The hallmark of the industrial revolution was the application of steam power to industrial activities. Within a few decades steam had moved from being used to pump out mines to powering ships and even railways. By the mid-1830s steamships were regular visitors to Charlottetown. In nearby Pictou there was talk of steam power for the tramways connecting the mines of the General Mining Association and the harbour.
Steam also came to Charlottetown although it turned out to be a bit of a false start. John Gainsford was a successful grocer, merchant and brickmaker who owned one of the water lots on the south-west corner of Water and Great George Streets where his brick house still stands. In the summer of 1836 he imported two five-horsepower steam engines into the colony and later that year helped organize the Steam Mill Company of Charlottetown.
The organizers recognized that while the colony had excellent timber resources and the developing farms were able to supply grain for home consumption and export the small water mills near the town at Bird Island Creek and Ellen’s Creek were ill-equipped to meet the needs. Gainsford had the steam engines and an ideal place on the Charlottetown waterfront where grain and timber could be brought across the water from farm and forest. What he apparently did not have was the additional capital to build the mill and extend the wharf.
He was successful in convincing others in the colony of the opportunity and he and his partners turned to a new way of doing business – the joint stock company. This had never been used before on Prince Edward Island. The capital for the company was split into shares and the investors could purchase more than one share. Furthermore under the terms of the legislation creating the company the liability of the shareholders could be limited to what they had actually invested rather than exposing their other assets as was the case with a simple partnership.
Gainsford put his engines and property on the table as his share and he received 46 of the 151 shares. All of the other shareholders had to put up actual funds – £10 for each share. To make it easier the shares could be paid on installments as the funds were needed. Using what turned out to be somewhat optimistic revenue and cost figures it was calculated that in the first year of operation there would be a 40% return. Shares were purchased by many of the leading merchants of the town. In the 1837 session of the Legislature a bill creating the Steam Mill Company of Charlottetown was passed and things began to move quickly. The existing wharf on the water lot was extended so that it ran about 170 feet along the waterfront and about 80 feet from the shore giving 6 feet of water at the face of the wharf at high tide. A tender was awarded for a building about 45 feet square sited on the wharf to house the engines, the saws and the grinding stones for the grist mill. A well was dug and pipes laid to supply the fresh water necessary for the steam engines. Gainsford was hired as superintendent and engineer.
Then things began to slow down. Costs had been higher than expected for the land and buildings. The share payments from shareholders started to taper off and the whole project was taking more time than anticipated. Shareholders wanted the mill put into immediate operation so that revenues would start to flow. Instead late in 1837 they were presented with accounts that showed there was a deficit of over £300 and there remained at least £60 more to be spent before the mill was operable. Creditors began to press and suppliers and contractors had not been paid. The mill seems to have sat unfinished through 1838 and the shareholders would wait no longer. Undercapitalized and with only a distant hope of profit the company could not continue.
In the Steam Mill Act there was a clause inserted to limit losses. Whenever the accounts showed that one-third of the capital had been lost or when two thirds of the shareholders required then the venture would be wound up. In September 1838 the mill and property were offered for sale, initially as a going concern and failing that to be auctioned.
The last meeting of the company was held a year later for the final approval of the accounts. The largest creditor was shipbuilder James Peake who was still owed more than £140. The contractors Smith & Wright were out more than £90. Gainsford lost his steam engines and his water lot but apparently no additional money. It appears that James Peake ended up with the Steam Mill wharf which became part of his large landholding on the Charlottetown waterfront. As other wharves were built and extended to the channel the Steam Mill wharf remained a stubby protrusion barely leaving the shoreline but it was used for shipbuilding. In 1843 it was the site of the British North American Circus. It is not known if Peake finished the mill and put it into operation but within a few years there were steam engines in operation elsewhere in the Town. In the 1840s both the Scantlebury carriage factory on Kent Street and Coles Brewery were advertising that they were powered by steam.
The foot of Great George street remained for years as the industrial centre of the waterfront. It was the site of a number of sash and door factories and most recently as the MacDonald Rowe woodworking company. Nearby was the Bruce Stewart factory and foundry. Although some of the buildings in the area have been turned to touristic uses other traces of the industrial heritage of the waterfront have almost all disappeared.
Note: An extended research paper on the Steam Mill Company of Charlottetown has been posted on the detailed research documents page of this site found here.