Tag Archives: Jacques Cartier

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.


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. – 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.


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.


Jacques Cartier Wrecked at River John

Although it was late in the season it was simply a routine trip. Every Friday the S.S. Jacques Cartier left the wharf in Charlottetown and headed out the mouth of the Harbour for Victoria, as the port for Crapaud was becoming known. On 28 November 1902 as she passed Blockhouse Light she was carrying no passengers but had a crew, of seven and a full cargo as merchants from Victoria through to Kelly’s Cross tried to get stock to tide them over during the period when the port was iced-up and the land travel was slow and difficult.

S.S. Jacques Cartier at harbour mouth

S.S. Jacques Cartier at harbour mouth

The Jacques Cartier had boots, iron and cloth for Wright Brothers in Victoria, washing sod and wool for the Tryon Woolen Mills, egg cases and nails for Wadman’s in Crapaud, oil turpentine and forks for P.G. Lord in Tryon, carriage stock for Charles McKenna and Patrick Trainor, both in Kelly’s Cross and items including soap, oysters, raisins, cider, tobacco, apples, confectionary and potash for a number of other dealers and individuals. It was a trip like any other.

Jacques Cartier001Except… it was almost the beginning of December and the weather could turn at any time. In hindsight the Guardian was to recall that many were distrustful of the fourteen year old side-wheeler as she had been built for inland use and might have a bad time with a storm in open water.  The Jacques Cartier was built in Quebec in 1888  and acquired in 1892 at a cost of $13,000 by the Inland Steam Navigation for the river and bay service which linked Charlottetown with West River, Mt. Stewart, Orwell and Victoria. She was reasonably sized for the service at 120 feet by 23 feet breadth.  Like many side-wheeler  she had a beam engine turning the paddles from a single 30 inch cylinder with a six-foot stroke.

She had been spotted off Hampton, not far from the end of her run to Victoria and apparently on schedule at half-past four on Friday night and fighting a rising north-west gale when the light dimmed and she slipped from sight.  She never arrived in Victoria. But the problem was not the gale. The problem was that the Jacques Cartier had lost her rudder and no matter how seaworthy the boat and how powerful her engines. if she could not control where she was headed the wind and tide would make decisions for her.

A little more than 20 nautical miles to the south-west of Hampton and Victoria lies Cape John, Nova Scotia.  The night would  have been an anxious one for those aboard. There is a dangerous reef at Amhet Island and the northern Nova Scotia coast is not a welcoming one.  Even with the ability to steer it is not an area where Captain David Walker would want to have been.

The news arrived by telegram in Charlottetown on Saturday. The Jacques Cartier was ashore. The crew had been saved but the vessel was a total loss.

After her demise the Guardian concluded that replacement would be difficult. “The service is one that cannot be dispensed with and yet the traffic is hardly sufficient to maintain a fast or expensive boat.”  There would have been no service at all but for the provincial government subsidy and in 1901 she was laid up for a few months as the company tried to negotiate a more profitable schedule. The Jacques Cartier had been put up for auction by her owners in 1897. A the time of her loss the principle shareholders were L.L. Beer, Benjamin Rogers and William Welsh.  She was not irreplaceable and the following year the S.S. City of London appeared on the route

Prose Praise Purely Purple

Newspaper accounts can be a great source if information but occasionally one strikes an article penned by a would-be  Wordsworth where the information is completely buried under the writers excesses. ( The writer of this piece had me with the “luxuriant turnips on the tree-clad hills”)  Such a story appeared in the Guardian on 12 September 1900 under the title BY THE JACQUES CARTIER and told of a trip on the side-wheel steamer Jacques Cartier which had been on the route since 1892.

S.S. Jacques Cartier at harbour mouth

S.S. Jacques Cartier at harbour mouth

For a pleasant sail on a fine afternoon we commend the trip by the Jacques Cartier to Victoria. Down the harbour you go, passing little craft on the way, and as you turn to look at the receding city you are compelled to think that this is about the best view you have ever had of it. And how broad, expansive and sheltered is out beautiful harbour. Here a navy might ride sat anchor. To east and west and north and south are gleaming silver lanes amid the green of fertile fields and full-foliaged trees, three of these lines being tributary rivers, and the fourth our passage to the world embracing ocean. These natural features of use and beauty, these channels for commerce and this broad and sheltered haven are old compared with all the work of man beside them. They were made in natures morning. The city is but of yesterday. Nay more. There would, perchance have been no city here but for this harbour. … The harbour was before the city, and may long survive it. Cities built by men are perishable Nineveh and Babylon have become heaps, but still the Euphrates rolls on to the sea… … 

Already we are turning to pass out the harbour. We have only time for a brief glance eastward to where our million dollar bridge will presently span the East River. It will form a new and striking feature of this fair scene in the years to come. It will be useful too, – another channel for the trade and travel of the future, and for the pleasure and convenience of men that are and of generations to come. We must have roads and bridges, railways and railway bridges… There are some who tell us that we do not need this costly structure, but such persons are a small and diminishing number… Nature when she shaped our harbor looked beyond the days of canoes.  

Past the Blockhouse and Keppoch, rounding St. Peter’s Island, and out into the rolling billows of the Strait. Just a few of our passengers are sea-sick for a time and the sea-sick individual thinks himself of all men most miserable. But the many are not so, and enjoy the tossing motion of the sparkling waves. So we glide along, in full view of the fair shores of Argyle and Desable the eye refreshed with the view of smiling homesteads, the brown of shorn harvest fields, and deep green of the aftermath, the luxuriant turnips on the tree-clad hills. As the sun sinks toward the horizon we glide into the calm waters of Victoria and then speed on to our rest in the hospitable shelter of Pleasant View – now closed for the season to the tourist, by special grace still open to the writer of this hasty sketch…