The steamship service between Prince Edward Island and the mainland had two primary routes: from Pointe du Chene or Shediac to Summerside, and from Pictou to Charlottetown. There was however, no lack of proposals for alternate ports. The primary driver for port choice after the 1860s was the proximity to rail connections once the mainland was reached. Shediac was connected with a system that went to Saint John in time for the Prince of Wales visit in 1860 and that connection eventually extended right through to Boston.
The extension of the Nova Scotia Railway to Pictou Landing in 1867 gave steamers access to the rail service to Halifax and with the completion of the Intercolonial Railway following Confederation the route offered an all-rail service to Quebec and the Canadian heartland.
The little community of Brule on the shore near Tatamagouche was touted well into the 20th century as another possibility for the “trans-strait” passage, one which was promoted long and hard by Charlottetown’s member in the House of Commons. Its success would have been dependant on the creation of a new branch of the Midland Railway from Truro to Brule but the road was never built and the route was hypothetical at best.
There was another route which actually was tried, and once again the connection with the rails was the basis for the proposal. By 1891 a “short line” had been constructed which left the main line of the Intercolonial at Oxford Junction and skirted the Northumberland Strait shore before terminating at Pictou. Prior to its construction, Pictou was linked to the rails by a ferry to Pictou Landing and thence by a branch line to New Glasgow and the Intercolonial line between Truro and Cape Breton.
The ferry, named the Mayflower, had been built in 1875 in Montreal. She was 125 feet long by 23 feet wide and displaced 377 tons. Her main salon provided accommodation for sixty passengers. By 1879 the Mayflower had been replaced by a new boat on the run across the harbour. In that year the Dominion authorized a loan of the ferry to the P.E.I., Government for the purpose of linking Georgetown and Montague by a steamer service on the Montague River which would provide access to rails services for the rapidly developing town of Montague. It does not appear, however, that the offer was taken up.
In 1887 the Pictou Town Branch finally saw rail connections established between the Intercolonial at Stellarton and the town of Pictou making the Pictou Landing ferry redundant and the Intercolonial put the Mayflower up for sale by tender. The twelve year old vessel was acquired by J.O. Reid of Pugwash. The ship was rebuilt with new boilers in early 1891 and a published report gave her capacity as 300 passengers and 400 barrels of freight. It appears she was purchased with the intention of establishing Pugwash as a third mainland connection with Prince Edward Island with steamer service linking the Nova Scotia port and Charlottetown. In promoting the service its owners asserted that the staunch, twin-screw vessel had ice-cutting capacity and would be able to run a month later and begin service and a month earlier than the steamers of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company. A further benefit would be better timed connections with the I.C.R. trains both coming and going so that passengers and mails would reach Charlottetown nine hours earlier. A better connection with Pugwash had been supported at the annual meeting of the Charlottetown Board of Trade and the Guardian editor noted that the new route would “put the Steam Navigation Company on its mettle.”
Service was scheduled to begin on 1 October 1891 and advertisements for the Pugwash and P.E. Island Steamboat Company continued to appear in the Charlottetown Guardian through December 1891 showing service three days per week and pledging that “This is the, shortest, most direct, and cheaper than any other route to or from Prince Edward Island.”
True or not, it seems that the Mayflower failed to pry business away from the Steam Navigation Company and there is no further word of the Pugwash to Charlottetown Service. It is not clear if the ship’s previous experience as a ferry across the mile-wide harbour of Pictou may have been limiting factor in the minds of potential passengers. Later she may have been used elsewhere in the region and served for a time in 1892 as a ferry at Canso. In 1895 it was rumoured that the Mayflower was to run between Summerside and Cape Tormentine connecting with the New Brunswick and P.EI. Railway which ran between the Cape and Sackville but it seems to have remained nothing more than a rumour.
In the spring of 1899 the Mayflower appeared on the Pictou-Souris-Magdalenes service but when it was discovered that the ship had been condemned by authorities as unseaworthy for transportation of passengers it was hastily replaced. Later that year the vessel was reported to be owned by F.P. Ronan of Halifax and was slated to run between Summerside, Cape Tormentine and Crapaud. Another report noted the planned formation of a steamship company in Summerside to purchase the Mayflower and operate it between Summerside and West Cape winter and summer. Neither proposal seems to have reached the action stage and the vessel was under Ontario ownership by 1901. It was re-built in 1904 and last operated on the Great Lakes in 1910.
Today large freighters seeking cargos of salt still visit Pugwash but to dream of being the main link between the mainland and Prince Edward Island died when the Mayflower left the port for the last time. In addition, the rails which were so important for determining which ports would serve the Island have vanished from all the harbours on Northumberland Strait. Shediac, Cape Tormentine, Pugwash, Tatamagouche, and Pictou – none have rail links that survived the end of the 20th century.