Tag Archives: Orinoco

The unfulfilled promise of a Montreal to Charlottetown steamer connection

The mid-1850s were a period of optimism in Prince Edward Island. Population had increased, responsible government had been put in place, a free education act was in operation and in Charlottetown, the incorporated city had replaced the town.  In the harbour, communication with the mainland had become reliable with a steamer connecting with Pictou on a regular basis. There was a sail packet between Charlottetown and Boston. In 1857 there were even two competing ships on the route, the schooner Eglantine and the clipper brig Gelena, and in 1858 a new schooner, the Carrie M. Rich, 129 tons engendered the enthusiasm of the Examiner newspaper “We have never seen anything destined to walk the waters that appeared to us better calculated for her work than she is.”  There were also vessels that plied the direct route between Charlottetown and English ports. All looked positive on the communications front – with one exception.

The Island was less well-connected with Canada. In the early 1830s the Royal William, later to be one of the first vessels to cross the North Atlantic under steam power, made several stops in Charlottetown while operating between Pictou and Quebec. Another false start occurred in 1852 when the steamer Albatross, ostensibly owned by B.W.A. Sleigh made two voyages between New York and Quebec with a stop in Charlottetown but the attempt was unsuccessful, if not fraudulent.  Direct connection with Montreal was more of a problem as the shallow Lake St. Pierre in the St. Lawrence River between Quebec and Montreal had restricted passage to vessels drawing less than eleven feet. However, under the direction of the Montreal Harbour Commission a program of dredging had been begun, and by 1853 a channel had been deepened to 16 feet allowing direct passage of ships of up to 500 tons. This opened Montreal to the world, but not necessarily with Prince Edward Island  

While several steamship lines were established at this time to exploit the possibility of direct connection to England, the advantage of links to what at the time were called “the Lower Provinces” was also given attention. In 1858 the Montreal Gazette noted:

We are glad to observe, that our rising trade with the Lower Provinces is attracting attention. An effort is being made to obtain the advantages of direct steam communication … This could be efficiently secured by a line of three strong steamers adapted for steam navigation with good passenger accommodation and of sufficient power to make a weekly trip from Montreal to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and vice versa, touching at Riviere du Loup and Rimouski, and thus securing and accommodating the large Canadian travel to the watering places of the Lower St. Lawrence, then at Gaspe, affording outlet to the important trade of that district, and and next at ports in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia before arriving at the terminus of Prince Edward Island. Such a line would command a large and remunerative business. It would attract a tide of ocean pleasure travel and it would develop and build up our interprovincial trade.  Besides the passenger traffic, it would have down freights of flour and provisions, and return cargos of fish, sugar, and molasses. With the legitimate businesses that would speedily be developed, and subsidies from the Lower Provinces and Canada to foster it until self supporting, the interprovincial line would be a feeder in the ocean line of steamers, and would do much to advance the interests of all the provinces.   

The editorial opinion was picked up by other Montreal and Quebec newspapers and was re-printed in Charlottetown’s Islander, and the idea of Charlottetown as a terminus of interprovincial trade was no doubt attractive and would provoke the attention of Island merchants and shippers. However there was at the time little trade between the Island and Quebec, and the limited cargos of oats and other produce moving west, and even less from Canada to Prince Edward Island. Halifax and New England provided adequate outlets for Island surpluses and the Island’s merchants were serviced by direct shipment from the United Kingdom or New England. Moreover passenger traffic from Canada to the Island was slight at best, and Island family links with Montreal, later to increase significantly, were limited.    

The idea of a direct steamer service between Prince Edward Island and Montreal was not sufficiently attractive to attract the investment of the Montreal capitalists who were funding a number of new steamship lines such as the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company and the Canadian Steam Navigation Company. The former company, under the direction of Hugh Allan was the most successful, becoming known as the Allan Line and later as Canadian Pacific Steamships and it was for many years a serious competitor to the Cunard and White Star lines on the profitable North Atlantic route. 

Examiner 6 September 1869

In 1860 the steamer Lady Head, owned by the government of Canada and operated as the Royal Mail Line began a subsidized regular service between Quebec and the Maritimes but the terminus for the service was Pictou and the vessel only rarely stopped at Prince Edward Island.  Instead, the smaller cross-strait steamers such as the Westmorland, and later the ships of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company; the Saint Lawrence and the Princess of Wales provided connecting services for Island-bound passengers and freight at Pictou and Shediac.  It would be almost ten years after the Montreal Gazette writer wrote about the promise of direct steam communication between Prince Edward Island that it became a reality. The Quebec and Gulf Ports Steamship Company established a regular service in 1869 with vessels such as the Miramichi, and Secret, and later the Campana , Orinoco, and the Trinidad. links were considerably strengthened with the Island entering the confederation in 1873. Other passenger and freight lines provided service even after the Quebec-based company creased operation.  The steamer links would endure into the second half of the 20th century.        

1894 Excursion from New York and Boston was the real beginning of Charlottetown as a cruise ship port of call.

In a posting more than two years ago (found here) I opined that the first cruise ship visited Charlottetown just prior to the Great War. I was wrong by about two decades.

Quebec Steamship Company steamer Orinoco in Charlottetown 10 August 1894. Photo probably by Charlottetown photographer Cloud Hill.

On 10 August 1894 an article appeared in the Charlottetown Examiner announcing “The Orinoco Arrives.” The previous day the vessel with a large party of excursionists had tied up at Pownal wharf. The vessel was described as “handsomely furnished” and the saloons were “spacious and comfortable.” Unlike other passenger-carrying ships she appears to have landed no freight at Charlottetown. This was strictly an excursion trip. On her arrival a large number of Charlottetown residents were welcomed aboard for an evening of music. The ship spent the night and most of the next day in Charlottetown and no doubt passengers came ashore to see the sights of the city. After her stay of just under 24 hours she left to continue her two-week trip to Dalhousie, New Brunswick and the Saguenay, Tadoussac and Quebec.

Before she left however the excursion leader, Mr. E. Stokes, commissioned a local photographer with the intriguing name of Cloud Hill to capture an image of the Orinoco and her tourist passengers. That is, with little doubt, the scene shown above.

The S.S. Orinoco was operated by the Quebec Steamship Company, formerly the Quebec and Gulf Ports SS Co. which had provided a steamer a service between Quebec and Pictou calling at Charlottetown and other ports. In 1894 they had the paddle steamer Miramichi, a former blockade runner, on the route. The Orinoco normally operated between New York and Bermuda and also from Halifax to several Caribbean destinations. However in 1894 the company tried an experimental cruise from New York to the St. Lawrence. The famous Thomas Cook & Sons was the steamship’s agent and the trip was a great success. Thomas Cook had offices in several American cities and with the exception of a single Canadian all of the passengers were Americans. The Orinoco also stopped at Charlottetown about a week later on the return trip to New York. The following year the vessel repeated the excursion with an itinerary which included Boston, Bar Harbor, Portland, Saint John, Yarmouth, Halifax, Dalhousie, Gaspe Saguenay and Quebec.

Built in a yard at Hartlepool in the Tees region of northern England and launched in 1881, the Orinoco which, was originally to be called the Barbados, was an iron screw steamer, 270 feet long and displaced 1864 gross register tons. She had accommodation for 60 first class and 30 second class passengers as well as large freight capacity.

Although the 1894 and 1895 tourist excursions were considered successful they were not repeated and the competition provided by the Plant Line may have been seen as a barrier to further profitable trips. The ship continued to operate from New York to Bermuda and the Halifax firm of Pickford and Black chartered the vessel for their Caribbean service in 1900. Less than six months later she was wrecked in Grenada on a passage from Demerara to Halifax. She was replaced by another Dutch-built chartered vessel which the firm confusingly also renamed as the Orinoco. That vessel was wrecked in 1907.

With the Orinoco’s passengers identified as “tourists” and “excursionists” 1894 makes a much better starting date for Charlottetown’s status as a cruise port. While later vessels were often fitted out with services for cruise passengers their trips to Charlottetown were part of a regular steamship route whose accommodation was available to ordinary travellers as well as tourists. Sold as an excursion the trips of the Orinoco were designed for, and apparently limited to, vacationers. The Port of Charlottetown can thus claim a history of cruise ship visits going back more than 125 years — with a few interruptions.

The image of the Orinoco at Pownal Wharf was brought to my attention through a posting on the Historic Prince Edward Island Facebook site which can be found here. Unfortunately this site does not indicate the source of the photo. More on the history of steamers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence can be found on Kevin Griffin’s excellent site The St. Lawrence Saga.