of the Charlottetown – Brule route. He first raised the matter in the House that year speaking for almost an hour in a discourse which recounted the history of the colony, his experiences waiting in Pictou for ice-trapped vessels, “a severe and lengthy condemnation of the suitability of Pictou as a winter port” and again and again referring to the shortened distance. The same year his stance was adopted by the Maritime Board of Trade which passed a resolution supporting a trial of the route by the icebreaker Earl Grey.

Emerging like a groundhog seeking his shadow every February  for the next two years Warburton rose to his feet to repeat his lengthy but impassioned plea which would introduce an equally lengthy and impassioned rebuttal from the member from Pictou and then the House would return to its normal business for another year.

The route question was rendered moot by the creation of the car ferry service between Cape Tormentine and Port Borden which introduced a dependable winter crossing using the S.S. Prince Edward Island but it refused to die away completely. Even after Warburton went to his reward in 1920 (as Judge of the Probate Court) there were outbreaks of interest in the Brule route.  Charlottetown businessman J.O. Hyndman was a proponent suggesting a seven-month steamer service to replace the Hochelaga coupled with the long-sought Truro-Brule direct rail line. A fast steamer could make two round trips per day compared with only one on the Pictou route. The plan was endorsed by the Truro Board of Trade in 1929. However the branch line to Brule was never built and the steamers continued to go to Pictou.

The Brule route was only one of a number of map-induced proposals in the region. There were costly failures such as the Chignecto Ship Railway and those like the Brule route and the PEI rail tunnel which never quite got off the ground.  Often what was missing was an appreciation of the demand. In the case of the Brule route the market was simply not there. Even before the car ferry, Pictou was quite adequate. The line on-the-map may have been perfect, but the good was good enough.