Tag Archives: S.S. Olivette

First Cruise Ship Visited more than a Century Ago

In recent years the residents of Charlottetown have become accustomed to the seasonal visits of cruise ships emptying their hundreds or thousands of passengers on a city hungry to sell meals, tours and Anne of Green Gables effigies. While this may seem to be a recent phenomena the first visit of a purpose-built cruise ship to the port took place more than a century ago.
There had been earlier vessels fitted out for winter cruising but their chief role was as passenger and freight carriers and the cruising role was incidental. The Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company’s Northumberland was one of the first in the Florida-Bermuda trade with its freight deck temporarily fitted with partitions to create additional cabins and several of the Plant Line Steamers such as the S.S. Halifax and Olivette had winter charters in the Caribbean Sea when ice ended their seasonal work as the Boston Boat.

S.S. Evangeline by marine artist Antonio Jacobsen

On 7 June 1913 the new Plant Steamships liner docked in Charlottetown for the first time. According to the Guardian its arrival eclipsed the excitement around the visit of H.M.S. Cumberland the previous week which had brought a “real live Prince” to the city in the personage of Prince Albert, son of King George and Queen Mary. Docking to a “rousing and hearty welcome” the Evangeline was probably the most luxurious and up-to-date ship to visit Charlottetown before WW 1. The S.S. Evangeline was designated as a “tourist passenger steamer”  and already had experienced a season of winter cruising between Key West and Panama, Cuba, and Jamaica advertised as “Winter Outings on Summer Seas”.  Her winter work was under charter to the Peninsular and Occidental line, not to be confused with the British Peninsular and Oriental (P&O) company which operated to the far east. The Peninsular and Occidental was a joint venture between the Plant line and Henry Flagler and the Evangeline voyages were the first cruises from a Florida port. For the Evangeline, in a reversal of the role of other Plant Line vessels, the summer was the “off-season”

Launched from the London and Glasgow Engineering shipyard on the Clyde in the summer of 1912 the new ship was 350 feet long, 46 feet wide and drew 22.6 feet. She was a powerful vessel with her twin 6,000 hp engines and twin screws giving a speed of 16 knots. She had capacity for 700 passengers and also could carry 1,500 tons of cargo. She had all the accommodation features of the finest and largest ships of her day.  On the promenade or boat deck canvas awnings allowed for strolls. Inside, this deck housed a large smoking room paneled in oak and with morocco upholstered chairs and settees, the entrance hall with a stairway to the decks below, 50 staterooms with direct access to the deck and a number of suites. The awning deck was completely devoted to passenger services with a music room or social hall, deluxe staterooms, the purser’s office and 80 more staterooms. The main deck forward of the grand staircase was devoted to the dining saloon with seating for 150 and the kitchens and pantries. This deck had another 80 staterooms several of which were fitted up as “bridal rooms de luxe”.  As a reminder that this was a ship of the early 1900s the report also noted that this deck also housed the lavatories and bathrooms suggesting that these facilities were not available in even the deluxe passenger cabins. And not all the accommodation was deluxe for on the lower deck near the waterline there were 25 family staterooms, a ladies’ cabin with 50 berths and the second class men’s cabin with 80 berths.

Plant Steamship Line’s S.S. Evangeline

For the Guardian writer, the arrival of the vessel was heralded as “A New Era in Tourist Traffic” and advance bookings  suggested that the Island would see the largest stream of summer visitors in its history.  Whether true or not the arrival of the large vessel re-kindled the debate over the need for increased hotel accommodation to meet tourist needs. Unlike today’s visitors who arrive and vanish in a single day it was anticipated that the passengers on the Evangeline would see Prince Edward Island as a destination and not simply as one of a series of day stops.


Plant Line steamer S.S. Evangeline. Postcard image courtesy of Phil Culhane.

At least one Island businessman felt that the visit would be the first of many. Grocer and postcard seller R.F. Maddigan quickly ordered an image of the ship from his card supplier and the image above is from a card posted in 1914

Unlike several of the Plant Line ships this one had been built specifically for the firm which was then operating under the name Canada Atlantic and Plant Steamship Company. A year later the ownership was transferred to A.W. Perry of Boston but this did not really constitute a change as Perry was then owner of the Plant Line.

The outbreak of the Great War did not have an immediate effect on the P.E.I. service. The Evangeline was taken off the route in late September as it had been the previous year but instead of the sailing to the Caribbean  she was laid up in Boston with a planned charter to San Francisco via the Panama Canal in March. When she did come back to Charlottetown in the summer of 1915  it was advertised she was “Under the American Flag”, a change no doubt to make her a neutral vessel in the face of increased German U-boat and surface raider activity.

It was the Evangeline’s last summer in Island waters.  In the winter of 1915-1916 she ran between New York and Bermuda and in June of 1916 was chartered to carry freight to Manchester. She never returned to Charlottetown.  In 1918 she became to property of the French Government and was converted from a passenger vessel to a freight carrier.  She was wrecked off the coast of Brittany in January 1921.

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.