Tag Archives: Jacques Cartier

“Life on Our Harbor” 1899

As one looks out on Charlottetown Harbour today, empty except for the occasional oil tanker or gravel boat, it is very difficult to imagine how busy the port would have been at the end of the Victorian era. Even in a normal year with cruise ships entering and leaving there is not real sense of a busy port except for the crowded streets and souvenir shops. In the late 1800s it was a different story as everything and everybody coming to or leaving the Island had to come by boat. Charlottetown was connected by passenger steamers to Boston and Halifax, to Montreal and Quebec and across the Strait to Nova Scotia. Freight boats visited with cargos to and from Montreal, Sydney, St. John’s and other Atlantic Canadian ports. Smaller steamers also linked Charlottetown to other Island ports such as Orwell, Montague and Souris. And almost unnoticed among the steamers were scores of schooners visiting ports all along the Atlantic seaboard and into the Caribbean. These visits were seldom the subject of front page news coverage but every now and again we get a hint of how busy the port could be. Following is a story from the Charlottetown Examiner from 5 August 1899.

Life on Our Harbour

Seldom do so many steamers enter Charlottetown Harbor on one day as came in on Thursday afternoon and evening.  Those who were out in the park on that day, in addition to watching the cricket match and tennis playing had the pleasure of seeing an unusually large number of steamboats coming in.

Jacques Cartier

S.S. Jacques Cartier at harbour mouth

First of all came the Electra, and as she was coming in the Jacques Cartier was going out crowded with excursionists — all bound on enjoying the beautiful sail to Orwell. The the little government launch Sir Louis came in and shortly after her the City of Ghent, whose coming was not only known to those looking on  — her delightful sirene [sic] whistle proclaimed to all the city she was here on her regular weekly visit. Closely following the Ghent was the Sentinel, that trim little American Yacht which attracted the admiration of all that saw her.  Many were the suppositions as to what her name could be, but as she was not expected no-one knew until she got close to the wharf.

princess

Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company’s Princess

After her the familiar form of the Princess was seen coming in at full speed until she was almost up to the wharf. Just as onlookers adjourned for something to eat, last but greatest of all, the Halifax steamed in at a lively rate, sending side waves to wards the shore, and bringing to the Island tourists, who came to enjoy the refreshing breezes of our summer clime. 

HalifaxThis number of steamers, in addition to our regular ferry boats, tugs and steamers, coming in, is for Charlottetown Harbor something out [of] the ordinary.  After tea it still kept up, the Jacques Cartier returning from Orwell shortly after eight o’clock and she neared her berth the old time strains of “Home Sweet Home” could be herd across the water with pleasing effects, being sung by upwards of one hundred and thirty excursionists who crowded her deck.

Bonavista 2

Black Diamond Steamship Company’s Bonavista in Montreal

At ten o’clock the Bonavista, of the Black Diamond Line arrived from Montreal and she was the last one for Thursday night. At Friday morning at five o’clock, the Campana, that splendid steamer owned by the Quebec Steamship Company arrived from Quebec and Montreal with one hundred and twenty five passengers, and as she came in the Electra sailed for Montague. 

campana

S.S. Campana in Pictou ca. 1903. Warwick & Rutter postcard

It is enjoyable to watch the steamers as well as sailing vessels coming and going. But those who had the luck to be about the wharves or park at 7 o’clock on Friday morning might see a sight not often equalled in our harbor.  First of al the City of Ghent left her wharf, immediately after her the yacht Sentinel glided out and following the Sentinel the Princess started. One behind the other they steamed out the harbor and just as they were going out the three-masted schooner Evelyn, with every stitch of canvas set, was coming in sixteen days from Barbados. That was a sight which would make many a confirmed land lubber wish that the were a sailor, with “a life on the ocean wave and a home on the rolling deep.”

The yacht Sentinel which was noted above was also the subject of an enthusiastic report . Described as “A thing of beauty in the sailing line” it certainly caught the attention of the Examiner’s reporter. At the time the vessel belonged to Chicago millionaire C.K.G. Billings who had made a fortune in gas and electric utilities.

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Sentinel under a previous owner. Chicago Tribune 24 June 1895

She probably leads anything that has ever entered Charlottetown Harbor  — she’s so trim, so neat and so spotlessly clean. Everything about her is got up in the costliest manner. She is lighted with electricity, has a powerful searchlight, all the woodwork is  of mahogany and the fittings of brass and her naptha launch  and small sized cannon came in for not little share of attention from the number who who had the pleasure of seeing her as she lay at Poole & Lewis’ Wharf. Her length is 124 feet and she maintains a cruise speed of 10 knots. Her owner is Mr. Billings, who is now in Boston, and two friends of his on board. While at the wharf she was supplied with water, with ten tons of egg anthracite coal by C. Lyons & Co. and with a quantity of fresh provisions by Blake Bros.  

The most beautiful ship never to visit Charlottetown

It mat have seemed at first that the gigantic liner might come into Charlottetown but instead it remained in Hillsborough Bay beyond Fitzroy rock, and passengers were shuttled back and forth through the harbour’s mouth to the city’s wharves.  Even at a distance it was a magnificent sight and quite unlike anything ever before seen in Island waters.

Artists view of the Champlain

The S.S. Champlain was described as the first modern ocean liner. At the time of her launch in 1932 she was the largest, fastest, and most luxurious cabin class liner in the world. She was the flagship of the Compagnie Général Transatlantique, better known as the French Line.  She incorporated many of the art deco design features which later appeared in the better known S.S. Normandie. She had accommodation for over 1000 passengers; 623 in cabin class, 308 in tourist class, and 122 in third class; and she carried over 500 crew. At 641 feet long (almost 200 meters) and 82 feet wide (25 meters) she would have been the largest ship ever to visit Charlottetown to that date – if she had come into harbour.

Spoiled as we are by the images of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth of the Cunard Line it is easy to forget that the French for many years had the most advanced designs and speed for the transatlantic crossing and luxurious interiors and services were world-famous.  These were liners which had a grace and nautical style which the sea-going, apartment-building cruise ships seen each summer in Charlottetown’s harbour today completely lack.  A three-minute video showing the ship and its interior can be found here.

The Champlain at sea

So how was it that the most spectacular vessel in the world ended up anchored in Hillsborough Bay on 24 August 1934?

The Champlain was on a special cruise. Rather than simply shuttling between New York and English and French ports the August crossing followed a unique route. It started in St. Malo from whence Cartier had departed, across the Atlantic to the French territory of St. Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland, then stopping at Charlottetown, Gaspe, and Quebec before proceeding to New York.  All of this was in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Jacques Cartier. While today political correctness proclaims this as the sad beginning of the plague of “settler societies,”  in 1934 Cartier’s “discovery” and exploration of the Atlantic Coast of Canada was a very big deal.

The Champlain was accompanied by three French warships; the destroyer Vouquelin, frigate d’Entrecasteau and the armed sloop/coast guard ship Ville D’Ys. But these were not the only vessels hovering around the Champlain. Because she was judged too big to enter the harbour there had to be some transfer of passengers from the ship to the Marine wharf and so the Canadian Government Ship Cartier and the car ferry Prince Edward Island were pressed into service as passenger shuttles.  The smaller, but more official, Cartier took 100 of the official party to shore while the rest of the passengers, 500 or so, were transferred to the S.S. P.E.I.  As the Cartier approached the harbour two Canadian sea-planes circled it and dropped a wreath of flowers symbolizing the welcome to the province.

Canadian Government Ship Cartier used to ferry dignitaries from the Champlain to Charlottetown

The was no shortage of officials aboard the Champlain. France was represented by a group of 130 distinguished visitors headed by the Minister of Public Works, the president of the University of Paris, and a large contingent of Mayors from French cities and towns.  The Admiral of the Fleet for the Royal Navy and the warden of New College Oxford represented the United Kingdom. The United States sent the American Ambassador to Canada and a Senator from New Hampshire. A number of Canadian officials and politicians also lucked out on the junket while dozens more participated in the on-shore activities.

French destroyer Vouquelin which accompanied the Champlain on its visit to Charlottetown

The main even was the unveiling of a National Historic Sites and Monuments Board plaque commemorating the discovery of Prince Edward Island which Cartier had visited in 30 June and 1 July 1534. The plaque was mounted on an impressive cairn on the grounds of the Colonial Building.  Canadian dignitaries at the ceremonies included five current or former ministers of the crown, the lieutenant governor, premier and chief justice.  The ceremony itself was presided over by Dr. Clarence Webster chairman of the Historic Sites board.  After a large number of speeches it was off to Government House for a garden party.  The Island’s militia regiments played a role by furnishing an honour guard but the Boy Scouts presence was even more prominent. Island scout troops were present as was a group of twenty-two scouts from France.  After an inspection from the French scout commissioner and Island commissioner R.C. Parent commemorative badges were exchanged and the scouts marched back to the Marine Wharf with the French commissioner and three boy scout chaplains stopping off at the Bishop’s Palace.  At the pier the  French scouts “lustily sang two boy scout songs and Auld Lang Syne in French” before embarking.

After leaving Hillsborough Bay the Champlain proceeded to Gaspe where another Historic Sites and Monuments Board ceremony and round of speeches awaited.  The welcomes and speeches were repeated over and over as the party visited Trois Rivieres, Quebec, Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.

The HSMBC plaque and sandstone cairn sat on the Colonial Building grounds until the area was landscaped following the building of the Confederation Centre of the Arts. Realizing that the event commemorated had little to do with Charlottetown it was moved to Kildare in the Alberton area, closer to the spot where Cartier had actually landed and proclaimed to Island to be the fairest land t’is possible to see.  However putting  it in context after crossing the Atlantic in a tiny ship and stopping in the rocky coast of western Newfoundland, any land at all would be fair to see.

The plaque and cairn have outlived the ship by many years.  At the outbreak of the Second World War the Champlain was pressed into service ferrying war refugees across the Atlantic but on returning from New York in June 1940 she struck an air-laid mine while approaching La Rochelle France. She was one of the largest ships lost in the war.

A wonderfully detailed site (in French) dedicated to the “unknown and unjustly forgotten” Champlain can be found here.

Port Selkirk – A Model Commmunity

In the 1880 Meacham’s Atlas of Prince Edward Island there are two planned towns. One was Victoria which continues to be a viable community albeit a little empty of residents in the winter owing to the high percentage of summer landowners. The other is Port Selkirk in lot 57, just down the road from Orwell Cove.

Port Selkirk from Meacham''s Atlas, 1880

Port Selkirk from Meacham”s Atlas, 1880

Neatly laid out with 76 lots on five blocks, carved up by five streets, only some of which carried names, Port Selkirk was never to fulfill the landowner’s expectations.

What it shared with Victoria was an easy point of access  to the sea. Orwell Brush Wharf was the best quay serving the farmers and merchants of the Orwell and Belfast districts.  The port was on the Orwell River just below where the Vernon River flowed into it.  The deep channel, which still shows depths of more than thirty feet, was well sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds. There was a tee-shaped government wharf at the end of the road which linked the port to communities such as Orwell Corner, Kinross, Uigg, Vernon and Newton.  There was an established ferry crossing to China Point and in winter it was a good point to cross the ice on the way to town.  But being at the end of the road was a bit of a problem because only a mile or so to the East was another community which was already established as a service centre for the area. Orwell Cove was never more than a rural cross-roads but it had all that Port Selkirk would like to provide.

Orwell Cove about 1907

Orwell Cove about 1907

While Orwell Cove was not actually on the water – the cove itself is shallow and some distance from the cross-roads –  the community was already recognized as the commercial centre of the area and it had the district school.  Merchants and tradesmen were already living there and if someone was to build on the small village lots of Port Selkirk it would be have to be these folks – farmers didn’t live in towns.

Port Selkirk (Brush Wharf) 1935

Port Selkirk (Brush Wharf) 1935

Port Selkirk simply failed to develop. Although it was visited by the ships of the steamboat fleet such as the City of London and the Jacques Cartier in the late 19th and early 20th century the shore-side potential of the site was not realized. The period after 1880 was a bad one for the Island with  economic reversals and in the following decades many left the Island to the Boston States or the West . Population had dropped by almost 20% by the Great War and the greatest loss was in farming areas where lower quality soils and steep slopes made agriculture un-economic. One of the areas hardest hit was in the southern part of Kings and Queens Counties.  In addition the building of the Murray Harbour Branch of the PEI Railway and the building of a station at Uigg gave farmers and travelers an alternative to Brush Wharf for getting their goods to market.

By 1935 it was clear that Port Selkirk had ceased to be anything but a dream.  Although the field pattern which can be seen in the aerial  photograph mirrors the 1880 plan, the streets, lots and busy businesses were conspicuously absent. What few houses and buildings that had been there earlier had been mostly abandoned and it is doubtful if any of the streets were actually laid out.

Harland leaving Halliday's Wharf ca. 1910. Michael Costa photo

Harland leaving Brush Wharf ca. 1910. Michael Costa photo

Brush Wharf, however, continued to be used. It was a port of call for the Harland into the 1930s but after the end of the regular steamer service and the improvement of the road network little shipping activity was seen. Even the occasional schooner loading potatoes or grain became a rare event. However, between steamer visits it was likely a lonely place.

The development of the mussel industry meant that the wharf was saved unlike so many others such as the one across the river at China Point which is now nothing but a rock pile at the edge of the channel. Thanks to a large and thriving mussel operation using the Orwell River and Bay Brush wharf is today a very busy spot even if it stands alone at the end of the road. There are no steamers or schooners but the oddly shaped specialized craft designed to service the cultivation of the blue mussel shuttle back and forth from to the beds to the pier and the large processing facility on the shore is a major employer in the area.

I visited China Point and the Orwell River on one of my sailing excursions and found it to be an exceptional anchorage. With the sun rising the next morning over what would have been Port Selkirk it was easy to imagine what might have been.

Time has not been kind to many of our small Island communities. Compare this photo taken today of Orwell Cove with the postcard image seen above:

Orwell Cove May 2016

Orwell Cove May 2016

I am indebted to Dave Hunter, one of the few residents of Port Selkirk, and to followers of his several facebook and web pages for information in identifying the exact site of the 1907 postcard image.  He was able to provide background historical information for every one of the structures seen in that photograph.