Island poet John LePage (1812-1886) is perhaps best known for the awfulness of his rhymes (“Fire! Fire!” said the Crier. “Where? Where?” said the Mayor) but he seems to have a soft spot for the activities in Charlottetown Harbour. He had a long poem celebrating the arrival of B.W.A. Sleigh’s steamer Albatross in 1852 and another celebrating the arrival of the PEI Steam Navigation Company’s new steamer Princess of Wales in 1864.
Included in the 1867 second volume of his collected poems, The Island Minstrel, is a poem dedicated to the paddle steamer Heather Belle. The poem is well hidden under the forgettable title “Lines addressed to the thoughtful young lady who sent the Bard a forget-me-not.”
The poem provides an idyllic picture of the paddle steamer as an excursion vessel for those with few cares and places her in the context of a history of steamships which served the port of Charlottetown. The poem attests to the importance that steamers had on Charlottetown life in the 1800s. Today we simply take our ease of communication as a given; one would have a hard time imagining a poem written on the subject of the passage of the carferry from Wood Islands to Caribou or the AIr Canada flight to Halifax. In 1860 the Heather Belle represented both communications and, as the poem shows, a vehicle of escape from the city to “spend an hour devoid of care, and view the prospect, passing fair.”
Steaming at fourteen knots along
Sets fertile fancy ‘workin’ strong;
Advancing science claims a song,
Her progress fair to tell, lady;
Then listen to the Poet’s lays,
Who, while he thinks of other days,
May proudly sing his country’s praise,
On board the Heather Belle, lady.
You can’t throw back your thoughts, I know,
Some five and thirty years ago,
Ere giant steam his arms could throw
across the Atlantic swell, lady;
When once a quarter came the news;
When fancy seldom stirred the Muse;
And Indians paddled their canoes,
Where swims the Heather Belle, lady!
At last, to break our slumbers tame,
Across the strait a “smoke boat” came,
The Pocahontas was her name,
Ah! I remember well, lady,
How the elite of Charlottetown,
Dress’d in their best of coat and gown
With eager haste came running down
The Queen’s old Wharf, pell mell,lady.
To view that wonder of her day,
That without wind could work her way,
And up and down our River play,
As if by magic spell, lady, —
But on the Hillsboro’s sparkling tide —
That still rolls on in peerless pride —
Full many a steam boat has since plied
Before the Heather Belle, lady.
The shaky old “St. George” we’ve seen,
The English “Rose” and “Rosebud” green;
And lack a day! the “Fairy Queen,”
You know what her befell, lady!
The “Lady Le” her name wont rhyme,
The Westmorland in later time,
From old and rotten, up to prime,
And that’s the Heather Belle, lady.
In her, we gladly steam away,
This lovely, lucky Autumn day, —
And not a single cent to pay!
This cheapness can’t excel, lady
To spend an hour devoid of care,
And view the prospect, passing fair,
On either side a landscape rare,
Seen from the Heather Belle, lady.
How briskly blows the healthful, breeze,
How swiftly part the tiny seas,
How richly Autumn tints the trees,
With lovely changing dyes, lady,
What cause for gratitude is found,
To Him, who spreads these beauties round,
And scatters plenty o’er the ground,
Where’er we turn our eyes, lady.
But see! Here the Elliot River flows,
The sun is sinking to repose
‘Tis time my melody should close,
One toast! and pledge me well, lady,
“Success to commerce and to trade,
To loving swain and trusting maid,
May skill and enterprise be paid
Here’s to the Heather Belle,” lady.
The Heather Belle (sometimes “Bell”) was launched in September of 1862 from the Duncan shipyard near the Rocky Point Ferry Wharf at the foot of Prince Street. She was a tidy, wooden, shallow draft, paddle steamer, 118 feet long and 19 feet wide displacing 185 gross tons. The 50 horse power engine had been made in Glasgow Scotland and shipped to P.E.I. Although primarily designed for use as a river steamer serving the Hillsborough and Eliot rivers as well as the coastal ports of Orwell and Crapaud (the Port of Victoria had not yet been created), she was soon pressed into service by the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company for the regular service to Pictou and Brule, alternating with the company’s new vessel the Princess of Wales. She also was used from time to time as a tug to tow ships up and down the Hillsborough or out to the harbour mouth to catch favourable tides and winds.
Boyde Beck’s article “Song for the Heather Belle” in the Island Magazine No, 17 Summer 1985 p. 12, recounts the concern of the American Consel at the time of her launching that the steamer was at risk of being sold foreign for use as a Confederate blockade runner.
By the 1880s the Heather Belle was beginning to show her age and the Steam Navigation Company decided to replace her. The 1883 replacement (confusingly also called the Heather Belle) was considerably larger although the length was almost the same. Increased width meant that the tonnage was about 50% larger than the first vessel. By early June 1883 the Daily Examiner reported that the old Heather Belle was being taken to pieces and not a vestige of her would remain.