Tag Archives: Liverpool

S.S. Gaspesia and Charlottetown’s Atlantic steamer dream


Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s S.S. Galicia (later S.S. Gaspesia)

The toasts are drunk (and so are the toasters)

In late December 1898 there was excitement on the Charlottetown waterfront with the arrival of the Canadian Steamship Company’s vessel the S. S. Gaspesia. Stories about the ship had been appearing on the front page of the Guardian during the month and when she finally crept into the port in 22 December there was palpable excitement.  A dinner was arranged at the Victoria Hotel where toast after toast was drunk to the success of the new venture which was sure to put P.E.I. back on the economic rails. The city was going to be a key port in a new trans-Atlantic shipping venture. It was reason enough for a celebration and celebrate they did.

Alas, like so many economic development dreams,  it was not to come true. We seem to be conditioned by stories of the Cunard Line, Canadian Pacific and the Allen Shipping line to think that Atlantic shipping was always a success.  This is the story of a failure.

A passage to where?

The Canadian Steamship Company was an attempt by Britain’s Great Western Railway to get in on the trans-Atlantic trade.  The primary port of departure for North America was usually  Liverpool and steamship lines such as the Allen Line and Canadian Pacific went from there to Montreal and Halifax. However the Great Western Railway did not connect with that port and was squeezed out of the market. One of the other problems was that the St. Lawrence river froze over in the winter and even the established lines had to have an alternate port. Both St. John and Halifax were used. The Great Western did have access to the deep water port of Milford Haven in western Wales. The problem was where to locate the North America end of the line.

Paspebiac-Quebec_8 In a move that might have come from nothing more than casual perusal of a map, the company selected Paspebiac on the south coast of the Gaspe peninsula. Paspebiac  was a fishing village of fewer than 500 souls although it did have a good deep water harbour and a large export trade in fish. The branch line of the Atlantic and Lake Superior Railway ran through the town and connected at Matapedia with the Intercolonial Railway running to Quebec and Montreal. Located on the Bay of Chaleur the port was reputed to be free of the ice jams that blocked the St. Lawrence. Moreover by terminating at Paspebiac some 150 miles could be shaved off the passage distance. Somehow this, combined with the western location of Milford Haven was computed to cut two days off the passage time.

With the terminals selected the next matter was a ship. Canadian Steamships selected the S.S. Galicia recently put on the market by Liverpool’s Pacific Steam Navigation Company which had a large fleet serving routes between Great Britain and South America. The Galicia was 25 years old, having been launched in 1873. She was 3800 tons and 384 feet in length. She had a 2 cylinder 600 horsepower engine driving a single propeller. She looked her age with and old-fashioned design of sailing masts and yards and an impressive bowsprit and  figurehead. A first-class vessel when built, she was probably worn out but the reduced distance could mask the fact that she did not have the speed of the more modern ships used by her competitors. The owners changed her name to the Gaspasia. They  were sure she would do the job but she had never sailed in ice.

The experiment begins

Western Daily Press [Bristol] 8 December 1898 p.4

Western Daily Press [Bristol] 8 December 1898 p.4

The service commenced with great fanfare on 23 November 1898 with officials of the Great Western Railway traveling down from London for the occasion. The Pall Mall Gazette reported “a mild state of excitement ” in the town. School children were given the day off to celebrate the new service.  The ship had an easy passage the Bay of Chaleur and left there on her return via Charlottetown but before she reached the Island capital she fetched up on the reef off Rice Point. Although she easily got off on the next tide without having to be towed it did not bode well for the ship’s luck. In addition to being delayed, the ship’s arrival port had to be shifted from Milford Haven to Liverpool as the cargo of 400 sheep and 150 head of cattle required a slaughter house and the facility in Milford Haven was still under construction.  The captain was later charged with cruelty to animals for failing to provide adequate accommodation for the livestock.

…and ends

On 11 January she had departed on her second trip from Milford Haven with cargo and 100 passengers. The following day local press carried reports that the steamship line had acquired two additional ships from the North German Lloyd Line so that a weekly schedule could be maintained. The Gaspesia sailed through the Gulf of St. Lawrence to load at Paspebiac and then headed for Newfoundland where St. John’s had been substituted for iced-in Charlottetown as a port of call. Inexperience or poor planning saw the vessel try to go to the south of the Magdalen Islands and not around the north of the archipelago. By 3 February the Gaspasia was stuck fast in the ice which threatened to carry her into the shallows around the Islands.  Although she occasionally found open water there were no leads running out of the ice pack. On 25 February her rudder-head broke and she was completely at the mercy of the drifting ice.  Although not far from the Islands there was no way she could be aided, although some fishermen did make their way across the ice to visit the ship and bring much appreciated tea and sugar. While there were only three passengers aboard there was a crew of more than seventy and supplies were soon in short supply. An early message from the ship said she had ample coal and supplies for thirty days and luckily she had a consignment of poultry in the cargo which could supplement the provisions.  However the thirty days soon passed. Before her ordeal ended she was to be in the ice for over nine weeks, not getting free until 11 April and only then with the assistance of a sealing steamer which had been sent to her aid. With damaged plates, an inoperable rudder and six feet of water in her forehold she crept slowly to St. John’s.


Liverpool Mercury 10 July 1899 p. 12

The ice delay caused problems back in Milford Haven. Although it was reported that a chartered ship, the S.S. Werra, would be put on the route that does not seem to have happened. In February some 50 German, Russian and Polish Jews emigrants who were awaiting passage on the ship became frustrated with the delays and the inadequacy of their shore accommodation and rioted threatening to strangle the local officer of the company.

Even after reaching St. John’s the Gaspesia’s problems were far from over. She was arrested in an Admiralty Court dispute on the value of the claim by the Baring sealing vessel, Kite, that eventually got her out of the ice and assisted her to St. John’s.  After two months lying in the Newfoundland port she was sold at auction and then re-acquired by Canadian Steamships. She seems never to have gone back on the Milford Haven – Paspebiac route. In September of 1899 she was damaged in a storm off Glace Bay and after making her way back across the Atlantic was taken out of service. Her age, the ice and storm damage and the fact that the route was clearly a failure combined to bring her life to an end.  Following her return to Liverpool the Gaspesia  sailed to Genoa Italy with a cargo of coal and following her arrival in the Italian port she was broken up.

As you were

The Canadian Steamship Company failed to prosper, the purchase of two additional steamers was never completed, and after the sale of its only ship it was never heard from again. Creditors had brought a bankruptcy action in the British courts but most were bought off with the issuance of shares in the Atlantic and Lake Superior Railroad company. That was not a happy arrangement as shortly afterwards the railway encountered financial difficulties and was absorbed by another company. The Gaspe rail line was rarely profitable. Milford Haven never developed as a trans-Atlantic liner port and Paspebiac returned to its sleepy existence as a Gaspe fishing village. The dream of winter steamers in the Gulf was haunted by the Gaspesia’s nine weeks in the ice. Charlottetown’s brief flirtation as a port of call on the Atlantic ferry was over.

The name Gaspesia shows up again later in Charlottetown’s history. In 1922 the Clarke Steamship Company purchased a 1909 German vessel that had been the subject of war reparations and put her into service on routes which included Charlottetown. Her story is told in K.C. Griffin’s history of the Clark Steamship Company .

Prince Edward Island’s Ocean Steamship Company

Patriot 5 September 1878 p.3

Patriot 5 September 1878 p.3

Although after the middle of the 19th century there were a number of Island-owned steamships plying the routes between the Island and the mainland and up and down the Island estuaries only one serious attempt was made to translate the Island sail-borne trading experience to the world of the steamer on an international scale.

In 1871 the Ocean Steamship Company of Prince Edward Island was created following a public meeting where most of the shares were enthusiastically subscribed, many by members of Charlottetown’s Peake family who became the managers for the venture. The meeting agreed that “in these days of progress we should avail ourselves of the advantages of Ocean Steamers, in order to keep pace with the neighboring Provinces, and supply the urgent wants of our enterprising merchants; and also with a view of exporting a larger  amount of produce from this country.”  The new firm placed an order with Napier and Sons of Glasgow for an iron steamer to travel between Liverpool and Charlottetown. The S.S.Prince Edward was launched from the Aitken and Mansel shipyard on the Clyde in October of 1872. At 1365 tons and 253 feet and driven by a  170 horsepower, 2 cylinder steam engine turning a single propeller she was certainly capable of service across the Atlantic.  The final cost of the vessel was £26,865 sterling with another £2095 for fit-out.  This represented about $150,000 at the time and almost $3 million in todays funds and was a serious investment for the merchants of the small colony. British newspapers hinted that there would be additional ships added to the line, presumably dependant on the success of the venture.

The Prince Edward completed its maiden voyage and arrived in Charlottetown on 1 May 1873, taking a respectable 12 days from Liverpool, being delayed by ice only one day. In addition to general cargo and a full complement of passengers the ship carried no fewer than seven locomotives for the Prince Edward Island Railway, then just beginning construction. Several Charlottetown merchants took advantage of the arrival to advertise “new spring goods” per the Prince Edward. The return voyage was to Cardiff Wales and newspapers there noted that this was the first steamer to load at Prince Edward Island. She carried 65,000 bushels of oats, other produce and a few passengers.

As had been the case with the Island’s wooden sailing vessels the Prince Edward was  never intended to simply shuttle between the Island and Liverpool, especially during the winter season when the Island port was closed by ice. It went wherever cargos took it, crisscrossing the Atlantic to several Canadian and American ports, Liverpool, Bristol and even to South America but as an Island-owned ship she was a regular caller at Charlottetown.  As Boyde Beck’s article on the Prince Edward published in The Island Magazine #30 (Fall/Winter 1991) [available here] points out, the vessel may have been profitable initially but over the years it became less so and the initial cost of the ship had to be factored into the owner’s calculations.  Records in the Welsh and Owen shipping papers at the PEI Public Archives and Records Office give a couple of snapshot glimpses of the ship’s later years.

Although not specifically identified as such the steamer at Peake's #2 wharf in Ruger's 1878 birds evy view of Charlottetown is likely the Prince Edward. No photos are known to exist.

Although not specifically identified as such, the steamer at Peake’s #2 wharf in Ruger’s 1878 birds eye view of Charlottetown is likely the Prince Edward. No photos are known to exist.

In the 7th annual report of the company dated March 1880 it was noted that it had been a good year. A condenser for fresh water had been added to the ship’s equipment allowing for deck cargos of sheep and cattle to be carried across the Atlantic. The ship had made trips from New Orleans to Liverpool, to Charlottetown, to Newport (Wales) to Charlottetown, to Montreal, to Liverpool, to Charlottetown and back to Liverpool.   The profit on operations was $16,000 (an increase of almost $11,000 over 1878) and the holders of the 59 shares were paid $100 per share which represented about a 4% return on the original costs.

Gore's Liverpool General Advertiser 3 December 1874 p. 2

Gore’s Liverpool General Advertiser 3 December 1874 p. 2

The following year saw more trips from Montreal to Liverpool and voyages to New Orleans, Bristol, Baltimore  and Charlottetown. Although net earnings remained at the $16,000 level two dividends of $150 were paid representing a return of about 10%. However the following year (1881) was somewhat of a disaster. The ship did receive a subsidy of $6,000 from the Dominion Government for carrying cattle, sheep and other Island products overseas but there was increased competition and on a November trip from Liverpool severe weather resulted in the Prince Edward running out of coal in mid-ocean. She had to be towed to St. John’s. Profits dropped to half of the previous year.

In 1882 there seem to have been only two trips for the Prince Edward: Liverpool to Charlottetown in May and Charlottetown to Bordeaux France in June.  The firm’s English agents were instructed to put the ship on the market.  She did not return to the Island and she was sold to the French firm of Caillot & Saint Pierre in Marseille. They changed her name from Prince Edward to Senegal but the ship was wrecked on the coast of Spain later that same year.

Although created in the optimism of a pre-Confederation PEI the Ocean Steamship Company could not survive the changing times and was wound-up.  The Island’s trans-Atlantic trade gradually diminished and passed to other hands.

Direct to Liverpool – a last hurrah for Island shipping.

With the end of the wood wind and water economy in the mid to late 1800s Prince Edward Island lost much more than a market for Island-built ships. It also lost a link to what the province saw as its natural trading partner – Great Britain.  By the end of the century even the long-standing commerce with New England was placed in jeopardy by the Tories’ National Policy which attempted to make trade east-west rather than north-south.

For a while it looked as if the Island might make the transition to the new shipping technology. The creation of the Ocean Steamship Company of Prince Edward Island by a group of Island capitalists and the building of the steamer Prince Edward in 1873 meant that the ideal of direct shipping and trade with England persisted for a while but the Company was soon forced to send the vessel further afield for cargos and the idea of a regular Charlottetown-Liverpool trade was abandoned. (Boyde Beck has given a partial history of the vessel in The Island Magazine for Fall/Winter 1991). While communications and trade with the rest of the Maritimes and New England had improved with the arrival of steamers of the Island Steam Navigation Company and companies such as the Plant Line the direct shipping to England was sharply reduced.

Charlottetown Guardian 8 December 1901

Charlottetown Guardian 8 December 1901

In the meantime the Island’s chief exports shifted from shipbuilding to agriculture but that too had changed as the Twentieth Century arrived. Manufacturing of dairy products began in earnest in the late 1880s and processing of other foods such as meats and lobster resulted in the production of new commodities.  This shift, coupled with the belief of Island shippers that England represented an untapped market resulted in several attempts to revive the direct connection.  The Charlottetown Board of Trade took a leading role and Horace Haszard, a shipper and insurance broker who was president of the Board lobbied strongly for the direct connection. There were two direct shipments made in 1899 and the efforts were continued.

Late in 1901 the effort seem to be paying off again. Aided by a government subsidy the Furness Withy Steamship Company agreed to try a direct Charlottetown – Liverpool sailing.  Furness Withy, founded in 1891 was already providing steamers between Montreal and Liverpool and Halifax and Liverpool. It was to go on to be one of the largest shipping companies in the world and over its life as a company had over 1,000 ships under its control.  In November 1901 Haszard, and W.W. Clarke, shipping agent, advertised the expected arrival of the S.S. Ulunda but Furness Withy substituted the S.S. Dalton Hall (sometimes Daltonhall), a larger ship.  The change may have been the result of the high level of interest from shippers. Applications had been made for space for 3.000 sheep. thousands of boxes of cheese, 4,000 cases of canned meat as well as quantities of butter, eggs, bacon and apples.

S.S. Daltonhall 1899

S.S. Daltonhall 1899

The Dalton Hall arrived early in December and loading commenced. The ship was relatively new having been launched at Hartlepool on the Tees in 1899. It was  a large ship; 3539 tons, 337 feet long by 45 feet wide and drawing 25 feet of water.

When it sailed on 17 December its holds contained a full range of the agricultural and fishing products of the province: 2869 cases of tinned meat, 3970 boxes of cheese, 873 cases of tinned lobster, 268 cases of bacon, 4 barrels of oysters, 58 tons of hay, 90 barrels of apples, 100 cases of eggs and numerous other goods including one sleigh, and one barrel of chain. Livestock shipped (in the days before frozen meat) consisted of  54 boxes of poultry, 57 cattle and 1302 sheep. A notice for “those desiring to see the mother land without paying a fare” indicated that fifteen men would be required on the ship for the care of the animals. How they were to get back to the Island was not noted.

Horace Haszard

Horace Haszard

The vessels making the three Charlottetown – Liverpool direct trips between 1899 and 1901 resulted in a total of 3,204 sheep and lambs, 181 head of cattle, 120 tons of bacon, 5,500 bales of hay as well as other products being carried across the Atlantic. Boosters, including the Charlottetown Guardian took pains to remind readers that these shipments would not have been possible if the cargos had to be transferred in Halifax and that only a direct route would satisfy the need.  A few days after the Dalton Hall sailed the shippers of Prince Edward Island published a public testimonial to Horace Haszard in the Charlottetown Guardian thanking him for his efforts on behalf of the Charlottetown Board of Trade.  In 1903 he captured the Liberal nomination for Parliament and in 1904 was elected to the House of Commons in a by-election.

However successful the three trips had been, they were insufficient to create a lasting trade link.  Island farmers and shippers became more dependant on vessels making a stop at Charlottetown between other ports. Part of the problem may have been the scarcity of incoming goods as more and more of the Island’s goods were coming from central Canada and the United States rather than the mother country. While there were other goods crossing the Atlantic from P.E.I. it is probable the Dalton Hall was the last steamer to carry a full cargo from Charlottetown to Liverpool. Furness Withy maintained an Atlantic service but it called at Halifax and Montreal. It appears that the Dalton Hall never returned to Charlottetown Harbour.