Tag Archives: Point Prim

Winter Pic Nic at Point Prim

Several times I have mentioned in these postings that once winter set in on Prince Edward Island the rivers and bays became highways. The ice roads, often marked by “bushing” the ice with spruce poles, were more effective for winter transport than the roads of the Island with their hills, woods and spring mud and a well-constructed sleigh gave a smoother and more efficient ride than any carriage or cart.

There was usually only a brief time between the closing of navigation and the opening of the winter roads and often the rivers and coves would freeze while the main channels were still open. Sleighs would stick to the shoreline and “portage” across points and headlands until the hard frosts made the bays safe for passage. Many surviving diaries faithfully give the dates of the first and last crossing of the ice by sleighs and teams.

One of the best examples of how significant the ice passage was can be seen in the following account dating from March 1848 which appears in the Islander in Charlottetown but was reprinted in the Liverpool Mercury in June of the same year.  The event may have seemed as strange and delightful to a Victorian Liverpudlian as it does to us today.

This 1846 chart of Hillsborough Bay was the first to show Prim light which had been first lit only a month earlier in December of 1845. The chart shows the light at a considerably distant set-back from the shore showing the extent of erosion at the point. 

The event celebrated the recent arrival in the Island of a new Governor, Donald Campbell, who was the first Highlander to fill the Governor’s role. It also celebrated the building of the Point Prim light which had been completed three years earlier.  The light did more than mark the dangerous reef at the point. Because the point extended well out in Northumberland Strait it was a major way-point for vessels coming up and down the Strait, even if they were not bound for Charlottetown. The sixty-eight foot elevation of the lantern meant that it was visible for many miles. The notice of the new lighthouse was publicized by the British Admiralty and was widely reported in British newspapers.  Then, as now the sight of the tall white light tower by day and the flashing light by night was a comfort to mariners in vessels large and small. The founder of the feast and organizer of the event, William Douse, was the Member of the House of Assembly for the Belfast district and the agent for the Selkirk Estate.


On Thursday the 30th March past, a Pic Nic party consisting of His Excellency Sir Donald Campbell, Hon. T. H. Haviland, Hon. J. S. Smith, Hon. R. Hodgson William Campbell, Esq., His Excellency’s son, William Douse, Esq., M. P. P and several other members of the House of Assembly together with about 40 other of the private gentlemen of Charlottetown, on the invitation of Mr. Douse, was held at the Light House, Point Prim. About 9 o’clock, the party, in twenty sleighs, having assembled at the Queen’s Wharf, proceeded directly across the river, and thence by portage to Belle Vue, where they again took the ice, and drove thereon, a distance of 18 miles, to Prim, without stopping —passing the different points of land at a distance. When the party arrived off Belfast, the inhabitants, in parties—to the number of between two and three hundred—were observed proceeding towards Point Prim—some on foot, and others in sleighs—with a Piper at their head, for the purpose of giving His Excellency “A Highland welcome.” The party, on arriving at Point Prim in the first place inspected the Light House; they then sat down to Luncheon, outside, at a table erected for the occasion, of about 40 feet in length. Mr. Douse presided, with His Excellency on his right hand, and the Hon. Mr. Haviland on his left

After luncheon the worthy chairman proposed the Health of Her Majesty the Queen, which was received with every demonstration of loyalty and respect. F. Longworth, Esq., M. P. P. for Charlottetown, then proposed the health of His Excellency Sir Donald Campbell, which was received in the most complimentary and flattering manner. His Excellency acknowledged the compliment, in a short, but pertinent and happy speech; and then, turning to the people assembled as spectators and and to do him honour, addressed a few words to them which afforded them much satisfaction. When His Excellency ceased to speak the party, and his countrymen—the people of Belfast most especially —made the welkin ring with their enthusiastic cheers. The party spent about two hours, altogether at the Point in the most social and agreeable manner. When they were making ready to return to Charlottetown, the people would not allow His Excellency’s horses to be put to his sleigh, but drew him themselves for about a mile on the ice. His horses were then attached to his sleigh, and such of the people who had drawn and accompanied him on foot, loudly cheered him once more, and took their leave; but many of them in sleighs, together with the Piper—who all the continued playing National airs—accompanied His Excellency for four or five mile further on the ice; and then took their leave of him, directing their course towards the shore. His Excellency and party continued their way, on the sea ice, direct across the Bay to Belle Vue.

On arriving in Town, the party with Mr. Douse at their head, conducted His Excellency to Government House. Having arrived there, Sir Donald alighted on the colonnade, and the party drove past him in succession for the purpose of respectfully taking their leave, and received from His Excellency, in their turns, as they passed, the most courteous salutation.

Possible route of the Governor’s party from Belle Vue cove to Point Prim. For safety they would have travelled from major headland to headland. Detail from 1846 chart of Hillsborough Bay

All Over in a Minute -The sinking of the Polar Star

By the second decade of the 20th century the trading schooners serving the Port of Charlottetown were tired and under-crewed. This in-named vessel was probably typical of the type. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

By the second decade of the 20th century the trading schooners serving the Port of Charlottetown were tired and under-crewed. This un-named vessel was probably typical of the type. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

The first of the bodies was discovered on the beach at Crown Point on the P.E.I. shore across from Governors Island.  A search of the pockets for identifying papers found only a tobacco pipe filled with sand and seaweed but a missing thumb and familiar clothing showed that it was the schooner’s captain, Fred Cormier of Souris. The families of the two crew members were not as fortunate.  Before bodies of the two Charlottetown men were found, one at Governor’s Island and the last, the two months after the accident on the shore of St. Peters Island, they had both deteriorated to the point where they could not be identified and so it was not known which grave held the remains of Henry Bushy and which was that of Andrew MacDonald.

The three men had constituted the entire crew of the Polar Star. She was a small schooner, just 76 register tons. Even with the simple schooner rig this was a small crew, especially as everyone aboard was between 45 and 55 years of age.  Small crews and old ships that were cheap to operate were what made sail still viable in the early 1900s when faced with competition from steamers. There were almost no new sailing vessels available as the shipbuilding industry had been in sharp decline for thirty years.

The Polar Star was a tired ship. She had been launched at Brooklyn Nova Scotia, not far from Bridgewater in 1875 and in 1897 was almost lost when she foundered at sea  Recovered and rebuilt in 1898 she was owned and sailed for some time out of Richibucto New Brunswick.  She occasionally appeared in P.E.I. ports carrying timber and other products. In late summer 1901 she fetched up on Tryon Shoals carrying a cargo of boards from Richibucto to Sydney. She capsized and filled with water and was believed to be a total loss as the tug Fred M. Batt was unable to haul her off. However a year later she was once more in service and it may have been at this time that ownership passed to coal merchant Charles Lyons of Charlottetown.  From 1906 she was a regular arrival at the port of Charlottetown, usually with coal from Inverness, Sydney or Pictou and now and then the odd cargo of limestone.  In 1912 she set a record of sorts by making three round trips with coal from Pictou within one week. In 1913 the wooden vessel had been at sea for thirty-eight years.

When she left Pictou just after daybreak on the 10th of June it was her regular run. A cargo of 105 tons of Pictou coal for the owner Charles Lyons, for his business on Queens Wharf. Just ahead of her on the outbound track was another coal schooner, the Boreas. Both schooners were passed by the steamer Northumberland on her way to Pictou in the morning and nothing was amiss.  As the two sailing vessels neared Point Prim at about 6 o’clock in the evening they were nearly abreast although the Polar Star was about three-quarters of a mile to the windward. The wind had piped up but had not reached gale force and the seas were choppy. Both vessels had gone through heavier weather. The crew of the Polar Star was seen to be reducing sail by taking in the flying jib and the peak of the mainsail but did not seem to be in  any danger. The Boreas was heavily loaded and was taking on water with a stoged pump so the crew were making all haste for sheltered waters of the harbour.  Shortly after the scene was described by a crew member of the latter vessel;

About twenty minutes after we saw the Polar Star taking in her jib, we saw her suddenly go down. She did not do any settling at all. She went down forward till her foremast head went in. She just almost turned a somersault, I guess. then I suppose her fore-foot must have struck bottom , and then settled down by the stern. She went down with all her sails hoisted with the exception of those that had been taken in shortly before.  . . .  I never saw anything so quick in all my life as how she went down. She must have parted forward somewhere. She might have been full of water same as ourselves, but unless some such thing happened she could not have gone down as quickly as that. And we could not go to her as we had to look out for ourselves.

The following day the Marine Department sent out Captain Batt in the tug Amherst with the lifeboat to search for bodies. The wreck was easily located as the masts of the ship were sticking about 15 feet above the water but they found no floating wreckage or bodies.  The ship lay on the bottom with all the sails still set although some of the rigging had been loosened by the wave action.  The wreckage lay in the harbour track and thus constituted a danger for other ships but it is not noted how, or if, the wreckage was removed.  Charles Lyons stated that no salvage would be attempted which is hardly surprising given the age of the ship.

A little more than a week after the sinking the site was already attracting the curious. Rowland Paton, son of a former mayor of the city had gone out to capture what the Guardian termed “a very pretty snapshot taken of the portion of the ill-fated Schooner” which featured the contrast between calm in which the photo was taken and the storm which sent the ship to the bottom “particularly suggestive of the cruelty as well as the beauty of the sea.” The mast tops above the water would have been visible to passengers on the Northumberland on daily passage between Charlottetown and Pictou.

There appears to have been no inquiry or inquest into the sinking of the Polar Star. The ship was partially insured and Charles Lyons may have received some compensation for the loss.  The reasons for the sinking were hardly in doubt. A wooden ship almost forty years old which had foundered once and gone ashore reckoned as a total loss had gone to the bottom with 105 tons of coal making sure that the sinking was fast, final and fatal.  It was a simply another reminder that the age of wooden ships and iron men could be a hard life and not necessarily the romance often attributed to the time.


New Lobster Factories at Pinette – 1878

1880 map of Pinette River area showing location of Moore Shudd & Co. lobster factory. Fraser factory is noted in the map cvlose to the tip of Point Prim.

1880 map of Pinette River area showing location of Moore Shudd & Co. lobster factory. Fraser factory is noted in the map close to the tip of Point Prim. [not seen in this view]

Sailing into the tiny port of Pinette today you approach the shore near the site of the Boy Scout camp of happy memory and follow a buoyed channel along a shore populated with summer homes and fields reaching from the Point Prim road down to the beaches and low cliffs.  It can be a tricky narrow passage between the sand bars and spits up to McAulay’s wharf and the Pinette wharf where the highway crosses the river.  There is little sign that this stretch of shore was once home to the infrastructure of a rapidly developing fishing industry.

Lobsters only began to be a major resource for P.E.I. into the 1870s. Advances in processing techniques were refined as canning became common and shipping options became available. There was no shortage of lobsters. The impediment was that the small oar-powered boats could operate only a mile or so from shore at most and processing had to be done near the fishing grounds. On the other hand the small boats could be launched from every shore and did not require harbours or infrastructure. Factories (as the processing plants were called) could be built anywhere – and they were. From only a few in the late 1870s there were hundreds a decade later, providing much-needed seasonal employment along the coasts.

The new industry soon caught the eye of the press and the following report from the 6 June 1878 Patriot is one of the earliest accounts of the fishery that we have.

LOBSTER FACTORIES – Last week we visited Shed Moore & Co. lobster factory in Pinette. It is quite a large establishment. There is a well-built breastwork on the beach for the foundation for the preserving and boiling house, cooling room, tin shop, bath department, paint room, and carpenter’s shop. Thirteen boats are employed and 1200 traps are set at present. The want of good bait is much felt.   The fish are brought in twice a day – morning and evening. To keep the place clean and sweet the establishment is “flooded” every twenty-four hours. In the can shop six men are employed, and they waste no time loafing. Busier and more active workmen we never saw. The room where the young women work – some of them children – pleased us most. Neatly dresses, clean and active, we noticed some twenty female hands busy; and judging from appearances the lobsters from this factory may be eaten without misgiving. Sweeter and better tasting fish we never tasted.

Scene inside Lobster Factory. Robert Harris 1882. from Picturesque Canada.

Scene inside Lobster Factory. Robert Harris 1882. from Picturesque Canada.

The men and girls know their business and attend to it. The daily catch here is about 3000. The company would like to double that number, and after a while they, no doubt will. The can making is worth seeing – it can’t be described. The way the tin is cut, rounded, and tossed from one workman to another is wonderful. One thousand cans each for a day is not bad work. A large quantity of dry wood is also on hand.  John Compton’s force-pump supplies water. It is some 200 yards distant from the factory and cast iron pipes connect it with the building. Mr. Compton’s [word unclear]. invention, and we must see himself before we venture on a description of it. [word unclear], however, and Mr. Compton deserves credit for its introduction. The industry of lobster packing is a comparatively new one, and those engaged in it deserve encouragement. They cause money to circulate, and give employment to men, women, and children who might be worse engaged. We wish them success.

Messrs. James Fraser & Co. are building a lobster preserving factory nearer Point Prim. The shore and anchorage are excellent. They have a fine lot of traps ready for use. They expect to employ some forty hands. Mr. Donald Gillis is putting up a boarding house not far off, and intends to accommodate all the men. The extension of this industry cannot fail to be productive of good.

The Fraser factory was up and running within days of the publishing of the article and by the end of July had already dispatched a shipment of the “preserved crustacea” on board the steamer M.A. Starr which had anchored just off the Point Prim shore to receive the cargo.

Pinette River area today. Sand spit where factory stood has moved. McAulay's wharf is at the right with Camp Buchan at the left.

Pinette River area today. Sand spit where factory stood has moved. McAulay’s wharf is seen at the right with Camp Buchan Boy Scout camp at the left.

Today lobster are still caught in the waters off Point Prim. In the season the often-deserted wharves at McAulay’s and Pinette Bridge are busy spots as the lobster boats land their catches but they venture far from shore into waters that the 19th century dories rarely visited.  The boats are bigger and the lobsters are fewer but the biggest change is the disappearance of the hundreds of factories which were once almost as numerous along the shore as the tourist cottages are today.  More lobsters are shipped live or are frozen but some still make their way to the several factories which still “put up” lobster in cans, a process much like the one which created a new industry on the Pinette shore almost a century and a half ago.