Tag Archives: Ora

The first steam-powered Southport ferries: Isla, Ora, Ino and Arethusa

Residents of Charlottetown may remember the Fairview or have heard of the Hillsborough. They were part of the provincial government’s navy of little ferries. The boats were owned by the colony and sailed by government employees or contracted out for operation. But it was not always so and ferries with less familiar names such as the Isla, the Arethusa, the Ora and the Ino were part of the harbour’s mid-19th century history. These were not government boats but were owned and operated by private businessmen.

The operation of ferries across the harbour was not always an expense for the government. Indeed, by legislation a monopoly on the service was created and the rights to the ferry operation was a revenue source for government. In 1832 for example the rent of the Hillsborough Ferry brought in £50 for the colony. Although the fares were regulated it was still seen as a profitable venture and the rights to the operation could be hotly contested.


Islander 3 August 1849 p.3

In 1849 the exclusive right to operate the ferry was held by Thomas Boggs Tremain. His contract was to run for twenty years, provided he could supply a steam boat of at least twelve horsepower suitable for passengers, cattle and luggage as well as other (and presumably smaller and unpowered) boats for the passage of passengers and their luggage.  The ferry was to cross once every half hour except when it made two trips each day to Canso (Rocky) Point – whenever the government got around to building a wharf there. Tremain had a long association with the ferry service, having been the proprietor of a horse-powered teamboat in the 1830s and 1840s.   In compliance with the requirements of the act Tremain provided a 70 by 14 foot vessel called the Isla which had the necessary twelve horsepower engine imported from England. She had begun service in August of 1849.  A notice stated the new steam ferry-boat would run between Charlottetown and Richmond. The latter name must have been a short-lived name for the area which came to be known as Southport in the mid-1850s.  Tremain’s hold on the contract did not last long. In 1851 complaints were made to the government about the irregularity of the service and the condition of the boat. An investigation found that the complaints were well-founded and Tremain’s contact was cancelled.  An ad appeared in the Haszards Gazette in August 1851 offering the Isla for sale.


Haszard’s Gazette 9 September 1851 p. 3

An advertisement for a successor to Tremain received only one tender, from John Haszard, but he refused to sign unless the government provided docks and slips on both sides of the river which it declined to do. A debate in the legislature resulted in funds being allocated for improvements but by then Haszard’s  offer had been withdrawn. It was only a few years later that the government made the necessary infrastructure investment in the Prince Street Ferry Wharf


Haszard’s Gazette 18 July 1855 p.7

The contract passed to John Roach Bourke who announced in February 1853 that he intended to place a steamer on the Charlottetown Ferry. An engine of about 20 horsepower had already been ordered in England and was to be shipped to A. Duncan & Co. to be placed in a new boat  built in the Duncan yard.  By mid-August the ferry was in operation and was described ay a writer in the Islander as “all but equal to a bridge across the river” and “a mere moving continuation of the highway, and like it, has no covering save the canopy of heaven.”   However the newspaper noted that the next boat on the run (which would surely be needed in a year or so) would benefit from “some place which may afford a shelter from a passing shower….”  Details concerning the vessel are scarce but it appears she was the Arethusa which was also advertised for excursions such as the Temperance Pic Nic at the picnic grounds at Block House Point. The fate of the Arethusa is not known but she was probably replaced by another boat after only a few years of service.

In 1856 the contract was held by Henry Pope Welsh, probably using a ferry called the Ora.,  However his exclusive right was contested by William Crilly Bourke, son of John Roach Bourke. His steamer, the Ino, was on the route from Charlottetown to Mount Stewart Bridge twice a week during 1856.  In May of 1856 Bourke was using the ferry wharf at Minchin’s Point to take on passengers and was charged under the legislation. A trial in the Mayor’s Court gave the decision to the complainants and a charge of 82 shillings but in the Supreme Court it was overturned, among other reasons, on the technicality that the ferry was a boat, not a vessel, and the legislation referred to vessels only.

It is quite possible that by 1861 both the Ino and the Ora were both under Bourke ownership. A moonlight excursion in August of that year saw the two vessels gaily lit with lamps and fireworks fastened together for a trip up and down the river. It was reported in the Examiner that the participants had enjoyed themselves “by agreeable conversation, by promenading the decks, and by a liberal indulgence in the pleasures of the dance.”

By 1862 the Ino had become the property of William Aitken and others operating as the Georgetown Ferry Company. Fifty pounds had been voted by the government in aid of a ferry service “between Georgetown , Montague and adjacent rivers” but when the company sought the funds the fact that the boat was “not fit for the service” was held against it and the full grant was not given.  Thus the Ino seems to have bene the first steam ferry at Georgetown. The boat did not continue in Georgetown for long and was later the subject of a lawsuit when then-owner James Pope attempted to sell it for use as a harbour ferry in Pictou.

1856 saw the building of the Ora in a Charlottetown shipyard of Clement White & Co. This ferry steamer was 73 tons and 73 feet in length by 17 feet wide. The original owner was Henry Pope Welsh but a year later a half interest in the ferry had been transferred to Charles Welsh and in 1861 he sold his interest to William Crilly Bourke who had formerly contested Welsh’s exclusive right to the ferry  route. An inspection of the Ora in 1862 noted that the owners were Bourke and Welsh. This 1862 certificate, incidentally, is one of the few records that refers to the ferry between Charlottetown and Stratford, rather than Southport.  The previous year the two had put another vessel into service in lieu of the additional sail-powered ferry and in a petition to the Legislative Council requested compensation for the increased costs. This boat was possibly the Experiment, a New Brunswick built craft which was larger than the Ino. By this time the ferry and steamer traffic was no more noteworthy than a passage down a city street and so we know even less about these vessels than those of earlier times. I have been able to find no photos or drawings of these little boats that linked the two sides of the harbour for a nearly forty-year period.

Why the arrangement for the private ownership of the ferries was changed is not known. It may be that the government, which received all of the complaints about the ferries, thought they might was well run them since they were going to be criticized anyway. It may be that the purchase of the Ora and the goodwill was a political favour. It may be that the Ora was getting old and had to be replaced and it was unlikely that anyone would invest the funds for a new boat. Or it may be that it was recognized that the ferry was a public utility and should be owned by the government. Whatever the reason in 1871 funds were appropriated by the legislature to purchase the ferry operation from the rights holders for the not insubstantial sum of £500 and an additional sum was allocated for the ferry Ora itself and all related “appurtenances”. The sum arrived at the following year for the purchase of the boat was $1462.31, decimal currency having been introduced in the interim.

The registry for the vessel was changed to the Government of Prince Edward Island in 1871. The Ora appears to have run until at least 1873 but her fate is not recorded. By then government had  invested in a new vessel, the Elfin, which was to operate into the 20th century.

Elfin, first of the government-built ferries

Elfin, first of the government-built ferries

Ferry Hillsborough was last paddle-wheel steamer in harbour


Ferry Wharf in the 1930s

Ferry Wharf in the 1930s

When the ferry steamer Hillsborough (often spelled the Hillsboro) was launched in 1894 there was still a variety of steamer services in Charlottetown. Besides the subsidized service up the east and west rivers there were ferries linking the capital with Southport and with Rocky point and even some service to York Point. The ferry wharf at Prince Street could be a busy place, especially on market days when the ferry would be crowded by teams and wagons and even flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. 

Hillsborough ferry tender. Guardian 4 April 1902

Hillsborough ferry tender. Guardian 4 April 1902

The Hillsborough Ferry had a long history. Originally passage to the south side of the river was served by sail and oar. In the 1830s the development of horsepower on a turntable or treadmill (a teamboat) gave more reliable and regular service. By the 1850s small steam-powered vessels became the norm. Initially the route was tendered out or assigned by legislation and contract but eventually the unreliable service and the poor quality of craft offered led the government to purchase the ferry and contract out the operation. Later ferries were built for government and leased out for the season or a term of years.  Ferries under government ownership in Charlottetown Harbour included the Ora, the Elfin, the Southport, the Hillsborough  which were all steam vessels, and the Fairview which had a diesel engine. The season was set for the period as long as the harbour was clear of ice and so the annual start and end dates varied considerably. One of the first long-term contracts called for the ferry to cross to Southport every half hour except for the times it ran to Canso Point which it was required to do twice a day.

S.S. Hillsborough ca. 1900 PARO #4466/2 Edison Horton Coll.

S.S. Hillsborough ca. 1900 PARO #4466/2 Edison Horton Coll.

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Hillsborough Launch Tea Party  Daily Examiner 16 July 1894

Tenders were called for a new ferry in May of 1893 and the government obviously knew what they wanted for the builders could examine both a model and specifications. The tenders were for the hull only so either there was an engine in hand or the government wanted to tender that separately.

The Hillsborough was launched in Mount Stewart in July 1894 by Pisquid shipbuilder Angus MacDonald. The event was celebrated by a public tea with transportation provided by the Southport and the P.E.I. Railway. The boilers and engine were later installed in Charlottetown by MacKinnon and MacLean. The 225 ton steamer was 105 feet long and had a beam of 25 feet. The steam engine provided thirty and a half horsepower. Like both the Elfin and the Southport she was propelled by paddle wheels on either side of the hull.  She was double-ended with helm positions at either end of the vessel.  The Hillsborough was later reported to have cost the Province $17,800.

The Elfin (left) and Hillsborough heading for the Prince Street wharf ca. 1903. Photo is taken from the fabrication yard for the Hillsborough Bridge east of the Railway Wharf.

The Elfin (left) and Hillsborough heading for the Prince Street wharf ca. 1903. Photo is taken from the fabrication yard for the Hillsborough Bridge east of the Railway Wharf.

In 1895 the Southport, which had formerly been running across that harbour to …(as might be expected) …Southport, was moved to provide service to the East and West Rivers. The ferry to Rocky Pont at the time was the Elfin and the new  ferry steamer Hillsborough took over the cross-river route. She left Charlottetown first at 6:30 a.m. and then at half hour intervals until 9:00 p.m. She left the Southport wharf at quarter to and quarter past the hour. However there were several alterations or exceptions over the years to allow the Hillsborough to undertake excursions and to visit other ports. In 1901, for example, the Hillsborough visited Victoria where she went aground and a year later she was used to provide passenger service to Fort Augustus for the St. Patrick’s Church Tea Party.

Abandoned Ferry wharf at Southport ca. 1915

Abandoned Ferry wharf at Southport ca. 1915

In 1906 when the Murray Harbour railway line opened with service across the recycled Hillsborough Bridge a chapter in the harbour history closed. The bridge (which carried both rail and road traffic) was originally scheduled to be taken over by the provincial government on the first of July but the ferry ran for some time after that. A notice from the Secretary of Public Works simply stated “On and after Saturday, September 29th, the Ferry Steamer, Hillsborough will cease to run on the Southport Ferry.” With only one ferry route to service the ferry Southport was redundant and was disposed of. A week later the Elfin was destroyed by fire and the Hillsborough was transferred to the Rocky Point crossing and continued to operate on that route for almost thirty more years.

In the 1930s the deterioration of the ferry meant that it spend several lengthy periods on the marine slip in Pictou being re-planked and sheathed to extend its life. In mid-June 1935 it was announced that the ferry would no longer carry motor or horse traffic and a few days later the Guardian noted that the boat had been replaced by a motor sloop owned by MacDonald Brothers. With the ice-up of the harbour in January 1936 it was clear that the Hillsborough had made her last trip. The new ferry, the Fairview,was nearing completion at Capt. Charles Fitzgerald’s boatyard in Georgetown and it was hoped she would be in place when the ice went out in the spring.

In early May 1936, when the old Hillsborough left the harbour of Charlottetown for the last time the fires in the boiler had long gone cold. The ferry made its last trip towed by the government tug Bally. She was en route to Pictou where the discarded Hillsborough was dismantled and sold for scrap. She had been on the ferry route longer than any other vessel in the history of the harbour and was the last paddle wheel vessel seen in the harbour.

“…to sell a steamer, not a wreck”- James Pope and the sale of the ferry Ino

Very soon after the appearance of the first steamboat on Northumberland Strait it was clear that steam would be well suited to propel the ferry across the Hillsborough River to Southport and in the next two decades a number of contractors sought to provide appropriate vessels. Not all of these early boats were successful and the service proceeded in fits and starts, sometimes with steam boats and sometimes reverting to the “teamboat” driven by horses on a turntable. As several of the early steamboats were small indeed they did not have to be registered with British authorities so we have few of their details. One of the early boats on the run was the Ino. The vessel had been built for, and was owned by William C. Bourke, was sold by him to a Charlottetown company for use as a ferry and was returned to him as it did not fit the purpose. Other than that we know little of the Ino at the beginning of its life but a great deal about it end.

Like many vessels of the time the Ino carried a name related to Greek mythology. Ino was the daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia and is credited by Homer with instructing Odysseus how to survive in the seas and reach land. There is a reference to a vessel of this name  as early as 1832 but it was more likely built in 1853 when an engine was imported from England for John R. Bourke.  In 1856 a court action resulted from Bourke running an unauthorized ferry service and failing to pay wharfage fees. As a result the Ino appears to have been used up and down the Hillsborough rather than across the harbour. Certainly by the mid to late 1850s it had been replaced by the ferry steamer Ora.

In 1864 the Ino was owned by James Pope and had been moved to Summerside. He may have placed her on the ferry service from Bedeque to Summerside but either because she was worn out or unsuitable he had removed the engines and boilers and intended to use the hull as a barge.

Detail of Pictou harbour chart 1850. Note ferry wharf on south side of harbour.

Detail of Pictou harbour chart 1850. Note ferry wharf on south side of harbour.

Pictou, like Charlottetown looked out on an estuary and was separated from the town of New Glasgow by the sea. A ferry across the harbour was certainly desirable if not essential for the town’s growth and in 1864 the Pictou Steamboat Company was looking for a boat. The pre-confederation grapevine suggested that a former Charlottetown ferry was available and in May 1864  the company posted an inquiry to Pope. Pope was reluctant to sell but offered the machinery. The Pictou Company persisted and Pope directed them to William C. Bourke, captain of the Heather Belle for further details. Bourke had been given authority to close the deal. He represented the Ino as having a zinc bottom in good order, that the hull and deck were perfectly fit, that the hull was well-built with strong knees and that the side of the boat was not really burnt but merely singed (!). The Ino, he concluded would suit the purpose and was just thing wanted for Pictou harbour. The deal was closed for $1360 to include the boat, engines and all materials belonging to her, payment due one month after Bourke took control of the boat in Summerside. The Pictou directors didn’t even bother to inspect the vessel but relied on Bourke’s assurances.  They instructed Bourke to bring the boat to Pictou  and he negotiated with the Island Steam Navigation Company steamer Princess of Wales to tow her to  Charlottetown.

That’s when the problems first became evident.  As the court record recounts the vessel arrived in Charlottetown in a sinking state and  “after remaining there submerged for ten or twelve days” she was towed to Pictou by Bourke using the Heather Belle. The time under water may have tipped the Pictonians off that all was not well with the Ino. On arrival the company finally got a look at what they had purchased sight unseen. She did not have a zinc bottom and was in other ways inferior and different from Bourke’s description. In short the Company judged her “worthless for the purpose for which she was required…”  and refused to take delivery. A local shipwright inspected her and declared her to be “a complete wreck.” Pope didn’t want her back and demanded payment.

In 1865 Pope’s suit for his payment was heard in the Nova Scotia court, his lawyers arguing that the Company had taken delivery in Summerside and since they had not returned the boat to Summerside they were duty bound to do so. Not surprisingly the Pictou Steamboat Company countered that Pope’s agent had used misrepresentation and fraud and that the contract was void.  The jury found for the company.

Citing extensive legal technicalities Pope appealed to the Supreme Court and the account of Pope v. the Pictou Steamboat Company occupies 53 pages in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court Reports.  The case report is long on legal argument and case-law and short on the facts of the case. We learn little more about the Ino but a great deal about the law of fraud, evidence and contract in Nova Scotia in 1865. In the end the five judges found that the fraud of Pope’s agent, Bourke, as to the condition of the vessel was sufficient to void the contract and four of the five agreed that it was not necessary to return the boat to Summerside to bring the matter to an end. Pictou kept their money.

The case is silent on what became of the Ino but the Report hints that at the time of the appeal the vessel could no longer be returned to Summerside and that it had lost all value. Given her evident condition it would not be surprising to find that the one-time Charlottetown ferry is currently resting somewhere in the mud at the bottom of Pictou harbour.