An isolated capital
The location of colonial Charlottetown at the junction of three rivers meant that the rivers were both a highway and a hindrance. For water-borne traffic the routes to the east, west and north meant that farm produce and firewood could be easily transported from the interior and in winter the rivers became sleigh routes.
However for the rest of the year the rivers could be a barrier. Except to the north the town was not accessed by land. The Hillsborough was a particular barrier as it went north-east and almost cut the Island in two. Land traffic had to go around the head of the river which added miles to the trip. Across the river from Charlottetown the roads were soon in place to link with the farming settlements in Vernon, the Selkirk settlements in Belfast and the southern part of Queen’s and King’s Counties. As well, the quickest and easiest route to Georgetown, the county capital, started right across the river from Charlottetown. It is hardly a surprise that one of the earliest ferries in the colony was across the Hillsborough to Minchin’s Point where the government had built a wharf at an early date. On the Charlottetown side wharf building was slower. As late as 1839 the harbour chart shows only Queen’s Wharf extending to the channel and the stub of a wharf just west of the foot of Great George Street. The Charlottetown ferry tied up to these docks or landed passengers directly on shore.
Almost all of the town properties south of Water Street had “water lots” which gave ownership of the land below the high-water mark to the channel. This encouraged development of private wharves and by the early 1840s a wharf had been developed by the Steam Mill Company, and Reddin’s Wharf and the first of the several Peake’s Wharves had been built. In 1844 the government, facing overcrowding at the Queen’s Wharf built a wharf at the foot of Pownal Street. Both the Queen’s Wharf and the Pownal Wharf were built on the extensions of streets where there were no water lots.
Team-boats and steam-boats
The ferry in early years was sailed or rowed and later took the form of a “team-boat” where harnessed horses were used to turn paddle wheels. However, just as steam had supplanted sail across Northumberland Strait, by 1848 there was talk of a steam boat service across the Hillsborough. Legislation in that year provided for a 20-year exclusive grant of the ferry service for a person supplying “a good and sufficient Steam-Boat of not less than twelve horse-power” to convey “Passengers, Cattle and Luggage” across the river. The boat was to cross every half hour sunrise to sunset except for the time it took to make a morning and evening trip to Canso Point (now Rocky Point). If no steam boat was tendered then government was empowered to contract for a Team Boat to be propelled by four horses [four horse-power?] and which was not less than fifty feet in length.
There were several failed attempts at providing regular service. Among others, contracts had been let to Thomas Tremain with the ferry steamer Isla, and to John Roach Bourke for his little steamer Arethusa. By 1856 however, the contract had been annulled and declared forfeited, owing, in part, to the fighting in regards to the use of the wharves for the ferry. To address the problem the Legislature conducted a lengthy debate on the subject. Dennis Reddin had offered to allow the ferry to operate from his wharf for payment of 40 pounds per year which appealed to the more frugal members of the House. However, others pointed out that it was “inexpedient to connect public with private property.” Moreover the busy activity at the wharf, with vessels coming and going, and goods piled high, would be an impediment to ferry passengers. The same problem existed in regard to the proposal to use the Queen’s wharf for the ferry. For Edward Palmer there was a clear need for a new and proper ferry wharf:
The want of proper accommodation had long formed matter for complaint against the government. Strangers were astonished at the state of the Ferry. Contractors blame the government for not affording the requisite facilities. A comparison with similar places on other colonies would put us to shame.
While a couple of members of the House of Assembly felt that this was the newly incorporated City of Charlottetown’s problem, most recognized that the project was to the greater public benefit and was properly the responsibility of the Colonial Government. If there was relatively little doubt about the need for a new wharf the more contentious question was: where should it be?
The eastern gateway to the City
There seemed to be little room for a new wharf at the foot of Great George Street and Pownal wharf was at the other end of town and becoming busier. Prince Street had both advantages and disadvantages. The mud flats were wider here and the wharf would have to be longer to reach the channel and it would therefore have greater cost. It was further from the centre of town. On the other hand, it would be sheltered from the prevailing south-west winds and from being carried away by ice. The site had the shortest and most direct route to Minchin’s Point and the ferry would be completely out of the path of vessels coming into and leaving the other wharves. There was some suggestion that the crowding on Queens Square with new public buildings might mean that the market could be moved to Hillsborough Square and this would benefit the country people. A wharf at Prince Street would bring prosperity to the growing eastern part of town.
In the end the Prince Street location only narrowly edged out the options. Construction started soon after and the Prince Street wharf served as the ferry wharf for more than a century. A fleet of boats from the Ora to the Fairview shuttled back and forth, not just across the Hillsborough but across to Rocky Point and up the rivers as well. Although busy when the ferries arrived and left there was no other traffic there. The Hillsboro Boating Club had a building on the east side of the wharf in the early part of the century but it had disappeared by the 1930s. It was indeed “a quiet and unobstructed wharf.”
Today with infill of the shallows, the shoreline has crept out a great distance from the former edge of the harbour and the long walk along the wharf from the ferry to the shore has disappeared. Visitors to the lobster restaurant at the foot of Prince Street puzzle over the rocks exposed at low tide with “Y” shape embracing the memory of steamers long gone. For many Islanders however, a remembrance of the ferry ride across the harbour brings back their youth.