Tag Archives: Northumberland Strait

Fulfilling a Confederation promise – Ferry service began 100 years ago this week

One of the earliest photos of the S.S. P.E.I.leaving port. Much of the upper deck with the first-class lounge was removed when the ship was altered to carry automobiles in the 1930s.  Photo: National Museum of Science and Technology.

On 15 October 1917 the first scheduled round trip of the S.S. Prince Edward Island between Port Borden P.E.I. and Cape Tormentine N.B. took place – achieving the goal of “continuous steam communication” which had been part of the Confederation conditions under which the Dominion joined the Island in 1873. Without a ribbon cutting and an official ceremony (unthinkable today)  the first trip was a modest beginning for an Island travel tradition which did not end until the opening of the Confederation Bridge in 1997.

In reality the ferry had operated on the route for several weeks but the freight consisted only of supplies and materials for the completion of the wharves, tracks and rail yard on the Borden side. The project had been a massive undertaking and had been the biggest construction seen on the Island since the building of the Hillsborough Bridge and the Murray Harbour branch railway.  Although there had been a rudimentary wharf on the Cape Tormentine side built when the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Railway reached the end of the peninsula in 1886 the wharf, and the entire rail line had to be upgraded. On the Prince Edward Island side a branch line had been built to Cape Traverse from Emerald so only a short addition was required to bring the line to the site at Carleton Head. This extension was built in part by using German prisoners of war.  Wharves extending to a minimum low-water depth of 20 feet had to be extended into Northumberland Strait as there was no natural harbour on either side.  At the same time the rail marshalling yard where goods were transferred from standard gauge mainland rail cars to the narrow gauge PEIR cars had to be built.  Another feature of the site was the development of Port Borden, the first planned community on the Island since the county towns were laid out in the 1770s.  On the streets of the new town, named for Primer Minister Robert Borden, buildings were constructed while others were hauled from Cape Traverse to their new sites. All of this activity was a draw for excursionists and visitors.

P.E.Island New Ferry Service showing Cape Tormentine and (erroneously) Cape Traverse. Raphael Tuck postcard ca. 1917

The benefits for the Island started immediately. The difference in capacity of the mainland line and the diminutive P.E.I Railway is illustrated by the fact that on the first trip from Cape Tormentine to the Island the S.S. P.E.I. carried 12 Intercolonial cars which represented loads for 24 cars of the Island’s railway.  Loading and unloading the rail cars unto the ferry took only 25 minutes and it is perhaps fitting that the first commercial crossing to New Brunswick consisted entirely of rail cars of potatoes. Twelve Intercolonial cars easily carried  what it had taken twice that number of the narrow-gauge cars.

Even with the need to transfer goods from one type of car to another the new ferry reduced the bottleneck for shipping which had previously required that everything be taken off the rail cars by hand, loaded on board ships, taken off the ships and re-loaded unto the mainland rail cars. Now, in the Borden rail yard the cargos could be transferred directly from rail car to rail car and loaded directly aboard the ferry to connect at Sackville with mainland trains.

Smoking room aboard the S.S. Prince Edward Island

For passengers the S.S. Prince Edward Island was a luxurious interval in their rail journey  it had a smoking room, ladies cabin, first and second class lounges and a dining room.  The interior resembled a scaled down ocean liner with mahogany panelling and carpeted decks.  The ship had been launched in England in 1914 and travelled between Charlottetown and Pictou for two years while waiting for the Borden and Tormentine piers to be completed. For more photos of the building of the vessel and the interior views of the ship see here. The S. S. Prince Edward Island remained on the route for more than fifty years, finally being retired in 1968.

Initially there were only two round trips per day. One could leave Charlottetown at 6:00 am, take the morning ferry at 8:55  and be in Sackville before noon to connect with the Ocean Limited to Montreal. The afternoon ferry trip at 4:20 allowed rail passengers to connect with the Maritime Express.

With the new service finally established, the Island’s pleas to the Dominion changed. Like Oliver Twist we didn’t want much – we just wanted more.  Agitation for another boat and more service started almost immediately. With the completion of a third rail for standard gauge cars between Borden and Charlottetown and Summerside in 1919 through passenger car service so that passengers did not have to disembark from the PEI Railway cars at the ferry and re-board the Intercolonial cars at Tormentine became a goal – one that was not achieved until the 1930s. Another issue dealt with at the same time was the elimination of the need and cost to transfer autos to railway flat cars before loading them on the ferry.

I was fortunate to have been one of the hundreds of Islanders who served on the S.S. Prince Edward Island over her lifespan. Working as a purser on the vessel in her final years she became my favourite of all of the ferries and like many Islanders I have fond memories of crisscrossing the Strait and the many days and nights aboard the old “Prince”.


From Fine Scotch to Ice-cold Vodka – the Several Lives of the S.S. Minto

Throughout the 1890s the issue of “continuous steam communication” with the mainland which had been one of the confederation pledges continued to be a problem for Prince Edward Island. Although there had been some relief provided by the S.S. Stanley in 1888 Islanders still needed, and wanted more and in 1899 a larger, more powerful and technologically advanced vessel was provided by the Dominion government.

The Minto, named for Gilbert Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, 4th Earl of Minto and 8th Governor-General of Canada, was launched on 12 July 1899 from the Camperdown Yard of Gourlay and Brothers, Dundee, Scotland. The 255 foot vessel had a displacement of 1,100 tons and was specially designed for ice conditions found in Northumberland Strait. She had large trimming tanks for and aft which allowed for the lowering of the stern and raising of the cut-away bow to cause the ship to ride atop the ice and crush it. Staterooms at the forward end of the deck-house allowed for about thirty passengers in cabins with additional space in a large saloon paneled in polished oak. Officers was also quartered in the deck-house with deck crew and engineers at the fore and aft of the main deck.  With steam heat and electric lights throughout it was easily the most modern ship on the Strait. An Islander who visited the yard, Wm. H. Clark, described the ship as “almost perfect in its arrangement for the comfort of passengers.” In an apparently unadvertised capacity the vessel was described as a fast unarmed cruiser which could, in times of war, be equipped with four six-pound Hotchkiss quick-firing guns.

Pre-launch drawing of the Minto. Note the guns on the bow and stern of the vessel

Pre-launch drawing of the Minto. Note the guns on the bow and stern of the vessel

Soon after her arrival in Charlottetown she was fitted with two ice-boats similar to those used at the Capes crossing for use in the unlikely event that the vessel became stuck in the ice. In some years they were frequently resorted to. The Minto did not replace the older Stanley but supplemented the service. The existence of two boats was seized on by the community of Summerside to press for service between that town and the terminus of the railway at Cape Tormentine. Merchant R. T. Holman was particularly vocal in advocating for the route to be used and for several years it was tried but in most years build up of ice in Bedeque Bay meant that  as the winter progressed the routing moved. In the early winter the Stanley tried to run between Summerside and Cape Tormentine and the Minto from Charlottetown to Pictou but as the ice built up the two vessels would run between Georgetown and Pictou.


Minto in ice. Note the Capes-type iceboat on the stern davits

The winter of 1902-1903 was especially difficult and both vessels were caught in the ice for lengthy periods. The Stanley was frozen in a pan and drifted with the tides for 66 days. She was found by the Minto 26 miles east of Pictou Island but in trying to free her the Minto broke a propeller blade and was imprisoned as well.  In the winter of 1905 the harbour of Pictou became blocked with ice and the two ships were unable break through. It was a disaster for the island farm community which, owing to a poor crop had been forced to import hay from the mainland.  While the ice boats at the Capes could keep up with passengers and mail all freight had to wait on the dock at Pictou until the ice drifted off-shore.

The Minto was a favoured subject for a number of postcards and photographs. Click on any image for a slide show.

When released from its annual winter crossing duties the Minto was used for a variety of Department of Marine and Fisheries duties including lighthouse maintenance and fisheries patrols. In 1915 she was part of a contingent of vessels sent to Hudson’s Bay to survey the area in preparation for the development of Churchill Manitoba as a major grain shipping port.

On her return from Hudson’s Bay, like the Earl Grey before her, she was bought by Russian Imperial Government to aid in the war effort keeping the Barents Sea open for shipping. She was renamed Ivan Susanin by the Russians.  Ivan Susanin was a Russian folk hero who was reported to have saved the life of the Tsar in 1613  and is the subject of an opera by Glinka.

Unlike the Earl Grey which remained a Canadian naval vessel until handed over to the Russians the Minto crossed the Atlantic under a Russian flag but with a Canadian crew of 52 under command of Captain John Read. On 28 November 1915 she sailed from North Sydney and after a passage of 17 days on 15th December 1915 the Minto arrived in Alexanderovsk (now Polarynj), near Murmansk, Russia. After taking on board bunkers she proceeded to Arkhangelsk. Some 35 miles from Arkhangelsk the ice became very thick and the ship could not enter Arkhangelsk, A Russian crew was brought out and relieved the Canadian crew, the trip to shore across the ice took more as 20 hours by sleds and in a temperature of minus 35 degree Celsius many crew members were severely frostbitten on their arrival in Arkhangelsk. A detailed account of the voyage to Russia can be found in the Spring/Summer 1988 issue of The Island Magazine

The ships of the arctic fleet led a confused existence with the several changes in government and administration in Arkhangelsk with White Russian forces and revolutionary forces clashing during and after the Great War but by 1920 the Susanin was a unit of the Soviet Naval Forces of the North Sea.

Ivan Susanin (left) with unidentified warship in Russian waters

Ivan Susanin (left) with unidentified warship in Russian waters

Dreyer21921 saw the transfer of the Ivan Susanin to commercial activities. The previous year it had been  re-named the Leytenant Dreyer. I have not been able to learn who Dreyer was and why the ship was named for him. Perhaps one of my Russian readers could find this information. At some later date she seems to have carried the name Skuratov. The ship itself was lost in 1922 off the Kanin Peninsula in the Barents Sea near the tiny community of Indiga (not off the coast of Norway as some accounts have it). In 1933 Pravda carried a small item stating that EPRON, the state salvage organization, which had raised many ships sunk in Soviet waters, would be carrying out a new job in the north; the raising of the Ivan Susanin from its resting place on the floor of the East Barents Sea. The icebreaker however does not appear on the list of recovered vessels and the attempt may have been abandoned.  The name has been re-used for an icebreaker used by the Russian military which was launched in Leningrad 1973 and which is now part of the Pacific Fleet.

“A Friendly Invasion from the Sea” The Challenge Labatt Canada 1984

It seems like not so very long ago but already the newspaper clippings have yellowed and begun to fade. Not so the light in the eyes of those who participated in what was, at the time, an amazing event. They reminisce about the month of days and nights afloat in one of the biggest sailing events in the history of Northumberland Strait – the Challenge Labatt Canada of 1984.

The event was astoundingly audacious. Take ten of the most modern tracing yachts being built in North America, give them to ten crews representing each of the provinces and race from Toronto, down the Saint Lawrence, through the Gulf and Northumberland Strait to a finish line in Charlottetown. Ostensibly the event was to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s voyage but in reality to was just one helluva great excuse for a race.

Such an event could only have been dreamed up by a brewery – in this case Labatts. This at a time when “Labatt 50” was one of the best-selling beers in the country. The sailing partner was C&C Yachts who furnished 10 new fully equipped one-design 35-foot boats as sailing billboards for Labatts.  The month-long race which began on 23 June 1984 consisted of six legs – Toronto to Kingston, Quebec City to Rimouski, Rimouski to Riviere au Renard (on the north shore of the Gaspe), Riviere au Renard to Gaspe (Ile Bonaventure Race), Gaspe to Shediac, Shediac to Charlottetown. The longest leg was the 350 mile Gaspe to Shediac section. The Shediac-Charlottetown leg followed the traditional night-race route down the Strait and was one of the shortest legs. The series was scheduled to end in Charlottetown on 21 July 1984 .

While some crews were the same for the entire race the P.E.I. contingent rotated through the race with seven to nine members joining for specific legs.  The fact that the individuals had not always sailed together as a team was offset by there being fresh crew to combat the fatigue experienced over the long race.  The P.E.I. crew was almost all from the Charlottetown Yacht Club and drew from a pool of experienced racers who had participated in local, regional and national competitions in boats of all sizes. Many were veterans of the Round the Island Races. They included Gordie Beck, David Stewart, Terry McKenna, Peter Mellish, David Mosher, Hugh Paton, Bob Pinkham, John Rankin, Donald Scott, Percy Simmonds, Robert Midgley, Ron Stewart and Peter Williams.

The P.E.I. crew made a tactical error in the first leg and had an eighth place finish in the first leg but in the next two legs managed fourth and fifth placements. They finished eighth in the Ile Bonaventure leg.  They had a great race in the Gaspe-Shediac leg and grabbed a second place finish as over 200 spectators turned out 2 a.m. to watch the boats cross. For the final leg coming home to Charlottetown skipper Peter Williams had the following crew: Dave Mosher, Dave Stewart, Ron Stewart, Bob Pinkham, Hugh Paton, Percy Simmonds, and Peter Mellish.

Charlottetown Patriot 21 July 1984 p.1

Boats rafted up after the race. Charlottetown Patriot 21 July 1984 p.1

Because the event built on a number of local races many legs had additional yachts participating. The last leg incorporated the Shediac to Charlottetown race, then in its 20th year.  In addition to the 10 Labatt boats, an astonishing one hundred and four local and regional yachts participated in the final leg!

The start from Shediac was at 6 in the evening and the record for the passage was about 12 hours. Spectators were told they could expect the first boats at sunrise in Charlottetown. However brisk south-west winds and a clear night saw the speedy C&C yachts smash the record and begin arriving a full three hours ahead of time. The Quebec boat was first to finish and was followed closely by Nova Scotia. The first six boats finished within minutes of each other.  The Island boat was only four minutes back of the leader but was the fifth boat to finish. For the series overall the Islanders were awarded fourth place behind Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and Quebec. They had been tied in points with Ontario but were given the win as they had beaten Ontario in the last leg of the series. Through the day the rest of the one hundred plus boat fleet sailed through the harbour narrows and finished off the Charlottetown Yacht Club .

The land side of the event was an important one for the Charlottetown Yacht Club. It was estimated that the event brought upwards of 1000 sailors to Charlottetown along with many more families, friends and spectators. The waterfront was thick with masts, outnumbering even the busiest 19th century days of wood, wind and water. Gordie Miller was chair of the hosting committee which included liaison with the Canadian Coast Guard, City, Province and the Charlottetown Yacht Club. The Club had re-built the west wharf and put in facilities including building 70 floats to accommodate the more than 100 boats that arrived as part of the race. The awards were presented at a special event a the Confederation Centre of the Arts by federal Minister Charles LaPointe representing the Governor General, PEI premier Jim Lea and Lt. Governor J.D. Doiron.

It was the biggest and most prestigious sailing event ever to take place in Charlottetown and there has been nothing like it since. Those who participated will never forget it.

I was fortunate to be entrusted with a file of news clippings preserved by one member of the Island crew.  Thanks to the efforts of Chris Brittan and others there was lots of local press coverage and the reporting was also carried elsewhere.  The file of clippings with lots more details can be accessed by clicking on Labatt001. This is a large file in pdf format and will take time to load. You will also need a pdf reader such as Adobie.