Tag Archives: rowing

April on the waterfront 1891

Charlottetown’s Busy Waterfront. Detail from a Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878.

Although by 1890 the days of busy ship yards on Prince Edward had long since past the industry did not vanish overnight. The Island still possessed a large fleet of sail and steam providing services and connections between the Island and the mainland, as well as overseas. Besides the building of ships the industry had a large suite of related trades whose importance would continue for many years.  The waterfront was still the place of industry as a report from the waterfront in 1891 will show. Shipyards gave rise to related businesses which continued to operate and serve the fleet. In the 1890s we still had sailmakers, ships carpenters, chandlers and boatbuilders. Once the shipping season ended many of the warehouses were taken over by boatbuilders and shipwrights. There was also a large inshore fishery which had strengthened by the lobster industry. While it was sill almost exclusively sail powered by the end of the decade engines were beginning to make their appearance. Small steam engines, some built by local engineers, were just beginning to appear in steam launches and small yachts.

In the spring as the ice deteriorated into cakes and floes smashed and tossed about by the tides and waves the warehouse and boat-building shops were opened to reveal a winter’s labour and an assertion that while the harbour was asleep its craftsmen had been busy.

Here is what was happening on the waterfront in April of 1891:  Extensive repairs had been completed on Ronald McMillan’s steamer William. The ship was raised up on the ice between the wharves and a number of iron plates replaced and the whole bottom re-riveted, a task which kept eleven men employed for the winter.  The P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company paddle steamers; Princess of Wales and St. Lawrence were overhauled and completely re-painted over the winter and the St. Lawrence received new 2 inch deck sheathing. By mid-April both ships were loaded with cargo and were waiting for the ice to clear from Hillsborough Bay. The ferry steamers Southport and Elfin were also overhauled and the Inland Steam Navigation Company’s Heather Belle had also been prepared for the 1891 season.  Numerous schooners had also over-wintered in the harbour of Charlottetown and were repaired and overhauled by their crews and Charlottetown shipwrights.

On the pleasure boat side three steam yachts had been completed over the winter. One, for Jefferson Gardiner was 56 feet overall and 11 feet wide and had a 20 horse power steam engine built by the McKinnon & McLean of Charlottetown. It was estimated she could reach speeds of 10 knots. The hull had been constructed by McPhee Bros. of Souris and had 1 1/2 inch planks and had two sleeping berths and seating for fifty people.  Another steam yacht, also boasting an engine from McKinnon & McLean was built by H.H. Crossman for a buyer in Newfoundland. She was 38 feet overall, was  half decked and also had sleeping accommodation for two and seating for 20. A third yacht was completed by builder Angus McDonald. She was also 38 feet long  and would be fitted with an engine built by White & Sons.

McPhee Bros also completed eight fishing boats for the Portland Packing Company to be used in the lobster fishery. These were of an identical design with 17 1/2 foot keel and 20 1/2 overall length. The three boats were completed in less than three months.

Another local boat builder, James Griffin, had a busy winter. He completed a four-oared lapstreak boat for John Collins intended to be used for the boy’s crew at the rowing club. Griffin had built seven or eight four-oared boats over the last several winters. The is one was 32 feet long and had a beam of 3 feet. The previous fall he had completed a rowing craft 34 feet long and 3 feet 8 inches wide, copper fastened throughout and reported to be the finest boat he had ever produced and was offered for sale. He also complete two pleasure rowing boats which had already been sold.

Today once the last cruise ship leaves, the sailing yachts and powerboats are snatched from the water and the ice begins to close in Charlottetown turns its back to the water. In the 1890s however, winter was a time when harbour-life continued, although to a different pattern. It was a time when shore-based marine trades barely paused in their quest to ready the harbour for its next season.

 

Oar Wars – Rowing Rivalry on Charlottetown Harbour

Detail from Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878

Among the dozens of harbour craft visible in the 1878 Panoramic View of Charlottetown is a shadowy figure seen near the steamer St. Lawrence. It is obviously a single scull rowing boat and its presence is a reminder of the popularity of rowing in late 19th century Prince Edward Island.

Beginning with the surprise win in the world championships in Paris by an amateur team from Saint John in 1867 the sport of rowing soon became one of the most popular sports in Canada. The “Paris Crew” was the inspiration for the founding of dozens of rowing clubs across the new Dominion and induced hundreds, if not thousands, of Canadians to take up the sport.  One of the first Canadian international sports heroes was a rower, Ned Hanlan of Toronto, who took and held world championships and whose every exploit was avidly followed by both national and local newspapers.

In Prince Edward Island the Hillsboro Boating Club (HBC) built on a tradition of the Charlottetown Regatta Club which had held regattas stretching back half a century  when the sport of rowing was mainly carried out with ungainly ships’ boats and gigs. When it was founded in the early 1870s the HBC racing fleet included purpose built racing boats; single sculls and two and four-oared shells.

Daily Examiner 21 August 1879

But it was not only the club boats which were seen on the harbour. Several individuals kept rowing boats for exercise and sport and in 1878 a group of four young oarsmen purchased a shell which had been used by a championship team from Halifax.  In early years competition was often the result of challenges issued and accepted with considerable money riding on the results. By 1886 the Hillsborough Boating Club was not the only one on the waterfront. The South End Boating Club was to prove to be a serious rival – at least for a short time. The club appears to have been founded earlier that year and soon had club rooms on Lower Water Street, a street which has now disappeared but which ran between Great George and Queen at the head of the wharves. Reading between the lines it appears that the South End Club was more of a workingman’s club than was the HBC.  In July 1886 the club had purchased a four-oared shell built by N. Logan and Sons of Saint John, 39 feet in length and weighing 106 pounds and in August added another similar craft formerly belonging to the Halifax Boating Club to their holdings.

One of the major promotors and long-time presidents of the Club was John Joy who operated, among other businesses, the Old London Oyster House located on Water Street near thre bonded warehouse. He had competed in harbour rowing events in the 1870s and in 1888 commissioned gold and silver medals to be awarded to the successful competitors in regattas in Charlottetown.

In a report on the annual general meeting on the club in 1889 an account was given of the club activities and benefits.

No more health giving recreation can be conceived, and none more pleasant when once experienced than to launch off morning or evening in the summer months, and be relieved of the smoke and dust of the city for an hour or two. Besides boats of all descriptions the latest approved apatrtenances may be found at trhe club rooms; Indian clubs, dumb-bells and all that may be desired fior muscular development.

A successful picnic was held on the West River with a brass band in attendance. In addition to rowing events a sports day was held with track and field activities. A year later the club was a reported to be in an excellent financial position and had inducted seven new members. Plans were made for an act of incorporation. A club fund-raiser was a moonlight excursion on the steamer St. Lawrence with the Artillery Brigade Band in attendance. A first class violinist had been hired to furnish music for dancing.

Later in the summer of 1890 a match was arranged between the Hillsboro Bating Club and the South End Boating Club. The No. 1 crews of both clubs were to row for a purse of $100 (a not inconsiderable sum worth just under $3000 today) –  $50 put up by each club. The race was to begin off Connolly’s wharf between 4 and 8 pm. At 4:30 with wind and tides favourable the judges ordered the race to be run. The South End club quickly appeared on the start line but one of the Hillsboro crew refused to row until after he had had his tea. The South End team retired to their clubhouse. At 6 pm the reticent Hillsboro crew member took his place in the boat and rowed to the start line and announced his readiness to have the race start. The South Enders declined to row at that time stating that the judges had set a time for the start and that Hillsboro failed to participate. The judges ruled the race forfeit and Hillsboro was ordered to pay $10 to the South End Boating Club.

Later that year the South End club purchased another 40 foot four-oared shell built of Spanish cedar with sliding seats. She was built in Carleton New Brunswick and cost the Club $150, over $4200 adjusted for inflation to todays costs.  The club’s crews participated in a regatta at Pictou  and hosted a regatta in Charlottetown in October. There were ten events, two sailing races and eight rowing heats including classed for four-oared shells, four-oared lapstrake gig boats, double sculls, single sculls, and several races reserved for boys (as opposed to men – ladies did not race). At the main event, the four-oared shells, the South End crew were bested by a team from New Glasgow.

A commentary in the Examiner congratulated the club.

Good wholesome, manly sport is obtained upon the water by those who like it – and their name is legion.  We possess a sheet of water, in which to engage in aquatic sports, second to none in America. The youngest men amongst us who are engaged in the promotion of these sports deserve credit and encouragement. They have for several years past worked bravely under adverse circumstances, and they have triumphed over many difficulties They are evidently made of the stuff which constitutes a nation’s chief resource in troublous [sic] times.

The sixth annual report in 1891 noted the club’s history. It had grown from a beginning with thirteen members to more than fifty, from two second-hand single sculls to a large fleet and from a lean-to shed to a commodious club house and from nothing to assets in boats, oars and club furniture of almost $1000.  The meeting noted however that notwithstanding these successes there was still a lack of interest by the general public in aquatics. That year the Club tried to broaden its appeal. They decided to mount a “Grand Athletic Tournmant and Stallion Race”  at the Charlottetown Driving Park with all sorts of athletic sports such as might be found at the Caledonial Club Games along with a hose reel race between firemen and club members, a one-mile trot between two well-known horses and a dance at the Lyceum Hall. The event included everything but rowing. In advertising the Club was re-branded as the South End Boating and Athletic Club and this attempt to make it more of a sports club may have signaled a beginning to the rapid demise of the organization.  The athletic tournament was not a success and the Examiner noted “a small attendance.”

A very unusual event took place in January 1892. Without a hint of global warming the harbour remained free of ice well into January and on 12 January a four-oared race took place with shells from both the Hillsboro and South End clubs participating. With a crowd of spectators at Connolly’s Wharf three boats were at the starting line. The two mile course, to a turning buoy and back was completed in about thirteen minutes and it appears the South End crew was the winner. After the event crews and friends adjourned to the South End Boat House for refreshments, instrumental and vocal entertainment and speeches. The reception ended at 5:00 pm – perhaps called early for tea.

The winter race was one of the last reported activities of the South End Boat Club. Later that year there was a fund-raising lottery for a double scull racing boat and then a long silence. Rowing had lost its allure

Five year later the club had disbanded and all its boats were offered at auction as can be seen by the following advertisement.

Daily Examiner 19 May 1897

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P.E.I.-based boatbuilder receives international recognition

Norseboats

12.5 foot and 17.5 foot Norseboats on a P.E.I. beach

 

All too often we think of the golden age of sailing and boatbuilding as being something confined to the 19th century.  Of course, 150 years ago Charlottetown the harbour was the home of scores of small multi-purpose boats that served as fishing craft, lighters, dinghys, sculling boats, ferries, and yes, even as small yachts.  Boatbuilders both in Charlottetown and other coastal areas served the market for well-built small boats.  Not so much today.

Boatbuilder001

Charles McQuarrie’s boatbuilding ad in Haszard’s Gazette 1852

The work of making small craft was one of the minor industries along with sail making and marine blacksmithing which often get lost when we talk about the wood, wind and water economy. We focus on shipbuilding with schooners, brigs and barques, often forgetting that the nautical arts  contained dozens of specialties which were a requirement for a community which, as an island, depended on boats for much of their existence.  As the economy changed and our dependency on locally produced  craft was reduced many of these minor skills almost disappeared. In the 20th century boat building became the preserve of those producing large motorized fishing boats on the one hand and home-built pleasure craft on the other.

But all has not been lost. In the most recent issue of the English yachting magazine Classic Boat, the Norseboat has been recognized as a “New Classic”.  See the story here.  The founder and president of the firm responsible for the Norseboat is Kevin Jeffery of the Belfast area just down the coast from Charlottetown.  He conceived of the boat as a multi-purpose craft which could equally well be sailed or rowed, had a classic appearance, and could be easily transported by trailer so that its range was extended to almost every harbour in the world.  Built originally in Pinette, PEI production moved to Lunenburg and then to Maine to tap the increasing market.

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Norseboat 12.5t showing characteristic rig.

There are now a number of different craft in the range with boats at 12.5, 17.5 and 21.5 feet, all with a distinctive dutch curved gaff rig with a boomless mainsail.  The boats are now found all over the world and are admired for their classic style and their fine workmanship . In addition to being recognized by Classic Boat Norseboats have graced the cover of Small Craft Advisor and have been nominated for awards such as the Sail Magazine Best Boat award.  Kevin has described the boat as “the swiss army knife of boats” and his depiction is not far off. The webpage for the Norseboat has lots of video and photos of the various models in action in posts across the globe.

I have spotted a Norseboat from time to time in Charlottetown harbour and have seen them at boat shows. They are expensive boats but have a quality which matches the price. Like the Drascomb Lugger this seems to be a boat that does everything well.   I am sure DeSable’s Charles McQuarrie would approve.