Tag Archives: Prince Edward

Coal, Steam and Seals: Captain McMillan’s Steamer Elliott

I have written in an earlier posting about Captain Ronald McMillan and the steamer William but this was only one chapter in the story of McMillan’s forays into the world of steamships. – forays that in general did not have happy endings.

It was rare for Island ship-owners to make the transition from sail to steam. One well-funded venture in the late 1870’s saw a number of Island capitalists come together to form the Ocean Steamship Company but the venture into trans-Atlantic trade was ultimately unsuccessful. However late in the 19th century a market began to open up in the coastal trade for new steamers. With the decline in shipbuilding across the region the fleet of schooners and brigs which carried much of the bulk cargo and which served smaller ports was aging and the response was not to build more sail-powered replacements but to shift some of the carrying capacity to steamers.  Builders such as Joseph McGill in Shelburne and the Burrill- Johnson Iron Works in Yarmouth put a number of small wooden vessels on the market, several of which, including the Electra, the Magdalen and the Harland,  ended up serving P.E.I. ports. Another response was to purchase older British-built steamships and bring them across the Atlantic to enter the maritime coastal trade.

Advertisement for McMillan’s coal business. Daily Examiner 15 February 1889 p.2

One of the most active shippers on Prince Edward Island was Captain Ronald McMillan of West River. He had been a successful captain who had built and operated a number of coastal schooners before the became a partner with Donald Farquharson in the steamer William in 1888.  The sinking of that vessel in December of 1891 did not mean the end of his activity.  In 1881 he had begun a coal business and had purchased the Duncan shipyard property just west of the Prince Street ferry wharf. With the end of waterfront shipbuilding the property had deteriorated and MacMillan converted  it to a coal yard with a wharf which was reported by the Daily Examiner in 1892 to be “second to none in the city.”  The wharf housed two large coal sheds served by trollies holding three-quarters of a ton moving  bulk coal from ships to storage. Instead of using horse powered hoisting gear he had the latest steam-powered donkey engines which could unload 150 tons from a vessel in a single day. McMillan was reported to be the largest coal dealer in the province at the time.

After the loss of the William McMillan may have had insurance proceeds and he moved to replace her. In the spring of 1892 he sought out a vessel in England but not satisfied with what he was able to find there he decided not to use another British-built steamer but have one built on Prince Edward Island.  Late in that year he made a request to Charlottetown City Council for permission to use the area between his property and the Prince Street Wharf to build a vessel during the winter months.

3218.67 launch 2

Launch of the Steamer Elliot. November 1893. H.B. Sterling Photo. Public Archives and Records Office

Permission appears to have been granted and in November 1893 a ship, named the Elliott after the Elliott River, slid down the ways of the shipyard. Built by veteran shipbuilder Kimble Coffin of Mt. Stewart the vessel was one of, if not the largest steamer built on the Island. The 367 ton vessel was 160 feet long, 25 feet beam and an 11 foot depth of hold. Constructed of spruce, juniper, pitch pine and American oak  she had galvanized iron fastenings throughout.

Advertisement for maiden voyage of the S.S. Elliott. Daily Examiner 15 November 1893 p.2.

Within a week the maiden voyage of the Elliott was advertised. She would make a trip to Barbados and Trinidad calling at Bermuda. For the rest of the decade the Elliott continued to call at ports such as Philadelphia and Halifax up and down the Atlantic seaboard but given the other business  interests of her owner one of the most frequently hauled cargos would have been coal from Cape Breton or Pictou She often carried livestock on the out-bound legs.  In 1897 McMillan took the Elliot to the Strait of Belle Isle where a steamer the Baltimore City had been wrecked and salvaged the bulk of the cargo and fixtures of the steamer which were taken to Charlottetown and sold.

In 1904 McMillan decided to try something different with the steamer.  January found the ship in Halifax fitting out for a trip to the sealing grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The ship would pick up about 100 sealers at Channel – Port Aux Basques and head for the sealing grounds around Meat Cove Cape Breton and St. Paul Island just off the Cape Breton coast. She was to only Canadian steamer to be engaged in the fishery that year. On 18 March a report was received that the ship had received damage from the ice to her stern post, keel and shaft, was aground at Atlantic Cove on St. Paul Island. The sealers and crew had been put ashore on the tiny island but Captain Farquharson was able to get word to the mainland that he hoped she could be saved and by 26 March the crew had returned to the ship and she had re-started for the sealing ground. However about four or five miles from the Island she was nipped by the ice and all aboard had to take to the boats and with a favourable winds were able to return to the Island. Strangely the following day the steamer was blown back into the cove, leaking and with the rudder torn away. They attempted to keep her afloat and beach her but she sank in fourteen feet of water just off the shore and was a total loss.

Sale notice for McMillan properties. Charlottetown Guardian 12 August 1905 p.2.

The loss of the Elliott may have been one blow too many for McMillan.  The following year “intending to make a change in business” he advertised his business and property for sale. This consisted of the property with 110 foot frontage on the south west corner of Prince and Water Streets which included The Plazza House Hotel, two large dwellings and barns and two vacant building lots.  On the other side of the railway siding which ran through the property was the coal business with a roller mill, offices, coal scales, two coal sheds which could hold 2000 tons, warehouses and a blacksmith shop. There was also a wharf and water lot which extended to the channel of the Hillsborough.

McMillan appears to have become insolvent in 1906 with his estate assigned to W.H. Aitken and by 1908 he was living in Vancouver where he died in 1915.

There are few reminders of McMillan and his ships and businesses left on the Charlottetown waterfront. The wharf, shipyard, warehouses and coal yard have been knocked down and the land now forms the eastern half of the Confederation Landing Park.  The two buildings which faced on Water street have long histories and were part of the James Duncan property before being acquired by McMillan and they both survive.  The “Plazza House” had, by 1909, become the Lennox Hotel and operated under that name for many years, for part of the time by the Misses McMillan who may have been relatives of Capt. Ronald.

Stilts spark stampede! – Saved from drowning at the harbour mouth!! – Thrilling bovine rescue!!!


Loading cattle from Buntain & Bell wharf. Keystone stereo image detail.

On Thursday afternoon, as several cattle purchased by Blake Bros., in Southport were being driven up Prince Street, one of the younger animals became alarmed at the actions of a boy on stilts, and started to run. The others quickly followed, and soon all were down the wharf again. Here two of the cattle jumped overboard and started to swim out the harbor. The captain of the dredge saw the occurrence and with several of his men put out in a boat after the frenzies animals, one of which they captured off Rosebank and towed back to town. The tug Nelson put out after the other animal and overtook it near the harbor’s mouth and brought it back to town. Neither of the animals were worse for their experience, although one of them was in the water for about two hours. The Messrs Blake greatly appreciate the prompt and kindly action of the captain and crew of the Nelson and captain and crew of the dredge.

So read an article tin the Daily Examiner for 5 November 1898.  It is a reminder that the sight of beasts on the streets of Charlottetown was hardly an unusual event until well into the beginning of the 20th century. As there was no practical way of transporting them other than rail cars, cattle would be driven into Charlottetown from the nearby country farms, or as in this instance, unto the Southport ferry, or one of the river steamers, and thence through the city streets to an abattoir or one of the many butcher shops in the city where they would be slaughtered and hung to age.

For decades Blake Brothers was one of the most important and well-known of the city’s butchers. The firm had been started by John Blake in the 1830s and continued under the management of his sons Patrick and Morris Blake who formed a partnership in 1865. They had one of the largest stalls at the Market House as well as facilities elsewhere in the city and were famed for the quality of their meat, frequently taking prizes at the Provincial Exhibition. Both brothers were active in politics; Patrick as a Conservative and Morris as a Liberal.  Patrick moved to Cape Breton in in 1902 but the firm continued into the 1920s although Morris had died in 1919.  Blake Brothers developed an export market for beef at an early date, shipping cattle throughout the region, especially to Newfoundland. Before the widespread use of refrigeration the only way to ship meat was live on the hoof.  In 1880 they sent 108 fat cattle, with an average weight of 1350 pounds  on the Island-owned steamship, the Prince Edward, to the British market. In addition Blake Bros. had an active provisioning business providing food for visiting steamers and warships. It is not clear if the swimming cattle were destined for export or the domestic table but their brief freedom was no doubt merely an interruption on their way to the table.

The tug Nelson was one of a small fleet owned by the Batt brothers. She had been built in1896 in Charlottetown and registered the following year.  She was a small wooden vessel, only 50 feet in length, 13 wide  and drawing only 5 feet.  The bovine rescue in the harbour is one of only a handful of mentions she gets in the press.   She did not remain long in Charlottetown and sometime before 1906 her ownership had passed to a Quebec firm. She was wrecked and taken off the register in 1906.

This story of beef afloat precedes by several years another epic worth noting. The story of the swimming cattle is a thin tale indeed compared to the later and  much repeated and embellished saga of the bull, the bugle and the bridge which was recounted countless times by Walter O’Brien of “The Bristol Notes” fame.  As this blog deals mainly with verifiable phenomena I will not try and repeat it here although it is (if true) an amazing tale. For details consult any avid reader of the Charlottetown Guardian’s Bristol Notes.

Dredging up the Past

During the winter of 1872-1873 the final negotiations took place between Prince Edward Island and Canada on terms by which the colony could become part of the Dominion.  There were some big items on the table. The Prince Edward Island Railway was threatening to bankrupt the colony. The long standing issue of absentee landlords could only be resolved by a major injection of funds to permit compulsory purchase of the estates. The vexing question of “continuous steam communication” had to be resolved. But there were also a few lesser items on the colony’s shopping list.

Near the bottom of the list was the steam dredge. The harbours of Prince Edward Island, then as now, were subject to a high level of siltation which had been exacerbated by the  clearing of land and increased erosion and run-off. Some of the rivers which were home to shipbuilding had reduced capacity for launches and the wharves across the Island frequently had to be extended to meet the channel. The appearance of larger steamers in Island harbours made the dredging a priority.

In 1872 the colony committed to the construction of a steam dredge at a cost of $22,000, about $500,000 in current dollars, but it had not yet been launched. Because the responsibility for marine and fisheries would be vested in the Dominion government, Canada agreed to take the dredge off the colony’s hands, and presumably with it the responsibility for keeping the province’s harbours dredged.

The Steam Dredge Prince Edward was soon a fixture in the harbours and rivers of the Island. As one of the most visible signs of Canada’s involvement with the province it was often the focus of political interest with questions about dredging plans and crew employment in the House of Commons and Senate. As the vessel served the entire province the appearance of the Prince Edward, with attendant barges and tugs was closely watched. Modifications in the years following launch meant that the crew were housed aboard, a pattern that was continued with almost all of the dredges which operated in Prince Edward Island and so the vessels (or more properly barges as they had no means of propulsion) served as a home for the crew during the dredging season.

The Prince Edward was the island’s sole dredge until 1904 and the fleet gradually grew larger. In 1916 four dredges operated out of the DPW base at the foot of Great George Street in Charlottetown. Together with their scows and the tugs, they constituted a little fleet which scattered to duties around the Island, across the strait and even to the Magdalen Islands in the summer but which generally returned to Charlottetown as the season ended.  The dredges were a major source of work for Bruce Stewart and Company for they required constant repair, maintenance and improvement. The dredges and scows were periodically hauled from the water for winter work to be done. The shore just west of the Marine and Fisheries Wharf served as a haul-out area.

By 1912 the hull of the Prince Edward was, according to its captain “fit for nothing but scrap” and the dredge was so low in the water that the decks were awash. A pontoon was designed to be placed under the vessel to raise its waterline. Hauling the dredge for his repair became an event in itself as the Guardian reported on 16 December 1912.

There was no small excitement the last few days down along the waterfront where preparations were being made to haul out the old dredge “Prince Edward.” Dredge Inspector MacDonald planned and superintended the job and Angus DesRoches was foreman. This dredge just got through digging at Mount Stewart, just a week ago and was towed to Charlottetown where she was dismantled and the main crane, weighing fifteen tons, was landed safe on Pownal wharf. The dredge was hauled out Saturday and is now blocked up on dry land. The hauling out, which used to be accomplished by horse capstans and winches, was this time performed by taking the tackle through her hull and on to her main hoisting drum and it can be said that she steamed up on dry land to get repaired. The part of the work most admired by the large crowd of spectators was the wonderful ease by which the big undertaking was accomplished and plans were skillfully made…… It is understood that the tugs “Rona” and “Islander” as well as the ferry boat “Hillsborough” are also going to be hauled out in this dock. This is as it ought to be, instead of having this work done on the slip in Pictou, have it performed by Prince Edward Island workmen in Prince Edward Island.  

Three years later the dredge was again hauled and it was found that the planking of the pontoon had suffered from ship worms which were halted only after reaching the layer of poisoned tar paper inside the planking.

By this time the dredge had seen more than forty years of service. By 1920 the names of the dredges seem to have disappeared from the records replaced by numbers. The Prince Edward became Dredge 11.  Its fate is no doubt buried in the records of the Department of Public Works but it seems to have disappeared from the scene not long afterwards. Although the DPW dredge fleet remained a part of the Charlottetown Harbour scene for a further fifty years the dredges, scows and tugs have now all disappeared.

While the Prince Edward still floated it was one of the few physical reminders of the bargain struck between the nearly bankrupt colony and the Dominion of Canada. It can be argued that by taking over the Prince Edward the Dominion was also committing to a confederation promise of maintaining the harbours of the province for shipping purposes. However, unlike the issue of “continuous steam communication,” the province has failed to hold the Dominion to its obligations and the Island’s ports and small fishing harbours wage a constant fight against shifting sands with little assistance and less success.

As a service vessel the Prince Edward was hardly photogenic and I have not been able to find any illustrations of the dredge. I would be most appreciative of learning if its appearance has been captured.