Tag Archives: S.S. A.W. Perry

A Harbour Full of Sails

Charlottetown wharves about 1910. Even though sail was in decline, masts of about 10 vessels (including one full-rigged ship) can be seen in this image. Pugh postcard #898-8. Private collection.

It is hard to appreciate how different Charlottetown’s harbour is today from the scene that would have greeted observers a century ago.  With a dozen wharves still in operation and the Island almost wholly dependant on shipping for imports and exports the vessels were as important to commerce as is the tractor-trailer today.

However even by 1913 there had been a change from the days of wooden ships and iron men.  Much of the commerce was being carried by steamers which connected the province with Sydney, Halifax, Boston and Montreal as well as carrying goods and passengers across the Strait to Pictou and Shediac.  What was left for the aging fleet of wooden schooners was the high volume, low value bulk cargo such as limestone, wood, and especially coal.  The same vessels carried away agricultural goods – potatoes, turnips, wheat, oats and livestock – to nearby ports and to Newfoundland.  Higher value goods such as tinned lobster, oysters, eggs and the few manufactured goods  usually went to more distant markets and they increasingly went by steamer.

Like many declines, the change was gradual.  However once in a while an event occurred which moved perspective beyond the day-to-day.  In late October 1913 the Island was visited by an extended period of unusually high winds and as time passed eyes began to turn toward the harbour.  While not exactly a front page story, the Guardian felt that the phenomenon  was worthy of note.

23 October 1913 – AN INTERESTING SPECTACLE – In the Charlottetown Harbour yesterday morning was witnessed a spectacle of great interest and of a like unequaled in recent years. The rough weather that has prevailed during the past week has caused a number of small and large sailing craft alike to seek shelter within the haven afforded by Charlottetown’s splendid harbour, and also there were a number of vessels that had discharged and loaded here that would not venture out in the heavy seas and high winds that were reported to be raging in the Strait. There was one vessel indeed which entered the harbour under bare poles, a condition in which she had driven before the wind for many hours previous to her seeking the shelter of Charlottetown. Thus there was quite a fleet anchored within the mouth of the harbour awaiting the abatement of the stormy weather outside. Yesterday’s fine weather gave them an opportunity they awaited. Taking immediate advantage of the fine spell, the whole fleet set sail early in the morning. There were between twenty and thirty of them and they made sail almost simultaneously; the scene of so many vessels sailing out of the harbour at practically the same time being exceptionally animated and interesting.

It was probably the last time that so much working sail was seen in the harbour although the schooners, and even some rigged ships continued to visit until the 1940s.  The commonplace had become the interesting and then the unusual.

The future was also to be seen in the harbour of Charlottetown. In the same month when schooners sheltered from the wind the port saw a steady stream of regular steamers paying monthly or even weekly visits: Furness Lines’ Swansaea Trader, Black Diamond Shipping’s Morwenna, the Plant Line steamer A.W. Perry, the Cascapedia of the Quebec Steamship Line and the daily Northumberland owned by the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company. By the mid-point of the century working sail was completely gone.

Although we have a romantic notion of the age of sail the reality of worn ships with patched sails barely surviving on the edges of commercial traffic is perhaps more realistic. Working schooner in Charlottetown Harbour about 1900. Photo – Public Archives and Records Office.


Henry Plant and The Boston Boat

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S.S. Halifax at the Plant Line Wharf about 1893

For more than half a century the arrival and departure of the Boston Boat were regular occurrences on the Charlottetown waterfront. Although one could, by using a combination of Northumberland Strait Steamers and the rail lines across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, travel from Charlottetown to New England through Halifax, Saint John or Yarmouth the benefits of a direct, no-transfer passage were obvious.

The north-south coastal links between PEI and New England were, for most of the period, far stronger than any relationship with Quebec and Ontario and the trade and opportunity offered in the “Boston States” meant that many Islanders travelled back and forth on a regular basis and many families had links to Massachusetts.

One of the first companies to capitalize on this relationship was the Boston and Colonial Steamship Company which began a regular service in the 1860s and which operated as the Boston, Halifax and Prince Edward Island Steamship Line.  Although this firm served the Island for more than twenty years it is its successor, the Plant Line, that is more often associated with the term “Boston Boat”

Plant line001With round trip fares as little as $10.00 and little more than an overnight trip, Boston was much easier to reach than central Canada. The booming New England economy was a real draw for Islanders who developed a noticeable presence in Boston and communities such as Lynn.  There were thousands of Islanders in New England. Some went for seasonal employment others put down roots and formed an expatriate community. It seemed that almost every Island household could boast of cousins in the Boston States and for those cousins a regular vacation back home was an important part of maintaining the connection.  The Boston Boat was their link to the Island.


S.S. Halifax in Charlottetown

In 1892 Henry Bradley Plant had acquired control of the Boston, Halifax and Prince Edward Island Steamship Line.  Plant  had a large railroad and shipping conglomerate in Florida competing with Henry Flagler.  Flagler operated on the east coast of Florida while the Plant lines serviced the west coast. They competed with one another on the service to Cuba. Meanwhile the Canada Atlantic Steamship Company had been formed in 1888 and commissioned the S.S. Halifax from the London and Glasgow Shipbuilding Company in Glasgow Scotland.  This 250 foot vessel had a beam of 31 feet and her triple expansion engine provided 390 horsepower. The Halifax was to stay on the Charlottetown – Boston route until 1915.  Initially cooperating with one another to reduce competition, the two shipping companies were combined early in 1893 to form the Canada Atlantic and Plant Steamship Company, usually referred to as the Plant Line.

SS Olivette in Florida

SS Olivette in Florida

Plant contributed his steamer Olivette that ran in the winter between Tampa, Key West and Havana to the enterprise. The Canadian service initially ran only between Boston and Halifax but was extended to Charlottetown when the English-built 1786 ton ship Florida joined the fleet. The Florida had begun life in 1889 as the S.S. Hondo  operated by the Honduras and Central America Steamship Company.


S.S. Florida

After being acquired by Plant the 230 foot long ship underwent extensive re-building with much of the passenger accommodation being relocated to the spar deck and large saloons built in their place on the lower deck. Equipped with electric lights the ship was well finished to serve in its role as both a passenger and freight vessel. The Florida operated on routes of the Plant Line on both the New England – Maritimes service and in the Florida – Gulf of Mexico service.   Most of the Plant vessels vessels ran to Charlottetown (usually via Port Hawkesbury), others served Sydney.  The ships ran only  in the summer season and were transferred to Florida and Cuba routes for the winter season.

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Newspaper illustration for La Grande Duchesse’s first visit to Charlottetown – Guardian 3 July 1899 p. 3

In 1896 Plant ordered a new boat for the fleet.   At 404 feet, La Grande Duchesse was larger than any other boat serving the port of Charlottetown. Luxurious accommodation was provided for 700 passengers and she was one of the first boats to be provided with telephone service for every stateroom.  She was designed to travel between New York and Charleston in the winter and link with the Plant Railway system to Florida and Cuba. Her 6300 horsepower engines were expected to drive the vessel at 20 knots. Unfortunately the design was unsatisfactory and she did not perform as expected. Returned to the builders for modification she did not run to Charlottetown until June of 1899 and was sold out of the fleet soon after. Following a number of changes of name and ownership she was lost when sunk by a German submarine in 1918.

SS A.W. Perry

Plant Line Steamer A.W. Perry

Henry Plant died in 1899 and the firm came under the control of Alonzo W. Perry and other Boston investors who continued the service to Charlottetown with the Halifax and the S.S. Beverly, a former 1600 ton fruit carrier re-named the A.W. Perry (after the president of the company), described by at least one writer as “a very inferior boat.” In 1906, the same summer that the A.W. Perry began service, the company also ran the 3300 ton, 350 foot, Pretoria, giving twice weekly service to the port. Over the years the Plant Line ran other boats to Charlottetown including the S.S. Aranmore which was later purchased by the Canadian Government and was for many years  a frequent visitor to Charlottetown in her role as a Dominion Government buoy tender.

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S.S. Evangeline

Increasing freight and passenger traffic on both the northern and Florida routes resulted in the company ordering two almost identical new ships, the Evangeline and the Yarmouth, from a Glasgow shipyard in 1912. The Evangeline was added to the Charlottetown – Boston  service and was easily the most luxurious and fastest ship to cover the 660 mile route. She had 260 staterooms for her 580 passengers and carried a crew of 95. Like most of the other Plant Line ships, the Evangeline led a dual service existence sailing in southern waters in the winter and returning north each year like a migratory bird. The Plant Line ships were pioneers in the southern cruise trade which continues today.  Kevin Griffin’s Cruise People website tells the story.

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S.S. A.W. Perry ashore at Chebucto Head 1915

The outbreak of the Great War brought almost immediate changes.  Traffic numbers plummeted, costs, especially for steam coal, climbed and by 1916 the submarine menace had become a real threat.  At the end of that year the Plant Line announced the suspension of its Canadian services.  The Evangeline was taken out of service and eventually sold to the French Government. The A.W. Perry had been wrecked at Chebucto Head owing to navigation errors in 1915. The Halifax had carried on until the end of the 1915 season and the next year came only as far as Halifax. In 1917 she was sold and disappeared with all hands on a voyage from the Azores in 1918.

The loss of the service was keenly felt although with the new Rail Car Ferry S.S. Prince Edward Island there were alternative all-land using routes using through train connections as well as continuing services to meet steamers at Halifax, Yarmouth and Saint John.  However the business never returned to pre-war levels.  It is perhaps telling that in her last trip in December of 1915 the Halifax carried her largest freight load ever -20,000 bushels of potatoes and turnips – but not a single outward passenger.  The Charlottetown Board of Trade and individual merchants lobbied for a reinstatement of the service and as late as 1925 there were rumours that express passenger steamships would return to the Boston, Halifax, Hawkesbury and Charlottetown route. It was not to be. The Plant Line vessels had provided a level of luxuriousness and efficiency which was never to return to the harbour. Charlottetown’s Boston Boat was another casualty of the Great War.