Tag Archives: Hillsborough

Late 19th Century ferries – the Elfin and the Southport

The Elfin 1873-1906

Elfin approaching Prince Street Ferry Wharf.

Elfin approaching Prince Street Ferry Wharf.

For the quarter century, between confederation with Canada and the launch of the Hillsborough in 1898 Charlottetown harbour crossings were provided by two paddle-wheel steamers; the Elfin and the Southport.

In 1873 the Elfin, was launched in Joseph Fairchild’s shipyard in Georgetown in late April and was put on the Southport ferry route in May.  The boat had a gross tonnage of 122 tons  and was 81 feet long by 22 feet in width. The Semi-weekly Patriot praised the government for its action in engaging the steamer as it was a considerable improvement on the Ora. The new ferry had capacity for 18 horses and vehicles and they were separated from the area for foot passengers. Another improvement was the addition of shelter for the passenger seating to protect them from the rain and cold winds.  However even with a new boat the service was not immune from criticism. In the 23 October 1973 issue of the Patriot it was noted that the Elfin could not run when the tide was low  and that the steamer service ended at 8 p.m. and later travellers had to be sculled across the harbour.

The Elfin was not built by the government but by a group of businessmen including Daniel Gordon, L.C. Owen, A.A. MacDonald, J.L. Westaway.  Early in 1874 Gordon responded to a request from government to lease the vessel to run between Charlottetown and Southport and quoted a subsidy request of $1000.  At some later date the government appears to have purchased the craft outright.

With the launch of the Southport in 1875 the Elfin serviced the run to Rocky Point and also became a spare boat for Charlottetown. Occasionally she could be dispatched for duties elsewhere. In September 1877, for example, she was in use between Aitken’s wharf (Lower Montague) and Georgetown to help with the expected crowds for the King’s County Exhibition. Her normal schedule in 1877 was for service to Southport  twice an hour from 6 to 9 a.m. and four times an hour from then until 10 p.m.

In 1895 she was on the Rocky Point route leaving the city  at 6:30, 8 and 10 am, 12 noon and 2, 4 and 6 pm.

She was destroyed by fire on 7 October 1906 and the register was closed the following day. Firemen on the scene reported that the fire was intense, probably because of the thirty years of oil dripping from the gears and machinery having soaked into the timbers. She was succeeded on the route to Rocky Point by the Hillsborough.

Although the fire left the Elfin as a hulk it was still a fixture on the waterfront until at least 1911. The wreck had been sold to Thomas Doyle of Rustico who apparently soon gave up on removing the partially sunken vessel and it sat as an obstruction and unsightly object between the Ferry Wharf and the Railway Wharf.  Although purchased by Doyle it remained registered to the provincial government and the Guardian called the attention of the administration  to the “spectacle of ruin and dilapidation” urging them to take action but it is not known when it finally disappeared.

The Southport 1875-1905

Southport in Charlottetown Harbour from Picturesque Canada

Southport in Charlottetown Harbour from Picturesque Canada

The steamer Southport was a government-owned vessel built in Summerside in 1875 but her machinery was built and and installed in Pictou. The vessel arrived in Charlottetown in mid-June 1875 after a six hour passage from Nova Scotia. and went into service later that month following modifications to the wharves at Charlottetown and Southport.  At 102 feet in length by twenty-six in beam, she was considerably longer that the Elfin and twice her displacement. The steam engine driving the paddle wheels was rated at fifty nominal horsepower. In 1877 her schedule saw the boat leaving Charlottetown early on Tuesday and Friday mornings for Shaws Wharf on the West River and making a second return trip in the afternoon. Two years later she sank at the Prince Street Ferry Wharf.  After her day’s service she had been tied to the east side of the wharf and as the tide rose she caught on the side of the wharf. Water rushing in through one of her ports filled the boat so that in the morning all that could be seen of the boat was the smokestack and the top of the deckhouses. The accident was discovered by delegates of the Baptist association who had been scheduled for a West River excursion. Faced with the conversion and total immersion of the vessel the Baptists had to make other plans. Charles Haszard, operator of the boat, was able to secure the use of the City’s steam-powered fire engine to pump her out and re-float the ferry.

By 1891 the boilers in the steamer were worn out but because the government had been late in calling for tenders for repair or replacement it was not available to start the season and the service had to be provided by Batt Brothers tug. In 1897 the Southport was replaced on the East and West River services by Alex Strang’s Alameda, built in 1885, which had for several years provided service between Cape Traverse and Cape Tormentine.  That boat served through 1899.

Following the launch of the Hillsborough, the Southport provided regular river service to Westville and to Mt. Stewart and after the wreck of the Jacques Cartier in 1902 she also filled in on the run to Orwell.

The Southport was not built to replace the Elfin which continued on the ferry run to Southport but to supplement it and provide new services across the harbour and up the rivers. Like most of the other harbour ferries the Southport was also used for other purposes on occasion. In 1878 she was used to tow a 360 foot raft with 186 tons of timber belonging to Peake Bros. from Pinette to Charlottetown. A few weeks later it broke local records by towing a raft measuring over 400 feet. The same year it ran a special trip to North River Bridge to carry spectators to the trotting races at Upton Park track. In 1880 it carried excursionists to the Loyal Orange Lodge picnic at Wood Islands but West River Bridge, Westville and Shaw’s wharf on the West River were the favoured locations. It seems to have been a special favourite for Sunday school outings and in the 1890s advertisements for Methodist, Baptist and Church of England groups can easily be found in the newspapers. A day ticket for the return trip cost 25 cents.

In 1903 the Southport was on the route between Charlottetown and Mt. Stewart on the East River as well as up the West River.  In April of that year she broke the paddle shaft on one side of the boat and drifted with six passengers and a full load of freight until a boat was lowered and a line carried ashore at Hickey’s wharf.  She was rescued by the Hillsborough and towed to Charlottetown.  It later emerged that the 27 year-old vessel had not been inspected for eight years, she had inadequate life-saving equipment and was run by engineers who did not have engineering certificates.

In April 1905, with the opening of the Hillsborough Bridge the hull, boiler and machinery of the 30 year-old Southport was offered for sale by tender and she was acquired by Bruce Stewart. The boat was anchored off Victoria Park in July of 1905 and used for a fireworks display during “Home Comers Week.”  That was her last known use. The machinery may have been more valuable than the boat itself, as it was broken up and the registry closed in December 1905.

Other ferries

This concludes a series of postings on the steam-powered ferries of Charlottetown Harbour. For earlier vessels  click on the following links: Fairview  1936-1958, Hillsborough 1894-1936,  Ora 1856-1873, Ino 1856, Arethusa 1853-185?, Isla 1849-1851.  Information can also be found on the short-lived ferry service to York Point.

Scandal at the Launch

S.S. Hillsborough ca. 1900 PARO #4466/2 Edison Horton Coll.

S.S. Hillsborough ca. 1900 PARO #4466/2 Edison Horton Coll.

From the distance of more than a century it is difficult to understand the titanic struggles related to prohibition of the sale of alcohol which seem to have been an undercurrent of the politics of Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s.  And while one may search the local press in vain for letters to the editor advocating drink, the opposite is not the case. In the 1890s Prince Edward Island was subject to Dominion legislation, the Canada Temperance Act, (known as the Scott Act after its author) which provided a “local option” following petition and plebiscite for prohibition on a county level. The three counties were ostensibly “dry” but Charlottetown switched several times from “wet” to “dry” and back again and there was a constant battle in press on the subject. It seemed that what ever the political stripe of the government in power their stance it was unsatisfactory for the temperance advocates.  Almost every event and activity was under scrutiny and subject to complaint for the presence of alcohol.  Such was the case with activities surrounding the launch of the new ferry Hillsborough in July of 1894.

Daily Examiner 16 July 1894 p.2

Daily Examiner 16 July 1894 p.2

By the mid-1890s the days of wooden ships was drawing to an end and  launchings were becoming rare events. Added to the fact that almost any activity could be used as an excuse for an excursion, the launch of the new ferry steamer became the central event for a “MAMMOTH PICNIC” at Mount Stewart.

The new ferry was being built to replace the aging Elfin and to supplement the Southport. Although not known at the time she was destined for use in Charlottetown Harbour for more than forty years – initially on the Southport crossing and later to Rocky Point. Like her predecessors she was a side paddle wheel steam boat. She was constructed by Pisquid shipbuilder Angus MacDonald with boilers and engine later installed in Charlottetown by MacKinnon and MacLean. The 225 ton steamer was 105 feet long and had a beam of 25 feet. The steam engine provided thirty and a half horsepower. Like both the Elfin and the Southport she had paddle wheels on either side of the hull.  She was double-ended with helm positions at either end of the vessel. She was, in fact, the latest thing in ferry boats.

Her launch was the excuse for a festive event. The Southport made a special trip up the river with excursionists and the Prince Edward Island Railway provided cheap fares across the system to take the curious to Mount Stewart for the day’s activities.  Once there, the grounds had a picnic with “delicacies of the season”, games and amusements as well as the launch ceremony. Given the predominance in the advertising “TEA INCLUDED” appears to have been a significant drawing card. The 1st class refreshment saloons reference did not mean that strong drink was on order but merely that tea and a “lunch”  would be available.

But a dark cloud was to be cast over the day by the presence of alcohol.  Not, as one might suppose, by bootleg rum or local shine shared out behind the horse barn but by a far more insidious and public threat to morality perpetrated by a juvenile as willing tool of the government.  The following indignant letter to the Daily Examiner’s editor lays out the charge:


What will our friends in the Liberal party say to the following choice item which appeared in yesterday’s Patriot? Referring to the launch of the new ferry steamer at Mount Stewart, where the Scott Act is supposed to be the law on the land, the Patriot says:

“At 1:15 little Miss Commiskey, daughter of Mr. Speaker Commiskey, Fort Augustus, christened the steamer the “Hillsborough” by breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow.”

As a friend of temperance, I regard it as extremely unfortunate, and especially at this particular time, that the present Local Government, or any member thereof, should sanction the purchase of liquor for any such purpose. What is the natural inference?

For the author of the letter the natural inference must have been that by 1:16 on the 21st of July 1894 the entire Mount Stewart audience would be dead drunk on champagne fumes caused by little Miss Commiskey at the behest of the evil minds of the Liberal party.  While we may laugh today it is worth noting that the tradition of using political correctness as a stick with which to beat the current government remains a strong one in our community.


Ferry Hillsborough was last paddle-wheel steamer in harbour


Ferry Wharf in the 1930s

Ferry Wharf in the 1930s

When the ferry steamer Hillsborough (often spelled the Hillsboro) was launched in 1894 there was still a variety of steamer services in Charlottetown. Besides the subsidized service up the east and west rivers there were ferries linking the capital with Southport and with Rocky point and even some service to York Point. The ferry wharf at Prince Street could be a busy place, especially on market days when the ferry would be crowded by teams and wagons and even flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. 

Hillsborough ferry tender. Guardian 4 April 1902

Hillsborough ferry tender. Guardian 4 April 1902

The Hillsborough Ferry had a long history. Originally passage to the south side of the river was served by sail and oar. In the 1830s the development of horsepower on a turntable or treadmill (a teamboat) gave more reliable and regular service. By the 1850s small steam-powered vessels became the norm. Initially the route was tendered out or assigned by legislation and contract but eventually the unreliable service and the poor quality of craft offered led the government to purchase the ferry and contract out the operation. Later ferries were built for government and leased out for the season or a term of years.  Ferries under government ownership in Charlottetown Harbour included the Ora, the Elfin, the Southport, the Hillsborough  which were all steam vessels, and the Fairview which had a diesel engine. The season was set for the period as long as the harbour was clear of ice and so the annual start and end dates varied considerably. One of the first long-term contracts called for the ferry to cross to Southport every half hour except for the times it ran to Canso Point which it was required to do twice a day.

S.S. Hillsborough ca. 1900 PARO #4466/2 Edison Horton Coll.

S.S. Hillsborough ca. 1900 PARO #4466/2 Edison Horton Coll.

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Hillsborough Launch Tea Party  Daily Examiner 16 July 1894

Tenders were called for a new ferry in May of 1893 and the government obviously knew what they wanted for the builders could examine both a model and specifications. The tenders were for the hull only so either there was an engine in hand or the government wanted to tender that separately.

The Hillsborough was launched in Mount Stewart in July 1894 by Pisquid shipbuilder Angus MacDonald. The event was celebrated by a public tea with transportation provided by the Southport and the P.E.I. Railway. The boilers and engine were later installed in Charlottetown by MacKinnon and MacLean. The 225 ton steamer was 105 feet long and had a beam of 25 feet. The steam engine provided thirty and a half horsepower. Like both the Elfin and the Southport she was propelled by paddle wheels on either side of the hull.  She was double-ended with helm positions at either end of the vessel.  The Hillsborough was later reported to have cost the Province $17,800.

The Elfin (left) and Hillsborough heading for the Prince Street wharf ca. 1903. Photo is taken from the fabrication yard for the Hillsborough Bridge east of the Railway Wharf.

The Elfin (left) and Hillsborough heading for the Prince Street wharf ca. 1903. Photo is taken from the fabrication yard for the Hillsborough Bridge east of the Railway Wharf.

In 1895 the Southport, which had formerly been running across that harbour to …(as might be expected) …Southport, was moved to provide service to the East and West Rivers. The ferry to Rocky Pont at the time was the Elfin and the new  ferry steamer Hillsborough took over the cross-river route. She left Charlottetown first at 6:30 a.m. and then at half hour intervals until 9:00 p.m. She left the Southport wharf at quarter to and quarter past the hour. However there were several alterations or exceptions over the years to allow the Hillsborough to undertake excursions and to visit other ports. In 1901, for example, the Hillsborough visited Victoria where she went aground and a year later she was used to provide passenger service to Fort Augustus for the St. Patrick’s Church Tea Party.

Abandoned Ferry wharf at Southport ca. 1915

Abandoned Ferry wharf at Southport ca. 1915

In 1906 when the Murray Harbour railway line opened with service across the recycled Hillsborough Bridge a chapter in the harbour history closed. The bridge (which carried both rail and road traffic) was originally scheduled to be taken over by the provincial government on the first of July but the ferry ran for some time after that. A notice from the Secretary of Public Works simply stated “On and after Saturday, September 29th, the Ferry Steamer, Hillsborough will cease to run on the Southport Ferry.” With only one ferry route to service the ferry Southport was redundant and was disposed of. A week later the Elfin was destroyed by fire and the Hillsborough was transferred to the Rocky Point crossing and continued to operate on that route for almost thirty more years.

In the 1930s the deterioration of the ferry meant that it spend several lengthy periods on the marine slip in Pictou being re-planked and sheathed to extend its life. In mid-June 1935 it was announced that the ferry would no longer carry motor or horse traffic and a few days later the Guardian noted that the boat had been replaced by a motor sloop owned by MacDonald Brothers. With the ice-up of the harbour in January 1936 it was clear that the Hillsborough had made her last trip. The new ferry, the Fairview,was nearing completion at Capt. Charles Fitzgerald’s boatyard in Georgetown and it was hoped she would be in place when the ice went out in the spring.

In early May 1936, when the old Hillsborough left the harbour of Charlottetown for the last time the fires in the boiler had long gone cold. The ferry made its last trip towed by the government tug Bally. She was en route to Pictou where the discarded Hillsborough was dismantled and sold for scrap. She had been on the ferry route longer than any other vessel in the history of the harbour and was the last paddle wheel vessel seen in the harbour.