Tag Archives: S.S. Prince Edward Island

P.E.I. Ferry Terminal was a Major Infrastructure Project

Ferry Terminal Pier at Carleton Head. Note the third rail on the pier. There was no need of a roadway as everything went back and forth by rail. Several temporary buildings of the construction camp can be seen on the point.

In 1912 Carleton Point was little more than the sea-side edge of a farm located a mile or so to the north and west of Cape Traverse. The latter community was the jumping off point for New Brunswick. The undersea cable of the Anglo-American Telegraph Company landed at Cape Traverse and the community was also the Island end of the winter ice-boat route. It boasted a pier that extended into the Strait and in 1885 a branch line had been added to the Prince Edward Island railway to join the pier to the Island’s rail system.

Pier-head during storm conditions. At least one of the pier cribs can be seen through the spray.

A year later the farm at Carleton Point had been converted to the site of a work camp for the building of the ferry pier. After years of agitation and delay the Dominion Government had committed to the development of an ice-breaking rail ferry service to the Island. Even before the issuing of a contract for construction of the vessel government engineers had been examining options for the route. On the New Brunswick side the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Railway ran from Sackville to Cape Tormentine and as this was the narrowest part of the strait the choice of the Cape was a foregone conclusion.

Winter scene at Cape Tormentine with barges and tugs. The existing rail line and wharf made construction here easier than on the Island side

On the P.E.I. side it was not as clear. Although Cape Traverse had a pier and rail connection the waters of Traverse Cove were shallow and unprotected. In fact, there was little protection on the Island side at all and the decision was made to create a new port where deep water could be reached fairly easily.  However the prevailing south-west winds and strong currents meant that the exposed shore would have to be well-protected by artificial means.

Strom waves at Carleton Head. The inner tower of the tramway can be seen on the still-wooded point.

Carleton Point (Carleton Head on some maps) had been named in 1765 by Samuel Holland for Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester and for the next 150 years appears to have escaped notice. It was here however that in 1913 work began on what was to be a massive project. The contract for the Island side construction was awarded to the Roger Miller Company of Toronto.  At a time when there were no services in the area everything, telephone lines, roads, wells, housing for workers and the building of construction  equipment had to be undertaken at the site. The nearest rail access was three miles away and no wharf or breakwater stood on the exposed shore. Transport of goods and equipment was hampered by the ban on automobiles and trucks on the roads from the main port at Summerside.

Outer tower of the tramway. It had its own steam power station with two boilers and an engine as well as generators to provide lighting. The stone blocks were positioned using the cable and then dropped into place.

One of the first tasks was the building of a powerhouse to supply electrical services and the electric generators and the steam machinery were continuous consumers of coal. On of the most evident pieces of equipment was a cableway carrying the huge stone blocks making up the pier and breakwater.  An island was created 1800 feet from shore and one end of the cableway built there with a 110 foot tower, the other end was on shore. At the peak of operations eighty railcar loads were put in place each 24 hour period.  The stone was brought on scows shuttling between Carleton Head and a quarry on the Scoudouc River near Shediac.  Work continued day and night lit by 43,000 candlepower searchlight on the top of the high cable tower. At a time when the brightest light was an oil lamp the light from the towers could be seen for miles around.

Derrick placing stones on the breakwater at Carleton Head.

The Carleton terminal structure was just over 1/2 mile long; a 2,000 foot pier and the landing slip of 740 feet.  The slip consisted on nine concrete cribs 100 x 30 feet joined together on site.  The cribs were built in Shediac and towed to Carleton where they were put in place and filled with quarry stone.  By the time the terminal was completed over 250,000 tons of quarry stone, some weighing as much as 10 tons,  had been put in place.  The transfer platform linking the rails on shore to the rails on the ferry itself was built by the Dominion Bridge Company  of Montreal and erected on-site. The mechanism raising and lowering it to adjust to the tide was powered by another steam powerhouse located on the wharf.

Tugs hauling cribs from Shediac where they were built. Once positioned they were filled with rock to form the actual terminal structure.

By the close of operations in December of 1914 the breakwater had been constructed up to low water and the pier had reached some 1500 feet from shore.  The new branch line connecting with existing Cape Traverse subdivision, a distance of 2 1/2 miles had been constructed but grading had been almost completed and the rails had been laid. In September 1915 tenders were called for the building of the rail facilities at the shore end of the terminal. A station, water tank, engine house, transfer platform, standpipe, ash-pit and turntable foundations were built to accommodate rail operations. Initially all tracks had a third rail to carry both narrow-gauge PEI Railway cars and the standard gauge Intercolonial Railway cars which would come across on the ferry.  A transfer station allowed goods to be moved between one type of car to the other.

Carleton terminal structure as it neared completion. Dredges and derricks are still at work but the apron for loading cars onto the boat is in place along with the steam powerhouse which controlled its movement.

The turning basins at both piers had been dredged to a depth of twenty feet at low tide but as the S.S. Prince Edward Island drew that much there was little margin for error and continuous dredging became an almost permanent part of the operation of the port for the next few years.

Completed pier as seen from the breakwater.

In August 1916 a Guardian writer foresaw a fine future for the town. Beautifully situated in the midst of a prosperous farming district, possessing natural attributes as a summer resort with a broad sandy beach, excellent sites for a golf course and summer cottages, having the potential to be a warehousing and distribution centre for the province. By November a decision had been made by the Dominion Government about the name for the town to be built on the cliff overlooking the ferry terminal and rail yard. It was to become Port Borden, named after Robert Laird Borden, the country’s Prime Minister.  Carleton Point became Borden Point at the same time.

When the regular ferry service began in October of 1917 the outlook was bright but town failed to fulfil its earliest expectations.  Rather than stopping at Borden travellers lost little time passing through to Charlottetown, Summerside and tourist destinations. Although planned using modern design principles, possibly by leading town planner Thomas Adams of the Canadian Conservation Commission it did not develop its potential as a regional centre and was primarily a dormitory town for the ferry workers. The busy work of being a distribution centre and transfer point disappeared when the standard gauge rails were extended across the province.

NOTE – Photographs used in this posting are from the Robinson Collection at the P.E.I,. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 3466/74.91

 

 

 

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Fulfilling a Confederation promise – Ferry service began 100 years ago this week

One of the earliest photos of the S.S. P.E.I.leaving port. Much of the upper deck with the first-class lounge was removed when the ship was altered to carry automobiles in the 1930s.  Photo: National Museum of Science and Technology.

On 15 October 1917 the first scheduled round trip of the S.S. Prince Edward Island between Port Borden P.E.I. and Cape Tormentine N.B. took place – achieving the goal of “continuous steam communication” which had been part of the Confederation conditions under which the Dominion joined the Island in 1873. Without a ribbon cutting and an official ceremony (unthinkable today)  the first trip was a modest beginning for an Island travel tradition which did not end until the opening of the Confederation Bridge in 1997.

In reality the ferry had operated on the route for several weeks but the freight consisted only of supplies and materials for the completion of the wharves, tracks and rail yard on the Borden side. The project had been a massive undertaking and had been the biggest construction seen on the Island since the building of the Hillsborough Bridge and the Murray Harbour branch railway.  Although there had been a rudimentary wharf on the Cape Tormentine side built when the New Brunswick and Prince Edward Railway reached the end of the peninsula in 1886 the wharf, and the entire rail line had to be upgraded. On the Prince Edward Island side a branch line had been built to Cape Traverse from Emerald so only a short addition was required to bring the line to the site at Carleton Head. This extension was built in part by using German prisoners of war.  Wharves extending to a minimum low-water depth of 20 feet had to be extended into Northumberland Strait as there was no natural harbour on either side.  At the same time the rail marshalling yard where goods were transferred from standard gauge mainland rail cars to the narrow gauge PEIR cars had to be built.  Another feature of the site was the development of Port Borden, the first planned community on the Island since the county towns were laid out in the 1770s.  On the streets of the new town, named for Primer Minister Robert Borden, buildings were constructed while others were hauled from Cape Traverse to their new sites. All of this activity was a draw for excursionists and visitors.

P.E.Island New Ferry Service showing Cape Tormentine and (erroneously) Cape Traverse. Raphael Tuck postcard ca. 1917

The benefits for the Island started immediately. The difference in capacity of the mainland line and the diminutive P.E.I Railway is illustrated by the fact that on the first trip from Cape Tormentine to the Island the S.S. P.E.I. carried 12 Intercolonial cars which represented loads for 24 cars of the Island’s railway.  Loading and unloading the rail cars unto the ferry took only 25 minutes and it is perhaps fitting that the first commercial crossing to New Brunswick consisted entirely of rail cars of potatoes. Twelve Intercolonial cars easily carried  what it had taken twice that number of the narrow-gauge cars.

Even with the need to transfer goods from one type of car to another the new ferry reduced the bottleneck for shipping which had previously required that everything be taken off the rail cars by hand, loaded on board ships, taken off the ships and re-loaded unto the mainland rail cars. Now, in the Borden rail yard the cargos could be transferred directly from rail car to rail car and loaded directly aboard the ferry to connect at Sackville with mainland trains.

Smoking room aboard the S.S. Prince Edward Island

For passengers the S.S. Prince Edward Island was a luxurious interval in their rail journey  it had a smoking room, ladies cabin, first and second class lounges and a dining room.  The interior resembled a scaled down ocean liner with mahogany panelling and carpeted decks.  The ship had been launched in England in 1914 and travelled between Charlottetown and Pictou for two years while waiting for the Borden and Tormentine piers to be completed. For more photos of the building of the vessel and the interior views of the ship see here. The S. S. Prince Edward Island remained on the route for more than fifty years, finally being retired in 1968.

Initially there were only two round trips per day. One could leave Charlottetown at 6:00 am, take the morning ferry at 8:55  and be in Sackville before noon to connect with the Ocean Limited to Montreal. The afternoon ferry trip at 4:20 allowed rail passengers to connect with the Maritime Express.

With the new service finally established, the Island’s pleas to the Dominion changed. Like Oliver Twist we didn’t want much – we just wanted more.  Agitation for another boat and more service started almost immediately. With the completion of a third rail for standard gauge cars between Borden and Charlottetown and Summerside in 1919 through passenger car service so that passengers did not have to disembark from the PEI Railway cars at the ferry and re-board the Intercolonial cars at Tormentine became a goal – one that was not achieved until the 1930s. Another issue dealt with at the same time was the elimination of the need and cost to transfer autos to railway flat cars before loading them on the ferry.

I was fortunate to have been one of the hundreds of Islanders who served on the S.S. Prince Edward Island over her lifespan. Working as a purser on the vessel in her final years she became my favourite of all of the ferries and like many Islanders I have fond memories of crisscrossing the Strait and the many days and nights aboard the old “Prince”.

Mr. Warburton’s obsession

When Alexander Bannerman Warburton, the member for Queens County Prince Edward Island rose in the House of Commons on 20 February 1911 his speech began with the ominous words “It may be wearisome to hon. members of this House to hear this matter brought up periodically…”

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Detail, from Bayfield’s chart of Amet Sound and Tatamagouche harbour showing the anchorage at Brule. Although protected there is an absence of any wharves or dockages.

Warburton was speaking of the issue of the “continuous steam communication” which had been part of the Confederation agreement but the member from Queens had his own hobby-horse to ride. For him the issue of dependable transportation could be most simply dealt with by changing to port to which the steamers travelled. At the time there were several routes in use: Summerside to Shediac, Charlottetown to Pictou,  Cape Traverse to Cape Tormentine, and Georgetown to Pictou. The summer steamers of the Steam Navigation Company used the first two to link the train services of the Island with those of the mainland. In winter the Dominion Government ice-breaking steamers used all the ports and shifted between them as ice conditions allowed. Usually the ice thickened and became impassable west to east so that the Georgetown to Pictou route was the last one to be used each winter.

The map makes it clear. Proposed steamer route (green) and railway branch (orange)

The map makes it clear. Proposed steamer route (green) and railway branch (orange)

For Warburton the map told the story. Directly across Northumberland Strait from Charlottetown lay Amet Sound or Tatamagouche Bay with communities of Cape John, Brule and Tatamagouche. Any fool could see that the twenty-four miles across the Strait was shorter  than making the dog-leg to Pictou.  And from any one of the communities on the shores  of Tatamagouche Bay it was a much shorter direct route to Truro and the Intercolonial Railway junction making a short route to Halifax and from there to the wide world.

It was not pre-ordained that the gateway to Prince Edward Island should lead through Pictou. Although the harbour was a good one it was not the only one with favourable conditions for sailing ships and the early steamers. The Brule shore developed a trade with Prince Edward Island that lasted for many years with schooners hauling agricultural goods and limestone back and forth across the strait into the 20th century. It was the discovery of coal that made Pictou an important port and with increased trade and settlement as well as industry, mail and coach routes with Halifax developed.

The shorter distance from Charlottetown to Halifax by travelling as the crow flies was attractive to some of the early steamboat operators. Heard’s Rosebud, the first steamer to be built on the Island, ran between Charlottetown and Tatamagouche in the 1850s in an effort to take trade away from the government-subsidized government steamers.  The route had been studied by the P.E.I. Colonial government in 1856 and Admiral Bayfield’s observation that Brule harbour was “the safest and best for direct intercourse with Nova Scotia…” was quoted.  In 1864 the Halifax Chronicle carried an advertisement for the “Short and Cheap route between Halifax and P.E.Island” meeting the steamer Heather Belle at Brule and when the Nova Scotia delegates came to what would become known as the confederation conference in 1864 it was from Brule on the steamer Heather Belle, rather from Pictou. The port was used as an occasional excursion destination from as the trip there and back could be made in one day.

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Advertisement for excursion to the proposed winter port. Guardian 24 July 1909 p.2

However Pictou’s dominance on the strait was greatly strengthened with the construction of the Nova Scotia Railway from Truro to Pictou Landing in 1867 and its incorporation into the Intercolonial Railway after Confederation but it was not until 1887 that the railway actually ran into Pictou town.  The same year what came to be known as “the short line” (The Montreal and European Railway) was built from Oxford Junction to Pictou along the north shore passing through Tatamagouche. However this was far from the direct link between Northumberland Strait and Truro.  Proponents of the route were excited by the construction of the Midland Railway between the Annapolis Valley and Truro and its acquisition by the Dominion Atlantic Railway (DAR) in 1905.  Extension of the line straight through the 28 miles to Brule could only be a matter of time and the vision of fast steamers across the Strait and a DAR express to Yarmouth and waiting Boston steamers was fodder for editorial comment and political postures.  The Halifax Herald wrote of trips from Charlottetown “To Halifax and return in a day” and “a new route to Boston.”  In the summer of 1909 things had progressed to the point where the owners of the Harland laid on an excursion to allow everyone to view the proposed port.

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Alexander Bannerman Warburton, a champion of the Brule route.

Alexander Warburton had been a M.L.A. from 1891 to 1898 and served as premier for a brief period before accepting an appointment as county court judge. Resigning in 1904 to run for politics he was not successful until the 1908 general election and he served only until 1911 when he was defeated.

He may have been infected by the Brule bug when running for Dominion office in 1904. By May 1909 he was in full support of the Charlottetown – Brule route. He first raised the matter in the House that year speaking for almost an hour in a discourse which recounted the history of the colony, his experiences waiting in Pictou for ice-trapped vessels, “a severe and lengthy condemnation of the suitability of Pictou as a winter port” and again and again referring to the shortened distance. The same year his stance was adopted by the Maritime Board of Trade which passed a resolution supporting a trial of the route by the icebreaker Earl Grey.

Emerging like a groundhog seeking his shadow every February  for the next two years Warburton rose to his feet to repeat his lengthy but impassioned plea which would introduce an equally lengthy and impassioned rebuttal from the member from Pictou and then the House would return to its normal business for another year.

The route question was rendered moot by the creation of the car ferry service between Cape Tormentine and Port Borden which introduced a dependable winter crossing using the S.S. Prince Edward Island but it refused to die away completely. Even after Warburton went to his reward in 1920 (as Judge of the Probate Court) there were outbreaks of interest in the Brule route.  Charlottetown businessman J.O. Hyndman was a proponent suggesting a seven-month steamer service to replace the Hochelaga coupled with the long-sought Truro-Brule direct rail line. A fast steamer could make two round trips per day compared with only one on the Pictou route. The plan was endorsed by the Truro Board of Trade in 1929. However the branch line to Brule was never built and the steamers continued to go to Pictou.

The Brule route was only one of a number of map-induced proposals in the region. There were costly failures such as the Chignecto Ship Railway and those like the Brule route and the PEI rail tunnel which never quite got off the ground.  Often what was missing was an appreciation of the demand. In the case of the Brule route the market was simply not there. Even before the car ferry, Pictou was quite adequate. The line on-the-map may have been perfect, but the good was good enough.