Tag Archives: Peake Bros.

Prince Edward Island’s Ocean Steamship Company

Patriot 5 September 1878 p.3

Patriot 5 September 1878 p.3

Although after the middle of the 19th century there were a number of Island-owned steamships plying the routes between the Island and the mainland and up and down the Island estuaries only one serious attempt was made to translate the Island sail-borne trading experience to the world of the steamer on an international scale.

In 1871 the Ocean Steamship Company of Prince Edward Island was created following a public meeting where most of the shares were enthusiastically subscribed, many by members of Charlottetown’s Peake family who became the managers for the venture. The meeting agreed that “in these days of progress we should avail ourselves of the advantages of Ocean Steamers, in order to keep pace with the neighboring Provinces, and supply the urgent wants of our enterprising merchants; and also with a view of exporting a larger  amount of produce from this country.”  The new firm placed an order with Napier and Sons of Glasgow for an iron steamer to travel between Liverpool and Charlottetown. The S.S.Prince Edward was launched from the Aitken and Mansel shipyard on the Clyde in October of 1872. At 1365 tons and 253 feet and driven by a  170 horsepower, 2 cylinder steam engine turning a single propeller she was certainly capable of service across the Atlantic.  The final cost of the vessel was £26,865 sterling with another £2095 for fit-out.  This represented about $150,000 at the time and almost $3 million in todays funds and was a serious investment for the merchants of the small colony. British newspapers hinted that there would be additional ships added to the line, presumably dependant on the success of the venture.

The Prince Edward completed its maiden voyage and arrived in Charlottetown on 1 May 1873, taking a respectable 12 days from Liverpool, being delayed by ice only one day. In addition to general cargo and a full complement of passengers the ship carried no fewer than seven locomotives for the Prince Edward Island Railway, then just beginning construction. Several Charlottetown merchants took advantage of the arrival to advertise “new spring goods” per the Prince Edward. The return voyage was to Cardiff Wales and newspapers there noted that this was the first steamer to load at Prince Edward Island. She carried 65,000 bushels of oats, other produce and a few passengers.

As had been the case with the Island’s wooden sailing vessels the Prince Edward was  never intended to simply shuttle between the Island and Liverpool, especially during the winter season when the Island port was closed by ice. It went wherever cargos took it, crisscrossing the Atlantic to several Canadian and American ports, Liverpool, Bristol and even to South America but as an Island-owned ship she was a regular caller at Charlottetown.  As Boyde Beck’s article on the Prince Edward published in The Island Magazine #30 (Fall/Winter 1991) [available here] points out, the vessel may have been profitable initially but over the years it became less so and the initial cost of the ship had to be factored into the owner’s calculations.  Records in the Welsh and Owen shipping papers at the PEI Public Archives and Records Office give a couple of snapshot glimpses of the ship’s later years.

Although not specifically identified as such the steamer at Peake's #2 wharf in Ruger's 1878 birds evy view of Charlottetown is likely the Prince Edward. No photos are known to exist.

Although not specifically identified as such, the steamer at Peake’s #2 wharf in Ruger’s 1878 birds eye view of Charlottetown is likely the Prince Edward. No photos are known to exist.

In the 7th annual report of the company dated March 1880 it was noted that it had been a good year. A condenser for fresh water had been added to the ship’s equipment allowing for deck cargos of sheep and cattle to be carried across the Atlantic. The ship had made trips from New Orleans to Liverpool, to Charlottetown, to Newport (Wales) to Charlottetown, to Montreal, to Liverpool, to Charlottetown and back to Liverpool.   The profit on operations was $16,000 (an increase of almost $11,000 over 1878) and the holders of the 59 shares were paid $100 per share which represented about a 4% return on the original costs.

Gore's Liverpool General Advertiser 3 December 1874 p. 2

Gore’s Liverpool General Advertiser 3 December 1874 p. 2

The following year saw more trips from Montreal to Liverpool and voyages to New Orleans, Bristol, Baltimore  and Charlottetown. Although net earnings remained at the $16,000 level two dividends of $150 were paid representing a return of about 10%. However the following year (1881) was somewhat of a disaster. The ship did receive a subsidy of $6,000 from the Dominion Government for carrying cattle, sheep and other Island products overseas but there was increased competition and on a November trip from Liverpool severe weather resulted in the Prince Edward running out of coal in mid-ocean. She had to be towed to St. John’s. Profits dropped to half of the previous year.

In 1882 there seem to have been only two trips for the Prince Edward: Liverpool to Charlottetown in May and Charlottetown to Bordeaux France in June.  The firm’s English agents were instructed to put the ship on the market.  She did not return to the Island and she was sold to the French firm of Caillot & Saint Pierre in Marseille. They changed her name from Prince Edward to Senegal but the ship was wrecked on the coast of Spain later that same year.

Although created in the optimism of a pre-Confederation PEI the Ocean Steamship Company could not survive the changing times and was wound-up.  The Island’s trans-Atlantic trade gradually diminished and passed to other hands.

Down on the Coal Wharf

Loading Coal Keystone Mast UCR (2)

Waterfront coal yard, probably A. Pickard & Co. ca. 1913. Photo from Keystone Mast Collection, University of California at Riverside.

While agricultural produce including livestock was probably the most frequently exported commodity at the Charlottetown wharves at the beginning to the 20th century, the incoming volume was dominated by coal.  The number of shipments up to the mid-19th century was small. Heat for houses and businesses was supplied by firewood brought down the rivers by small schooners in summer and on sleighs across the ice in winter. What coal there was, was used for heat in a few upper-class homes but primarily to fire forges of blacksmiths in both rural and city establishments. Every shipyard needed forged iron fittings and although some coal was delivered directly to outports much came first to Charlottetown.

That began to change as steamboats started to visit the port. Unlike American inland steamers which depended on wood most of the early boats serving PEI had coal-fired boilers.  Coal was most easily accessed at the Pictou end of the route which was close to the mines of the General Mining Association.  But after 1854 coal began to be imported in large quantities. In that year the Charlottetown Gas Light Company opened its plant at the eastern edge of the city.  Over the next half-century coal was turned into gas and pumped through the mains laid beneath the streets to houses, streetlights and business across the city.

Even when the domination of gas was challenged, and eventually, replaced by electricity the dependency on coal did not change. The steam generators and dynamos in the several electric plants all used coal and even when the companies were amalgamated and centralized on the gas works property it was still coal that provided the power.

Large's Coal Yard

Large’s Coal Yard. Connolly’s wharf ca. 1930. Photo PARO Accession 2320 18-16

The other big coal consumer was the Prince Edward Island Railway. Its steam engines continued to be coal-fired until the province became the first part of the Canadian National Railway System to be entirely diesel-powered in 1949.  While the railway  carried coal to small communities across the Island and took some business away from small coal schooners visiting outlying ports the coal cars meant that even more coal came into the province through the port of Charlottetown.

In 1856, seizing on its new powers after incorporation the City of Charlottetown enacted a by-law to create coal-meters and weighers who had the responsibility of weighing all coal sold in the city, whether directly from a ship or from a wharf or coal yard. The city scales was moved from the head of Pownal Wharf to Queens Square to underscore the growing importance of coal in the city. Besides providing a consumer service the coal distribution oversight provided revenue for the city.

Coal007At first almost all of the many wholesale merchants handled coal as one of their commodities, but by the beginning of the Great War it was becoming more specialized. Buntain and Bell took over the coal and shipping business of Peak Bros. in 1913, along with the wharf near the foot of  Queen Street which became known through to the 1960s as the Buntain and Bell Wharf.  Several of the wharves became almost exclusively coal wharves. George E. Full’s Coal Yard  was on the old Duncan property next to the ferry wharf.  A. Pickard and Company was located on what had been the Plant Line Wharf and was one of the last to be in operation into the 1960s.  Another coal merchant in the early 20th century was Charles Lyon and in mid-century W.D. Gillis, Arnfast Coal Company  and the Weeks Coal Company were in operation, the latter near the Hillsborough Bridge. Some of the companies erected large sheds to protect the coal from the weather but most of the coal was simply stored in large heaps. The coal wharves were black, dirty, dusty places. Most of the loading and unloading was by men with shovels with the coal carried through the streets by small horse-drawn tip-carts.

The photo of the beginning of this piece shows that coal was an intensely manual activity (at least in 1913 when the photo was taken) but some companies tried to keep up with modern technology. A puff piece in the Charlottetown Guardian in 1930 touted A. Pickard & Co.’s 7 1/2 horsepower electric conveyor  which could load coal at the rate of a ton a minute! [surely this must be per hour?] Their wharf (now buried under the massive DOT wharf east of the yacht club) could accommodate vessels up to 3000 tons and had a 300 foot rail siding which held eight rail cars.  At the time the Pickard firm was handling Scotch, Welsh, and American Anthracite Coal as well as Dominion Coke, Old Sydney, Inverness, Acadia and Springhill Coal.  Coal was delivered to consumers by 20 horse teams and carts.  Conscious of the public image the article noted “The neat and clean appearance of the Yard and Wharf show that the workmen are good men and are taking an interest in their work.”

The persistence of newspaper advertising shows this was a competitive business and it was not long before there were only a few companies that had the wharfage to support the shipping requirements.  After the Second World War  coal was a declining business on P.E.I.. Home heating as well as industrial users such as Maritime Electric were switching petroleum fuels and the coal years on the wharves were displaced by huge oil storage tanks.

Coal advertisements from 1913-1953  (click for enlargement & slide show)

Few city residents visited the actual waterfront yards. The remaining firms had uptown storefronts. I can remember passing Arnfast’s display of dusty Blue Coal in the window of their shop on Great George Street across from the Capitol Theatre. Within a generation the coal business as a waterfront activity disappeared and disappearing with it was the particular coal vocabulary with which everyone was once familiar. Who today can tell the difference between round, stove, egg and chestnut coal, much less the heating qualities differentiating Albion Nut from Reserve Runamine or from Old Sydney Round?  The closing of the coal yards was one of the last activities on the waterfront before the revitalization of the area by the Charlottetown Area Development Corporation in the 1970s.