Tag Archives: Southport

“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.

Scandal at the Launch

S.S. Hillsborough ca. 1900 PARO #4466/2 Edison Horton Coll.

S.S. Hillsborough ca. 1900 PARO #4466/2 Edison Horton Coll.

From the distance of more than a century it is difficult to understand the titanic struggles related to prohibition of the sale of alcohol which seem to have been an undercurrent of the politics of Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s.  And while one may search the local press in vain for letters to the editor advocating drink, the opposite is not the case. In the 1890s Prince Edward Island was subject to Dominion legislation, the Canada Temperance Act, (known as the Scott Act after its author) which provided a “local option” following petition and plebiscite for prohibition on a county level. The three counties were ostensibly “dry” but Charlottetown switched several times from “wet” to “dry” and back again and there was a constant battle in press on the subject. It seemed that what ever the political stripe of the government in power their stance it was unsatisfactory for the temperance advocates.  Almost every event and activity was under scrutiny and subject to complaint for the presence of alcohol.  Such was the case with activities surrounding the launch of the new ferry Hillsborough in July of 1894.

Daily Examiner 16 July 1894 p.2

Daily Examiner 16 July 1894 p.2

By the mid-1890s the days of wooden ships was drawing to an end and  launchings were becoming rare events. Added to the fact that almost any activity could be used as an excuse for an excursion, the launch of the new ferry steamer became the central event for a “MAMMOTH PICNIC” at Mount Stewart.

The new ferry was being built to replace the aging Elfin and to supplement the Southport. Although not known at the time she was destined for use in Charlottetown Harbour for more than forty years – initially on the Southport crossing and later to Rocky Point. Like her predecessors she was a side paddle wheel steam boat. She was constructed by Pisquid shipbuilder Angus MacDonald with boilers and engine later installed in Charlottetown by MacKinnon and MacLean. The 225 ton steamer was 105 feet long and had a beam of 25 feet. The steam engine provided thirty and a half horsepower. Like both the Elfin and the Southport she had paddle wheels on either side of the hull.  She was double-ended with helm positions at either end of the vessel. She was, in fact, the latest thing in ferry boats.

Her launch was the excuse for a festive event. The Southport made a special trip up the river with excursionists and the Prince Edward Island Railway provided cheap fares across the system to take the curious to Mount Stewart for the day’s activities.  Once there, the grounds had a picnic with “delicacies of the season”, games and amusements as well as the launch ceremony. Given the predominance in the advertising “TEA INCLUDED” appears to have been a significant drawing card. The 1st class refreshment saloons reference did not mean that strong drink was on order but merely that tea and a “lunch”  would be available.

But a dark cloud was to be cast over the day by the presence of alcohol.  Not, as one might suppose, by bootleg rum or local shine shared out behind the horse barn but by a far more insidious and public threat to morality perpetrated by a juvenile as willing tool of the government.  The following indignant letter to the Daily Examiner’s editor lays out the charge:


What will our friends in the Liberal party say to the following choice item which appeared in yesterday’s Patriot? Referring to the launch of the new ferry steamer at Mount Stewart, where the Scott Act is supposed to be the law on the land, the Patriot says:

“At 1:15 little Miss Commiskey, daughter of Mr. Speaker Commiskey, Fort Augustus, christened the steamer the “Hillsborough” by breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow.”

As a friend of temperance, I regard it as extremely unfortunate, and especially at this particular time, that the present Local Government, or any member thereof, should sanction the purchase of liquor for any such purpose. What is the natural inference?

For the author of the letter the natural inference must have been that by 1:16 on the 21st of July 1894 the entire Mount Stewart audience would be dead drunk on champagne fumes caused by little Miss Commiskey at the behest of the evil minds of the Liberal party.  While we may laugh today it is worth noting that the tradition of using political correctness as a stick with which to beat the current government remains a strong one in our community.


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.