Tag Archives: Southport Ferry Wharf

Putting the “Port” in Southport

The photo below  shows that Southport Ferry Wharf at Minchin’s Point. Dating from about 1912 it shows the wharf in poor repair. The ferry service had stopped in 1905 and deterioration was rapid. The ferry service and its wharf had been the primary reason for the establishment of a community and the fortunes of the community to great measure mirrored those of the wharf itself.   

Southport Notman

Photograph | Charlottetown from Southport, PE, 1910 | VIEW-4820


1839 Wright 2

Detail from George Wright’s chart of Hillsborough Bay and Charlottetown Harbour 1842.

Yes. there really was a port at Southport – well, at least there was a wharf. Best known as the ferry landing for the Hillsborough Ferry, the wharf eventually was responsible for the creation of a village on the southern shore of the Hillsborough River opposite Charlottetown.  As it was on the route between Charlotte Town and  Georgetown the ferry was likely a feature from the earliest days of the colony.  The wharf, and the beginnings of the tiny settlement, first appear in George Wright’s 1842 chart of Hillsborough Bay and Charlottetown Harbour. 

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Detail from Capt. Bayfield’s chart of Charlottetown Harbour 1847

However the wharf was not at the high bluff, known as Minchin’s Point or Murphy’s Point but a little to the west avoiding the steep climb up the bank.  The wharf at Minchin’s Point was built following a call for tenders in 1842 and appears on Capt. Bayfield’s chart of Charlottetown Harbour which appeared in 1852.  In early years the wharf had a floating jetty to make it easier to access the ferry in spite of changing tides.  Thereafter there are a long series of extensions and re-buildings of the wharf to accommodate the succession of ferries which were used on the route. Steam powered vessels such as the Ora, the Ino, the Arethusa the Elfin, the Hillsborough and the Southport were familiar and regular visitors to the wharf at Minchin’s Point.  

The ferry traffic gave rise to the need to hotels and taverns as well as businesses serving the travellers. It also became a service centre for communities such as Keppoch Kinloch, and Cross Roads for those wishing to avoid having to cross the Hillsborough in order to meet their needs. By 1863 the community was well-established and the alternate names “Southport” and Stratford” appeared to both have been in use. 

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Stratford or Southport. D.J. Lake’s Topographical Map of P.E.I. 1863

An article in the 20 November 1878  Semi-Weekly Patriot documents further growth of the community.

Passing by the Church, Smithy and Schoolhouse at Alexandria, and the Church at the cross roads, we reach Southport, destined to be one of the fashionable and health-bearing adjuncts of Charlottetown. It is now quite a business centre , and when the new road is opened it will become still more important. The day is coming when the seaside from Farquharson’s point to the Harbour’s mouth will be studded with villas. Charles Haszard Esq., by the ferry facilities which he so obligingly affords, is doing much for Southport as well as for the health and pleasure seekers from the city. The Honourable the Speaker of the Assembly is a citizen of this place  – where he and H. Bovyer, W.H. Farquharson, and John Kennedy carry on mercantile business. An Episcopal Church, a school-house, a Tannery, two line kilns, a Post Office, three forges, two Houses of Entertainment, seven Brick Kilns, a Tailor’s Shop, one Harness and Saddlery establishment and two weigh scales are among our Southport notes. Beer, McIntosh, McKenzie, Alex. and Neil Stewart, Flood and Son, and the two Cardiffs manufacture Brick extensively; the blacksmiths are Allan Stewart, Allan Ham and Charles Walker; and the Carpenters and Carriage Builders are Angus and John McInnis, John Godfrey, James Wood, Isaac Turner, and James Costello. 

Notwithstanding the glowing 1878 report that the community was destined to be a “fashionable and healthy adjunct” it was clear that growth of the village had slowed if not stopped. There are scarcely more houses shown in the area in the 1880 Meacham’s Atlas than there had been 17 years earlier.  Although landowner John Picton Beete had ambitiously subdivided the property and laid out a street network the anticipated growth failed to arrive.  The area did, however had become the centre for brick making with a large number of brick yards and as the newspaper account above notes a large number of brickmakers had establishments near Southport. While most of the brick manufactured  would have been carried by ferry or across the winter ice to Charlottetown it is probable that some export of brick took place at the ferry wharf.    

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Detail from manuscript map of Lot 48 by C.R. Allen, prepared for Meacham’s Atlas 1880. Public Archives and Records Office.

The short-lived brick boom came to an early end as supplies of brick-clay were exhausted  and the community once again lapsed into a quiet stagnation. Comparing the plan above with the 1935 air photo below it is clear that Southport in the 1930s  was still stuck in the 1870s. Over the years the ferry wharf had been extended and re-built but the construction of the Hillsborough Bridge, which was completed in 1905, and the opening of new roads to the east, meant that traffic no longer stopped at Southport. The railway by-passed the hamlet and what services that were provided by merchants were for locals only.  There was a frisson of excitement in 1913 when construction of a marine railway large enough to carry the S.S. Prince Edward Island was begun close to the ferry wharf but work ceased in 1915 and was never completed. 

There were occasional reports of other vessels using the Southport wharf to load cargo. For example, in 1886  the steamer M.A. Starr crossed the harbour to Southport after unloading at Charlottetown in order to load potatoes for Halifax. Small schooners continued to load produce at the Southport Wharf into the 1930s, and the wharf was dredged n 1937.  The Dominion Department of Public Works used the wharf as a place to tie up scows used in dredging and construction but by the end of the Second War even this seems to have ended. With the end of activity the wharf soon eroded. A caution buoy marked a spot where a sunken scow rested on the bottom but even that marker was removed in the last few years. 

Southport 1935

Today few, if any, traces remain of the ferry wharf and it is no longer even buoyed as a hazard to navigation as no boats except those of oyster fishers have a reason to visit the Southport shore. However one part of the Patriot’s 1878 forecast has become true. The shores all along the edge of the Hillsborough, right to the harbour’s mouth and beyond are today “studded with villas.”   


The Southport Marine Slip: Infrastructure that never happened

One of the 1935 aerial photos of the Hillsborough River at Charlottetown shows a fascinating image.  The docks of Charlottetown are shown and a vessel, probably warship, is moored in mid stream. On the Southport side a little village is seen on the road leading to the site of the ferry wharf which had not been in use since the building of the bridge. The Langley shore is devoid of the summer cottages which would appear after the war.  From the height of the plane the channel can be clearly seen, the shallows delineated sharply by a change in the colour of the water.  There is a dredged channel leading to the Southport ferry wharf and the dredges have clearly been at work on the Charlottetown side.

But there is an anomaly in the photo. Just to the east of the ferry wharf another dredged channel can be seen which simply ends at the shore. This is all that remains of a scheme to bring industry and marine security to the Island – a scheme that had not one but several incarnations.

Detail from 1935 aerial photo of Charlottetown Harbour. The huillsborough Bridge can be seen at the top right and the ferry wharf is near the middle.

Detail from 1935 aerial photo of Charlottetown Harbour. The Hillsborough Bridge can be seen at the top right and the ferry wharf is near the middle. The light line running just east of the Ferry wharf is a flaw in the print.

Since beginning of steam communication a regular problem for the Island vessels was the necessity of periodic visits to a dry dock or haul-out slip for hull repairs and maintenance. While some work could be done by beaching ships at high tide but this was not an effective solution. So ships would have to take time off their routes each year for trips to dry-docks and slipways in Pictou, Sydney  or Halifax or even Quebec, leaving the Island with temporary back-up vessels, or no vessels at all. When there were a number of ships, as in the case of the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company’s summer ships such as the Northumberland or Empress or the Dominion government’s Stanley, Minto and Earl Grey it was less of a problem. However with the announcement that a single vessel, the car-ferry Prince Edward Island, would replace all of the other ships the problem became acute.  When the Prince Edward Island went to dry dock the Island held its collective breath in hopes that the S.S. Scotia would be able to fill in.

Location plan for Marine Slip. Public Archives and Records )Office

Location plan for Marine Slip. Public Archives and Records Office

Even before the establishment of the Borden ferry service Charlottetown felt aggrieved. There were 170 steam and sail vessels registered in Charlottetown before the Great War and few facilities for repair. The Board of Trade passed a motion in the fall of 1912 calling for investigation of a marine slip for Charlottetown and at the beginning of the next year a study was announced. However, it must have come as a surprise that when the plan passed through the Dominion Privy Council Office it was for funds for the purchase of land on the other side of the harbour. W.P. Mutch who owned much of the Southport shoreline (and was perhaps a supporter of the Conservative government) was to get $300 per acre for the needed land and in December 1913 tenders were called for dredging at the site and removal of 130,000 yards of material.  The privately owned dredge Edmond Hall began the work of clearing a channel to a depth of 20 feet linking the water of the river to the shore facility. The work continued through 1915 and into 1916 and the dredging part of the project was completed before the end of the war.


Detail from the elevation for the Southport Marine Slip. Public Archives and Records Office

The proposal called for a 5,000 ton marine slip whose main client was clear from the blueprints prepared in 1915. Although these prints deal primarily with measurements and depths, an elevation clearly shows the unmistakable profile of the Island’s new ferry the S.S. Prince Edward Island on the cradle. However, the scheme fell prey to the war effort and no additional funds were voted. In 1917, J.O. Hyndman, who had been a major supporter of the initiative received word from one of the Island MPs that “owing to the high cost of steel, tenders will not be called.” After the war it was clear that the number of vessels which might use the facility was sharply reduced and the land-side construction was not proceeded with.

Detail of vessel cradle Southport Marine Slip. Public Archives and Records Office.

Detail of vessel cradle Southport Marine Slip. Public Archives and Records Office.

In spite of occasional interest from the Board of Trade the matter lay dormant until 1937 when the plan was dusted off as a possible employment and infrastructure initiative to counter the effects of the depression. The head of  Bruce Stewart and Company noted the loss of employment opportunity through not having dry dock facilities but it was clear that the thousands of dollars of repair work going to mainland marine slips was of primary interest to the company. However, at the time there were too many other labour intensive competing projects to make the investment in a marine slip a priority.

With the outbreak of the Second World War the issue of ship repair capacity again became timely. Bruce Stewart and Company had a number of defence contracts but were not able to take on major underwater work owing to the lack of a slipway. In 1942 the Maritime Board of Trade endorsed a motion calling for action on the matter. The loss of the car-ferry Charlottetown on its way to dry-dock in Halifax provided one more reason for a local facility as proponents argued that the ship would not have been lost if it was dry-docked in Charlottetown.

Guardian 3 December 1947

Guardian 3 December 1947

With post-war reconstruction another campaign was mounted in favour of the project. The Dominion government offered to transfer surplus equipment from either Shelburne N.S. or Bay Bulls Newfoundland to Charlottetown but the $100,000 cost of moving and erecting the material would have to be carried by the province which quickly backed away from support.  In 1947 the federal Progressive Conservatives under John Bracken included the Marine Slip along with the Brighton Bridge and a Grain Elevator as promises to the electorate. The Tories were not successful in the next election and none of the projects on their list were picked up by the new Prime Minister, Louis St. Laurent. In fact all three remain unfulfilled.

The last hurrah for the marine slip was in 1953 when the employees of Bruce Stewart and Company called a public meeting in Charlottetown on the marine slip. By this time the Southport site had been discarded in favour of land near the railway round house (and not far from the Bruce Stewart plant) and the size had been scaled back from 5,000 tons to 1,200 tons. The project was no longer about the car-ferries which had grown too large to be considered as customers but about smaller commercial, fishing and pleasure craft.  The more modest proposal still failed to attract Ottawa interest and the matter finally died.

When the air photos for 1958 are examined there is still a faint outline of the dredged channel, more than 40 years after the project was begun and abandoned.  The federal government held on to the land in Southport until at least the late 1950s and it is now a neighbourhood of shore front homes with a view of Charlottetown instead of an industrial site.  Today the dredged channel appears to be completely silted up and not a single trace remains of the Southport Marine Slip.



An Afternoon on the Elliott

Island newspapers took particular delight in publishing accounts penned by visitors to the Province.  The Island was sufficiently distant and yet accessible from New England that the area was frequently profiled by American periodicals. Armchair travellers could access Harper’s Monthly Magazine or Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and see the Island through a tourist eye. In September 1877 the Patriot published the following anonymous account of a summer trip up the West River written by an American visitor.


Charlottetown from the Southport Ferry Wharf. Detail from illustration for “The Garden of British North America” Frank Leslie’s Weekly 1887

Perhaps you are ignorance of that river generally called the West. Well, should you ever be in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, owning allegiance to our neighbouring Dominion, step aboard the Government Ferry Steamer Southport on Tuesday and Friday, they being market days, and, for twelve cents “good and lawful money of Her Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria,” you will be taken through twelve miles of the most charming scenery in the Lower Canadian Provinces.

Leaving the Queen’s Wharf and the City, resounding with business, for some time the eyes are charmed with the harbor out-look, a little ferry-boat, aptly named the Elfin, putting across to Southport on the opposite shore,  fishing schooners making in and out, and small boats of all shapes and sizes running across the steamer’s bows, then racing alongside, etc. Right down the harbor we go viewing Government House embowered in trees, looking like many a southern plantation residence. Battery Point with a few ancient guns, and a small red brick arsenal flanking it, then across the mouth of the North or York River, on the right hand, and a view of the harbor’s mouth and Light House on the other hand, shut out immediately by entering the river of our story.

Gov house

Government House from the harbour. Illustration from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine – September 1877

Just as the harbor is left for the river is passed Rocky Point, to and from which and the city a fine, large sail boat, ably manned, plies hourly every day, affording a splendid chance for luxurious coolness through sweltering days; and in the evening we heard that the same boat carries large parties of young people about the harbor for a few hours, one of the many pleasant ways in which Islanders thoroughly enjoy life.  Just above the Point is an old fort dating from the French occupation, the earthworks overgrown with large evergreen trees.   …  Although none of the Rivers in this Gem of the Gulf are very long, yet the alluvial soil causes deep cuttings, many  bends, and attendant “points”  opening up variety at every half mile. Passing along we disturb families of crane, standing solemnly on one leg fishing, and now and then a flock of ducks who rise from the water and sail away in “Indian file,” each one with its head on one side looking at the intruders with that inquiring gaze that hens bestow upon a hawk hovering around in chicken time.

There is a clearness in the atmosphere here that makes everything beautifully distinct, outlining the landscape on the sky and making an Indian Summer day just delightful, while beneath is flowing the river of water, silently, steadily onward to the sea.  Having asked the Captain the names of one or two Points, we were agreeably surprised to receive a civil answer, but we found afterwards it was one of the boat’s universal belongings.   We had always imagined that captains of steamers  had such a load of responsibility resting upon them, in the way of mint juleps and gin cocktails &c, that poor, common, travelling humanity must travel in silence but here was one almost ready to go to the other extreme, in fact, it gave rise to the thought that he was trying to gain the same end by means of an overpowering flow if descriptive language. “That’s Ferguson’s Point on the Port Side and McNeill’s just above , with White’s and Hyde’s  on the big bend just opposite, and there’s Patterson’s, Crosby’s and Wilson’s Points.” 


Chart of Elliott River from the harbour to Dog [now Clyde] River from George Wrights 1839 Chart of Hillsborough Bay

We next stepped forward to interview the Engineer just as the steamer crossed Dog River mouth, every stream from that turning a mile. The engineer and Pilot said it was ” not much fun going up river now,” but when the geese and other wild fowl were in season, and good trout fishing could be had  and he was just warming to the subject, and introducing us (in imagination) to the landed proprietors along the river bank, when the Gong sounded for a landing, and, in a few minutes we were tied up to Farquharson’s Wharf, one of these peculiar structures made by piling fir trees (or Var) on the ice in the winter time allowing it to sink, and then building up with timber and ballast in summer, and they are said never to rot. A large Saw and Grist Mill is at the head of the wharf. A family is migrating up river to fresh fields and pastures new … the party consisting of a man and wife, an overgrown lump of a boy, a little golden-haired, dirty-faced girl, and a baby in arms, neutral gender, but of undoubted lung power. Their household effects were limited, yet occupied the whole of the attention of the owner and two deck hands to remove them from the wharf to the steamer’s deck. There was a cradle with a rocker and a half, a cooking stove with three legs and a brick, four chairs, two of which were backless and the other two minus several rungs, two bundles of sundries done up in patchwork quilts, the makings of a bedstead, one iron pot and a tea kettle. About three miles further up the whole interesting family was landed and went on their way rejoicing.

Just above the wharf two men were raking oysters from a bed uncovered at low tide, as are others in the same river, and some of the crew shouted themselves hoarse endeavouring to induce them to come down and let the strangers stand treat, but they would not come, and we are in doubt to this day as to the true merits of an Elloitt river bivalve, though able to endorse fully all encomiums , past or present upon Island oysters generally …

But the shades of night are coming down swift, it is time to be up and steaming, so the captain thinks and orders it so, that in a minute or two the boat, swing from a hawser as upon a pivot, heads downstream, and stopping only once to pick up a small boat passenger who had put out to intercept us, we were soon going up the harbor again, a soft mist falling. We could see the lights of the city gleam through the mist and rain, and were anon in the Hotel well satisfied with our afternoon’s enjoyment while outside.