Tag Archives: Iceboat

The Rite of Passage: Crossing the Strait by Iceboat

Almost all visitor accounts of travel to Prince Edward Island in the 19th century included mention of the winter isolation and the iceboat service which was a unique experience.  However most travellers came or went in the summer so their accounts were second- hand. What is rarer are those who actually experienced the icy passage. While there were a number of dangerous and prolonged crossings in the more than 80 years that the system operated most were routine although still cold and exciting. On a good day some crossings were made in under four hours from shore to shore.

Iceboat Service from P.E.I. to Mainland. Haszard & Moore postcard. Author’s collection

One of the most interesting and detailed is that of Father Edward Osborne, an Anglican brother of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist which had a monastery in Boston.  Osborne came to the Island in a mission in January of 1883.   An excerpt from the diary kept on the trip appeared in the 8 March 1883 edition of the Examiner.  After detailing the trip from Amherst to Cape Tormentine and his frustration with a three-day wait for favourable weather at the Cape Father Osborne records with some relief that the boats finally set out for the Island.

After the drive over the board ice, all the boats were loaded, and we were ready to go at the word. Mrs. —– and little girl went in the Captain’s boat. I went with his son. We had five boats in all, ours being the heaviest with ten men including myself. Of course, Mrs. —– and little girl were packed in with bags, fur coats and hot bricks, not to move until we got over to the other side. I could have gone the same way if I had liked, and had paid a little extra; but am I not a man among my brethren? My place was third on the left of the boat, between two men passengers who had both crossed before. The man next behind me had a brother on the other side of our boat, who jokingly said that he did not think that his brother had ever followed a clergyman before – better for him if he had! Every man has a strong strap passed over his shoulder and under his arm. By this he pulls the boat along and is himself kept safe in case of accident; so with one hand on the boat we are to run along.

Crossing the Ice. P.E. Island. Real photo postcard. UPEI Collection.

It is curious as we stand waiting, to see the huge fields of ice drifting majestically past us, the great hummocks standing out sharp against the blue sky from ten to twenty feet high. The Captain and to men stand on heaps, watching for our chance. At last a huge ice field, a mile or more along – “Now boys if we are to take this field we must go” – and with a rush we are off. There are about ten or twelve feet of water with floating ice and slush between us and the solid field and as the boat crashes down into this I supposed all would get on board, and accordingly got in. But the men rushed on, stepping on the floating blocks, shouting and heaving, and in two minutes we were on the solid ice in front. We were now fairly off and settled down to our work, the boats were formed in line, the Captain leading and our boat second. The stem of each boat was kept close to the stern of the boat in front, so that we looked like some enormous reptile winding its way along over the silent snow. The work was heavy, for the snow on the ice-field was fully eighteen inches deep, and through this we had to plod dragging our boats with their burdens.

Crossing at the Capes, Prince Edward Island, PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation. Earl Taylor collection.

Very little was said by anyone, so that the stillness in the quite morning air was striking. We were soon warm, and in fact too warm. In half an hour from starting every man had an icicle from each end of his moustache, while I had a little circle of them around the edge of my fur cap.  The men made me put my boots under my trousers and tie the trousers down. By this means all snow was prevented from getting into the tops of my boots, and if I happened to slip into water the thick trousers I wore would throw it off. I got over thus quite dry.

Our ice-field was not all smooth; in many places the ice was overshot, that is, one sheet over another. These were concealed under the snow and before we knew it we might stumble and slip over them. Sometimes there were holes ever so deep, into which you might sink in snow and water to your waist. We got over our first field without mishap. The there was a short space of blue water to be crossed to the next field. As we neared the edge the word was given “straps off,” and we threw then off into the boats. Then accelerating the speed of the boat she crashed down into the water and we all jumped in hastily and were soon rowing on. We had to repeat this several times. In some places the water had a very thin coating of ice, through which we easily rowed the oars, leaving a mark like a V in the ice on either side. Sometimes the ice was just too thick to row in, and then we had to break the way. This was done by rolling the boat rapidly and striking the ice in front with an oar or boathook. In one instance two of the men got over the bows of the boat, and jumped up and down smashing the ice with their feet. This was very curious to see, and looked very dangerous. They kept fast hold of the boat, and kept their straps on, and no harm happened. While they did this the others pulled the boat by means of boathooks. These hooks were of curious shape, like two spuds put opposite ways. Then hooked spud was struck into the ice so as to get a purchase to pull on. It was very funny to see the boats going thus, the six hooks in each boat striking rhythmically together. After the first start, our boat was the leading boat all the way, so we had the honour and toil of breaking the way for the others. The men were very civil to me addressing me as “Reverence,” whenever we came to any hard place it was always, “In with your Reverence,” and then I jumped into the boat and they followed. Now and then the ice was very rough and in great hillocks, and the boats had to be dragged up and down, bumping and crashing. This was very thicklish [sic] work for the hillocks were often only piles of loose lumps of ice. And on these we had to step. Sometimes they gave way under us and then we had to look very sharp, for we might slip under the boat and strain an ankle or break a leg.  Where the ice was thin or indeed where we dragged the boat in water, we ourselves stepping on floating lumps, the sensation was very curious when you found your footing sinking beneath you. There was nothing for it then but to hold onto the boat and jump or step to the next piece. Indeed, we had to keep our eyes open and our wits about us all the time.

Striking Board Ice. Warwick and Rutter Postcard #2669. This image is from a Cyrus Lewis photograph dated from about 1895.

About 12 we halted for ten minutes in the middle of an ice field, and eat the little refreshments we had brought with us and took a drink of water from the bung-hole of the little keg with which each boat was provided. At this halt the passengers exchanged greetings and experiences, and all paid a visit to Mrs. —– and the little girl, in the captain’s boat. This was the only pause we made, pressing on all the rest of the time.

About one we passed the party going in the opposite direction, about one-quarter of a mile south of us, with only one boat. They raised a hat on an oar as a signal, which we returned. Towards the end of our journey we had some long stretches of water, on which the boats raced one another. Near the further shore we came to what seemed to me to be the most exciting and dangerous of all. This was the thin ice, which the day before was “lolly,” and was now about three inches thick. It was glassy on the surface; but when broken – and it broke easily – it looked like the almond icing of wedding cake. This was thick enough to bear a man, but not enough to bear the boats if they stood still. The boats now kept far apart so as to distribute the weight and we started at a run skimming over the thin ice. Oftentimes the boat would break in and then we had to lift her if we could, and if not drag her on, crashing and breaking the ice as she went, the water flowing over our boots. The men hurried on but kept quite calm, so that it did not seem as if there was any real danger and I do not know that there was except that we might have all smashed in together and got a ducking. Only one man of our boat got really wet. One of the other boats fared much worse.

Crossing to Prince Edward In Winter. Taylor’s Bookstore postcard. UPEI collection. Although several cards show boats with small sails they were not often used during the crossing as conditions were seldom right.

The last half mile we rowed in clear water until we reached the beach ice again and then there was one strong and heavy pull over bumps and hillocks and we were safe ashore.

The full account from Osborne’s diary can be found here.  It includes other details of the trip such as the extended stay in Cape Tormentine.  Other accounts of the iceboat crossing can be found from earlier Sailstrait postings can be found here and here

Crossing at the Capes in 1863

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 story of the winter mail boats is one of the unique aspects of PEI history. The ice boats served as the main winter conveyance from the mid-1820s until 1917 when the “efficient steam communication” promised in the Confederation agreement was finally put in place. The ice boat service is often noted by visitors and writers as a curiosity but few of them actually visited the Island in winter and their accounts are often brief and second-hand.

During the 80 to 90 years the ice boats ran the methods and equipment used were much the same. The type of boat used evolved quite early, the ice runners being the most important modification. In the mid-1880s the service was taken out of the hands of private contractors and became a government-operated service with increased safety measures put in place. However at times there was competition for the crews having the mail contract and “opposition iceboats” provided an alternative service.

The following account, written for readers of the Fifeshire Journal published in Kirkaldy Scotland, is more detailed and realistic, especially as to the different types of ice encountered.

Iceboats at board ice ca. 1895. Cyrus Lewis Photo – New Brunswick Museum collection

Now sir perhaps your respected readers would like to know the way in which we obtain our mails in winter, for the navigation closes upon us generally in December, and remains so until the end of April, consequently the shortest route by which the mails can come is via Cape Tormentine (in New Brunswick), to Cape Traverse, the north-west part of our island, distance nine miles. The process of getting them across the straits is as follows: — The boats are about twelve feet long, five feet beam, and eighteen inches deep; they are fitted with two runners, about three feet long, one on each side of the keel; they are built as strong and light as it is possible to put the materials together, and thinned [sic] on the outside to prevent abrasion by the ice. The crew consists of four men, they, with four passengers and a little luggage, are all the boat can carry with safety. Each boat is fitted up with eight straps, four on each side, by which the boat is hauled along, or an unfortunate fellow who breaks through the ice is saved from a watery grave. There is generally about half a mile of ground ice along the shore, over which all hands, passengers and crew, having buckled on their straps, turn to and haul over the boat containing the luggage and mails. They then, perhaps, come to some shell ice, formed by the preceding night’s heavy frost. This is too strong to pull through with oars, so a man is placed in the bow of the boat to break it with his feet, while the others are busy with their ice hooks and pikes, and work their way foot by foot. Perhaps the next thing is a channel of open water, and what a relief that is; you sit down and rest yourself and fancy that you are going at a rate of twenty miles and hour, as the willing crew bend their backs to the oars; but this does not last very long; for slower and slower goes the boat. At last, in spite of the most strenuous exertions of the crew, not an inch further can they get. They are now in another class of ice, and is called lolly; it is made by the grinding o the ice cakes together, and is about the consistency of the ice with which you make “Sherry Cobler,” but you can’t get through it so easily. Pikes and hooks are now of little use, all you can do is to clear the bow of the boat as well as you can, and, using the oars paddle fashion, work your way inch by inch, waiting for a chance to catch hold of a small cake of ice, over that you go, and into the lolly again. All this time you are drifting with the tide, at the rate of three knots an hour. The boats are often in the lolly from three to five hours, and finding it impossible to get through, have to return to the side from whence they started. With the small boats they are obliged to cross the straits, it is impossible to rig up any contrivance by which they would be enabled to get through the lolly faster than they do at present.  Well, when you get through you come to ice broken and piled up in all directions. Over this you have to drag the boat, and I can assure you it requires a vast amount of exertion to get it over some of the hillocks. Then there is broken ice, where you have to bridge over from cake to cake, taking care not to get a dip between them. This part of the work is very dangerous, as in some cases it is almost impossible to tell which is sound and which is rotten. Then more lolly and shell ice, until you reach the ground ice. A passenger has not only the privilege of not only paying for but of working his passage. The present contractors, Messrs. Irving & Warren, are, I believe, active, careful, and intelligent men, and most certainly deserve better payment than they at present get for their arduous and dangerous services — how dangerous it would be useless for me to say. I am informed they receive 16 dols., or about £3 sterling, for each trip with a mail; for a trip without a mail they get no pay; and it very often happens that, on account of boisterous weather, they are unable to cross for a whole week. There they are frozen four to eight hours in an open boat, aye, and sometimes longer, with wet feet and clothes; no chance to light a fire to boil a cup of that which “cheers but not inebriates;” no chance to shield themselves from the chill blasts of winter, or even to change their wet stockings and boots. Such then is the exceedingly hazardous duty to which these men are exposed, and their payment is certainly not over the mark, but if anything rather under it; however, they seem perfectly contented with their small pittance, and do their work like true Americans.

Fifeshire Journal 28 May 1863 p.7

Burrows Arthur Wilcock Sleigh had written an account found here some ten years earlier which provided even more details. For another account a few years after the Fifeshire Journal story  see this page.

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.