Tag Archives: Pictou

Those in peril on the seas – a voyage to the New World

Sailing vessel in dangerous seas. Detail from painting by W.L. Wyllie National Maritime Museum Greenwich https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/117070.html

In an age when  we barely pause to consider the risks to getting into a metal tube and flying across oceans and continents it is difficult to comprehend the enormity of the risk and commitment of those coming to Prince Edward Island two centuries ago.  Many of those travelling would never have gone far from their homes before and sometimes had never seen a ship, let alone sail in one.   Even for seasoned travelers the risk was daunting. Each year hundreds of sailing vessels failed to make port and disappeared, sometimes without a trace.  Compared with vessels today, the ships were tiny and if they were in trouble there was seldom any relief from the danger. The appearance of a sail on the horizon could make the difference between life and death.

Following is part of an account from traveler from Fifeshire, Scotland bound to Prince Edward Island in 1833. Like many others he had opted to sail for Pictou where many of the Scots voyages landed, and then cross to the Island.  The writer noted the voyage as uneventful with generally fine weather although lacking in wind for many days. The calm aboard had been disturbed only by a fire on the ship early in the voyage but the author, with a touch of sang froid,  noted that there as an abundance of water easily available and the crew were able to extinguish the blaze before it was out of control.

As with present day aircraft, where the times of greatest danger are with take-offs and landings, for a sailing ship the closer they were to land the greater the peril. As the barque-rigged ship neared the Atlantic shores the weather worsened. The captain appears to have steered her successfully into the Gulf of St. Lawrence east of Cape Breton and towards Northumberland Strait but by then the fog had closed in and the wind increased. What must have particularly terrifying for the passengers was the apparent breakdown suffered by the captain at the time of greatest danger.

Fulfilling a promise made before leaving Scotland the writer, penned a private letter to a colleague in Fife who made a copy available to the Fifeshire Journal which printed it in the issue of 8 February 1834.  The story of the landfall in the sailing ship is but part of a longer missive detailing the impressions of the new emigrant.

13 September 1833

On the morning of the 10th a very dense fog prevailed, and we did not know where we were, but could, distinctly at times, see land at our lee. It was then that the horrors of a lee shore presented itself to our view — we saw the breakers dashing against the rocks in violent fury — out sails began to give way way one after another, until at last our mainyard was carried away — our vessel then laboured dreadfully, having only our foresail and topsail under close reef left, which were also expected to go every minute; some of the others torn to pieces and flying like ribbons and our stately barque presenting all the melancholy appearance of a wreck. At this time I went below, and such a scene I never witnessed — women and children were crying in the bitterest anguish, mothers wild and frantic caressing and kissing their children and taking farewell of their husbands, while large chests, barrels and provision boxes, that had been lashed to the vessel, were broken loose and hurtling about in great fury. Our captain who ought have been the last to show symptoms of timidity or alarm, was the first; for, when the first sail gave way early in the forenoon, at a time we were comparatively in safety, he called upon the passengers to do something to save their lives. After all hopes were over, the boats were pout in readiness, and the officers of the ship (the captain crying like a child) had gone to the quarterdeck to consult where they should try and run ashore as we were drifting upon the rocks at any rate, when, just at this crisis, one of the mariners called out “a sail in view:” this sound as it increased the prospect of life, sent a thrill of gladness through every breast, and some who had not cried before began to do so now. A signal of distress was hoisted; and this vessel which was a French schooner, made to us and as near as to make a signal to follow her, which we did as well as we could, and she piloted us into Pictou (at 3 p,m. ) the port of our destination, which we had passed and re-passed, turning as land headed us, and could have taken early in the morning had we known where to run.  Several vessels were lost during the storm; at some places in the forest trees were torn up and lying in countless numbers, and roads were blocked up by the heavy wood falling across them.

Fifeshire Journal 8 February 1834 p.4

Sailing through the ice from Pictou to Wood Islands

The winter passage to Prince Edward Island was the subject of several drawings and engravings. This example come from Harpers New Monthly Magazine in 1877.

The winter passage of the mail and passengers between Prince Edward Island and the Mainland is one of the most interesting transportation stories in the history of the Island. There are a number of detailed accounts and published reports of the the crossing appeared frequently in books, newspapers and magazines. See for example this account from 1876.  The iceboat service is commemorated as a National Historic Event by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada with a plaque at Cape Traverse.

But the “crossing at the Capes”  was not the only winter route and other places had stories to tell of the icy passage.

The letter to the editor published in the 22 April 1884 issue of the Daily Patriot was titled by the editor “An Adventure” and although it attracted no editorial comment  it told a tale which was a close encounter with disaster.  One wonders if the events were so commonplace to have lost their newsworthiness.

The route from Pictou to Wood Islands had been used by the Island government for the winter mails as early as 1828 but was later abandoned in favour of the shorter route at the Capes. There were still sporadic crossings when conditions were favourable.  Pictou was joined by rail to Halifax in 1860, at a time when overland routes to Cape Tormentine took considerably more travelling time. This changed with the extension of rails to both Cape Traverse and Cape Tormentine and there were few winter crossings from Pictou late in the 19th century except on the Canadian Government steamers.

Detail of 1879 chart of Northumberland Strait showing section from Pictou to Wood Islands

On 19 April 1884 a small open sailboat left Pictou for Prince Edward Island. It appears to have been an ordinary sailing craft without the double runners on the bottom of the craft and the tin covered hull to aid in propelling the boat across the ice like a sleigh.  Aboard were three crew member and four passengers.  The passengers were merchant James Paton of the Charlottetown of W.A. Weeks & Co.  who was returning from a buying trip in England; Nelson Rattenbury of Carvell Bros; H.J. McDonald; and a Mr. Fitzpatrick. They were obviously anxious to get to the Island and unwilling to take the long route by rail up the Northumberland shore to Sackville and from there transfer to sleighs to Cape Tormentine, across the Strait by the iceboat service and then overland to Emerald and by the PEI Railway to Charlottetown. April had come late to Northumberland Strait that year. The passage at Canso was blocked by ice and the first Boston boat of the year was delayed for more than a week. The PEI Steam Navigation Company steamers were tied up for much of the month waiting for their first trip across and the ice-strengthened Northern Light reported a great deal of ice on the route between Pictou and Georgetown. A steamer with a cargo of coal trying to work its way from Pictou up Northumberland strait was turned back by the ice jams at Cape Traverse.

Never the less Captain Laughlin Patterson, pilot Angus Smith and James Stewart felt confident that they would be able to find open water across to P.E.I.. They had been informed by residents of Pictou Island that there was no ice in the Strait. They were so confident in fact, that they did not leave Pictou until 1 p.m. on the Saturday afternoon with, as Captain Patterson later wrote, “a fair prospect of crossing the straits.”  About half way across they encountered an obstacle – not only the expected ice pans but a thick ice fog (fog caused by warmer air over the cold ice and water) – and they soon found themselves surrounded by a dense field of ice. They quickly exhausted themselves trying to extricate the heavy 18 foot boat from the clutches of the ice and with night falling they decided to haul the boat up on a pan of ice and spend the night as best they could.

Although they did not suffer the extreme cold of mid-winter the weather was far from favourable as it rained heavily through the night and by Sunday morning the fog had returned as thick as ever. As they had no compass they could not determine which way to go. At four o’clock in the afternoon the fog began to dissipate and they spotted Wood Islands some distance off. A  lighthouse had been built there and had been operation since 1876.It was one of the few landmarks on the low lying shore. Knowing they would not be able to continue hauling the boat and reach shore without spending another night on the ice the party concluded to set off on foot the four or five miles to the shore. The route proved to be over very bad ice and in several places they had to cross open water on small ice cakes that would carry only a few men at a time.

They left the boat with all their baggage on the ice in hopes that it would be spotted from the shore and a rescue party sent out to meet them. But as the daylight was soon gone those on the shore, who had spotted the abandoned boat before night fell, decided they could not safely mount a rescue until daylight on Monday. In the meantime, the passengers and crew were finally able to reach land at the Wood Islands Lighthouse in the dark. Cold and wet they were taken to houses in the Wood Islands area to be fed and rested.

On Monday morning the abandoned boat was again  spotted from the shore and a party of men, McMillans all (whose descendants still live in the area), went out on the ice with their own boat and succeeded in bring the Pictou boat and baggage back to shore. By this time it had drifted to spot four miles off Belle River. The passengers had hired a team and were well on their way to Charlottetown by this time so the baggage trunks and effects were sent on later.

The letter from the appreciative Pictou crew thanking  the people of Wood Islands for their humane and hospitable care appeared in the 26 April 1884 issue of Charlottetown’s Daily Patriot newspaper.

A very bad poem on very thick Ice

Idealized vision of the Northern Light “surging and smashing” on its way from Pictou to Georgetown.  Illustration: Picturesque Canada 1879.

By no stretch of the imagination could the steamer Northern Light be termed a success. Although much had been promised by the designer and builder of Canada’s first icebreaker at the time of its launch in 1876, it was spectacular in the degree to which it failed to meet expectations.  However coming on the heels of an even greater failure – the steamer Albert – it could still be seen as an improvement.  It appears that when it worked it worked relatively well and the vessel had its fans. Something is better than nothing. As an alternative to the risky iceboat service on the Capes route, spending a day or even a few days pinched in a floe was a burden that could be borne. If the ice and wind conditions were good the passage from Pictou to Georgetown could take as little as four hours. And, unlike the iceboat you didn’t have to help pull the boat.

The following glowing testimonial was the result of a rare four hour trip on 5 January 1884. Experience would show that in most years by mid-January the ice buildup would be so difficult that the steamer would be kept in port for weeks on end. Perhaps it was the rarity of the speedy crossing that inspired to unidentified passenger-poet to put pen to paper. Stealing the meter of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s * “Charge of the LIght Brigade”  he (or perhaps she) recorded the passage of the Northern Light which they had termed “an impatient war horse” across the Strait.

The poem is best when read out loud whilst striking a dramatic pose and making the most of the rhythm of the meter.

  The “Northern Light”

Ice to the  Right of her,
Ice to the Left of her,
Ice to the Front of her,
Surging and smashing.

On the bold steamer goes,
On through the mighty floes,
On with terrific blows,
Shivering and crashing.

Up on the turret high,
Scanning with eager eye,
Watching the dangers nigh,
Stands the brave master.

There too, the Pilot stands,
Grasping the tiller bands,
Waiting his chief’s commands,
To “slow” or go “faster.”

Down in her hold below,
Down under ice and snow,
Down where the fires do glow,
Roaring and hissing:

There, two men watch and gaze,
Watch as the engine plays,
Watch at the mighty maze,
Not a thing missing!

Was there a heart dismay’d,
Was there a man afraid,
Was there a man that said,
“She’d never go through it?”

Not one to reason why,
All there, to do or die,
All there to work and try,
Yes; if they knew it.

Right through the mass she goes,
Up high the ice she throws,
Staggering at all the blows,
Pounding and crashing.

Oh! How we danced and cheered
When past the dangers feared
When our Island we had neared
As on we came rushing.

Having left Pictou at 2 p.m. with freight and twenty passengers the passage must have been unimpeded because the vessel arrived in Georgetown at 6 p.m. and passengers were quickly bustled into the waiting Northern Light Express train for the trip to Charlottetown. Later in the season the “impatient war horse” might better be described as a “reluctant plow horse” as it spent much of the next three months stabled at the railway wharf in Georgetown waiting for the ice the begin to break up.

The Northern Light at the board ice. Pictou Harbour was not infrequentdly impoossible to reach and the ship had to moor at the edge of the ice attached to the shore. Passengers, freight, coal and the mails would be ferried by sleigh out to the ship, sometimes four or five miles from shore. Illustration: Harper’s Weekly 21 Febraury 1885.

  • Tennyson was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom and his works were often parodied. Another PEI link to Tennyson was the house of the Lowden family on Dundas Esplanade, now the Haviland Club and for many years the U.S. Consulate. The house was named “Farringford” which was the name of Tennyson’s residence on the Isle of Wight.

Readers of the blog may be interested in additions which have been made to a number of posts as the result of further rersearch. A note of an early navigational light at the harbour entrance has been added to the history of Blockhouse Point found here. This new information suggests that the light here may pre-date the 1845 lighthouse at Point Prim. More details have emerged regarding the building of the Pownal Street wharf and the revised entry can be found here.