Tag Archives: Henry B. Flagler

First Cruise Ship Visited more than a Century Ago

In recent years the residents of Charlottetown have become accustomed to the seasonal visits of cruise ships emptying their hundreds or thousands of passengers on a city hungry to sell meals, tours and Anne of Green Gables effigies. While this may seem to be a recent phenomena the first visit of a purpose-built cruise ship to the port took place more than a century ago.
There had been earlier vessels fitted out for winter cruising but their chief role was as passenger and freight carriers and the cruising role was incidental. The Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company’s Northumberland was one of the first in the Florida-Bermuda trade with its freight deck temporarily fitted with partitions to create additional cabins and several of the Plant Line Steamers such as the S.S. Halifax and Olivette had winter charters in the Caribbean Sea when ice ended their seasonal work as the Boston Boat.

S.S. Evangeline by marine artist Antonio Jacobsen

On 7 June 1913 the new Plant Steamships liner docked in Charlottetown for the first time. According to the Guardian its arrival eclipsed the excitement around the visit of H.M.S. Cumberland the previous week which had brought a “real live Prince” to the city in the personage of Prince Albert, son of King George and Queen Mary. Docking to a “rousing and hearty welcome” the Evangeline was probably the most luxurious and up-to-date ship to visit Charlottetown before WW 1. The S.S. Evangeline was designated as a “tourist passenger steamer”  and already had experienced a season of winter cruising between Key West and Panama, Cuba, and Jamaica advertised as “Winter Outings on Summer Seas”.  Her winter work was under charter to the Peninsular and Occidental line, not to be confused with the British Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) company which operated to the far east. The Peninsular and Occidental was a joint venture between the Plant line and Henry Flagler and the Evangeline voyages were the first cruises from a Florida port. For the Evangeline, in a reversal of the role of other Plant Line vessels, the summer was the “off-season”

Launched from the London and Glasgow Engineering shipyard on the Clyde in the summer of 1912 the new ship was 350 feet long, 46 feet wide and drew 22.6 feet. She was a powerful vessel with her twin 6,000 hp engines and twin screws giving a speed of 16 knots. She had capacity for 700 passengers and also could carry 1,500 tons of cargo. She had all the accommodation features of the finest and largest ships of her day.  On the promenade or boat deck canvas awnings allowed for strolls. Inside, this deck housed a large smoking room paneled in oak and with morocco upholstered chairs and settees, the entrance hall with a stairway to the decks below, 50 staterooms with direct access to the deck and a number of suites. The awning deck was completely devoted to passenger services with a music room or social hall, deluxe staterooms, the purser’s office and 80 more staterooms. The main deck forward of the grand staircase was devoted to the dining saloon with seating for 150 and the kitchens and pantries. This deck had another 80 staterooms several of which were fitted up as “bridal rooms de luxe”.  As a reminder that this was a ship of the early 1900s the report also noted that this deck also housed the lavatories and bathrooms suggesting that these facilities were not available in even the deluxe passenger cabins. And not all the accommodation was deluxe for on the lower deck near the waterline there were 25 family staterooms, a ladies’ cabin with 50 berths and the second class men’s cabin with 80 berths.

Plant Steamship Line’s S.S. Evangeline

For the Guardian writer, the arrival of the vessel was heralded as “A New Era in Tourist Traffic” and advance bookings  suggested that the Island would see the largest stream of summer visitors in its history.  Whether true or not the arrival of the large vessel re-kindled the debate over the need for increased hotel accommodation to meet tourist needs. Unlike today’s visitors who arrive and vanish in a single day it was anticipated that the passengers on the Evangeline would see Prince Edward Island as a destination and not simply as one of a series of day stops.

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Plant Line steamer S.S. Evangeline. Postcard image courtesy of Phil Culhane.

At least one Island businessman felt that the visit would be the first of many. Grocer and postcard seller R.F. Maddigan quickly ordered an image of the ship from his card supplier and the image above is from a card posted in 1914

Unlike several of the Plant Line ships this one had been built specifically for the firm which was then operating under the name Canada Atlantic and Plant Steamship Company. A year later the ownership was transferred to A.W. Perry of Boston but this did not really constitute a change as Perry was then owner of the Plant Line.

The outbreak of the Great War did not have an immediate effect on the P.E.I. service. The Evangeline was taken off the route in late September as it had been the previous year but instead of the sailing to the Caribbean  she was laid up in Boston with a planned charter to San Francisco via the Panama Canal in March. When she did come back to Charlottetown in the summer of 1915  it was advertised she was “Under the American Flag”, a change no doubt to make her a neutral vessel in the face of increased German U-boat and surface raider activity.

It was the Evangeline’s last summer in Island waters.  In the winter of 1915-1916 she ran between New York and Bermuda and in June of 1916 was chartered to carry freight to Manchester. She never returned to Charlottetown.  In 1918 she became to property of the French Government and was converted from a passenger vessel to a freight carrier.  She was wrecked off the coast of Brittany in January 1921.

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Island Steamer was Pioneer in Tropical Cruise Route

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S.S. Northumberland at Pictou

The Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company had a bit of a problem.  They had made substantial investment in a large new steamer, the S.S. Northumberland, in 1891.  However the seasonal nature of the Northumberland Strait trade meant that the vessel was usually tied up at dock for more than four months when the Strait froze. Even with reduced crew there were costs incurred in the winter months.  Moreover, even where the waters were not frozen trade in the region slowed during the period between November and April each year.

In 1895 the times seemed good for acquisition of another ship and the smaller S.S. Princess was ordered for addition to the fleet.  However, this would add to the lay-up costs and put additional pressure on the finances of the company. Then an opportunity came along.

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Beach and deep-water pier at Palm Beach ca. 1896. The vessel is likely the S.S. Northumberland. Note railway passenger cars on the pier.

Far to the south a dramatic change was occurring. New railroad lines were being driven across the swamp and scrublands of Florida to exploit the only resource that the area seemed to have at the time – its winter climate. The Florida railroad lines were dominated by two dynamic and competing individuals; Henry B. Plant and Henry Morrison Flagler. By the mid 1890s Plant had a line running from Jacksonville to Tampa with steamer service to Havana Cuba – a line which used the Olivette, a steamer which operated between Charlottetown and Halifax in summer.

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Palm Beach Inn from the pier ca. 1905 after the rail line had been removed and the pier re-built.

However, of the two men Flagler appeared to have the greatest dreams. He wanted a line running down the east Florida shore all the way to Key West and linking from there with Havana and the West Indies.  In 1893 his railway, the Florida East Coast line ran as far as Palm Beach and construction began on two huge hotels, the inland Royal Poinciana,  and the beachfront 400 room Palm Breach Inn by the Sea, later and still known as “the Breakers”.  He also acquired a number of hotels in Nassau Bahamas (then known as New Providence).  Flagler banked, with amazing forethought, on the increase in the winter tourist trade and for him the next logical step was to provide steamship service between the two areas.  Even before the Palm Beach Inn was completed Flagler had extended his rail line to the shore and built a 1,000 foot strengthened trestle pier with a rock-filled bulkhead at the pier-head to accommodate ocean-going vessels on the otherwise shallow coast. Owing to the deep-water pier, passengers could disembark directly from the trains onto the steamer for Nassau.

Incorporated as Florida East Coast Steamship Company, Flagler’s subsidiary company ran both the Florida-Bahamas Steamship line and the Key West and Miami Steamship Line. The Northumberland was chartered in the fall of 1895 as the first ship on the Nassau run.

In mid-November the Daily Patriot reported:”It is about settled that as soon as navigation here closes the steamer Northumberland will go south for the winter, to run as a passenger boat between Palm Beach Fla. and Nassau. Preparations are now being made to build a number of additional staterooms below the deck, to fit her with awnings, and otherwise put her in complete equipment for the new service.”

Royal Victorian

Royal Victorian Hotel, Nassau, New Providence about 1895. This hotel was also owned by Henry M. Flagler and was the destination of many of the Northumberland’s passengers.

Because the charter provided for passenger service only, the freight area between decks was hastily re-configured  as passenger cabins with removable partitions and the crew quarters re-located to the lowest deck beside the engine room. A stairway between the decks linking the two passenger areas was inserted.  The Northumberland ended the Strait service in early December, came to Charlottetown for renovations and then to the Halifax dry dock for hull cleaning and painting and then headed south.  With her Island crew she took up her new duties in mid-January 1896. It was only an overnight passage on the 150 mile route and the Northumberland provided a tri-weekly service reaching Nassau in time for breakfast.

The Northumberland continued service until the first of April when the winter tourist season had come to an end and she made her way north to take up her summer route. The charter was not renewed. By 1897 Flagler’s railway had been extended to Miami and a new hotel opened in that city. The route to Nassau now originated from Miami as it had a slightly shorter run and better port facilities.  The Palm Beach pier was rebuilt as a fishing and small boat pier about 1902 and survived until partially destroyed by a hurricane in 1928. Remains of the pier can still be seen in Google Earth views. Views of the present-day pier site can be found on the Palm Beach history page 

The Northumberland does not appear to have any other winter charters and  stayed in northern waters for more than 20 years until sold in 1919.

Sources:

I first came across mention of the Northumberland’s southern adventure in K.C. Griffin’s excellent history of the Clarke Steamship Company. An article on the history of the Florida East Coast Steamship Company by Edward A. Meuller can be found in the 1976 Miami history magazine Tequesta here, while a history of the pier by Sue Pope Burkhardt can be found in the 1973 edition here. Other references are from PEI newspapers.