Tag Archives: shipping

Spuds, Steamers, and Stevedores: Potato Shipping in the Inter-war Years

 

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Potato shipping from Charlottetown ca. 1930. Public Archives and Records Office Accession 4332/2 Wallace MacDonald album

Up until the 1970s the arrival and departure of potato boats was one of the rites of fall. Each year dozens of shipments would be made from the wharves in Charlottetown and Summerside and to a lesser extent from Georgetown, Souris, and even Victoria.  However it had not always been so. During the 19th century potato shipments had been dwarfed by the Island’s largest export — oats. Oats were the diesel fuel of the horse era with thousands of animals in American and Canadian cities and farms being powered by Island oats. Although potatoes had been exported they were a much lesser crop and their large bulk and relatively low value meant that most shipments were by the small schooners that could visit the Island’s shallow harbours. 

There were some developments in the last quarter of the century. Potatoes made up part of the cargo of the S.S. Prince Edward for an experimental shipment of produce and livestock direct from the Island the Great Britain in the 1870s and the same decade also saw R.T. Holman shipping potatoes from Summerside to American destinations by steamer.  However, until the end of the Great War the vast majority of shipments were still small cargos carried by sailing ships. 

Seed potatoes were crop of which the Island was proud. The province was was the first jurisdiction to place a slogan on its license plates

It was the development of seed potato exports which really spurred the shift toward steamers. The 1920s saw a boom in the high quality, high value seed potatoes and Island farmers, led by the Potato Growers Association, turned to the new crop in ever increasing numbers. In 1922 the Association entered into an exclusive agency agreement with the Southgate Produce Company of Virginia which saw most PEI seed potatoes for southern U.S. markets landed at Norfolk.  In a 1928 address to the Charlottetown Rotary Club a Southgate officer described in detail the shipping and processing of seed potatoes once they left the Island. Shipping by water was preferred to the rail shipping used for shipments to Canadian markets owing to the special handling required as well as the reduced costs.  In his speech he credited the efficiency of stevedores at Summerside and Charlottetown in ensuring quality through the loading process. This was a labour-intensive operation often requiring sixty to one hundred longshoremen and was described by a Guardian reporter in a 1925 article when he visited the steamer Orkild taking on 30,000 bags potatoes in Charlottetown.     

There are four “gangs” comprised of twenty-two men to each hatch, eighty-eight men in all, including four winchmen. Each hatch has eight men stowing the potatoes as they come aboard; the men are divided to the port and starboard side thereby alleviating any undue “list” as she is being loaded; in other words the steamer is ion an even keel; at all times.

To stand on the combing [sic] of a hatch and look down into the huge hold of the steamer makes one wonder and imagine how a space so large can be stowed to the top deck in such a comparatively short time by the thirty-two stalwarts working below. 

Stowing the ship does not mean merely throwing the cargo into the hold, it takes ingenuity and skilled workmen all-round in order that the valuable cargo may not become loosened when the ship is heaving far out at sea. The cargo must be stowed with the shear of the ship from stem to stern, and every bag placed so as to occupy just a bag space, and stowed tight at that.  If a cargo is not properly placed in a vessel it is to realize what may happen in the extreme — a loose and poorly stowed cargo before now has been the loss of many a good ship. But thank goodness such is not the case with steamers leaving this port as the ability of the local men is known far and wide for the thoroughness and experience they show in handling freight. Therefore the Labourers’ Protective Union is to be congratulated on the capable and efficient body of men which represent this city. Their work may be hard at times, exposure and loss of sleep, may be experienced but this does not seem to bother then in the least — the work goes on amidst good natured chaffing and joviality which appears to prevail throughout the entire working hours. All hail to the Labourers’ Protective Union.

Mr. Wallace MacDonald is the stevedore in charge of loading the steamers.

The Labourers’ Protective Union had not always had such glowing support from those operating steamers from Charlottetown. The union had been formed in the 1880s and over the years successfully negotiated for wages on the wharves. In 1905 they clashed with the Plant Steamship Company with claims for an advance in the labour rates. The company charged that “the laboring men evidently have no interest in the welfare of their city when they band together to increase the cost of doing business to such an extent…”   However, as is often the case, claims of both sides in the disagreement were successfully compromised and trade on the waterfront continued with only a short delay. Issues again arose in 1917 when the steamer Aranmore was brought in to clear a shipping backlog while the carferry steamer Prince Edward Island was awaiting completion of the terminals at the Capes.  The S.S. PEI, which had to be loaded by hand through the stern, required more handling and workers were paid 60 cents per hour. For the Aranmore the longshoremen demanded 40 cents per hour for day work and 45 cents for night work. After lying idle at the wharf the P.E.I. Railway, which was operating the Aranmore finally reached a settlement and work continued. 

The arrival of larger steamers dedicated to freight saw a shift in loading procedures. Prior to WW I many of the steamers loaded through side ports which was slow and   labour-intensive. Larger freighters with ship-borne derricks and multiple holds sped up the process although large work gangs, as noted above, were still required. Shipments became massive. In 1926 for example amidst a month in which 700,000 bushels were shipped from the Island. One vessel — the S.S. Sabotawan — loaded over 185,000 bushels for Norfolk, Virginia, at the time a world record for a single shipment. 

Even with improved ferry and rail connections the steamers continued to load each fall from government warehouses at the Island’s ports into the 1970s, with shipments from Summerside continuing for somewhat longer. However, with the end of rail traffic on P.E.I. and completion of the Confederation Bridge, potato shipping easily shifted to trucking and containers and the potato boats vanished from the Island’s harbours. At the same time the move to processing potatoes on the Island spelled the end of the profitable seed-potato trade. The number of potato boats seemed to drop each year and it is hard to remember just when the last of the big freighters left our harbours.   

Commerce and Franconia – The first of the Boston Boats

Steamer Commerce at Boston’s T Wharf c. 1870. Although only the wheelhouse of the small vessel can be seen its diminutive size is clear.

In yet another connection between Prince Edward Island and the Civil War, the steamer Commerce was the first of many vessels* trading to Prince Edward Island which had begun life on one side or the other of the Union blockade of the southern states. She was built in England on the river Tees by the firm of Backhouse and Dixon and launched, carrying the name Pet, in October 1862. In all probability she was designed specifically for blockade running. A relatively small vessel, 141 feet long and 20 wide, she had engines which gave her a top speed of 11 1/2 knots. Although not the name on her ownership papers she was the property of the Manchester firm of Alexander Collie & Co. who owned more than fifteen blockade runners, many of which were to be eventually seized by the Union forces.

The Pet arrived in Nassau Bahamas, the main port for blockade runners, in early 1863 and was one of 28 new vessels noted by the U.S. Consul that season. The Consul calculated that each of these vessels could make a profit of $119,000 per trip which meant that the full cost of building the Pet was covered by a single round-trip. A good blockade captain could be paid $7,000 in gold for each round trip. She was a very successful commercial blockade-runner and made between fifteen and twenty trips over the next year. However, in February 1864 she was intercepted on her way from Nassau to Wilmington, Delaware by the U.S.S. Montgomery. She was close enough to shore to land her passengers and pilot before the navy boarding party could stop them. The crew were captured but as British nationals were later released.

As a prize of war the Pet was sent to Boston to be auctioned off and in April 1864 she was purchased by Franklyn Snow of Boston for $35,500. The new owner changed her name to the Commerce and she began a new life as the first of the Boston Boats shuttling between Charlottetown and Boston under the name of the Boston and Colonial Steamship Company which was incorporated in the State of Massachusetts in 1865. On her arrival in Halifax one newspaper there described her as a gentlemen’s yacht but noted her appearance had been spoiled by the addition of increased accommodation although the writer did concede that her cabins were “nicely fitted”. She arrived in Charlottetown in late May accompanied by her owner who, according to the Islander,  “made himself most agreeably acquainted with the many citizens of Charlottetown.”

Islander 9 September 1864

Beginning with a bi-weekly service, the Commerce, ex Pet, was joined in early August by a larger vessel, the steamer Franconia. This ship was American-built, and at 179 feet, was considerably larger than the Commerce. Her arrival at Charlottetown seems to have been accorded more coverage than that of the Commerce, perhaps because owner Franklyn Snow provided an excursion to Point Prim for, as the Islander stated, “all the world and his wife” and most of the leading politicians of the colony provided entertainment for the captive audience in the form of speeches praising the enterprise.  George Coles noted this was the first attempt at providing regular service since the visits of the Albatross  more than twenty years earlier. The addition of the Franconia to the Boston and Colonial fleet meant that Charlottetown would have regular weekly service to Boston with each of the vessels leaving their respective ports every Monday and arriving on Friday.

The provision of regular service was a major advancement for the colony. Previously shippers had to take advantage of what ever opportunity presented itself, often not knowing when a ship would arrive until it appeared in the harbor.  This was especially welcome for shippers of perishable goods such as oysters, eggs, meat and produce which could go directly to market in Boston or Halifax. While an alternative route using the ships of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company and several Canadian and American rail lines was available, the cargo would have to be handled several times as it had to be transferred from ship to wagon or rail several times. Another advantage was speed. The steamers could reach their port within four days, including stops at Pictou, Canso, and Halifax. Sailing vessels could take much longer. The direct service also suited passengers who could make the trip for as little as eight dollars – with additional cost for cabins and meals.

The question of the day was whether or not the trade would support the venture. The Islander’s editor noted that “The Americans have been, and are, our best customers” and suggested that by inducing the American fishing fleet, which annually visited Island waters, to harvest the herring and ship their catches on the fast steamers rather than having to return to their ports, could provide additional trade.

An added concern was that the Boston service would have a negative impact on the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company which had just made a major investment in a new vessel, the Princess of Wales.  However, at the close of navigation the Islander was able to report that the Boston run had been “well patronized” and that the receipts for the Steam Navigation Company had not fallen off.

That year, navigation closed on December 21st with the Franconia being the last vessel to work its way through the harbour ice to the open channel.  She carried some 12,500 bushels of oats, 150 sheep and a quantity of poultry as well as other goods.

The following year the Commerce returned but the Franconia did not. She was replaced on the run by the Greyhound. By 1870 the Franconia had become the property of the Maine Steamship Co. and was used on their Portland to New York route for many years.  For the next half-century the Boston Boat was a vital part of the Island’s communication  system. During the period many vessels and several companies served on the route  and they both responded to, and helped forge, the close linkages between the Island and the Boston States.

* Vessels in the P.E.I. service which had a civil war connection include the Greyhound, Oriental, Miramichi, St. Lawrence, Worcester, Carroll, Somerset, Westmoreland and Lady Le Marchant,

 

“The Shipping Season in the Fall is Short…”

Loading schooners at Montague about 1905

Loading schooners at Montague about 1905

While the tradition of the harvest being a busy time on farms on Prince Edward Island continues the availability of storage facilities for grain, potatoes and other crops has meant that our harbours seldom see a rush of shipping. Today a steady stream of tractor trailers crossing the bridge has dulled the frenzy of getting the harvest to market and the harbours are empty of shipping. There is excitement in Charlottetown if two cruise ships and a gravel barge are in port at the same time.

Poplar Island Bridge ca. 1890. The view is from North River towards Upton Farm. Bridges often served as wharves for loading and unloading small schooners.

Poplar Island Bridge ca. 1890. The view is from North River towards Upton Farm. Bridges often served as wharves for loading and unloading small schooners.

A century and  half ago it was a different story. The trade from Prince Edward Island was carried on scores of small sailing vessels; brigs, brigantines and schooners with a handful to full-rigged ships. Some higher value commodities such as eggs and oysters made their way to market on steamers but bulk goods, mostly oats and other grain, and potatoes were hefted aboard vessels at every small port on the Island. And they had to be loaded and on their way before the rivers and strait froze over. Visiting some of these shipping places today it is hard to believe that it was possible to even bring an empty vessel to the wharf let alone load it with produce. In some cases the boats were loaded from bridges or were grounded at low tide and were filled directly from carts or be goods carried on the backs of the farmers.

The extent of the trade can be glimpsed from newspaper reports although the shipping frenzy was too common to be remarkable.  The following is simply the report from one week at the beginning of November 1873 as it appeared in the Patriot. The activity had begun in September and would continue until the snow fell or the rivers froze. The wharves mentioned are almost all ones close to Charlottetown. The picture would have been mirrored all across the Island.

Shipping News

Capt. Samuel McRae Lot 49, is loading a schooner with produce in Southport, H. beer Esq. is preparing for another, and the “Glynwood” is being loaded by Haszard  & Longworth; and Richard Smith Esq. Pownal, has one of Capt. Richard’s brigs taking up oats at Pownal. A schooner went up the East River on Monday for a cargo of potatoes, oats &c. The shipping season in the fall is short, and this year we hope our farmers will make the best of it.

Seven or eight schooners are being loaded at Mount Stewart Bridge; two were ready for sea at Hickey’s Wharf yesterday and there is one at Cranberry Wharf , and another at McConnel’s Wharf, taking in produce. The “Fanny” built by David Egan Esq. at Mt. Stewart for Messrs Welsh & Owen, is laden with oats, potatoes, oysters &c. for Newfoundland and may sail to day or tomorrow. Mr. Neil Currie has a schooner loading at McEwen’s wharf, West River, and Messrs Welsh & Owen have a 600 ton ship at Cardigan; one at Montague; one at Vernon River, one at  Grand River; one at Mt. Stewart; one at Summerside, and one ready to go at Pinette – all for oats for the English market. Three or four are loading at Crapaud, and Mr. Walter Mathewson, of Alberton, is about sending the “Prince Bismark,” there for a cargo of oats.  

The price of produce is without material change. Pork has a downward tendency, and may be quoted at from 6 to 7 cents. O. Connolly is the principal purchaser at present. He takes in about 40,000 lbs. weight per week.