Tag Archives: Queen’s Wharf

A Puzzle at the foot of Queen Street

Some parts of Charlottetown are blessed with an abundance of historical images. The streets surrounding Queen’s Square are the subject of a large number of drawings, photographs and postcards, many from the viewpoint provided by the public buildings on the square. Other sections of the city are less well provided for. This is particularly true for the waterfront with no public buildings and the unsightly confusion of warehouses, workshops wharves and shops.

A drawing by Charlottetown artist Robert Harris is therefore a welcome addition to the iconography of the waterfront. Harris is best know as a portrait painter but the collection at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery also contains scores, if not hundreds, of small oils and landscape sketches. One of these (probably dating from the 1870s) shows the east side of the foot of Queen Street where it meets the waters of the harbour.

Queen St. Charlottetown by Robert Harris. Collection of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery

At first glance this seems obviously to be the block between King Street and Water with the large brick building at the corner and two similar buildings between it and the building on the corner of King Street.  A wharf (Bourke’s Wharf in the 1860 and later Peake’s Wharf No.2) can be seen south on the buildings and a slip with open access to the harbour where the street met the water.  A stroll down Queen would seem to confirm this.

Postcard view of Charlottetown waterfront ca. 1960 (detail)

The area in the sketch seems to look much as it did sixty years ago as can be seen in the detail from a postcard in the early 1960s with the familiar buildings in place. The exception is the southern mansard roofed building which was the site of Percy Vail’s Oyster Shop, a well known eatery. That building was destroyed by fire in 1976 and the gap remains unfilled except by an unattractive parking lot.

Closer examination of the Harris sketch however, raises a number of questions.  The drawing shows the  water lapping very close to the southern-most building. In fact there appear to be no room for Water Street at all. The buildings, with the exception of the three story block seem to be set well back from the street line which is not how the block looks now.

The most detailed and, for some purposes, useful  views of the area are not from photos or drawings but from plans of the city which show, in great detail, the buildings lining the streets. There are a number of these which show the lower Queen Street area.

Plan of City of Charlottetown 1863 (detail). Lake Map

One of the earliest of these is an inset in the 1863 topographical map of Prince Edward Island by D.J. Lake. Commonly referred to as the “Lake Map.”  This is a fine resource but need to be used with caution.  Firstly it gives only the footprints of the buildings with no indication of their height and secondly the cartographer seems more concerned with the neatness of the layout than with accurate depiction of the realities on the ground. For example he shows the wharves as exactly at right angles from the street grid when in reality things were a little more messy. Rather than being located right in the middle of Queen Street the Queen’s Wharf lay on the west side of the street allowance and was at a slight angle to the street.

The next image comes from the 1878 bird’s eye view of Charlottetown. This view is, unfortunately from the south west and does not show the street from the same perspective as the Harris drawing.  While seeming to be somewhat primitive close examination of the view and comparison with photographs shows that the drawing is remarkably accurate. Rooflines, window placement and out-buildings are all precise.

Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878 (detail)

This view, some 15 years later than the Lake map, shows both the King-Water block and also the block below Water Street.  It is clear from this that the water’s edge at the foot of Queen is a full block south of Water street and that another street called Peake Street (later Lower Water Street), now long gone, intersected with Queen north of the wharf. Below this there is a collection of smaller warehouses and workshops including a three-story structure on the wharf.  The accuracy of the bird’s eye view is confirmed to some extent by the plan in the 1880 Meacham’s Atlas.

Plan of Charlottetown 1880 (detail) Meacham’s Atlas.

The Atlas plan again shows the distance between Water Street and the water which is at odds with the Harris sketch if it is of the King-Water block. However none of these resources aligns completely with the view on the sketch. Since we do not have a date for the sketch it is difficult to compare the views with precision. Further we may have to allow for artistic license which could allowed Harris to manipulate the scene for visual effect.

If the sketch dates from 1863 or before then the block in the Harris sketch cannot be between King and Water as there were gaps between houses and an empty lot.  By 1878 this had been filled in and the block has largely taken the appearance in still holds.

However, the 1878 and 1880 views hold the key as does closer examination of the sketch itself. At the extreme left of the sketch a rough drawing of a tall building appears. This is almost certainly the present brick structure on the north east corner of Water and Queen. What we have then in the sketch is the block between Water and Peake or Lower Water. There are three buildings, stores with dwellings above, which fit with the 1878 view and the 1880 plan.  Then comes Lower Water street and across that street we have a three story warehouse or shop.  Neither the view or the plan show any setback for the buildings on the street. What appears to be a set-back requires another explanation. We can see the side of the three-story building only because running between it and the three houses is the opening for Lower Water. This too is consistent with the view and plan.  What throws the viewer off is the assumption that what is seen is a single block. Now it becomes clear that the three story building is located on the south-east corner of Lower Water and Queen Streets, very close to the water’s edge. The buildings in this area survived into the late 1930’s, when the DeBlois wholesale operation (visible in the 1960s postcard) was constructed sweeping the last of them away.

So with the exception of a shadowy presence on the edge of the Harris sketch every building shown has now disappeared. Small wonder it can be difficult to see what is not there. As with many historical images we must resist the temptation to make the view fit what we see today and we must find other clues in order to see what is no longer there.


“The people would prefer going to a quiet and unobstructed wharf”


An isolated capital

The location of colonial Charlottetown at the junction of three rivers meant that the rivers were both a highway and a hindrance. For water-borne traffic the routes to the east, west and north meant that farm produce and firewood could be easily transported from the interior and in winter the rivers became sleigh routes.

However for the rest of the year the rivers could be a barrier. Except to the north the town was not accessed by land. The Hillsborough was a particular barrier as it went north-east and almost cut the Island in two. Land traffic had to go around the head of the river which added miles to the trip.  Across the river from Charlottetown the roads were soon in place to link with the farming settlements in Vernon, the Selkirk settlements in Belfast and the southern part of Queen’s and King’s Counties. As well, the quickest and easiest route to Georgetown, the county capital, started right across the river from Charlottetown.  It is hardly a surprise that one of the earliest ferries in the colony was across the Hillsborough to Minchin’s Point where the government had built a wharf at an early date.  On the Charlottetown side wharf building was slower.  As late as 1839 the harbour chart shows only Queen’s Wharf extending to the channel and the stub of a wharf just west of the foot of Great George Street. The Charlottetown ferry tied up to these docks or landed passengers directly on shore.

Almost all of the town properties south of Water Street had “water lots” which gave ownership of the land below the high-water mark to the channel. This encouraged development of private wharves and by the early 1840s a wharf had been developed by the Steam Mill Company, and Reddin’s Wharf and the first of the several Peake’s Wharves had been built.  In 1844 the government, facing overcrowding at the Queen’s Wharf built a wharf at the foot of Pownal Street.  Both the Queen’s Wharf and the Pownal Wharf were built on the extensions of streets where there were no water lots.

Team-boats and steam-boats

The ferry in early years was sailed or rowed and later took the form of a “team-boat” where harnessed horses were used to turn paddle wheels.  However, just as steam had supplanted sail across Northumberland Strait, by 1848 there was talk of a steam boat service across the Hillsborough.  Legislation in that year provided for a 20-year exclusive grant of the ferry service for a person supplying “a good and sufficient Steam-Boat of not less than twelve horse-power” to convey “Passengers, Cattle and Luggage” across the river. The boat was to cross every half hour sunrise to sunset except for the time it took to make a morning and evening trip to Canso Point (now Rocky Point).  If no steam boat was tendered then government was empowered to contract for a Team Boat to be propelled by four horses [four horse-power?] and which was not less than fifty feet in length.

There were several failed attempts at providing regular service.  Among others,  contracts had been let to Thomas Tremain with the ferry steamer Isla, and to  John Roach Bourke for his little steamer Arethusa. By 1856 however, the contract had been annulled and declared forfeited,  owing, in part, to the fighting in regards to the use of the wharves for the ferry.  To address the problem the Legislature conducted a lengthy debate on the subject.  Dennis Reddin had offered to allow the ferry to operate from his wharf for payment of 40 pounds per year which appealed to the more frugal members of the House.  However, others pointed out that it was “inexpedient to connect public with private property.” Moreover the busy activity at the wharf, with vessels coming and going, and goods piled high, would be an impediment to ferry passengers. The same problem existed in regard to the proposal to use the Queen’s wharf for the ferry. For Edward Palmer there was a clear need for a new and proper ferry wharf:

The want of proper accommodation had long formed matter for complaint against the government. Strangers were astonished at the state of the Ferry. Contractors blame the government for not affording the requisite facilities. A comparison with similar places on other colonies would put us to shame. 

While a couple of members of the House of Assembly felt that this was the newly incorporated City of Charlottetown’s problem, most recognized that the project was to the greater public benefit and was properly the responsibility of the Colonial Government. If there was relatively little doubt about the need for a new wharf the more contentious question was:  where should it be?

The eastern gateway to the City


Prince Street Wharf. Detail from Albert Ruger’s Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878.

There seemed to be little room for a new wharf at the foot of Great George Street and Pownal wharf was at the other end of town and becoming busier.  Prince Street had both advantages and disadvantages. The mud flats were wider here and the wharf would have to be longer to reach the channel and it would therefore have greater cost. It was further from the centre of town. On the other hand, it would be sheltered from the prevailing south-west winds and from being carried away by ice. The site had the shortest and most direct route to Minchin’s Point and the ferry would be completely out of the path of vessels coming into and leaving the other wharves.  There was some suggestion that the crowding on Queens Square with new public buildings might mean that the market could be moved to Hillsborough Square and this would benefit the country people.  A wharf at Prince Street would bring prosperity to the growing eastern part of town.

In the end the Prince Street location only narrowly edged out the options. Construction started soon after and the Prince Street wharf served as the ferry wharf for more than a century. A fleet of boats from the Ora to the Fairview shuttled back and forth, not just across the Hillsborough but across to Rocky Point and up the rivers as well. Although busy when the ferries arrived and left there was no other traffic there.  The Hillsboro Boating Club had a building on the east side of the wharf in the early part of the century but it had disappeared by the 1930s.  It was indeed “a quiet and unobstructed wharf.”


Air Photo of Charlottetown ca 1933.

Today with infill of the shallows, the shoreline has crept out a great distance from the former edge of the harbour and the long walk along the wharf from the ferry to the shore has disappeared. Visitors to the lobster restaurant at the foot of Prince Street puzzle over the rocks exposed at low tide with “Y” shape embracing the memory of steamers long gone. For many Islanders however, a remembrance of the ferry ride across the harbour brings back their youth.