Tag Archives: Jacques Cartier

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.

 

 

Lost in the Fog – The sinking of the Steamer Heather Belle

Displayed on one of the earliest charts of Northumberland Strait has the words “Fogs are rare here.”  Entire seasons can go by without reports of dense fog and the area is in direct contrast to the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia where heavy fog is an ever-present danger.

For Captain MacLean of the steamer Heather Belle his return trip from Brush Wharf Orwell to Charlottetown had begun at 4:50 on the already dark evening of 12 November 1891. It was therefore an unpleasant surprise when fog closed in as the ship was steering towards the harbour mouth after rounding the Bell Buoy (as Fitzroy Rock Buoy was then known.)  Heading for the Black Buoy, now called Spithead, he was forced to slow in the dense fog and try to find his position by sounding the reef.  He left the Black Buoy to port and steered north-east towards Blockhouse, sounding his whistle the whole time.

Fastnet

Steamer Fastnet at Pickford and Black wharf Halifax about 1892.

At the same time the Pickford and Black Steamer Fastnet under command of Captain Hopkins was passing through the harbour entrance after leaving the dock at Charlottetown heading for Halifax with passengers and cargo. The 145 foot screw steamer Fastnet had been built in Glasgow in 1878 for the Clyde Shipping Company for service in South West Ireland and had been bought by Pickford and Black for the Charlottetown run earlier in 1891. The Fastnet encountered the fog bank at about 6:30 after it had passed the Blockhouse light at the entrance to Charlottetown Harbour and reduced its speed to three and a half knots running against the incoming tide.

After a few minutes after passing the Black Buoy the Heather Belle’s crew picked up the sound of another steam whistle which the Captain correctly identified as the Pickford and Black steamer Fastnet leaving the harbour.   He steered slightly to starboard to keep the Heather Belle to the correct side of the channel and assumed from the signals that the Fastnet  was taking the same action. The time was about 6:40.

Chart001bSuddenly the masthead and starboard light of the Fastnet appeared out of the fog.  The Captain called for the engines to be put hard astern and tried to turn the vessel to port to avoid collision. The Heather Belle was nearly at a standstill when the Fastnet struck her near the port bow and water began pouring in. Although there was limited damage to the Fastnet, the Heather Belle was in serious trouble.  She was quickly made fast to the starboard side of the Fastnet and they both proceeded at full speed to the harbour entrance with the Heather Belle filling with water. The fifteen passengers and the crew scrambled onto the Fastnet. As the water steadily rose the paddle steamer’s stokers raked out the boiler of the paddle steamer to prevent an explosion and the ship steadily settled into the water.  They got within 800 yards of the Blockhouse when the steamers separated and the Heather Bell drifted off into the dark fog and disappeared.  The Fastnet was so close to the shore that the voice of the Blockhouse lightkeeper could be plainly heard although nothing was visible in the fog.  The Fastnet shortly afterwards went aground on the sands of Cumberland Cove and a crew rowed to Charlottetown to report the accident. The passengers from both steamers were brought ashore by the steam-tug Frank Batt  and the tug returned the next day  to get the Fastnet afloat.

Heather Belle

The original Heather Belle from the 1878 bird’s eye view of Charlottetown. The second Heather Belle would have looked much the same.

There was no loss of life or injury and the freight load was slight. However, the Heather Belle was uninsured. Its owners, the Inland Steam Navigation Company, had been in business for eight years but the boat, at least parts of it, was older.  The original Heather Belle had been launched in 1862 from the James Duncan Shipyard in Charlottetown. The 108 foot boat was built of wood with engines from Todd and McGregor of Glasgow. She was owned by the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company from 1864 to 1875 when she was sold to John Hughes. She served on regular steamer routes in the Bay and in 1878 had an extensive overhaul including a new keel and planking and extensive repairs to the upper deck and cabins. However, by 1882 she was showing her age. The owners searched for a vessel to replace the Heather Belle and even looked to the States for a new vessel but could not find one suitable. They then contracted with James White in Mount Stewart to build a new ship. The new Heather Belle was only slightly longer at 120 feet but was wider and so had greater carrying capacity. Although built with a single main passenger cabin she had room aboard for 500 people. She was framed in juniper and had diagonal iron straps fastened before being planked. She had stringers of pitch pine.

Heather Belle 3466-73-102-53-1

Stern view of the Heather Belle PARO Accession 3466.73.102.53.1 – Hunt Collection This is probably the first vessel of the name

Launched in June 1883 she was towed to Charlottetown for finishing. In order to save money the Todd and McGregor engine, which had already served for more than twenty years, was rebuilt and put into the new hull along with a new boiler built in Saint John. The hulk of the old boat was sold as scrap for $20 and by mid-June had been dismantled . The steamer was also under new ownership. In 1883 the Inland Steam Navigation Company had been incorporated with capital stock of $25,000. The principal owners were John Hughes, William Welsh, Lemuel Cambridge Owen, Daniel Todvin, James Turner and John MacMillan.

Following the sinking, flotsam and parts of the deckhouse washed ashore near Keppoch at the harbour mouth, but the sunken wreck of the Heather Belle was not found for several days. It was eventually located off Cumberland Farm, not far from where the Fastnet had gone aground on the night of the sinking. Divers were brought over from Halifax but attempts to raise the steamer were frustrated by poor weather and by the fact that the hull began to break up when it had been moved no more than 500 feet.  The attempt was abandoned in mid-December 1891. The following year new attempts to raise the wreck proved too difficult and its remains may still lie beneath the sands off the cliffs at Cumberland.

Within a few days of the sinking the Inland Steamship Company had restored the service to the mainland using the steamer M.A. Starr, a Halifax ship which was leased for the remainder of the season. The M.A. Starr dated back to 1855 when it was launched as H.M.S. Delight, an Albacore Class gunboat designed for use in the Crimean War. It had been decommissioned and sold mercantile in 1867.  The following year the Inland Steam Navigation Company acquired the paddle steamer Jacques Cartier which ran on the route until it was wrecked on the Nova Scotia shore.

Meanwhile, court proceedings had been heard in Admiralty Court with both parties claiming damages from the other.  After a lengthy hearing before Chief Justice W.W. Sullivan, with the assistance of F.W. Hyndman as a nautical assessor, it was found that both vessels were traveling at an excessive speed without taking enough consideration for the fog and that they had both failed to set a course which would ensure they were in opposite sides of the channel.  Under the admiralty law principles each wrong-doer was obliged to pay half the damages of the other. The total loss of the Heather Belle was assessed at just over $18,000 while the repairs to the Fastnet were set at $2,800. Court costs were borne equally.

The Fastnet continued to call at Charlottetown through 1897. The next year she was sent around Cape Horn with a party of gold seekers bound for the Yukon. The vessel was sold to a company in British Columbia and again to a Mexican firm in 1898 when she was re-named the Alamo.  In 1909 she was wrecked on Tortuga Island in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sources

The P.E.I. Public Archives and Records Office has the Admiralty Court case records in R.G.6 which include transcripts of the evidence. The Exchequer Court Reports Vol. 3 pp.40-56 contain the judgment in the case.  The account of the collision as well as the subsequent search for the wreck can be found in the Daily Patriot for the relevant dates.  Details of the several ships named can be found in the Mercantile Naval Lists, most easily accessed through the on-line holdings of Memorial University’s Maritime History Project.