Tag Archives: Northumberland Strait

A very bad poem on very thick Ice

Idealized vision of the Northern Light “surging and smashing” on its way from Pictou to Georgetown.  Illustration: Picturesque Canada 1879.

By no stretch of the imagination could the steamer Northern Light be termed a success. Although much had been promised by the designer and builder of Canada’s first icebreaker at the time of its launch in 1876, it was spectacular in the degree to which it failed to meet expectations.  However coming on the heels of an even greater failure – the steamer Albert – it could still be seen as an improvement.  It appears that when it worked it worked relatively well and the vessel had its fans. Something is better than nothing. As an alternative to the risky iceboat service on the Capes route, spending a day or even a few days pinched in a floe was a burden that could be borne. If the ice and wind conditions were good the passage from Pictou to Georgetown could take as little as four hours. And, unlike the iceboat you didn’t have to help pull the boat.

The following glowing testimonial was the result of a rare four hour trip on 5 January 1884. Experience would show that in most years by mid-January the ice buildup would be so difficult that the steamer would be kept in port for weeks on end. Perhaps it was the rarity of the speedy crossing that inspired to unidentified passenger-poet to put pen to paper. Stealing the meter of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s * “Charge of the LIght Brigade”  he (or perhaps she) recorded the passage of the Northern Light which they had termed “an impatient war horse” across the Strait.

The poem is best when read out loud whilst striking a dramatic pose and making the most of the rhythm of the meter.

  The “Northern Light”

Ice to the  Right of her,
Ice to the Left of her,
Ice to the Front of her,
Surging and smashing.

On the bold steamer goes,
On through the mighty floes,
On with terrific blows,
Shivering and crashing.

Up on the turret high,
Scanning with eager eye,
Watching the dangers nigh,
Stands the brave master.

There too, the Pilot stands,
Grasping the tiller bands,
Waiting his chief’s commands,
To “slow” or go “faster.”

Down in her hold below,
Down under ice and snow,
Down where the fires do glow,
Roaring and hissing:

There, two men watch and gaze,
Watch as the engine plays,
Watch at the mighty maze,
Not a thing missing!

Was there a heart dismay’d,
Was there a man afraid,
Was there a man that said,
“She’d never go through it?”

Not one to reason why,
All there, to do or die,
All there to work and try,
Yes; if they knew it.

Right through the mass she goes,
Up high the ice she throws,
Staggering at all the blows,
Pounding and crashing.

Oh! How we danced and cheered
When past the dangers feared
When our Island we had neared
As on we came rushing.

Having left Pictou at 2 p.m. with freight and twenty passengers the passage must have been unimpeded because the vessel arrived in Georgetown at 6 p.m. and passengers were quickly bustled into the waiting Northern Light Express train for the trip to Charlottetown. Later in the season the “impatient war horse” might better be described as a “reluctant plow horse” as it spent much of the next three months stabled at the railway wharf in Georgetown waiting for the ice the begin to break up.

The Northern Light at the board ice. Pictou Harbour was not infrequentdly impoossible to reach and the ship had to moor at the edge of the ice attached to the shore. Passengers, freight, coal and the mails would be ferried by sleigh out to the ship, sometimes four or five miles from shore. Illustration: Harper’s Weekly 21 Febraury 1885.

  • Tennyson was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom and his works were often parodied. Another PEI link to Tennyson was the house of the Lowden family on Dundas Esplanade, now the Haviland Club and for many years the U.S. Consulate. The house was named “Farringford” which was the name of Tennyson’s residence on the Isle of Wight.

Readers of the blog may be interested in additions which have been made to a number of posts as the result of further rersearch. A note of an early navigational light at the harbour entrance has been added to the history of Blockhouse Point found here. This new information suggests that the light here may pre-date the 1845 lighthouse at Point Prim. More details have emerged regarding the building of the Pownal Street wharf and the revised entry can be found here.


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. Nikolai Dreyer was a Russian noble in the icebreaker service  who supported the Bolsheviks in the revolution and became a member of the Central Committee of the Arctic Ocean Flotilla. In 1919, after the interventionists, supported by the British, gained control of Arkhangelisk, Dreyer was tried and shot as a Bolshevik.*  At some later date the vessel 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.