Tag Archives: lobster

A Tramp Steamer out of Charlottetown

One of Prince Edward Island’s myths is that with the decline of wooden shipbuilding in the 1860s the province suddenly became a mercantile backwater. There were small schooners servicing smaller ports, especially where rails did not run, well into the mid-20th century but with few exceptions such as the Ocean Steamships S.S. Prince Edward and the Steam Navigation Company’s S.S. Summerside, Islanders failed to embrace the change from wood and wind to iron, steel and steam.

Like most generalizations this has a good deal of truth in it. However, there were exceptions and the experience of the S.S. William is an example of Islanders bucking the trend.  The steamer William, unlike local coastal boats like the Harland, City of London, and Electra was not a regular visitor to outports and did not possess a faithful following of farmers and excursionists.  She was part of a larger fleet of tramp steamers which went where there were cargos and carried anything that would pay the bills. For some she was simply a tired old steamer but for others she was as essential as rail cars and tractor trailers are today, carrying cargos of produce and cattle away from the Island and bringing back the coal and general goods that the Island needed.

The William was a small ship as steamers go, just 120 feet long and 20 wide and registered at 210 tons. And she was well used before she came to the Island. Built on the Tyne in 1876 she was a coal carrier sailing out of Bristol. After a dozen years in the British Isles she was “sold foreign” and came to Prince Edward Island. Her new owners were Donald Farquharson a Charlottetown merchant and MLA (and later premier) and Captain Ronald McMillan who had a coal yard on the Charlottetown waterfront as well as West River connections.

She reached the Island in May 1888 and was immediately put into service.  Unlike the arrival of new passenger steamers the new vessel in the harbour attracted little notice as she began an irregular service. In 1888 she visited Boston carrying potatoes, Cow Bay  (now Port Merion) Cape Breton picking up coal for the Island, Pictou, Mulgrave and other small ports  including Pownal. She solicited freight shipments to Boston or Montreal or cattle bound for St. John’s Newfoundland. Coming to the Island she usually had general goods or coal. 1889 trips included a delivery of 60 head of cattle from Stanley Bridge to St. Pierre and Newfoundland, shipments of coal from Sydney to Stanley Bridge, potatoes and produce to Boston and New York, and at least one trip to Montreal with general cargo.

Without surviving records it is difficult to know if the venture was profitable. Clearly one of the partners in the business had concerns. In May 1890 evidence was heard in Chancery Court where Donald Farquharson brought an action against Capt. Ronald McMillan, the managing partner, claiming that the steamer had not been managed in a careful and prudent manner and asking that the court appoint a new manager and have the accounts reviewed and disallow expenses.  The court however found that there had been no mis-management.  The action obviously suggested the lack of a harmonious partnership. The year had not been kind to the William as she required a new boiler and only weeks later she struck hard on Tormentine Reef on a voyage with coal from Sydney to Miramichi and had to be beached to prevent her from sinking. That may have ended her work for the season as she was hauled up on the hard in Charlottetown for extensive repairs including replacement of several broken hull plates and re-riveting of the ship from stem to stern, a job which kept eleven men employed for the whole winter. These were serious financial issues and led late in the year to an Admiralty Court action by the crew for unpaid wages. This resulted to a seizure and sale of the vessel. By early December ownership was in the hands of Captain Ronald McMillan and his brother Hugh from New Haven.

Re-launched in April of 1891 she returned to itinerant voyages to and from the Island with potatoes, produce coal and what ever other cargo she could secure. In June she carried 7,300 cases of lobster to New York, the largest shipment ever made by a single shipper. The end of that year was also the end of the McMillan Brothers William. The William was lost on the rocky shores of St. Pierre on 28 December and one unfortunate seaman lost his life. Seven others were saved by St. Pierre fishermen who were later rewarded for their actions by the Government of Canada – $3.00 each for 15 fishermen.

The experience with the William did not necessarily serve as a cautionary tale. The steamer was not Farquharson’s only shipping venture. In 1889 he had purchased a Clyde-built vessel, the 150 foot iron screw steamer Coila and it seems to have operated in competition with McMillan through 1891. The Coila was lost off Cuba in 1896.  After that there seems to have been little appetite on the Island for coastal vessel operations. Tramp steamers would come and go from Charlottetown harbour for decades to come but they would be owned and registered elsewhere.

New Lobster Factories at Pinette – 1878

1880 map of Pinette River area showing location of Moore Shudd & Co. lobster factory. Fraser factory is noted in the map cvlose to the tip of Point Prim.

1880 map of Pinette River area showing location of Moore Shudd & Co. lobster factory. Fraser factory is noted in the map close to the tip of Point Prim. [not seen in this view]

Sailing into the tiny port of Pinette today you approach the shore near the site of the Boy Scout camp of happy memory and follow a buoyed channel along a shore populated with summer homes and fields reaching from the Point Prim road down to the beaches and low cliffs.  It can be a tricky narrow passage between the sand bars and spits up to McAulay’s wharf and the Pinette wharf where the highway crosses the river.  There is little sign that this stretch of shore was once home to the infrastructure of a rapidly developing fishing industry.

Lobsters only began to be a major resource for P.E.I. into the 1870s. Advances in processing techniques were refined as canning became common and shipping options became available. There was no shortage of lobsters. The impediment was that the small oar-powered boats could operate only a mile or so from shore at most and processing had to be done near the fishing grounds. On the other hand the small boats could be launched from every shore and did not require harbours or infrastructure. Factories (as the processing plants were called) could be built anywhere – and they were. From only a few in the late 1870s there were hundreds a decade later, providing much-needed seasonal employment along the coasts.

The new industry soon caught the eye of the press and the following report from the 6 June 1878 Patriot is one of the earliest accounts of the fishery that we have.

LOBSTER FACTORIES – Last week we visited Shed Moore & Co. lobster factory in Pinette. It is quite a large establishment. There is a well-built breastwork on the beach for the foundation for the preserving and boiling house, cooling room, tin shop, bath department, paint room, and carpenter’s shop. Thirteen boats are employed and 1200 traps are set at present. The want of good bait is much felt.   The fish are brought in twice a day – morning and evening. To keep the place clean and sweet the establishment is “flooded” every twenty-four hours. In the can shop six men are employed, and they waste no time loafing. Busier and more active workmen we never saw. The room where the young women work – some of them children – pleased us most. Neatly dresses, clean and active, we noticed some twenty female hands busy; and judging from appearances the lobsters from this factory may be eaten without misgiving. Sweeter and better tasting fish we never tasted.

Scene inside Lobster Factory. Robert Harris 1882. from Picturesque Canada.

Scene inside Lobster Factory. Robert Harris 1882. from Picturesque Canada.

The men and girls know their business and attend to it. The daily catch here is about 3000. The company would like to double that number, and after a while they, no doubt will. The can making is worth seeing – it can’t be described. The way the tin is cut, rounded, and tossed from one workman to another is wonderful. One thousand cans each for a day is not bad work. A large quantity of dry wood is also on hand.  John Compton’s force-pump supplies water. It is some 200 yards distant from the factory and cast iron pipes connect it with the building. Mr. Compton’s [word unclear]. invention, and we must see himself before we venture on a description of it. [word unclear], however, and Mr. Compton deserves credit for its introduction. The industry of lobster packing is a comparatively new one, and those engaged in it deserve encouragement. They cause money to circulate, and give employment to men, women, and children who might be worse engaged. We wish them success.

Messrs. James Fraser & Co. are building a lobster preserving factory nearer Point Prim. The shore and anchorage are excellent. They have a fine lot of traps ready for use. They expect to employ some forty hands. Mr. Donald Gillis is putting up a boarding house not far off, and intends to accommodate all the men. The extension of this industry cannot fail to be productive of good.

The Fraser factory was up and running within days of the publishing of the article and by the end of July had already dispatched a shipment of the “preserved crustacea” on board the steamer M.A. Starr which had anchored just off the Point Prim shore to receive the cargo.

Pinette River area today. Sand spit where factory stood has moved. McAulay's wharf is at the right with Camp Buchan at the left.

Pinette River area today. Sand spit where factory stood has moved. McAulay’s wharf is seen at the right with Camp Buchan Boy Scout camp at the left.

Today lobster are still caught in the waters off Point Prim. In the season the often-deserted wharves at McAulay’s and Pinette Bridge are busy spots as the lobster boats land their catches but they venture far from shore into waters that the 19th century dories rarely visited.  The boats are bigger and the lobsters are fewer but the biggest change is the disappearance of the hundreds of factories which were once almost as numerous along the shore as the tourist cottages are today.  More lobsters are shipped live or are frozen but some still make their way to the several factories which still “put up” lobster in cans, a process much like the one which created a new industry on the Pinette shore almost a century and a half ago.