Tag Archives: poetry

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.


A Toast to the Paddle Steamer Heather Bell

Island poet John LePage (1812-1886) is perhaps best known for the awfulness of his rhymes (“Fire! Fire!” said the Crier. “Where? Where?” said the Mayor) but he seems to have a soft spot for the activities in Charlottetown Harbour. He had a long poem celebrating the arrival of B.W.A. Sleigh’s steamer Albatross in 1852 and another celebrating the arrival of the PEI Steam Navigation Company’s new steamer Princess of Wales in 1864.

Included in the 1867  second volume of his collected poems, The Island Minstrel, is a poem dedicated to the paddle steamer Heather Belle. The poem is well hidden under the forgettable  title “Lines addressed to the thoughtful young lady who sent the Bard a forget-me-not.”

Paddle Steamer Heather Belle   Detail from the 1878 Bird’ eye view of Charlottetown

The poem provides an idyllic picture of the paddle steamer as an excursion vessel for those with few cares and places her in the context of a history of steamships which served the port of Charlottetown. The poem attests to the importance that steamers had on Charlottetown life in the 1800s. Today we simply take our ease of communication as a given; one would have a hard time imagining a poem written on the subject of the passage of the carferry  from Wood Islands to Caribou or the AIr Canada flight to Halifax. In 1860 the Heather Belle represented both communications and, as the poem shows, a vehicle of escape from the city to “spend an hour devoid of care, and view the prospect, passing fair.”

Steaming at fourteen knots along
Sets fertile fancy ‘workin’ strong;
Advancing science claims a song,
Her progress fair to tell, lady;
Then listen to the Poet’s lays,
Who, while he thinks of other days,
May proudly sing his country’s praise,
On board the Heather Belle, lady.

You can’t throw back your thoughts, I know,
Some five and thirty years ago,
Ere giant steam his arms could throw
across the Atlantic swell, lady;
When once a quarter came the news;
When fancy seldom stirred the Muse;
And Indians paddled their canoes,
Where swims the Heather Belle, lady!

At last, to break our slumbers tame,
Across the strait a “smoke boat” came,
The Pocahontas was her name,
Ah! I remember well, lady,
How the elite of Charlottetown,
Dress’d in their best of coat and gown
With eager haste came running down
The Queen’s old Wharf, pell mell,lady.

To view that wonder of her day,
That without wind could work her way,
And up and down our River play,
As if by magic spell, lady, —
But on the Hillsboro’s sparkling tide —
That still rolls on in peerless pride —
Full many a steam boat has since plied
Before the Heather Belle, lady.

The shaky old “St. George” we’ve seen,
The English “Rose” and “Rosebud” green;
And lack a day! the “Fairy Queen,
You know what her befell, lady!
The “Lady Le” her name wont rhyme,
The Westmorland in later time,
From old and rotten, up to prime,
And that’s the Heather Belle, lady.

In her, we gladly steam away,
This lovely, lucky Autumn day, —
And not a single cent to pay!
This cheapness can’t excel, lady
To spend an hour devoid of care,
And view the prospect, passing fair,
On either side a landscape rare,
Seen from the Heather Belle, lady.

How briskly blows the healthful, breeze,
How swiftly part the tiny seas,
How richly Autumn tints the trees,
With lovely changing dyes, lady,
What cause for gratitude is found,
To Him, who spreads these beauties round,
And scatters plenty o’er the ground,
Where’er we turn our eyes, lady.

But see! Here the Elliot River flows,
The sun is sinking to repose
‘Tis time my melody should close,
One toast! and pledge me well, lady,
“Success to commerce and to trade,
To loving swain and trusting maid,
May skill and enterprise be paid
Here’s to the Heather Belle,” lady.

The Heather Belle (sometimes “Bell”) was launched in September of 1862 from the Duncan shipyard near the Rocky Point Ferry Wharf at the foot of Prince Street. She was a tidy, wooden, shallow draft, paddle steamer, 118 feet long and 19 feet wide displacing 185 gross tons. The 50 horse power engine had been made in Glasgow Scotland and shipped to P.E.I.  Although primarily designed for use as a river steamer serving the Hillsborough and Eliot rivers as well as the coastal ports of Orwell and Crapaud (the Port of Victoria had not yet been created), she was soon pressed into service by the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company for the regular service to Pictou and Brule, alternating with the company’s new vessel the Princess of Wales. She also was used from time to time as a tug to tow ships up and down the Hillsborough or out to the harbour mouth to catch favourable tides and winds.

Boyde Beck’s article “Song for the Heather Belle” in the Island Magazine  No, 17 Summer 1985 p. 12, recounts the concern of the American Consel at the time of her launching  that the steamer was at risk of being sold foreign for use as a Confederate blockade runner.

The ship had been replaced by the St. Lawrence in the Steam Navigation fleet and was sold to John Hughes in 1875 and she was later owned by the Inland Steam Navigation Company. By the 1880s the Heather Belle was beginning to show her age and the Company decided to replace her.  The 1883 replacement (confusingly also called the Heather Belle) was considerably larger although the length was almost the same. Increased width meant that the tonnage was about 50% larger than the first vessel.  By early June 1883 the Daily Examiner reported that the old Heather Belle was being taken to pieces and not a vestige of her would remain.