Tag Archives: Newfoundland

Searching for a Ship – the Short Sorry Story of the Steamer Summerside

I thought I had pretty much tracked down the ships of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company when I wrote a history of the company for this blog several months ago. Several of the ships even had been given entries and I was not sure how much more could be said on the subject.

Although the Company advertised its regular passenger services the S.S. Summerside’s short life was scarcely noticed. Steam Navigation Company advertisement in the P.E.I. Directory 1889-1890.

However, last week while searching on a New Zealand-based shipping database called the Miramar Ship Index I plugged in the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company expecting to find the usual suspects. Instead the only entry that popped up was for a 360 ton vessel registered in Prince Edward Island. She was registered as the SS Summerside.  I had never come across the vessel before.  Resorting to other on-line resources including Lloyds List and the Mercantile Naval List I came up with a blank.  However armed with a name I was able to search an index called the “Mills List” which is maintained at Queens University. This contains steamship information culled from Canadian registers and I was able to get an official number and a year of construction – 1883. Of more importance were a few indications of her size (155 x 22) and tonnage (360). She had been built in London.  A search of the Marine Engineer for 1884 revealed that she had been launched by Messrs Forrestt & Sons from the Britannia Yard, Millwall, London in 1883. The Britannia Yard was located on the Isle of Dogs, not far from Canary Wharf.  She was built of iron and had a 60 horse power steam engine.   Another vessel launched from the same yard, the Kinnaird Castle may have been a sister ship as she had the same dimensions.

With a few of the ships details pinned down I was keen to learn about her history but owing to few sources there is much reading between the lines.  In 1883 the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company had three ships, all wooden sidewheelers and all about 20 years old: the Princess of Wales, the St. Lawrence and the Heather Belle.  A new iron steamer would have represented a significant investment in the future of the company.   Her arrival was duly noted in the local press.

Daily Patriot  28 August 1883

As announced the new screw steamer Summerside recently purchased at the Clyde by the Steam Navigation Company of this province, arrived at the port yesterday at half past 3:00 p.m. The Summerside left London on the 5th inst. Making this passage out in 21 days She is 161 feet in length, 22 feet beam, depth of hold 11 feet; 60 horse power and 370 tons register with a carrying capacity of 520 tons. She is designed exclusively for carrying freight, and will therefore enable the company’s other steamers to carry mails and passengers with greater comfort and dispatch than heretofore.

Her owners claim for her a fair rate of speed and Captain Cameron speaks highly of her performance on this her first voyage. Owing to a slight leaking in her condenser she was obliged to put into Falmouth on the 8th,thus causing some delay, and after leaving there experienced heavy gales; but under these unfavorable circumstances she proved herself capable of providing good satisfaction.

The Daily Examiner’s report noted as well that her auxiliary sailing gear was a schooner rig and that she had a “nice appearance”, black with a red bottom.

Charlottetown Herald 29 August 1883

The new iron screw steamer Summerside purchased in London England by the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company arrived her on Monday afternoon after a passage of twenty-one days. She was commanded by Capt. Cameron who pronounced her a good “sea boat” she is one hundred and sixty-one feet long, twenty-two foot beam, eleven feet of hold, sixty horsepower and registers three hundred and eighty tons, and has a freight capacity of over five hundred tons. The Summerside was mainly intended to carry freight but will no doubt, be fitted for passenger accommodation, which is very necessary. She will act in conjunction with the St. Lawrence and Princess of Wales in removing freight and will, we understand, also engage in other work.

There is little information about the ship after the publication of the arrival notces. The small steamer does not appear to have been fitted for passenger services, contrary to what the Herald suggested and if her chief role was to act as a supplementary freight hauler she did so without notice.  It is more likely that her owners put her into the coastal service. One report suggests she made voyages to Newfoundland in 1884.  At any rate, the summer of 1885 found her on a voyage from Montreal to Fogo Island with general merchandise. She rounded Cape Race and headed up the coast and took on a pilot as she neared her destination on 20 August 1885. However, due to “the ignorance of the pilot” she ended up on the rocks at Western Tickle near the entrance to the harbour albeit without loss of life.  Owing to the lack of communications it was some time before the information reached Prince Edward Island.

Daily Patriot 24 August 1885

A telegram was received Saturday evening by the Steam Nav. Co. Stating that the S.S Summerside had run ashore in Fogo Harbour, and that the greater part of the cargo, consisting of general merchandise had been saved. Another telegram was received this morning from Capt. Cameron, which stated that the engine room and after hold were full of water and asking for instructions. This is all that is known at present respecting the position of the boat; and as that place is some distance from telegraphic station it may be some time before anything further will be known.

The steamer was on her passage from Montreal to Fogo Harbor with a general cargo and thus her destination was the scene of her misfortunes. Fogo is a small Island about ten miles to the north of Newfoundland and separated from it be Hamilton Sound.

The Summerside is comparatively a new vessel, having been built in the year 1883 by Messers Forrest & Sons of London, Eng.   She is built of iron and is classes 100 A at English Lloyds and her registered tonnage is 223. She arrived here in command of Capt. Cameron in August 1883. She is, we hear, partially insured.

Daily Patriot 27 August 1885

The Steam Navigation Company received information today to the effect that the S.S. Summerside had been condemned and will be sold on Saturday next.

The wreck was sold a few days later. The two-year old ship was valued at $40,000 but would have fetched only a small fraction of that as she lay on the rocks of Fogo.  A year later the wreck had been stripped but still lay close to the channel.

New York Times 21 November 1886

ST. JOHN’S, Newfoundland, Nov. 20.–The direct northern mail steamer Hercules, while passing through the Western Tickle, near Fogo, Notre Dame Bay, struck the sunken steamer Summerside. She proceeded toward Dean’s Rock, fast filling and with all her fires out but one, and reached Fogo with 10 feet of water in her hold. The steam pumps were working constantly, and she barely reached the shore when she sank.

The Summerside was likely at least partially insured but her loss still must have been a major blow to the company. Perhaps it was a financial crisis brought about by her loss that led to the recapitalization and change of ownership of the company which was incorporated five years later under Dominion legislation as the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company.  The new Steam Navigation Company was able to make the transition to modern steel vessels and continued operations until the arrival of the rail-car ferry Prince Edward Island.

I have been unable to find any images of the Summerside and it is entirely possible that none exist.  Short as the life of the Summerside was she did last a year longer than her sister ship the Kinnaird Castle which sank after a collision in the Thames Estuary in 1884.

M.V. Eskimo – Walter Jones’ one-ship merchant marine

With the exception of ferries which were an essential part of the colonial and later provincial transportation system the Government of Prince Edward Island was generally content to let ownership of shipping reside with the private sector. There were handsome colonial subsidies for some of the coastal routes but after Confederation interprovincial traffic was more the responsibility of the Dominion government and the province was to great extent off the hook. Traditional trade with Newfoundland dated back to the end of eighteenth century.  In the late 1940s the service was being provided by a number of small and irregular shippers and by the Inter-Island Steamship Company’s vessel Island Connector.  However the Island Connector was taken off the route at the end of 1949.

M.V. Eskimo in Montreal with a deck load of lumber. Photo: Mac MacKay collection - Shipfax.blogspot.ca

M.V. Eskimo in Montreal with a deck load of lumber. Photo: Mac MacKay collection – Shipfax.blogspot.ca

With the entry of Newfoundland into Confederation all that changed.  Farmer-premier J. Walter Jones was an advocate of increased trade for the Island, especially for the province’s agricultural products.  He had some success in the Newfoundland trade which up until 1949 was with a separate country and vessels were eligible for international trade subsidies from Ottawa.  However these ended when Newfoundland became part of Canada.  During the war P.E.I. had developed the export market –  the American bases in Newfoundland had become consumers of Island beef, chicken, milk, potatoes and vegetables and sales had increased elsewhere across the colony as well. Premier Jones had ambitious plans to displace British sources which had supplied the colony before the war.

Although a number of small private companies were shipping to Newfoundland this was not enough for Jones vision. In 1949 his government created the Prince Edward Island Industrial Corporation and one of the first activities of the crown corporation was to purchase a ship for the Newfoundland trade. Jones had hoped to obtain a cheap war surplus vessel from the Dominion government but was not successful and they had to search elsewhere on the open market.  Thus the province came to be the owners of the M.V. Eskimo.

The Eskimo was built in the Smith and Rhuland yard in Lunenburg in 1942.  She was part of a war-time drive to produce more wooden vessels to preserve steel for strategic purposes. The spruce and birch vessel was 168 feet long with a beam of 30 feet and drew almost 14 feet. She was powered by a 540 hp Fairbanks-Morse diesel and could accommodate twenty on board – a dozen or so crew and room for 8 passengers in double staterooms.  She was built for W.L. Sweeny of Yarmouth and was originally called the Laurence K. Sweeney (sometimes noted as Lawrence K. Sweeney). By the end of 1942 she appears to have become the property of the Royal Canadian Air Force who used her as a supply vessel for installations in the region including RDF bases used for marine and air navigation.  Under military control she was armed and her name was changed to the Eskimo, possibly because Lawrence Sweeny was an engineer on another RCAF vessel but more likely to conform with RCAF naming conventions. She made several northern voyages and in 1944 she travelled to Iceland.

RCAF Eskimo ca. 1945

RCAF Eskimo ca. 1945

In 1947 the Hudson Bay Company bought the ship for $65,000 and operated it supplying northern posts for two years. The company obtained a good return on its investment in 1949 when the Prince Edward Island Industrial Corporation paid almost $75,000 to purchase the Eskimo. One of the selling features was that the ship had a cargo refrigerator compartment of 900 cubic feet and her two cargo holds had a capacity of 13,000 cubic feet.

The ship went into the P.E. I. – Newfoundland service in June 1949 and a 10 day schedule of trips to Canada’s new province was planned. The Industrial Corporation had a novel approach to the trade. Normally goods had been shipped to wholesalers in St. John’s and distributed to the outport communities by them. The M.V. Eskimo would call at smaller communities along the southern coast between Port-aux-Basques and Argentia and at St. Pierre and promised more direct delivery.  She was the only vessel serving the south coast that had refrigeration facilities.  On her inaugural trip she visited 12 different ports. During the winter it was planned that the Eskimo would sail between Halifax and St. Pierre.

Initial response was encouraging. Potatoes, produce and hay were much in demand and the capacity for refrigerated perishable cargo was welcomed by the smaller communities. However, even in the first year the problem was one of return cargo.  The smaller Newfoundland communities had little to offer that was not already available in the Island.  Bulk cargos such as limestone and newsprint would require visits to other ports on Newfoundland’s west coast and the coat of shipping to P.E.I. and then transferring cargo to ships bound for Halifax or Montreal made the operation uneconomic.

J. Walter Jones the Premier who backed an aggressive shipping policy

J. Walter Jones the Premier who backed an aggressive shipping policy

Early in 1950 the Eskimo became the subject of political disagreement with acrimonious debates in the legislature. The opposition seized on the fact that the ship had operated at a loss and demanded answers. Both the Liberals in the legislature and the staff of the Industrial Corporation defended the operation and promised that business would increase and that P.E.I. would soon get a bigger share of the $12 million that Newfoundland was spending on imports from the rest of Canada. They claimed that the ship represented a half million dollar benefit to the Island. In 1950 the ship began loading at Summerside as well as Charlottetown and began to stop at Corner Brook as well as the south coast. That year it made eighteen trips to Newfoundland.  Late in 1950 the Premier floated the suggestion that the Eskimo could become involved in the three-cornered trade between the Island, Newfoundland and the West Indies but this was not followed up.

During the legislative session in the spring of 1951 the operation of the Eskimo was again subject to heavy criticism. The opposition charged that the money-losing provincial operation had meant that private shippers could not compete and that services to Newfoundland had actually decreased. The outport visits stopped and most of the voyages were to St. John’s and St. Pierre. After defending the decision to purchase the ship the Premier un-expectantly announced that the government intended to sell the Eskimo to “private capital” and that the ship would be used for trading between the Island and the North Shore of the St. Lawrence, competing with Quebec shippers.  He blamed some of the financial losses of the previous year on the fact that as a crown corporation the Eskimo was not eligible for Dominion government subsidies.

However it was not until the end of March of the following year that the government, in response to questions in the legislature, admitted that it had exited the ship-owning business by selling the vessel some weeks earlier to Alphonse Beauchemin of Matane Quebec. He used the ship for cargos up and down the St. Lawrence, Newfoundland and into Hudson Bay where the ship was lost near Moosonee Ontario in the spring of 1958. The Newfoundland trade was continued by the Newfoundland-owned Blue Peter Steamships which put their American-built Blue Prince on the route.

An extremely useful source for this article is Mac MacKay’s blog Shipfax which details current and historical shipping activities in Halifax.  For more on the background of shipping between Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland see Corey Slumkowski’s article titled “Let them Eat Beef” in Acadiensis 2006