Tag Archives: schooner

Lillian E. Kerr – An icon of the age of sail?

 

Four-Masted Schooner “Lillian E. Kerr” Leaving Charlottetown Harbour, August 1941. Photo by George Coffin. Photo: Collection of National Museum of Science and Technology, Ottawa.

It is perhaps the most iconic and best-known image of the age of sail on Prince Edward island.

The reality is that the Lillian E. Kerr had little to do with either Charlottetown or with the Island’s long-passed age of sail.

In August 1941 a four-masted schooner arrived in Charlottetown with a cargo of coal from Weehawken New Jersey. The vessel was one of what may have been only two or three surviving ships with that rig still on the Atlantic.  No one could have known it at the time but it was the last four-master to ever visit Charlottetown. Although a coal-hauler, the ship retained a certain grace and in the early days of the Second World War she was a reminder to residents of the days of wooden ships and iron men.

The photo of the Lillian E. Kerr as she left Charlottetown Harbour was one of at least two taken by George Coffin at the request of B. Graham Rogers, then director of the P.E.I. Travel Bureau. The striking photo was doctored to include a little boy posed pensively on the seawall and was the image on a travel bureau calendar issued in March of 1942.  This was the first visit of the Lillian E. Kerr to the Island capital. There would never be another.

The Lillian E. Kerr had been launched in 1920 from the large E. James Tull shipyard in Pocomoke City, Maryland. She was the last ship built in that yard. The age of the wooden ship was drawing to a close but the schooner rigged vessels were still popular in the early years of the twentieth century as they were affordable high-volume freighters which required only a few crew and no fuel other than the wind and were therefore cheap to operate. They hauled coal, lumber and fertilizer – cargos for which the speed and set delivery times were not essential.

In 1921 the Captain of the Kerr brought mutiny charges against a member of his crew following a fight aboard the ship. The Captain had found the crew member asleep at the wheel. The crew member attacked him with a knife and the two men fought on deck while the captain’s wife steered the vessel. The captain alleged that the crew member attacked him a second time and he was forced to shoot the violent man. The outcome of the charge is not known.

Built as a three-masted vessel the ship was later sold to Capt. James L. Publicover of Le Have Nova Scotia. He added her to his small fleet of cargo vessels and made a major change to the appearance of the schooner by having her re-rigged as a four-master.

“Lillian E. Kerr” in Charlottetown Harbour. Photo by George Coffin. Photo: Public Archives and Records Office

A little more than a year after leaving Charlottetown the Lillian E. Kerr was transporting a cargo of timber to Boston. During the night of  12-13 November 1942 she was overtaken by a convoy carrying war materials overseas. Although the Kerr was carrying running lights the ships of the convoy were not. She was rammed by a steamer called the Alcoa Pilot and went to the bottom with all of her crew except for one person was recovered but died soon after. The owner, Capt. Publicover, lost his son, son-in-law, and two nephews in the sinking.

It was not until almost five years had passed that the Admiralty court in New York heard the case. The evidence showed that the Alcoa Pilot, one of the lead ships in the convoy, had overtaken the Lillian E. Kerr and ran her down without taking proper evasive action. She was also charged with failing to stop to pick up survivors. The Alcoa Pilot was held at fault for the accident. The decision was upheld on appeal and damages awarded to Publicover.

Besides the tourism calendar, the main reason why the image of a vessel not built here, and seldom sailed here, became so familiar to Islanders is most likely because the picture, complete with a short-panted boy posed on an imaginary seawall adorned the cover of the menu of a well-patronized eatery, the Rendezvous Restaurant during the 1950s and early 1960s.

 

 

 

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.