Tag Archives: ice

Crushed by ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: the sinking of the steamer Tunstall

There are few better indicators of the reality of climate change than the state of sea ice. While there can be some variation from year to year it is clear that there are significant changes over the last few years which have seen far less ice both in Island harbours and in the Strait and Gulf. This change is dramatically illustrated by the story of the S.S. Tunstall which was crushed in the ice off the Island’s north shore in May of 1884.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

The Tunstall was an iron screw steamer of modern design launched in 1879 from the shipyard of Shore Bros. in Sunderland. The cargo steamer was 230 feet long, 32 feet wide and a depth of over 17 feet. She was powered by a 2 cylinder steam engine which drove a single screw propeller. She made a number of trips across the North Atlantic and in European waters and by 1881 was being operated by the Black Diamond Steamship Company of Montreal. Normally she operated between Montreal and coal ports such as Cow Bay (now Port Morien) and Sydney in Cape Breton, and Pictou but when Montreal was closed by winter she also carried coal to New York, Havana and other southern ports. She carried a crew of 20 officers and men.

Tunstall 2

Early May 1884 found the vessel loading at Pictou with a cargo of coal bound for Montreal. She completed loading about noon on Saturday the 3rd of May and steamed without difficulty but encountered a large field of ice at East Point. The vessel turned and made its way up Northumberland Strait hoping to avoid the ice but by noon on the 4th encountered heavy ice at Cape Traverse. In hopes the ice might move out she anchored but after a day she turned to try the East Point route once more. It was not until Friday the 9th of May that the Tunstall was able to round East Point and in company with another steamer, the Benona. With plenty of open water between the shore-fast board ice and the “running” ice of the floes she began to steam up along the North Shore, and by nightfall both vessels were near Cape Turner. On Saturday the captain reported the weather as “dirty, blowing hard and thick” and the ice, being pushed by the wind began to drive down on the land. The Tunstall turned and found open water again near Little Rustico, the channel at the east end of Robinson’s Island. The ship remained in that area all night fighting the wind which had shifted to the north west and was blowing hard with heavy snow. The vessel kept moving to keep clear of the largest pan bearing down on the Tunstall. By 10 am on Sunday morning the ship was completely pinched in the ice and the engines were unable to provide any movement. The Benona was about a mile and half distant but was in clearer water. Within an hour the ice had pinched the ship so tightly that it began to list and the ice began to pile up over the rails on deck. Suddenly the pressure caused the plates on the starboard side of the ship to give way and water began pouring in. To find and stop the leak the crew began desperately to unload the cargo of coal over the side but they soon discovered that the hole in the ship was larger than they had feared, about 2 feet square. Although the hole was plugged with ice if the ice moved the water would be impossible to stop.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

Concluding that the ship was doomed the captain ordered the lifeboats lowered and dragged away from the ship on the ice. Refusing to do any more work to save the doomed vessel the crew left the ship and gathered near the lifeboats. As the now-helpless ship slowly filled with water the crew were able to land some of their valuables, clothing, and food. It was at this point that the only loss of life occurred. Two pigs aboard the vessel to supply fresh meat for the crew were slaughtered. The Tunstall sank, bow first, beneath the ice at about four o’clock in the afternoon of the 11th. Leaving the boats on the ice the crew struck out for the shore, walking across the ice in the increasingly bad weather. However they were compelled to return to the boats by the ferocity of the winds. Left with little shelter from the lifeboats in the teeth of the storm the crew spent the night on the ice. During the night the ice continued to drift eastwardly and in the morning the crew found themselves on the ice about six miles off the St. Peter’s Bay Lighthouse.

On Monday morning the officers and crew began to cross the floes to the shore. The St. Peter’s lightkeeper and another man came out on the ice with a boat to meet them and seventeen men were guided ashore. However, three of the crew, separated from the main body by open water, decided not to run the risk the dangerous crossing on the ice and lolly and turned back to the safety of the lifeboats. A rescue party from St. Peters and area was organized the following day and succeeded in bringing the men to shore in spite of thick fog in the area. A number of men from the community were later awarded $5 each for their heroic efforts to save the three crew. One of the boats left behind on the ice later drifted ashore at St. Margaret’s and was auctioned off to benefit the crew of the ship.

The Benona had spotted distress signals from the Tunstall and noted when she sank but was unable to offer assistance. She herself was trapped in the running ice and was being swept towards East Point into the Northumberland Strait. It was not until 19th of May before she was able to get free of the ice and continue on her voyage to Montreal.

In the haste to abandon the Tunstall the Captain had neglected to get a fix on the location where the ship had gone down and for many years the wreck was lost. In June 1884 it was reported that divers would be sent to the wrecksite to see if the ship could be raised but they were either unable to find the vessel or decided it was not worth salvaging and no salvage was attempted. However in the 1930s fishermen in the Covehead area had been complaining of fouled gear and lobsters with discoloration from coal and the wreck was eventually spotted off Covehead Harbour.

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Screen grab from Justin Pater video “Welcome to the S.S. Tunstall” 2011

Resting in about 70 to 80 feet of water it has become a popular spot for recreational divers. Several videos have been posted to YouTube and Vimeo, one of the best being that of Justin Pater and can be accessed by following this link  

It is interesting to compare this real-life account with that of a fictional sinking some twenty-years later in W. Albert Hickman’s The Sacrifice of the Shannon

Sailing through the ice from Pictou to Wood Islands

The winter passage to Prince Edward Island was the subject of several drawings and engravings. This example come from Harpers New Monthly Magazine in 1877.

The winter passage of the mail and passengers between Prince Edward Island and the Mainland is one of the most interesting transportation stories in the history of the Island. There are a number of detailed accounts and published reports of the the crossing appeared frequently in books, newspapers and magazines. See for example this account from 1876.  The iceboat service is commemorated as a National Historic Event by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada with a plaque at Cape Traverse.

But the “crossing at the Capes”  was not the only winter route and other places had stories to tell of the icy passage.

The letter to the editor published in the 22 April 1884 issue of the Daily Patriot was titled by the editor “An Adventure” and although it attracted no editorial comment  it told a tale which was a close encounter with disaster.  One wonders if the events were so commonplace to have lost their newsworthiness.

The route from Pictou to Wood Islands had been used by the Island government for the winter mails as early as 1828 but was later abandoned in favour of the shorter route at the Capes. There were still sporadic crossings when conditions were favourable.  Pictou was joined by rail to Halifax in 1860, at a time when overland routes to Cape Tormentine took considerably more travelling time. This changed with the extension of rails to both Cape Traverse and Cape Tormentine and there were few winter crossings from Pictou late in the 19th century except on the Canadian Government steamers.

Detail of 1879 chart of Northumberland Strait showing section from Pictou to Wood Islands

On 19 April 1884 a small open sailboat left Pictou for Prince Edward Island. It appears to have been an ordinary sailing craft without the double runners on the bottom of the craft and the tin covered hull to aid in propelling the boat across the ice like a sleigh.  Aboard were three crew member and four passengers.  The passengers were merchant James Paton of the Charlottetown of W.A. Weeks & Co.  who was returning from a buying trip in England; Nelson Rattenbury of Carvell Bros; H.J. McDonald; and a Mr. Fitzpatrick. They were obviously anxious to get to the Island and unwilling to take the long route by rail up the Northumberland shore to Sackville and from there transfer to sleighs to Cape Tormentine, across the Strait by the iceboat service and then overland to Emerald and by the PEI Railway to Charlottetown. April had come late to Northumberland Strait that year. The passage at Canso was blocked by ice and the first Boston boat of the year was delayed for more than a week. The PEI Steam Navigation Company steamers were tied up for much of the month waiting for their first trip across and the ice-strengthened Northern Light reported a great deal of ice on the route between Pictou and Georgetown. A steamer with a cargo of coal trying to work its way from Pictou up Northumberland strait was turned back by the ice jams at Cape Traverse.

Never the less Captain Laughlin Patterson, pilot Angus Smith and James Stewart felt confident that they would be able to find open water across to P.E.I.. They had been informed by residents of Pictou Island that there was no ice in the Strait. They were so confident in fact, that they did not leave Pictou until 1 p.m. on the Saturday afternoon with, as Captain Patterson later wrote, “a fair prospect of crossing the straits.”  About half way across they encountered an obstacle – not only the expected ice pans but a thick ice fog (fog caused by warmer air over the cold ice and water) – and they soon found themselves surrounded by a dense field of ice. They quickly exhausted themselves trying to extricate the heavy 18 foot boat from the clutches of the ice and with night falling they decided to haul the boat up on a pan of ice and spend the night as best they could.

Although they did not suffer the extreme cold of mid-winter the weather was far from favourable as it rained heavily through the night and by Sunday morning the fog had returned as thick as ever. As they had no compass they could not determine which way to go. At four o’clock in the afternoon the fog began to dissipate and they spotted Wood Islands some distance off. A  lighthouse had been built there and had been operation since 1876.It was one of the few landmarks on the low lying shore. Knowing they would not be able to continue hauling the boat and reach shore without spending another night on the ice the party concluded to set off on foot the four or five miles to the shore. The route proved to be over very bad ice and in several places they had to cross open water on small ice cakes that would carry only a few men at a time.

They left the boat with all their baggage on the ice in hopes that it would be spotted from the shore and a rescue party sent out to meet them. But as the daylight was soon gone those on the shore, who had spotted the abandoned boat before night fell, decided they could not safely mount a rescue until daylight on Monday. In the meantime, the passengers and crew were finally able to reach land at the Wood Islands Lighthouse in the dark. Cold and wet they were taken to houses in the Wood Islands area to be fed and rested.

On Monday morning the abandoned boat was again  spotted from the shore and a party of men, McMillans all (whose descendants still live in the area), went out on the ice with their own boat and succeeded in bring the Pictou boat and baggage back to shore. By this time it had drifted to spot four miles off Belle River. The passengers had hired a team and were well on their way to Charlottetown by this time so the baggage trunks and effects were sent on later.

The letter from the appreciative Pictou crew thanking  the people of Wood Islands for their humane and hospitable care appeared in the 26 April 1884 issue of Charlottetown’s Daily Patriot newspaper.

On foot across the floes – when the mainland was cut off again.

Dominion Government Steamship “Minto” in the icefield. Raphael Tuck postcard. In addition to lifeboats the Minto also carried two iceboats, one of which is visible on the stern-most davits

The story appeared under a gripping headline — PERILOUS TRIP – PARTY OF NINE WALK THIRTEEN MILES OVER ICE FROM IMPRISONED STEAMER. But was it what it seemed?

St. John, N.B. Feb.26 – Impelled by anxiety to reach their parents who were ill in Boston, two young women led a party of seven persons over 13 miles of ice floes from an imprisoned steamer to Pictou Island and thence to the mainland. The steamer Minto, which runs from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island became icebound on Monday. Among the 40 passengers on board were two young women of different families who had received word that parents were dying in Boston. When they realized the situation of the Minto they expressed determination to set out on foot. Another young woman and four young men also were willing to join in the undertaking.

The party left the steamer shortly before noon on Monday. The sun’s rays on the ice proved almost blinding, and after the party had struggled along on the ice for some miles, one of the young men sank down from exhaustion. The balance of the distance, however, was finally covered although the young women were obliged constantly to assist the exhausted man. They reached Pictou Island about 9 o’clock in the evening.

After passing the night on the island the balance of the journey was made to the mainland on Tuesday, where the Boston women caught the train. Members of the party belonging in St. John reached here today greatly exhausted.

The winter of 1902-1903 was an especially hard one for Prince Edward Island but with two sturdy Canadian Government Steamers providing passage to the mainland there was little anxiety. However, as ice in Northumberland Strait built up it became increasingly difficult for the steamers to negotiate the passage.  The Stanley had been attempting to keep open a route from Summerside to Cape Tormentine while the Minto had what should have been the easier task of running between Georgetown and Pictou.

Early in January the Stanley became stuck in a floe off Seacow Head and would eventually remain imprisoned for 66 days as the ship was dragged by the ice east down the Strait.  By the end of February the ship was located between Merigomish and Pictou Island and although passengers had been sent to shore on ice boats, the crew remained aboard. Coal was running low and without steam in the boilers any hope of being able to manoeuvre in the ice would disappear.

Meanwhile the Minto was having a difficult time getting in and out of Pictou as the same ice that held the Stanley was jammed into ridges which rose in places to a height of 15 feet. On 14 February the Minto left Pictou for Georgetown with orders to get as close to the Stanley as possible and she had aboard some 85 tons of coal to refuel the stranded vessel.  She also had 54 passengers on board heading for the Island. They were warned by the Captain that there was considerable danger of a lengthy voyage as they had not only had to battle the ice for their own passage but also to aid the ice-bound Stanley.  It was reported that ” They said they were willing to take their changes and looked forward to an interesting experience.”  Stuck for  more than a week in the ice, hardly moving, the mood changed from interesting to infuriating.  A report of the trip noted that “After being out a while their good humor vanished, and there was much murmuring.  One young woman went in to hysterics and a young man became insane chafing under the delay.”

Compounding the problems with the ice, the Minto lost one blade of her four-bladed propeller, severely limiting her ability to manoeuvre and reducing her speed.  While the ship carried spare blades which could be bolted on the work required her to go on the marine slip at Pictou and could not be done at Georgetown.


Steamer Minto in Ice, Northumberland Straits. The ice boats can be seen on the stern of the ship.

It is at this point that the dramatic newspaper story above begins to unravel as a few of the details are questionable. What was reported in P.E.I. papers, based on reports from Pictou and later from the ship, was that faced with so many passengers on board, the Minto was running out of food. On the February 23, after 9 days aboard,  the passengers were offered the opportunity to leave the ship and walk the 7 miles to Pictou Island accompanied by crew members who hauled their luggage in one of the iron runner-shod iceboats which were part of the Minto’s equipment.  The journey to Pictou Island took about 4 hours. The group intended to continue their journey across the 14 mile Strait to High Bank or Wood Islands walking or using dories from the Pictou Island fishing fleet. However on reaching Pictou Island the plan changed and they decided to cross from Pictou Island to the mainland, some electing to take the train to Cape Tormentine and cross on the iceboats running at the Capes. On Tuesday 24 February the rest of the passengers, save six who elected to stay aboard, made the same journey on foot to Pictou.  The following day the winds shifted and the Minto was freed to head for the relief of the Stanley. It took five hours to go a mile and then they reached a lead in the ice which enabled them to get within a mile of the Stanley.  They unloaded 45 tons of coal on the ice to be dragged to the Stanley by her crew and then headed for Georgetown arriving the following day, after 12 days in the ice. It would be weeks before the Stanley was finally free.

A dramatic story in itself but what of the news re-printed above?  Garbled at best and sensationalized at worst there are several puzzling details.  The story appeared in the New London, Connecticut,  Daily but there is no mention of the details in either the Island Patriot or the Guardian. If they were trying to reach parents who were ailing in Boston why were they aboard a steamer headed for Prince Edward Island?  And as for “leading” the party it seems instead that the evacuation was under the direction of the crew of the Minto. The story in the Daily conveniently omits the information that a total of 47 passengers apparently made the transfer to shore without incident.

“The time when we were stuck on the ferry for [fill in the blank] hours/days” is part of the story-telling repertoire of almost every Islander of a certain age, however few tales can compare with the experience of those on the Minto in the winter of 1903 who, when faced with the choice between boredom and ice, took to the latter.