Tag Archives: Peake’s Wharf

Memories of the Charlottetown waterfront in the 1840s

Early in 1900 Elizabeth J. Macdonald, wife of Senator A.A. MacDonald, sat down to write her reminiscences of the Charlottetown she remembered from half a century earlier.  Titled “Charlottetown Fifty Years Ago” and published in a series of 9 installments in the original Prince Edward Island Magazine in 1900 and 1901, her account provides a glimpse of the town at mid-century.  This excerpt concerning the harbour was published in the June 1901 issue of the magazine.

Charlottetown waterfront from the south west by Robert Harris (undated) collection of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery

Charlottetown waterfront from the south-west by Robert Harris (undated) collection of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery

And what are we to remember this time, what is there interesting to record? Is it the appearance Charlottetown presented to a stranger coming up the harbour, and what are we to imagine some of the many immigrants coming here from Scotland and Ireland in the early forties, and later on, thought of it?  Some probably would see it very flat and unattractive, others look upon it as well-protected from the encroachment of any enemy, and others again would think it a comparatively busy place; that is if its numerous shipyards, with generally two or three vessels under construction, were any indication, and would decide there was plenty of work for all who were able or willing to do it.

The Douse shipyard being on the Douse property near the west end of Richmond Street was the first to meet the eye, as it showed up from the harbour, and there Mr. Douse built several vessels.  The next to be seen was close by where the Stream Navigation Wharf now is, and where the second Gulnare was built in 1845 by Peake & Duncan. The first Gulnare was built in Quebec and came to Charlottetown in 1841, the same year that Captain Bayfield, Commander Bedford, Lieutenant Orlebar, and the other officers of the surveying staff came to take up their residence here. The second Gulnare not being quite up to their expectation, they had the third one built in Quebec. She proving a failure, the late Mr. Longworth undertook to build the forth. All were topsail schooners and we understand the fourth Gulnare was more satisfactory. After that they had their first steamer, the Margaretta Stephenson, built by and belonging to a firm in Quebec by the name of Stephenson.

Further along and almost directly below where the Duncan House now stands, was the Duncan shipyard where the ring of the workman’s hammer was constantly heard and there the largest ship ever built on this Island, registering 1791 tons, was launched in the year 1858, by the firm of Duncan. Mason & Co. and named the “Ethel” after Mr. Duncan’s only child. Mr. Heard’s shipyard was about where the railway yard now is, only nearer where the railway wharf is  built. On the shore not far from the Kensington shooting range of today was McGill’s shipyard, where there appeared to be always a vessel on the stocks. Some of the old ship-builders used to say, was that ship building was like making patchwork quilts, that when one was finished there was almost enough material left to make another, and in that way they were induced to go on building. But the wooden ships of P.E. Island are almost among the things of the past and it is only now and again that we hear of a ship being built.     

Charlottetown 1863. Detail from D.J. Lake Map 1863

Charlottetown 1863. Detail from D.J. Lake Map 1863

By 1863 when the map above was drawn the number of wharves had grown. Besides the municipal government wharves at Queen and Pownal streets additional wharves had been built:  From west to east these were Lord’s Wharf (the stub of which forms the east wharf of the Charlottetown Yacht Club), the first of several Peake’s Wharves (later to be called the Plant Line wharf, then Poole & Lewis, and still later, Pickard’s),  Bourke’s (also known as Tremaine’s and the ferry wharf before 1856) Reddin’s Wharf at the foot of Great George Street (which was later named the Steam Navigation Wharf) and then the Duncan shipyard. Furthest east was the Colonial government ferry wharf at Prince Street. Both Borque and Tremaine had been holders of the ferry contract in the 1840s and 1850s.

Lake map waterfront 001 (2)

Wharf detail – Lake Map 1863

In an earlier article in the series which was published in June 1900, Ellen MacDonald had recalled the wharves and ferry service of her youth:

As far as we can remember there were only three wharves, Queen’s Wharf at the end of Queen Street, Peake’s Wharf on the west side of Queens, and Tremaines, or the Ferry Wharf on the east side of Queen’s. All the wharves were much shorter than now; Tremaine’s was only a few blocks or piles long, quite long enough for the sail and team boats that crossed to Southport. A sailboat crossed on Mondays and a team-boat on other days of the week. The team-boat was run by two or sometimes three horses. There was a large wheel in the middle of the boat, (just such a one as is used in a tannery to grind bark) to which the horses were attached; the horses going round and round in a circle, turned the wheel and propelled the boat. Passengers came from the Southport side and returned again about four times a day, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon.  

A story is told of a middle-aged lady who came across the ferry to do some shopping She had not taken into consideration that the tide was falling when she left home; it was one of the sail-boat days and when she  got to the Charlottetown side the tide was low, and she being very stout and heavy, could not climb the wharf, neither could her friends lift her up so she had to remain in the boat for some hours, until the tide fell lower and then rose sufficiently high for her to reach a proper stepping place. That was one of the inconveniences of long ago.          


Ballastmaster, Wharfinger, Harbourmaster

The incorporation of the City of Charlottetown in 1855 meant changes in how many activities in the  city were managed. The wharves and harbour were no exception and one of the first by-laws published by the city was “A law defining the duties of Harbour and Ballast masters, and wharfingers and the rates of wharfage.”


Detail of Charlottetown in 1839 from “Chart of Hillsborough Bay and the Harbour of Charlottetown” by George Wright. Note that only Queen’s Wharf extends to deep water.

In the mid-19th century the development of the waterfront echoed the increase in population and importance of Charlottetown as a port.  The single Tatars Wharf near the foot of Great George Street had been joined at an early date by the Queens Wharf running toward the channel from Queen Street and Pownal Wharf at the foot of Pownal Street (not yet constructed at the time of the 1839 chart). Both of these wharves were built by the colonial government and were handed to the City at the time of incorporation. In addition there were a number of private wharves dating from the 1840s. These included Lord’s Wharf (now the east jetty of the Charlottetown Yacht Club), Peake’s wharf, and Reddin’s Wharf (to the west and east of the foot of Queen Street respectively).

Although initially administered by the colonial government, following the incorporation of Charlottetown in 1855, many of the duties connected with the harbour and its wharves were delegated to the city.  Because the wharves were the trade and industry centres for the new city the by-law gives us a glimpse of the concerns of the day and activity on the waterfront. The by-law identifies three important officers controlling the harbour.


In the days of sailing ships handling ballast was a necessary part of managing a ship.  A ship carrying heavy goods did not need ballast but if the load was light (as in the case of immigrant ships) or non-existent  when there was not an incoming or outgoing cargo, ballast was necessary to ensure that the ship did not ride too high in the water which made her difficult – or in some cases too dangerous – to handle.  A ship coming to Charlottetown to pick up a cargo of timber or oats might have tons of ballast which would have to be discharged before the cargo was loaded. On the other hand a ship arriving laden with cargo but no out-going manifest might have to pick up ballast to take her to her next port.

The early wharves in Charlottetown barely extended the channel and it was not unusual in the days before dredging for ships to have to lie aground at low tide.  In ports where ballast was not properly managed it was frequently simply dumped over the side reducing even further the amount of water at the wharf or, if dumped elsewhere in the harbour creating a dangerous shoal.  The official managing the handling of ballast, was, not surprisingly, the ballastmaster.

The Charlottetown legislation gave the ballastmaster the duty of boarding every ship coming into the harbour, informing the ship’s master of the regulations and

…diligently attend the delivery or discharging or delivery of all stones, gravel or other ballast… and shall not knowingly permit any portion thereof to be cast, thrown or let fall into the waters where navigable, but shall direct and to the utmost of his power cause all such ballast to be carried and laid on shore where it will not obstruct navigation…  

The ballastmaster was entitled to collect a fee from the shipowner for his services and, in addition,  had the duty of overseeing the removal of any wrecks or obstructions in the harbour.


The wharfinger’s duties related to the city’s wharves themselves. He was the collector of fees levied for the use of the city wharves and in addition was required to keep the wharves in “due preservation and repair.” The legislation directed him to

… take care that neither of them is encumbered with articles or things of any kind, to the prevention of vessels loading or discharging thereat, or of ordinary business being performed thereon – prevent their encumbrance with any shed or building of any description, and cause such erections now thereon to be moved away – prohibit any quantity or quantities of weighty articles to be laid on or remain on any of the blocks or bridges of said wharves to the injury of the same…

He also had considerable power over the vessels at the city wharves. He controlled mooring and unmooring and could move vessels obstructing the passage of the public ferries, could arbitrate disputes between competing captains regarding dockage rights, and compel yards, bowsprits and martingales to be struck or removed.  The wharfinger also policed  the driving of any “horse mare, gelding, or any other beast of burden in any carriage coach, wagon, truck, cart, sled, sleigh or other vehicle for the transportation of persons or goods or either of them” and for proceeding at anything more than a walk the wharfinger could commit an individual to jail for not less than forty-eight hours or more than five days.

The main business of the wharfinger was to collect monies levied on the goods loaded and unloaded at the public wharves.  The by-law has an extensive list of charges for in-coming goods but the fees for out-going shipments give a hint as to the main exports of the colony in the mid 1850s: produce, lumber, livestock, hay and straw.


While the harbourmaster might be considered the most important of the triumvirate of officials his role was really much more limited. The duties enumerated included control over the buoys in the part of the harbour under control of the city and management of beacons within the city.  In Charlottetown the sole aid to navigation depicted in the 1839 chart of the bay and harbour was a front range beacon near what is now Beaconsfield which when lined up with the steeple of St. James Church gave a safe course from Battery Point to the wharves.

Anticipating that the volume of business for these three offices could vary the by-law allowed all three to be filled by a single individual.  Today the role of ballastmaster has disappeared and the duties of wharfinger and harbourmaster have, in great part, been taken over by the Charlottetown Harbour Authority which created in 2005.