Tag Archives: S.S. Prince Edward Island

The Unhappy Afterlife of the S.S. Prince Edward Island

Whitby 1991

S.S. Prince Edward Island in Whitby Harbour 1991. Toronto Star photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive.

In 1968 the arrival of the new carferry John Hamilton Gray the railcar ferry S.S. Prince Edward Island was finally made redundant. Now this had happened before. In 1933 the S.S. Charlottetown was launched and the Prince Edward Island was relegated to stand-by back-up service, taking over when the Charlottetown was sent to its annual refit in drydock or on those rare occasions such as Old Home Week when traffic began to back up. It was on a trip to Saint John for re-fit in 1941 that the Charlottetown sank after hitting a reef on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.  The Prince Edward Island was once again lead boat with only the Canso Strait ferries Scotia and Scotia II available to take over for the Prince Edward Island’s own annual trips to re-fit. 

With the launch of the Abegweit (the real Abegweit, not the trumped up, banana- shaped,  seagoing bus station that replaced it) in 1947, the Prince Edward Island once again became the second boat, spending much of the year forlornly tied up either at the old slip in Tormentine or on the Borden side. Increasing auto, passenger, and rail traffic meant the Prince was more and more frequently called to assist in the summer and shoulder seasons so that for part of the year, at least, there was effectively a two-boat ferry service. 

As a child I was always delighted when we caught the Prince Edward Island as it was a much more interesting ship to explore. We, with the abridged parental responsibilities of the period, had the full run of the ship from bow to stern and from lifeboats to engine room. Everything, from engines to winches to the ventilation fans ran on steam and the ship had a peculiar atmosphere of condensing steam, even when the coal boilers were replaced by bunker-C oil tanks. A strange blocked off stairway near the stern spoke of another time aboard as it was labeled “First Class Passengers Only.” I was only later that I learned that this was from the days before the vessel was disfigured to create an auto deck from the handsome passenger lounge. 

In the flurry of changes in the later 1960s with new boats and new terminal facilities the Prince Edward Island disappeared from Northumberland Strait. The veteran vessel was moved the Halifax waiting for final disposition and although seen with a slight list its profile with the unusual four funnels was one of the sights of the Halifax waterfront that Islanders remarked on until 1971.

Halifax 1970 copyright Mac Mackay

The S.S. Prince Edward Island awaiting its fate. Halifax 1970. Photo – Shipfax. Copyright Mac Mckay

It was at that time that the vessel was acquired by McNamara Marine, a dredging and marine facilities concern with an operation base on Lake Ontario.  The company, which was established in 1954 had a shipyard and dry-dock  on the east side of Whitby Harbour. In 1972 McNamara was one of a consortium of companies that had successfully bid on a major dredging contract to deepen the waters near the Isle of Orleans, just downstream from  the city of Quebec, so that larger ocean-going vessels could access the port.

The companies assembled a fleet of bulk carrying lake boats to carry dredging spoils as well as a number of dredgers. The latter vessels were powered by powerful electric motors to handling the dredging. The Prince Edward Island became a sort of mother ship for the fleet. With her superstructure removed, six diesel generator sets, each producing 1,200 horsepower, provided power for the dredges. The mother ship also served as the receiver for the spoils which were piped to the vessel from the dredges and transferred to the lakers for dumping. With the completion of the Quebec project the vessel continued to be used by McNamara for other projects. One source suggests it was once towed to the Caribbean for use as a mobile generating station. However it ended up at the company dock in Whitby.  Sometime before the company was wound up in 1988 the ship (or what remained of it) to was sold to another owner. 

The now derelict hulk came with a host of problems. Two transformers still on board contained  500 gallons of cooling chemicals containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The transformers were in common use across the country but in the 1970s the chemical was found to be a dangerous source of cancer agents and its use was banned.  Aside from the problem of the unsightly hulk, the Town of Whitby was alarmed by the presence of the chemicals on the waterfront and in 1987 began a campaign to have the vessel and its contents removed. The wharf, however, was owned by the federal government and the vessel’s owner had continued to pay dockage so the Town’s efforts were stymied. 

In 1990 the Prince Edward Island sank causing additional concern but when it was refloated it was inspected by the Canadian Coast Guard which concluded that the ship was in “relatively good condition” and was safe to continue to be used for storage of the transformers. In the meantime the Town has been successful in its bid to have the wharf property transferred to the municipality and began proceedings to evict the vessel. It was removed by court order in June 1992 and appears to have been moved to Toronto.  It is possible that at a later date it was moved to St. Catherine’s but the exact location after 1992 has been hard to determine. 

Whitby 1987

S.S. Prince Edward Island in Whitby 1987. The graffiti message “adios” was not to be fulfilled for another five years. Toronto Star photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive

Whitby 1990 tpl

Bow view of the S.S. P.E.I. Three transformers filled with dangerous chemicals can be seen on the upper deck. Toronto Star Photo. Toronto Public Library Digital Archive

At this writing, more than a century since the launch of the once-proud ship, it has in all likelihood, been long since scrapped. I would be pleased to hear from anyone who can tell me more about the vessels fate. The ship beloved by Islanders was a vital link with Canada for more than half a century and it is a surprise to find that it existed in its much altered form for another 25 or more years. Today aside from memories and photographs little remains of the S.S. Prince Edward Island. Little, that is except for one  large artifact.          


Wheelhouse of the S.S. Prince Edward Island at the National Museum of Science and Technology, Ottawa . Photo Paul Martin / Ingenium

At some time during the removal of the ship’s superstructure the entire wheelhouse and its equipment was removed. Today it is in the collection of Canada’s Museum of Science and Technology. The wheel, binnacle, telegraph and rudder indicator are the original equipment, installed during the ship’s building in 1914-1915 and are retained as artifacts of the age of steam.  

If you found this posting on the S.S. Prince Edward Island of interest you may want to look at other pages concerning the ship. These include a detailed examination of the building and launch of the vessel here, and to story of her conversion to accommodate automobiles which can be seen by clicking here.

I am grateful to researcher Gary Carroll who passed on information with two of the photos of the Prince at Whitby  which led to my quest to discover the fate of the vessel. 

All the world’s a pier

 All the world’s a pier,
And all the sail and steamers merely vessels;
They have their arrivals and their sailings;
And one ship in its time sees many ports,
With apologies to the Bard.
Some ships lead a solitary existence barely straying from the ports of their launch and their end – either dramatically through wreck or peacefully by reason of scrapping.  That certainly is the case with many of the steamers such as ferries for which Charlottetown was almost the only port. Other vessels played a multitude or roles in their visitation to the port. Such is the case with the S.S. Aranmore which over a forty year period was a frequent and sometimes regular visitor to the harbour but for many different  reasons and under the management of several different owners and operators.
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S.S. Aranmore

The Aranmore was built in 1890 by the W,B. Thompson & Co. yard in Dundee Scotland. It was a general cargo steamer of 1170 gross tons, 500 net tons and was built for the Clyde Shipping Company of Glasgow.  Besides its cargo capacity the Aranmore also was a passenger steamer with accommodation for 75 first class passengers, 20 second class and 100 steerage and deck passengers. Clyde Shipping had developed a regular coastal service to Cork and Waterford and to Galway Bay, the Shannon estuary and Limerick. A service to Plymouth was later extended to Southampton, Newhaven and London. From 1888, the deep-sea tramping trade saw the company heavily involved in the guano, nitrate and copper trade in the Pacific islands. After fifteen years serving the Irish Sea ports the Aranmore was purchased by the Holliday Brothers  company of Quebec which had been awarded a five-year mail contract for ports on the Quebec North Shore and the vessel also extended service to Charlottetown and Sydney. In the fall of 1905 the Aranmore was chartered from Holliday’s by the Plant Line to replace the S.S. Halifax  sailing from Charlottetown to Boston. The following year, still owned by Holliday’s, she was sailing under the Dobell Line operations and again regularly stopped at Charlottetown, this time on a passage from Montreal to St. John’s. During this period the ship was occasionally charted by the Dominion government for lighthouse supply.   
At the end of 1913 Holliday Brothers ended their steamship operations and sold their vessels, the Aranmore being acquired by the Dominion Government and re-registered as a government vessel in 1915. As the C.G.S. (Canadian Government Steamship) the Aranmore was primarily engaged in the lighthouse and buoy service, although on several occasions the vessel was chartered by Clarke Steamships for their Quebec North Shore service. 
In 1916, pending the opening of the car ferry service a the Capes,  the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company had sold the steamer Empress to the C.P.R and the Canadian Government acquired the company’s Northumberland, attaching it to the Canadian Government Railways. The following year the Island had a bumper crop of ships carrying freight and passengers across the Strait. The Northumberland mainly served on the Summerside to Point du Chene route. Construction of the ferry terminals at the Capes was still underway and so the rail ferry was crossing from Charlottetown to Pictou but its capacity was limited as freight had to be transferred from rail cars to the ship and then unloaded by hand at the other end of the crossing. Rail shipping became backlogged at both ends of the crossing and early in 1917 the Government advised that P.E.I. Railway that the Aranmore would be detached from other duties and put on the Charlottetown – Pictou route to assist.  Throughout the 1917 season the Aranmore was a regular sight in Charlottetown harbour supplementing the voyages of the S.S. P.E.I.  One trip in July 1917 showed a glimpse of the Island’s future as the steamer carried 60 passengers, one motor truck and nine new automobiles for dealers including Bruce Stewart, Horne Motors and Grant & Kennedy.  In addition the load also included one railcars worth of paper, one of bran, two cars of corn and 1,200 sacks of cement.    
By the end of 1917 the ferry terminals had been completed and the S.S. Prince Edward Island was in full operation at the Capes. Although the Aranmore continued on the Pictou route until freeze-up it was clear that the carferry would be able to handle the traffic in the future. Government operated steamer service from Summerside to Point du Chene was halted and the Charlottetown-Pictou route was handled by subsidized private operators. (see the Constance, Magdalen and Hochelega)  
The Aranmore was then moved to the Yarmouth to Boston route where the vessels had been taken off the service for wartime duties. It was leased to Eastern Steamship Lines to meet a demand from Nova Scotia shippers for a continuation of the New England connection.  When Eastern Steamships was able to secure new vessels for the route the Aranmore was returned to lighthouse duties.  

Belle Isle North End Lighthouse. One of the facilities serviced through the 1920s and 1930s by the Aranmore from the Charlottetown base.

In the 1920s Charlottetown was the primary depot for the Gulf of St. Lawrence with responsibilities extending to the Strait of Belle Island and beyond as well as a number of Newfoundland lighthouses. The Aranmore saw lighthouse duties along the north shore of the Gulf and into the Strait.   Late in 1919 the Aranmore had been stranded in an attempt to carry  supplies to marooned and starving wireless operators at Battle Harbour and two crew members spent the winter ashore in shacks maintaining the ship. It was  not pulled from the shore until September of 1920.  Throughout the 1920s the Aranmore was normally attached to the Charlottetown Marine Agency during the season and was laid up in Halifax over the winter, occasionally making voyages to Sable Island.  A large number of the ship’s crew were from Prince Edward Island.

The lighthouse work continued through the 1930s but in 1938, as the Aranmore was approaching almost 50 years of age the Government announced that the ship, along with two other vintage vessels; the Bellechase and the Lady Grey would be scrapped and a new combination icebreaker and service vessel would be built. However with the outbreak of World War II scrapping of a ship that was still operable would not have been a wise decision and early in 1940 the ship was sold to the Halifax-based salvage company Foundation Maritimes, then engaged in essential war work. The ship was re-named the Foundation Aranmore and served throughout the war in the Foundation fleet along with the better-known salvage tug Foundation Franklyn. At the conclusion of the war she was purchased by Wentworth MacDonald of Sydney who had owned a number of other vessels, such as the Constance, with P.E.I. connections. He held onto the Foundation Aranmore for only as year and it was sold to Cuban interests and was stranded, salvaged and sold in 1946. 
Like an actor playing different parts the Aranmore had been in P.E.I. waters for many years as a part of operations of Holliday Bros., Clarke Steamships, Dobell, and Plant Steamships and the Dominion. It had served as a passenger carrier, a ferry, a buoy tender, lighthouse supplier and general marine spear carrier.   Often crewed by Islanders it was a familiar sight in Charlottetown Harbour, a reminder of how much of a port Charlottetown once was.  

The most beautiful ship never to visit Charlottetown

It mat have seemed at first that the gigantic liner might come into Charlottetown but instead it remained in Hillsborough Bay beyond Fitzroy rock, and passengers were shuttled back and forth through the harbour’s mouth to the city’s wharves.  Even at a distance it was a magnificent sight and quite unlike anything ever before seen in Island waters.

Artists view of the Champlain

The S.S. Champlain was described as the first modern ocean liner. At the time of her launch in 1932 she was the largest, fastest, and most luxurious cabin class liner in the world. She was the flagship of the Compagnie Général Transatlantique, better known as the French Line.  She incorporated many of the art deco design features which later appeared in the better known S.S. Normandie. She had accommodation for over 1000 passengers; 623 in cabin class, 308 in tourist class, and 122 in third class; and she carried over 500 crew. At 641 feet long (almost 200 meters) and 82 feet wide (25 meters) she would have been the largest ship ever to visit Charlottetown to that date – if she had come into harbour.

Spoiled as we are by the images of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth of the Cunard Line it is easy to forget that the French for many years had the most advanced designs and speed for the transatlantic crossing and luxurious interiors and services were world-famous.  These were liners which had a grace and nautical style which the sea-going, apartment-building cruise ships seen each summer in Charlottetown’s harbour today completely lack.  A three-minute video showing the ship and its interior can be found here.

The Champlain at sea

So how was it that the most spectacular vessel in the world ended up anchored in Hillsborough Bay on 24 August 1934?

The Champlain was on a special cruise. Rather than simply shuttling between New York and English and French ports the August crossing followed a unique route. It started in St. Malo from whence Cartier had departed, across the Atlantic to the French territory of St. Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland, then stopping at Charlottetown, Gaspe, and Quebec before proceeding to New York.  All of this was in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Jacques Cartier. While today political correctness proclaims this as the sad beginning of the plague of “settler societies,”  in 1934 Cartier’s “discovery” and exploration of the Atlantic Coast of Canada was a very big deal.

The Champlain was accompanied by three French warships; the destroyer Vouquelin, frigate d’Entrecasteau and the armed sloop/coast guard ship Ville D’Ys. But these were not the only vessels hovering around the Champlain. Because she was judged too big to enter the harbour there had to be some transfer of passengers from the ship to the Marine wharf and so the Canadian Government Ship Cartier and the car ferry Prince Edward Island were pressed into service as passenger shuttles.  The smaller, but more official, Cartier took 100 of the official party to shore while the rest of the passengers, 500 or so, were transferred to the S.S. P.E.I.  As the Cartier approached the harbour two Canadian sea-planes circled it and dropped a wreath of flowers symbolizing the welcome to the province.

Canadian Government Ship Cartier used to ferry dignitaries from the Champlain to Charlottetown

The was no shortage of officials aboard the Champlain. France was represented by a group of 130 distinguished visitors headed by the Minister of Public Works, the president of the University of Paris, and a large contingent of Mayors from French cities and towns.  The Admiral of the Fleet for the Royal Navy and the warden of New College Oxford represented the United Kingdom. The United States sent the American Ambassador to Canada and a Senator from New Hampshire. A number of Canadian officials and politicians also lucked out on the junket while dozens more participated in the on-shore activities.

French destroyer Vouquelin which accompanied the Champlain on its visit to Charlottetown

The main even was the unveiling of a National Historic Sites and Monuments Board plaque commemorating the discovery of Prince Edward Island which Cartier had visited in 30 June and 1 July 1534. The plaque was mounted on an impressive cairn on the grounds of the Colonial Building.  Canadian dignitaries at the ceremonies included five current or former ministers of the crown, the lieutenant governor, premier and chief justice.  The ceremony itself was presided over by Dr. Clarence Webster chairman of the Historic Sites board.  After a large number of speeches it was off to Government House for a garden party.  The Island’s militia regiments played a role by furnishing an honour guard but the Boy Scouts presence was even more prominent. Island scout troops were present as was a group of twenty-two scouts from France.  After an inspection from the French scout commissioner and Island commissioner R.C. Parent commemorative badges were exchanged and the scouts marched back to the Marine Wharf with the French commissioner and three boy scout chaplains stopping off at the Bishop’s Palace.  At the pier the  French scouts “lustily sang two boy scout songs and Auld Lang Syne in French” before embarking.

After leaving Hillsborough Bay the Champlain proceeded to Gaspe where another Historic Sites and Monuments Board ceremony and round of speeches awaited.  The welcomes and speeches were repeated over and over as the party visited Trois Rivieres, Quebec, Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa.

The HSMBC plaque and sandstone cairn sat on the Colonial Building grounds until the area was landscaped following the building of the Confederation Centre of the Arts. Realizing that the event commemorated had little to do with Charlottetown it was moved to Kildare in the Alberton area, closer to the spot where Cartier had actually landed and proclaimed to Island to be the fairest land t’is possible to see.  However putting  it in context after crossing the Atlantic in a tiny ship and stopping in the rocky coast of western Newfoundland, any land at all would be fair to see.

The plaque and cairn have outlived the ship by many years.  At the outbreak of the Second World War the Champlain was pressed into service ferrying war refugees across the Atlantic but on returning from New York in June 1940 she struck an air-laid mine while approaching La Rochelle France. She was one of the largest ships lost in the war.

A wonderfully detailed site (in French) dedicated to the “unknown and unjustly forgotten” Champlain can be found here.