Tag Archives: Pownal Bay

Pleasant Ways and Days on the Waters of the Bay – 1877

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Semi-Weekly Patriot 4 August 1877 p. 3

Up until recently pleasure sailing from Charlottetown was not restricted to private yachts. The harbour held a several possibilities for spending time of the water. By picking your day you could go to a number of  destinations, any of which would become an excursion. In 1877 a writer for the Semi-Weekly Patriot calculated there were at least nine different routes, several of which had stops at a number of different wharves and ports.  He writes about the routes to Pictou, Summerside, Crapaud, Orwell, Mount Stewart, Bonshaw, Southport, Rocky Point, and the Islands of Governor’s and St. Peter’s.  Starting from what the writer called the “Queen City of the Gem of the Gulf” the correspondent waxes eloquent about the services to Pictou and Summerside where rail connections opened to the world but other ports were closer at hand. Several of these locations became sites of choice for church teas and picnics and almost every lodge and fraternal association took advantage  of the services offered at least once over the summer season. On Dominion Day 1878, for example, over 400 people crowded onto the Heather Belle for an excursion to Orwell. On the other hand, as seen from the advertisement above, groups sponsoring teas at the outports attracted additional participants by advertising the travel option provided by the steamers. The main business of the  steamers was to provide regular passenger and freight services. However, self-guided tours or “days out” to the destinations up and down Northumberland Strait were also a popular activity.

In a earlier post I noted the Patriot’s observations about the trips up and down the rivers flowing into the bay. Today’s installment covers trips to Victoria and Orwell.

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Paddle Steamer Heather Belle ca. 1870

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Heather Belle from the 1878 birds-eye view of Charlottetown

But many pleasure seekers desire a shorter trip, say half a day. Then they will take the Heather Belle to Crapaud in early morning on every Saturday going down the harbor, across the “Three Tides” out around St. Peter’s Island, in site of “Governors” and within hearing of the almost ceaseless booming  of the Bell Buoy on its dangerous reef, and along the Island coast with the neat farms and comfortable homesteads, the dancing water and clear air, all rendered doubly beautiful by the morning sun. On arriving at Victoria, passengers can either take carriages and drive to Crapaud three miles, a charming scene, and thence to County line on the Railway, where they can take a mid-day train for home, whole cost $2.00 each; or return to Victoria and home again by boat arriving here about noon. If a special party of 30 or 40 is made up Mr. Hughes will allow them nearly five (5) hours (according to the tide) at Crapaud to aspread the cloths and enjoy the contents of a basket; returning here about 6:30 p.m. The whole trip costs 50 cents each (return) ticket, while ordinary fare is $1.00 for the round trip.

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Heather Belle schedule 1879 Semi-Weekly Patriot 4 May 21879

For a short and pleasant sail few better opportunities are offered than to Orwell and return, upon Thursday and Tuesday afternoons. The boat leaves at 3 o’clock, when, carrying your lunch basket, you will steam across Pownal and Orwell Bays, touching at the “new wharf” and viewing “High Bank” near which the “Polly” landed her passengers who were, and are to our Province what the pilgrims of the “Mayflower” are to Plymouth Rock, and Massachusetts. Thence the steamer cuts across to China Point within sight of the mouth of Vernon River and the Bridge where there is opportunity given to ascend the rising ground and view the prospect o’er. Everyone will feel better for the scene to fair to see, while parties will have about an hour given them for lunching in some of the pleasant nooks around. returning to Charlottetown about 8 p.m., the round trip costing 30 cents.

The Heather Belle’s officers and owners, are careful and attentive, the boat is well found and safe and passing close to the beautiful shores allows ample opportunity for people to see everything of interest.

The steamer Heather Belle had been built at Duncan’s Shipyard in Charlottetown in 1862. At her launch she was described by the Islander newspaper as  “a beautiful little steamboat.” Initially built to serve the wharves between Charlottetown and Mount Stewart on the Hillsborough River she soon was serving ports in all of the rivers and across Northumberland Strait. In 1864 she carried delegates from the Nova Scotia port of Brule to the meeting in Charlottetown discussing Maritime Union which became a wider discussion on Confederation.               

Pownal Bay

Tucked deep in the north-east corner of Hillsborough Bay and only a few miles from Charlottetown lies Pownal Bay and the wharf site at Waterside.  It receives few visitors today because the closest route to the Bay lies across the very shallow and rocky reef running from Squaw Point rifle range to Governors Island.  The reef is particularly dangerous because of the many unmarked rock outcrops which can rise several feet above the bottom.  Over the years I have developed a “safe” route which can be negotiated even at low tide although I cannot vouch for any boat drawing more than the Halman 20’s 2’8″.  By taking a straight line between the two yellow rifle range marker buoys there is just enough water at low tide to get through.  Last weekend I was reminded how precarious this passage was when I tried to pass through at about an hour before low tide. I had approached from the south-west and  was about three boat lengths south of my normal route when “bump, bump, scrape, stop”.  By throwing my weight to the leeward side I thumped and bumped across several outcrops and was able to get back to where I had started and re-negotiated the passage slightly further north – but not too much further north as the chart shows other outcrops dry at low water.  I was also conscious of the “pop, pop” of the militia at rifle drill on the range. Yes it is well backstopped with a high earth  berm and  yes the yellow cans show a safe distance but still it is a little eerie knowing they are shooting in your direction.  Once over the reef it is clear sailing all the way to the Bay.

Of course, the alternate is to round Governor’s Island to the south and keeping clear of the east spit approach the Bay from the south.  In the Halman 20 and with light winds this could add a couple of hours to the trip  and my practice has been to sail slowly with one eye on the depth gauge and the other peering over the side watching the very visible bottom glide by.

Remarkably for a place that has no resident boats, only the ruin of a wharf, no commercial fishing or aquaculture and few visitors there is a full set of buoys leading to the anchorage at the wharf site.  By contrast, Orwell has a very active mussel operation and no buoys.  CD3 marks the edge of the spit running east from Crown Point peninsula and from there to the wharf there are both port and starboard markers showing the channel.  None are listed in the Coast Guard list of lights and buoys and they don’t all show up on electronic or printed charts   The channel has depths near or exceeding 8 feet at low tide but the sand shoals rise steeply and it is east to go from 10 feet to 2 feet within a boat length. I had, on purpose nosed Ebony unto the edge of the sandbar to have lunch but failed to time the still falling tide and by the end of lunch I was hard aground.  An extended lunch period curtailed my intention to explore the curving channel leading up to Pownal proper

Now that all wharf timbers have rotted away the abandoned wharf has become a rockpile and a favourite space for seals from Governor’s Island to haul out and bask in the warm sun at low tide .  It is perhaps an indicator of how quiet a place this has become because there is a road running down to the head of the wharf and then up to Mt. Mellick. Cars pass within a few hundred yards and the seals seem to be not at all alarmed.  Two or three years ago their favoured spot was a drying sandbar just to the west and clearly visible in the Google Earth shot but they seem to have shifted their lounging spot.

Waterside is not really even a hamlet as it has only a handful of farms, some of which have had lots carved off but a new sign board shows that a large area of the shorefront has been subdivided and a road plotted out to service the “desirable estate lots.”

Governor’s Island Excursion

Governor’s Island is just a few nautical miles from Charlottetown Harbour mouth but is  a tough place to visit because almost all sides consist of rock reefs extending in some cases several miles from shore.  Sailing directions suggest total avoidance.  The Island is a rough triangle and can be walked around in little more than an hour.

Governor's IslandRather than a frontal assault I chose to sneak up on it from behind. The north side of the Island is linked to Squaw point by a very shallow area with some nasty outcrops but in my earlier explorations I had found that by hugging the two buoys that mark the outer limits of the rifle range  I could get my shallow draft bottom across, especially a high tide.  The safest approach is from the north just inside of the eastern sand spit but there are no safe anchorages in the case of a storm. The reefs and shallow water completely surround the island

I anchored Ebony a safe distance off – much too safe as it turns out because the eight feet of water in which I anchored continued well into the shore  and I had quite a row in and out. The dinghy incidentally rows like a dream.  Memo to self – get a small anchor for the dinghy so I don’t have to haul it over the rocks  in case of rising tide.

 The sand spit at the east end of the Island extends well over a mile into Pownal Bay and is a favourite spot for seals to haul out on a hot day and baste in their own juices.  When I visited the seals were elsewhere and all that was visible on the beach was a bald eagle, just standing and waiting.  There has been an eagle colony on the Island for several years.

What is on the Island is a major cormorant colony with what must be thousands of birds.  Twenty years ago they were hardly seen anywhere on Prince Edward Island.  As a child I can remember passing a nesting spot on old pilings near Pictou, never dreaming that they would become such a pest on our side of the Strait. Now the diving birds come right into the marina in their quest for fish.

They nest in trees and quickly kill them with their guano.After they have killed all the trees they will move on to other locations. Already a few nests are appearing on St. Peter’s Island and a few other locations.  Passing downwind of the colony is a trial for the nose but when I visited Governor’s Island it either wasn’t too bad or my sense of smell was damaged.


Unlike St. Peter’s Island across the bay Governor’s Island never had a permanent year-round population.  For many years, up until the mid 1930s there was at least one seasonal lobster cannery on the island and I can remember stories of members of the Judson family who owned the Island of going out to the island to picnic or work at the cannery. There would have been a number of factory buildings such as a cook house and bunk houses for the male and female workers as well as the cannery itself. Whether the buildings were hauled across the ice or simply disintegrated isn’t clear but there are no obvious signs of their presence.

Governor’s had a fascination because of its geology.  Abraham Gesner in his geological survey in the 1840s noted that it was an extension of the pattern of rock folds that gave some evidence of coal potential at Gallas Point on the east side of the bay. It is one of the few locations in PEI where fossils can be found.  In the 1930s drilling took place on Governors for coal formations, or better yet, oil. Although promising nothing of substance was found.  With the need for oil as part of the war effort drilling was re-started in 1942 but this time from a crib erected about a mile west of the island. At the time it was the deepest off-shore well that had ever been drilled in North America and it was a dry hole. The crib is still noted on charts and is marked by a warning buoy. On calm days the cribwork is still visible on the ocean floor.



Back on land there is some evidence of the drilling . Rusted piping, a couple of mechanical devices, chain running into the bank, and a mysterious cauldron encased in concrete.

Besides the cormorants, and a few hardy blue herons who also nest here, the inhabitants of the island are a colony of about 60 harbour seals. Attracting “seal watching” cruises from Charlottetown they are more often heard rather than seen. Their grunting and howling carries for miles. On an earlier visit to the Island I found myself in the middle of twenty or twenty-five curious heads watching the progress on my boat. Their heads seem much like those of dogs when at sea and they cannot resist anything that perks their interest.  On this trip the tide was almost at dead low and the seals had climbed out of the water to lounge on the rocks.  I was able to get within about 50 feet of them but then with a grunt there was a rolling roar as they tumbled into the sea and safety.

 Turning the corner of the Island I spotted several dozen more on the offshore rocks. Secure in their distance and the water between us they took little notice of me.

I continued my walk, rowed back to Ebony and sailed on to China Point.  As I was leaving the sound of rifle at the small arms range echoed across the water and I was glad that I had crossed the range area hours before.