Tag Archives: Orwell

Port Selkirk – A Model Commmunity

In the 1880 Meacham’s Atlas of Prince Edward Island there are two planned towns. One was Victoria which continues to be a viable community albeit a little empty of residents in the winter owing to the high percentage of summer landowners. The other is Port Selkirk in lot 57, just down the road from Orwell Cove.

Port Selkirk from Meacham''s Atlas, 1880

Port Selkirk from Meacham”s Atlas, 1880

Neatly laid out with 76 lots on five blocks, carved up by five streets, only some of which carried names, Port Selkirk was never to fulfill the landowner’s expectations.

What it shared with Victoria was an easy point of access  to the sea. Orwell Brush Wharf was the best quay serving the farmers and merchants of the Orwell and Belfast districts.  The port was on the Orwell River just below where the Vernon River flowed into it.  The deep channel, which still shows depths of more than thirty feet, was well sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds. There was a tee-shaped government wharf at the end of the road which linked the port to communities such as Orwell Corner, Kinross, Uigg, Vernon and Newton.  There was an established ferry crossing to China Point and in winter it was a good point to cross the ice on the way to town.  But being at the end of the road was a bit of a problem because only a mile or so to the East was another community which was already established as a service centre for the area. Orwell Cove was never more than a rural cross-roads but it had all that Port Selkirk would like to provide.

Orwell Cove about 1907

Orwell Cove about 1907

While Orwell Cove was not actually on the water – the cove itself is shallow and some distance from the cross-roads –  the community was already recognized as the commercial centre of the area and it had the district school.  Merchants and tradesmen were already living there and if someone was to build on the small village lots of Port Selkirk it would be have to be these folks – farmers didn’t live in towns.

Port Selkirk (Brush Wharf) 1935

Port Selkirk (Brush Wharf) 1935

Port Selkirk simply failed to develop. Although it was visited by the ships of the steamboat fleet such as the City of London and the Jacques Cartier in the late 19th and early 20th century the shore-side potential of the site was not realized. The period after 1880 was a bad one for the Island with  economic reversals and in the following decades many left the Island to the Boston States or the West . Population had dropped by almost 20% by the Great War and the greatest loss was in farming areas where lower quality soils and steep slopes made agriculture un-economic. One of the areas hardest hit was in the southern part of Kings and Queens Counties.  In addition the building of the Murray Harbour Branch of the PEI Railway and the building of a station at Uigg gave farmers and travelers an alternative to Brush Wharf for getting their goods to market.

By 1935 it was clear that Port Selkirk had ceased to be anything but a dream.  Although the field pattern which can be seen in the aerial  photograph mirrors the 1880 plan, the streets, lots and busy businesses were conspicuously absent. What few houses and buildings that had been there earlier had been mostly abandoned and it is doubtful if any of the streets were actually laid out.

Harland leaving Halliday's Wharf ca. 1910. Michael Costa photo

Harland leaving Brush Wharf ca. 1910. Michael Costa photo

Brush Wharf, however, continued to be used. It was a port of call for the Harland into the 1930s but after the end of the regular steamer service and the improvement of the road network little shipping activity was seen. Even the occasional schooner loading potatoes or grain became a rare event. However, between steamer visits it was likely a lonely place.

The development of the mussel industry meant that the wharf was saved unlike so many others such as the one across the river at China Point which is now nothing but a rock pile at the edge of the channel. Thanks to a large and thriving mussel operation using the Orwell River and Bay Brush wharf is today a very busy spot even if it stands alone at the end of the road. There are no steamers or schooners but the oddly shaped specialized craft designed to service the cultivation of the blue mussel shuttle back and forth from to the beds to the pier and the large processing facility on the shore is a major employer in the area.

I visited China Point and the Orwell River on one of my sailing excursions and found it to be an exceptional anchorage. With the sun rising the next morning over what would have been Port Selkirk it was easy to imagine what might have been.

Time has not been kind to many of our small Island communities. Compare this photo taken today of Orwell Cove with the postcard image seen above:

Orwell Cove May 2016

Orwell Cove May 2016

I am indebted to Dave Hunter, one of the few residents of Port Selkirk, and to followers of his several facebook and web pages for information in identifying the exact site of the 1907 postcard image.  He was able to provide background historical information for every one of the structures seen in that photograph.



Pleasant Ways and Days on the Waters of the Bay – 1877

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Semi-Weekly Patriot 4 August 1877 p. 3

Up until recently pleasure sailing from Charlottetown was not restricted to private yachts. The harbour held a several possibilities for spending time of the water. By picking your day you could go to a number of  destinations, any of which would become an excursion. In 1877 a writer for the Semi-Weekly Patriot calculated there were at least nine different routes, several of which had stops at a number of different wharves and ports.  He writes about the routes to Pictou, Summerside, Crapaud, Orwell, Mount Stewart, Bonshaw, Southport, Rocky Point, and the Islands of Governor’s and St. Peter’s.  Starting from what the writer called the “Queen City of the Gem of the Gulf” the correspondent waxes eloquent about the services to Pictou and Summerside where rail connections opened to the world but other ports were closer at hand. Several of these locations became sites of choice for church teas and picnics and almost every lodge and fraternal association took advantage  of the services offered at least once over the summer season. On Dominion Day 1878, for example, over 400 people crowded onto the Heather Belle for an excursion to Orwell. On the other hand, as seen from the advertisement above, groups sponsoring teas at the outports attracted additional participants by advertising the travel option provided by the steamers. The main business of the  steamers was to provide regular passenger and freight services. However, self-guided tours or “days out” to the destinations up and down Northumberland Strait were also a popular activity.

In a earlier post I noted the Patriot’s observations about the trips up and down the rivers flowing into the bay. Today’s installment covers trips to Victoria and Orwell.

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Paddle Steamer Heather Belle ca. 1870

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Heather Belle from the 1878 birds-eye view of Charlottetown

But many pleasure seekers desire a shorter trip, say half a day. Then they will take the Heather Belle to Crapaud in early morning on every Saturday going down the harbor, across the “Three Tides” out around St. Peter’s Island, in site of “Governors” and within hearing of the almost ceaseless booming  of the Bell Buoy on its dangerous reef, and along the Island coast with the neat farms and comfortable homesteads, the dancing water and clear air, all rendered doubly beautiful by the morning sun. On arriving at Victoria, passengers can either take carriages and drive to Crapaud three miles, a charming scene, and thence to County line on the Railway, where they can take a mid-day train for home, whole cost $2.00 each; or return to Victoria and home again by boat arriving here about noon. If a special party of 30 or 40 is made up Mr. Hughes will allow them nearly five (5) hours (according to the tide) at Crapaud to aspread the cloths and enjoy the contents of a basket; returning here about 6:30 p.m. The whole trip costs 50 cents each (return) ticket, while ordinary fare is $1.00 for the round trip.

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Heather Belle schedule 1879 Semi-Weekly Patriot 4 May 21879

For a short and pleasant sail few better opportunities are offered than to Orwell and return, upon Thursday and Tuesday afternoons. The boat leaves at 3 o’clock, when, carrying your lunch basket, you will steam across Pownal and Orwell Bays, touching at the “new wharf” and viewing “High Bank” near which the “Polly” landed her passengers who were, and are to our Province what the pilgrims of the “Mayflower” are to Plymouth Rock, and Massachusetts. Thence the steamer cuts across to China Point within sight of the mouth of Vernon River and the Bridge where there is opportunity given to ascend the rising ground and view the prospect o’er. Everyone will feel better for the scene to fair to see, while parties will have about an hour given them for lunching in some of the pleasant nooks around. returning to Charlottetown about 8 p.m., the round trip costing 30 cents.

The Heather Belle’s officers and owners, are careful and attentive, the boat is well found and safe and passing close to the beautiful shores allows ample opportunity for people to see everything of interest.

The steamer Heather Belle had been built at Duncan’s Shipyard in Charlottetown in 1862. At her launch she was described by the Islander newspaper as  “a beautiful little steamboat.” Initially built to serve the wharves between Charlottetown and Mount Stewart on the Hillsborough River she soon was serving ports in all of the rivers and across Northumberland Strait. In 1864 she carried delegates from the Nova Scotia port of Brule to the meeting in Charlottetown discussing Maritime Union which became a wider discussion on Confederation.               

China Point

The inlets on the east side of Hillsborough Bay were once busy commercial waterways. Steamers from Charlottetown made regular visits to Halliday’s Wharf near Eldon, the Brush wharf at Eldon and the China Point wharf which served the Ernscliffe peninsula.  The 1880 atlas shows ambitious plans for a gridded community of six streets at Orwell Brush wharf (called Port Selkirk in the plan), not unlike Victoria, but it never developed beyond the dream.  Small schooners stopped at the same wharves and also anchored and loaded from the sand flats as farmers shipped hay, potatoes and wood to Charlottetown and beyond. There was  a ferry which provided a short cut across Orwell bay and the Orwell, Vernon and  Seal Rivers provided and easy water access well into the rural area.  There were no large towns but where the bridge crossed over the Vernon River there was a community with general stores and other services as well as a community wharf.

Today the whole area seems to have turned its back on the sea. The wharves at Hallidays and China Point have crumbled and almost disappeared, their former presence marked only by rockpiles leading out from the shore to the channel. While the beach access at Eldon is still maintained, the road to the China Point wharf has become completely overgrown by trees.  Only the Orwell wharf remains and is the site of a mussel farming operation with beds  extending up the Orwell River and down into Orwell Bay.

But there is still fifty feet of water off the China Point wharf and as the river tucks around the peninsula it offers superb protection from the prevailing winds.  The landscape features dramatic sandstone cliffs to the south and gentle well-cultivated hills to all other compass points. The hills are punctuated by neat farmsteads and the area has not been completely scarred by  semi-suburban cottage clusters.

I reached China Point at the end of a long sail which included a stop at Governor’s Island. Taking a bearing on Blockhouse light across the end of the Governors east spit brings you to the end of the reef at Gallas Point, I  crossed the channel of Orwell Bay to a line of mussel buoys and then worked my way east deep into the bay. Turning north at Penn Point the depth sounder which had been registering a comfortable 10 to 15 feet under the keel of the Halman 20 suddenly showed a depth of 40 to 50 feet – I had arrived at the site of China Point Wharf.    Slipping closer to the shore just north of the wharf site I found myself in a cozy anchorage and following a meal in the cockpit I watched the sun go down highlighting the red cliffs to the south and making silhouettes of the farm buildings to the west.

Overnight the sky was clear and the temperature dipped to just over 5 degrees but the gimballed stove quickly warmed the small cabin in the morning and  I emerged with coffee in hand just as the sun peeped over the horizon. It was 5 a.m. Sunday morning in China Point  and if there was a lack of activity  on week days, its absence was total on Sunday.

There was no wind and gentle mist was beginning to rise from the water. The silence was absolute as a couple of small pilot whales slipped past the boat on their way out to the bay.  I had resolved to see if my crewman, Ben, who lives only a couple of miles from China Point would able to sail back to Charlottetown with me but 5 a.m. was just too early to call. I downed my coffee, had a quick bite and decided to go exploring in the dinghy.  I had been up the Vernon River a year or so before and that left the Orwell to explore. The flat calm and full tide made for easy rowing in the Greenshank.  I was frankly amazed how easily it rowed. It was about 2 1/2 miles from where I had moored to the head of the inlet where the channel petered out and the road crossed. The route meandered from shore to shore but the high tide meant that I could row through the bends. That would not be possible at low water then the waters receded to a channel of a dozen yards.  The five miles up and back took only about two hours. As I came up to Ebony I was able to grab a few photos of the boat in the dawn reflecting the sun on the water.

I rowed in to shore to pick up Ben who was able join me just after the tide turned. A condition of his passage was that he had to supply a lunch which condition he fulfilled in fine style. After we went down river and out into the bay the wind turned against us. We both had engagements later in the day so rather than provoke spousal anger we motored the last few miles back to the yacht club in time for supper. It had been a perfect excursion.