Tag Archives: seals

Coal, Steam and Seals: Captain McMillan’s Steamer Elliott

I have written in an earlier posting about Captain Ronald McMillan and the steamer William but this was only one chapter in the story of McMillan’s forays into the world of steamships. – forays that in general did not have happy endings.

It was rare for Island ship-owners to make the transition from sail to steam. One well-funded venture in the late 1870’s saw a number of Island capitalists come together to form the Ocean Steamship Company but the venture into trans-Atlantic trade was ultimately unsuccessful. However late in the 19th century a market began to open up in the coastal trade for new steamers. With the decline in shipbuilding across the region the fleet of schooners and brigs which carried much of the bulk cargo and which served smaller ports was aging and the response was not to build more sail-powered replacements but to shift some of the carrying capacity to steamers.  Builders such as Joseph McGill in Shelburne and the Burrill- Johnson Iron Works in Yarmouth put a number of small wooden vessels on the market, several of which, including the Electra, the Magdalen and the Harland,  ended up serving P.E.I. ports. Another response was to purchase older British-built steamships and bring them across the Atlantic to enter the maritime coastal trade.

Advertisement for McMillan’s coal business. Daily Examiner 15 February 1889 p.2

One of the most active shippers on Prince Edward Island was Captain Ronald McMillan of West River. He had been a successful captain who had built and operated a number of coastal schooners before the became a partner with Donald Farquharson in the steamer William in 1888.  The sinking of that vessel in December of 1891 did not mean the end of his activity.  In 1881 he had begun a coal business and had purchased the Duncan shipyard property just west of the Prince Street ferry wharf. With the end of waterfront shipbuilding the property had deteriorated and MacMillan converted  it to a coal yard with a wharf which was reported by the Daily Examiner in 1892 to be “second to none in the city.”  The wharf housed two large coal sheds served by trollies holding three-quarters of a ton moving  bulk coal from ships to storage. Instead of using horse powered hoisting gear he had the latest steam-powered donkey engines which could unload 150 tons from a vessel in a single day. McMillan was reported to be the largest coal dealer in the province at the time.

After the loss of the William McMillan may have had insurance proceeds and he moved to replace her. In the spring of 1892 he sought out a vessel in England but not satisfied with what he was able to find there he decided not to use another British-built steamer but have one built on Prince Edward Island.  Late in that year he made a request to Charlottetown City Council for permission to use the area between his property and the Prince Street Wharf to build a vessel during the winter months.

3218.67 launch 2

Launch of the Steamer Elliot. November 1893. H.B. Sterling Photo. Public Archives and Records Office

Permission appears to have been granted and in November 1893 a ship, named the Elliott after the Elliott River, slid down the ways of the shipyard. Built by veteran shipbuilder Kimble Coffin of Mt. Stewart the vessel was one of, if not the largest steamer built on the Island. The 367 ton vessel was 160 feet long, 25 feet beam and an 11 foot depth of hold. Constructed of spruce, juniper, pitch pine and American oak  she had galvanized iron fastenings throughout.

Advertisement for maiden voyage of the S.S. Elliott. Daily Examiner 15 November 1893 p.2.

Within a week the maiden voyage of the Elliott was advertised. She would make a trip to Barbados and Trinidad calling at Bermuda. For the rest of the decade the Elliott continued to call at ports such as Philadelphia and Halifax up and down the Atlantic seaboard but given the other business  interests of her owner one of the most frequently hauled cargos would have been coal from Cape Breton or Pictou She often carried livestock on the out-bound legs.  In 1897 McMillan took the Elliot to the Strait of Belle Isle where a steamer the Baltimore City had been wrecked and salvaged the bulk of the cargo and fixtures of the steamer which were taken to Charlottetown and sold.

In 1904 McMillan decided to try something different with the steamer.  January found the ship in Halifax fitting out for a trip to the sealing grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The ship would pick up about 100 sealers at Channel – Port Aux Basques and head for the sealing grounds around Meat Cove Cape Breton and St. Paul Island just off the Cape Breton coast. She was to only Canadian steamer to be engaged in the fishery that year. On 18 March a report was received that the ship had received damage from the ice to her stern post, keel and shaft, was aground at Atlantic Cove on St. Paul Island. The sealers and crew had been put ashore on the tiny island but Captain Farquharson was able to get word to the mainland that he hoped she could be saved and by 26 March the crew had returned to the ship and she had re-started for the sealing ground. However about four or five miles from the Island she was nipped by the ice and all aboard had to take to the boats and with a favourable winds were able to return to the Island. Strangely the following day the steamer was blown back into the cove, leaking and with the rudder torn away. They attempted to keep her afloat and beach her but she sank in fourteen feet of water just off the shore and was a total loss.

Sale notice for McMillan properties. Charlottetown Guardian 12 August 1905 p.2.

The loss of the Elliott may have been one blow too many for McMillan.  The following year “intending to make a change in business” he advertised his business and property for sale. This consisted of the property with 110 foot frontage on the south west corner of Prince and Water Streets which included The Plazza House Hotel, two large dwellings and barns and two vacant building lots.  On the other side of the railway siding which ran through the property was the coal business with a roller mill, offices, coal scales, two coal sheds which could hold 2000 tons, warehouses and a blacksmith shop. There was also a wharf and water lot which extended to the channel of the Hillsborough.

McMillan appears to have become insolvent in 1906 with his estate assigned to W.H. Aitken and by 1908 he was living in Vancouver where he died in 1915.

There are few reminders of McMillan and his ships and businesses left on the Charlottetown waterfront. The wharf, shipyard, warehouses and coal yard have been knocked down and the land now forms the eastern half of the Confederation Landing Park.  The two buildings which faced on Water street have long histories and were part of the James Duncan property before being acquired by McMillan and they both survive.  The “Plazza House” had, by 1909, become the Lennox Hotel and operated under that name for many years, for part of the time by the Misses McMillan who may have been relatives of Capt. Ronald.

Pownal Bay

Tucked deep in the north-east corner of Hillsborough Bay and only a few miles from Charlottetown lies Pownal Bay and the wharf site at Waterside.  It receives few visitors today because the closest route to the Bay lies across the very shallow and rocky reef running from Squaw Point rifle range to Governors Island.  The reef is particularly dangerous because of the many unmarked rock outcrops which can rise several feet above the bottom.  Over the years I have developed a “safe” route which can be negotiated even at low tide although I cannot vouch for any boat drawing more than the Halman 20’s 2’8″.  By taking a straight line between the two yellow rifle range marker buoys there is just enough water at low tide to get through.  Last weekend I was reminded how precarious this passage was when I tried to pass through at about an hour before low tide. I had approached from the south-west and  was about three boat lengths south of my normal route when “bump, bump, scrape, stop”.  By throwing my weight to the leeward side I thumped and bumped across several outcrops and was able to get back to where I had started and re-negotiated the passage slightly further north – but not too much further north as the chart shows other outcrops dry at low water.  I was also conscious of the “pop, pop” of the militia at rifle drill on the range. Yes it is well backstopped with a high earth  berm and  yes the yellow cans show a safe distance but still it is a little eerie knowing they are shooting in your direction.  Once over the reef it is clear sailing all the way to the Bay.

Of course, the alternate is to round Governor’s Island to the south and keeping clear of the east spit approach the Bay from the south.  In the Halman 20 and with light winds this could add a couple of hours to the trip  and my practice has been to sail slowly with one eye on the depth gauge and the other peering over the side watching the very visible bottom glide by.

Remarkably for a place that has no resident boats, only the ruin of a wharf, no commercial fishing or aquaculture and few visitors there is a full set of buoys leading to the anchorage at the wharf site.  By contrast, Orwell has a very active mussel operation and no buoys.  CD3 marks the edge of the spit running east from Crown Point peninsula and from there to the wharf there are both port and starboard markers showing the channel.  None are listed in the Coast Guard list of lights and buoys and they don’t all show up on electronic or printed charts   The channel has depths near or exceeding 8 feet at low tide but the sand shoals rise steeply and it is east to go from 10 feet to 2 feet within a boat length. I had, on purpose nosed Ebony unto the edge of the sandbar to have lunch but failed to time the still falling tide and by the end of lunch I was hard aground.  An extended lunch period curtailed my intention to explore the curving channel leading up to Pownal proper

Now that all wharf timbers have rotted away the abandoned wharf has become a rockpile and a favourite space for seals from Governor’s Island to haul out and bask in the warm sun at low tide .  It is perhaps an indicator of how quiet a place this has become because there is a road running down to the head of the wharf and then up to Mt. Mellick. Cars pass within a few hundred yards and the seals seem to be not at all alarmed.  Two or three years ago their favoured spot was a drying sandbar just to the west and clearly visible in the Google Earth shot but they seem to have shifted their lounging spot.

Waterside is not really even a hamlet as it has only a handful of farms, some of which have had lots carved off but a new sign board shows that a large area of the shorefront has been subdivided and a road plotted out to service the “desirable estate lots.”