Tag Archives: McMillan

April on the waterfront 1891

Charlottetown’s Busy Waterfront. Detail from a Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878.

Although by 1890 the days of busy ship yards on Prince Edward had long since past the industry did not vanish overnight. The Island still possessed a large fleet of sail and steam providing services and connections between the Island and the mainland, as well as overseas. Besides the building of ships the industry had a large suite of related trades whose importance would continue for many years.  The waterfront was still the place of industry as a report from the waterfront in 1891 will show. Shipyards gave rise to related businesses which continued to operate and serve the fleet. In the 1890s we still had sailmakers, ships carpenters, chandlers and boatbuilders. Once the shipping season ended many of the warehouses were taken over by boatbuilders and shipwrights. There was also a large inshore fishery which had strengthened by the lobster industry. While it was sill almost exclusively sail powered by the end of the decade engines were beginning to make their appearance. Small steam engines, some built by local engineers, were just beginning to appear in steam launches and small yachts.

In the spring as the ice deteriorated into cakes and floes smashed and tossed about by the tides and waves the warehouse and boat-building shops were opened to reveal a winter’s labour and an assertion that while the harbour was asleep its craftsmen had been busy.

Here is what was happening on the waterfront in April of 1891:  Extensive repairs had been completed on Ronald McMillan’s steamer William. The ship was raised up on the ice between the wharves and a number of iron plates replaced and the whole bottom re-riveted, a task which kept eleven men employed for the winter.  The P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company paddle steamers; Princess of Wales and St. Lawrence were overhauled and completely re-painted over the winter and the St. Lawrence received new 2 inch deck sheathing. By mid-April both ships were loaded with cargo and were waiting for the ice to clear from Hillsborough Bay. The ferry steamers Southport and Elfin were also overhauled and the Inland Steam Navigation Company’s Heather Belle had also been prepared for the 1891 season.  Numerous schooners had also over-wintered in the harbour of Charlottetown and were repaired and overhauled by their crews and Charlottetown shipwrights.

On the pleasure boat side three steam yachts had been completed over the winter. One, for Jefferson Gardiner was 56 feet overall and 11 feet wide and had a 20 horse power steam engine built by the McKinnon & McLean of Charlottetown. It was estimated she could reach speeds of 10 knots. The hull had been constructed by McPhee Bros. of Souris and had 1 1/2 inch planks and had two sleeping berths and seating for fifty people.  Another steam yacht, also boasting an engine from McKinnon & McLean was built by H.H. Crossman for a buyer in Newfoundland. She was 38 feet overall, was  half decked and also had sleeping accommodation for two and seating for 20. A third yacht was completed by builder Angus McDonald. She was also 38 feet long  and would be fitted with an engine built by White & Sons.

McPhee Bros also completed eight fishing boats for the Portland Packing Company to be used in the lobster fishery. These were of an identical design with 17 1/2 foot keel and 20 1/2 overall length. The three boats were completed in less than three months.

Another local boat builder, James Griffin, had a busy winter. He completed a four-oared lapstreak boat for John Collins intended to be used for the boy’s crew at the rowing club. Griffin had built seven or eight four-oared boats over the last several winters. The is one was 32 feet long and had a beam of 3 feet. The previous fall he had completed a rowing craft 34 feet long and 3 feet 8 inches wide, copper fastened throughout and reported to be the finest boat he had ever produced and was offered for sale. He also complete two pleasure rowing boats which had already been sold.

Today once the last cruise ship leaves, the sailing yachts and powerboats are snatched from the water and the ice begins to close in Charlottetown turns its back to the water. In the 1890s however, winter was a time when harbour-life continued, although to a different pattern. It was a time when shore-based marine trades barely paused in their quest to ready the harbour for its next season.

 

Coal, Steam and Seals: Captain McMillan’s Steamer Elliott

I have written in an earlier posting about Captain Ronald McMillan and the steamer William but this was only one chapter in the story of McMillan’s forays into the world of steamships. – forays that in general did not have happy endings.

It was rare for Island ship-owners to make the transition from sail to steam. One well-funded venture in the late 1870’s saw a number of Island capitalists come together to form the Ocean Steamship Company but the venture into trans-Atlantic trade was ultimately unsuccessful. However late in the 19th century a market began to open up in the coastal trade for new steamers. With the decline in shipbuilding across the region the fleet of schooners and brigs which carried much of the bulk cargo and which served smaller ports was aging and the response was not to build more sail-powered replacements but to shift some of the carrying capacity to steamers.  Builders such as Joseph McGill in Shelburne and the Burrill- Johnson Iron Works in Yarmouth put a number of small wooden vessels on the market, several of which, including the Electra, the Magdalen and the Harland,  ended up serving P.E.I. ports. Another response was to purchase older British-built steamships and bring them across the Atlantic to enter the maritime coastal trade.

Advertisement for McMillan’s coal business. Daily Examiner 15 February 1889 p.2

One of the most active shippers on Prince Edward Island was Captain Ronald McMillan of West River. He had been a successful captain who had built and operated a number of coastal schooners before the became a partner with Donald Farquharson in the steamer William in 1888.  The sinking of that vessel in December of 1891 did not mean the end of his activity.  In 1881 he had begun a coal business and had purchased the Duncan shipyard property just west of the Prince Street ferry wharf. With the end of waterfront shipbuilding the property had deteriorated and MacMillan converted  it to a coal yard with a wharf which was reported by the Daily Examiner in 1892 to be “second to none in the city.”  The wharf housed two large coal sheds served by trollies holding three-quarters of a ton moving  bulk coal from ships to storage. Instead of using horse powered hoisting gear he had the latest steam-powered donkey engines which could unload 150 tons from a vessel in a single day. McMillan was reported to be the largest coal dealer in the province at the time.

After the loss of the William McMillan may have had insurance proceeds and he moved to replace her. In the spring of 1892 he sought out a vessel in England but not satisfied with what he was able to find there he decided not to use another British-built steamer but have one built on Prince Edward Island.  Late in that year he made a request to Charlottetown City Council for permission to use the area between his property and the Prince Street Wharf to build a vessel during the winter months.

3218.67 launch 2

Launch of the Steamer Elliot. November 1893. H.B. Sterling Photo. Public Archives and Records Office

Permission appears to have been granted and in November 1893 a ship, named the Elliott after the Elliott River, slid down the ways of the shipyard. Built by veteran shipbuilder Kimble Coffin of Mt. Stewart the vessel was one of, if not the largest steamer built on the Island. The 367 ton vessel was 160 feet long, 25 feet beam and an 11 foot depth of hold. Constructed of spruce, juniper, pitch pine and American oak  she had galvanized iron fastenings throughout.

Advertisement for maiden voyage of the S.S. Elliott. Daily Examiner 15 November 1893 p.2.

Within a week the maiden voyage of the Elliott was advertised. She would make a trip to Barbados and Trinidad calling at Bermuda. For the rest of the decade the Elliott continued to call at ports such as Philadelphia and Halifax up and down the Atlantic seaboard but given the other business  interests of her owner one of the most frequently hauled cargos would have been coal from Cape Breton or Pictou She often carried livestock on the out-bound legs.  In 1897 McMillan took the Elliot to the Strait of Belle Isle where a steamer the Baltimore City had been wrecked and salvaged the bulk of the cargo and fixtures of the steamer which were taken to Charlottetown and sold.

In 1904 McMillan decided to try something different with the steamer.  January found the ship in Halifax fitting out for a trip to the sealing grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The ship would pick up about 100 sealers at Channel – Port Aux Basques and head for the sealing grounds around Meat Cove Cape Breton and St. Paul Island just off the Cape Breton coast. She was to only Canadian steamer to be engaged in the fishery that year. On 18 March a report was received that the ship had received damage from the ice to her stern post, keel and shaft, was aground at Atlantic Cove on St. Paul Island. The sealers and crew had been put ashore on the tiny island but Captain Farquharson was able to get word to the mainland that he hoped she could be saved and by 26 March the crew had returned to the ship and she had re-started for the sealing ground. However about four or five miles from the Island she was nipped by the ice and all aboard had to take to the boats and with a favourable winds were able to return to the Island. Strangely the following day the steamer was blown back into the cove, leaking and with the rudder torn away. They attempted to keep her afloat and beach her but she sank in fourteen feet of water just off the shore and was a total loss.

Sale notice for McMillan properties. Charlottetown Guardian 12 August 1905 p.2.

The loss of the Elliott may have been one blow too many for McMillan.  The following year “intending to make a change in business” he advertised his business and property for sale. This consisted of the property with 110 foot frontage on the south west corner of Prince and Water Streets which included The Plazza House Hotel, two large dwellings and barns and two vacant building lots.  On the other side of the railway siding which ran through the property was the coal business with a roller mill, offices, coal scales, two coal sheds which could hold 2000 tons, warehouses and a blacksmith shop. There was also a wharf and water lot which extended to the channel of the Hillsborough.

McMillan appears to have become insolvent in 1906 with his estate assigned to W.H. Aitken and by 1908 he was living in Vancouver where he died in 1915.

There are few reminders of McMillan and his ships and businesses left on the Charlottetown waterfront. The wharf, shipyard, warehouses and coal yard have been knocked down and the land now forms the eastern half of the Confederation Landing Park.  The two buildings which faced on Water street have long histories and were part of the James Duncan property before being acquired by McMillan and they both survive.  The “Plazza House” had, by 1909, become the Lennox Hotel and operated under that name for many years, for part of the time by the Misses McMillan who may have been relatives of Capt. Ronald.

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.