With the exception of ferries which were an essential part of the colonial and later provincial transportation system the Government of Prince Edward Island was generally content to let ownership of shipping reside with the private sector. There were handsome colonial subsidies for some of the coastal routes but after Confederation interprovincial traffic was more the responsibility of the Dominion government and the province was to great extent off the hook. Traditional trade with Newfoundland dated back to the end of eighteenth century. In the late 1940s the service was being provided by a number of small and irregular shippers and by the Inter-Island Steamship Company’s vessel Island Connector. However the Island Connector was taken off the route at the end of 1949.
With the entry of Newfoundland into Confederation all that changed. Farmer-premier J. Walter Jones was an advocate of increased trade for the Island, especially for the province’s agricultural products. He had some success in the Newfoundland trade which up until 1949 was with a separate country and vessels were eligible for international trade subsidies from Ottawa. However these ended when Newfoundland became part of Canada. During the war P.E.I. had developed the export market – the American bases in Newfoundland had become consumers of Island beef, chicken, milk, potatoes and vegetables and sales had increased elsewhere across the colony as well. Premier Jones had ambitious plans to displace British sources which had supplied the colony before the war.
Although a number of small private companies were shipping to Newfoundland this was not enough for Jones vision. In 1949 his government created the Prince Edward Island Industrial Corporation and one of the first activities of the crown corporation was to purchase a ship for the Newfoundland trade. Jones had hoped to obtain a cheap war surplus vessel from the Dominion government but was not successful and they had to search elsewhere on the open market. Thus the province came to be the owners of the M.V. Eskimo.
The Eskimo was built in the Smith and Rhuland yard in Lunenburg in 1942. She was part of a war-time drive to produce more wooden vessels to preserve steel for strategic purposes. The spruce and birch vessel was 168 feet long with a beam of 30 feet and drew almost 14 feet. She was powered by a 540 hp Fairbanks-Morse diesel and could accommodate twenty on board – a dozen or so crew and room for 8 passengers in double staterooms. She was built for W.L. Sweeny of Yarmouth and was originally called the Laurence K. Sweeney (sometimes noted as Lawrence K. Sweeney). By the end of 1942 she appears to have become the property of the Royal Canadian Air Force who used her as a supply vessel for installations in the region including RDF bases used for marine and air navigation. Under military control she was armed and her name was changed to the Eskimo, possibly because Lawrence Sweeny was an engineer on another RCAF vessel but more likely to conform with RCAF naming conventions. She made several northern voyages and in 1944 she travelled to Iceland.
In 1947 the Hudson Bay Company bought the ship for $65,000 and operated it supplying northern posts for two years. The company obtained a good return on its investment in 1949 when the Prince Edward Island Industrial Corporation paid almost $75,000 to purchase the Eskimo. One of the selling features was that the ship had a cargo refrigerator compartment of 900 cubic feet and her two cargo holds had a capacity of 13,000 cubic feet.
The ship went into the P.E. I. – Newfoundland service in June 1949 and a 10 day schedule of trips to Canada’s new province was planned. The Industrial Corporation had a novel approach to the trade. Normally goods had been shipped to wholesalers in St. John’s and distributed to the outport communities by them. The M.V. Eskimo would call at smaller communities along the southern coast between Port-aux-Basques and Argentia and at St. Pierre and promised more direct delivery. She was the only vessel serving the south coast that had refrigeration facilities. On her inaugural trip she visited 12 different ports. During the winter it was planned that the Eskimo would sail between Halifax and St. Pierre.
Initial response was encouraging. Potatoes, produce and hay were much in demand and the capacity for refrigerated perishable cargo was welcomed by the smaller communities. However, even in the first year the problem was one of return cargo. The smaller Newfoundland communities had little to offer that was not already available in the Island. Bulk cargos such as limestone and newsprint would require visits to other ports on Newfoundland’s west coast and the coat of shipping to P.E.I. and then transferring cargo to ships bound for Halifax or Montreal made the operation uneconomic.
Early in 1950 the Eskimo became the subject of political disagreement with acrimonious debates in the legislature. The opposition seized on the fact that the ship had operated at a loss and demanded answers. Both the Liberals in the legislature and the staff of the Industrial Corporation defended the operation and promised that business would increase and that P.E.I. would soon get a bigger share of the $12 million that Newfoundland was spending on imports from the rest of Canada. They claimed that the ship represented a half million dollar benefit to the Island. In 1950 the ship began loading at Summerside as well as Charlottetown and began to stop at Corner Brook as well as the south coast. That year it made eighteen trips to Newfoundland. Late in 1950 the Premier floated the suggestion that the Eskimo could become involved in the three-cornered trade between the Island, Newfoundland and the West Indies but this was not followed up.
During the legislative session in the spring of 1951 the operation of the Eskimo was again subject to heavy criticism. The opposition charged that the money-losing provincial operation had meant that private shippers could not compete and that services to Newfoundland had actually decreased. The outport visits stopped and most of the voyages were to St. John’s and St. Pierre. After defending the decision to purchase the ship the Premier un-expectantly announced that the government intended to sell the Eskimo to “private capital” and that the ship would be used for trading between the Island and the North Shore of the St. Lawrence, competing with Quebec shippers. He blamed some of the financial losses of the previous year on the fact that as a crown corporation the Eskimo was not eligible for Dominion government subsidies.
However it was not until the end of March of the following year that the government, in response to questions in the legislature, admitted that it had exited the ship-owning business by selling the vessel some weeks earlier to Alphonse Beauchemin of Matane Quebec. He used the ship for cargos up and down the St. Lawrence, Newfoundland and into Hudson Bay where the ship was lost near Moosonee Ontario in the spring of 1958. The Newfoundland trade was continued by the Newfoundland-owned Blue Peter Steamships which put their American-built Blue Prince on the route.
An extremely useful source for this article is Mac MacKay’s blog Shipfax which details current and historical shipping activities in Halifax. For more on the background of shipping between Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland see Corey Slumkowski’s article titled “Let them Eat Beef” in Acadiensis 2006