Tag Archives: St. George

Too Big for Success – The Paddle Steamer St. George

Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Advertiser 2 July 1842

Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Advertiser 2 July 1842

What had fourteen egg spoons, two paddles and over one hundred owners?

In 1842 Prince Edward Island was set to leap into the modern age. For far to long it had depended on either the winds or the kindness of strangers to provide the vital link with the rest of North American and with the Mother Country. It was time to Islanders to become masters (or at least crew members) of their own fate. A group of the leading merchants lobbied for legislation and at the spring sitting of the Legislature “An Act for the Incorporation of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company” was passed.  The legislation was one of the first acts in the colony to make used of the joint stock concept and limited liability for the owners so that their assets outside their investment would be protected in case of failure.  But how could failure occur? The need was clear. Northumberland Strait needed reliable transportation and Georgetown, Pictou, Charlottetown, Bedeque and Miramichi were all growing communities linked by the Strait.

Merchants, politicians, publicans and even clergy flocked to the company office to make their investments.  The leading merchants all signed up. Not just in Charlottetown but across the Island. The company owners came from Bedeque, Malpeque, Princetown, North River, Covehead, Tryon, St. Eleanors, Stanhope, Port Hill, Morrell. and to make sure that the general populace did not lose out the Government of the Colony took 150 of the 450 shares on offer. With the exception of one shareholder in St. John’s and one in England this was an all-P.E.I. company.

Since 1833 the Strait had been served by the Cape Breton, a steamer owned first by Pictou’s General Mining Association and later by Joseph Cunard and by the smaller Nova Scotia-built Pocahontas but neither appear to have been satisfactory. And besides they were owned off-Island!

If you are going to have a steam navigation company the first thing you need is a boat. Luckily Francis Longworth was going to England on other business and agreed to keep a look-out for one. He found one in the port of Liverpool.

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This is not the St. George but is a vessel of similar size which was also operated in the Irish sea. The St. George would have looked much like this.

The St. George paddle steamer was just over ten years old and had an excellent service record. The  “large and elegant” steamer had been launched with much fanfare and before a large crowd of spectators from the Wilson and Sons yard at Cornhill, now part of Liverpool, on 21 November 1831. She was built for the St. George Steam packet Company which had an active service between Liverpool and Irish ports such as Dublin and Cork. The single deck vessel had displacement of 157 tons and was 135 feet long by 20 in breadth. The engines were built by Fawcett Preston & Co. of Liverpool. Its primary use was on the 120 nautical mile Liverpool to Dublin passage across the Irish Sea which took 18 – 20 hours.  The company added to its fleet throughout the 1830s and early 1840s with larger vessels and routes between the Uni9ted Kingdom and Europe. In 1838 the company’s ship the Sirius was the first steamer to cross the Atlantic.  Faced with losses it was later reformed as the City of Cork Steam Ship Company.  When Francis Longworth was searching for a vessel for the newly formed Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company in 1842 the St. George was on the market.  It was quickly purchased and the vessel was scheduled to leave Liverpool for St. John’s and Charlottetown on 9 July the same year, stopping at Cork for passengers.

The St. George,  “cheered  by the multitude,” arrived in Charlottetown on 14 August 1842 and was almost immediately pressed into service with the first trip to Pictou just a week later. Those who took the trips on the St. George were amazed at the luxury that the vessel provided. A partial list of the steward’s supplies gives a hint of how well-outfitted the ship was:  41 plated forks, 2 sauce ladles, 1 pair sugar tongs, 16 mattresses, 49 hair pillows, 36 feather pillows, 35 counterpanes, 8 crumb cloths, 77 sheets, 62 towels, 29 blankets etc. etc. etc..

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Islander 17 May 1844

The Company had been set up with the assurances (incorporated into the incorporation act) that it would make regular stops at Georgetown and the rising town of Bedeque, the latter to be a stop on the regular semi-monthly trips to Miramichi which community was otherwise somewhat isolated from the main population of New Brunswick.

 

Within a year problems of managing the company with the government being a large minority shareholder began to emerge.  Georgetown had generated insufficient business either in passengers and freight to warrant continued service except at a great loss. At Miramichi “the almost total abandonment of the timber and lumber trade” had resulted in a reduction in the demand for trips to that port.  Business at Bedeque was no better and an 1845 report noted that on one trip into the port “the only thing in the shape of freight procured was a basket containing hens eggs”.    More significantly the hoped-for subsidies from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had not been forthcoming and the company had no guarantees that they ever would be paid.  The main problem was that the St. George was too big for the modest demands of the Strait communities and was too expensive to operate.  It was also the wrong sort of ship as the majority of the business was in passengers and only about one-sixth of the revenue from freight.

In 1843 the legislation was changed so that the company could abandon the Georgetown route. The Government bought out the shares of the Georgetown investors as well as the remaining unsold shares bring their investment up to over 40% of the company. It was suggested that the company could buy another smaller boat to serve the Georgetown route but that never happened.   A year later, the attempt to regulate routes was completely abandoned and the Company was empowered to decide their routes and schedules to be “most beneficial and advantageous for the interests of this Colony; and of the Shareholders”.

After limping through the 1844 shipping season with increased losses the Company came back to the Legislature pleading that with the St. George “the present traffic is scarcely sufficient to bear the expense of maintaining the vessel on station and she is altogether unproductive of profit to the shareholders and it is advisable that vessel be sold.” Since the government still held a large proportion the shares it was allowed that these could be sold at a loss and any proceeds used to acquire a smaller and more suitable ship.

Service was continued through 1845 at a continuing loss and with the increasing age of the ship and the need for major repairs fast approaching the need to get rid of the St. George became acute.  A search was begun for a smaller, faster ship which could be operated for less but nothing was found.   By October 1845 the St. George had been sold to Quebec interests and left Charlottetown for the last time at the end of that month.

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Islander 4 April 1846

Although the Colonial Government advertised for a steamer to take the route it appears to have continued to be serviced by sailing vessels until 1849 when the Rose, a much smaller and perhaps more appropriate ship made its  way across the Atlantic.

The constraints placed by government ownership on the effective operation of the Steam Navigation Company  by requiring specific routes and schedules were certainly not the only challenge that the Company faced but they hardly contributed to success. It would not be the last time that government participation in a public/private partnership would lead to failure.
As for the St. George it lasted in Quebec only until 1850 when it was sold to become a towboat in Newfoundland.  In January 1852 it left St. John’s for Cork, Ireland and was never heard from again.

Note: An expanded history of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company is available as a detailed research paper which can be found here.

 

 

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The New and Fast-Sailing Steamer Westmorland

Islander 7 August 1857

Islander 7 August 1857

In the mid 19th century there was great concern in the colony that the control and ownership of the steam packet service between the Island and the Mainland would fall into the hands of non-Islanders. The lack of success that the first Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company had had with the steamer St. George was seen as a barrier and there was difficulty in procuring suitable vessels for the passage to the mainland. More recently the disaster of the dramatic loss of the New Brunswick-owned Fairy Queen in 1853 with 10 passengers and crew drowned did little to assure Islanders that their best interests were served by a company that did not have its owners and headquarters on the Island.

However in 1857 the contract was once again let to a New Brunswick company.  In August of that year the Westmorland (sometimes spelled “Westmoreland”), owned by Christopher Boultenhouse, a shipbuilder of Sackville, began her service.  The ship operated out of Shediac and left that port on Monday and Thursday for Charlottetown, calling at Bedeque. On Tuesdays and Fridays the ship continued on to Pictou returning on Wednesday and Saturday to Shediac, calling at Charlottetown and Bedeque on the way.

The editor of the Islander was unimpressed by the new vessel:

The Westmoreland arrived here from St. John N.B., via Halifax and Pictou, on Tuesday night last. She is a River Boat, as flat-bottomed as such Boats usually are, high pressure, with a large portion of her machinery above deck. We have heard it remarked by many that she will not answer here in the Fall of the year. She certainly is not the description of Boat we should like to see put on the route – in shape she is very like the Fairy Queen, but we learn that she is a new and substantially built Boat and so far has made her trips very quick.

For the Islander the problem was a simple one of politics. In order to avoid money falling into resident “tory” pockets the government was content to let the contract go for an exhorbitant subsidy of £1,200 per year to non-Islanders.

The “New and Fast-Sailing Steamer” had been launched in Sackville by Boultenhouse the previous year and had operated for a short time on a route from Sackville to Saint John.  She was 156 feet long by 24 feet wide and registered 305 tons. She appeared to have ample accommodation – 38 berths in the gentlemen’s cabin and 37 in the ladies cabin although her seaworthiness was untested. However by 1861 the Islander was describing the accommodations as “wretched in the extreme” and complained that the ship had been put on the route that year with her boilers completely burnt out.

Notwithstanding the Islander’s reservations she seems to have fulfilled the terms of her initial 5-year contract and even for a few additional years without incident and might have continued longer had it not been for the American Civil War. As that war dragged on the movement of troops and supplies for both the Union and the Confederacy, as well as the necessity of moving goods for the populace meant that there was a sharp increase in demand for ships. Shipyards increased production but it was not enough to meet the needs. While the South was in the market for blockade runners the North needed transports. The Westmorland’s owner decided to sell out to the Americans.

In 1864 the Westmorland headed to the United States. August found her in New York, purchased by the U.S. Government as a transport for $27,000. She was one of 177 tugs, schooners, canal barges, and steamers owned by the government at war’s end. When they were sold the following spring the prices received were in advance of their appraised values but were low because of the large number of ships suddenly on the market. The wooden paddle-steamer Westmorland brought only $3,700. She may have been re-named Rochester but her fate after the sale does not seem to have been recorded.

The departure of the Westmorland paved the way for a new company, the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company (a new company with an old name),  to take over the responsibility for the steamer service. This company and her successors were to be involved with the route for more than fifty years and brought the Island into the twentieth century. The Westmorland’s captain, Evander Evans, made the transition to the new company and at his death in 1876 it was noted that he never lost a man at sea or had an accident.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Murder on the Not-so High Seas

Bedeque Harbour in 1841 from a chart by Capt. Bayfield. Note that Summerside does not yet exist and the wharf shown is at Green's Shore .

Bedeque Harbour in 1841 from a chart by Capt. Bayfield. Note that Summerside does not yet exist and the wharf shown is at Green’s Shore .

The Capture of the Perpetrator

When the Island Steam navigation Company’s steamer St. George left Charlottetown for Pictou on the second of November 1844 she had on board a couple of extra passengers who had been charged with a dangerous and urgent task.  A week earlier an altercation between one William Hiscox, the captain of an oyster boat called the Dart, and officers of the law has resulted in shots being fired leaving one constable, Harry Green, slightly wounded, another man, Isaac Scales struggling for his life, and a third, George Tanton, dead.

On Board the St. George were  T. Heath Haviland and John Morris who had been dispatched to Pictou to see if any news was to be had of the oyster schooner which had fled from the scene of the tragedy. It had last been seen when it closely escaped a night-time collision with the steamer St. George on her way to Miramichi a few nights earlier and the expectation was that it had escaped and was well on its way to the Gut of Canso or some other safe harbour. Haviland and Morris were to make inquiries at ports up and down the strait but there were many places in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick where the Dart could be hiding.

However, as the Morning News and Semi-Weekly Advertiser reported it appeared that “the hand of Devine Providence was pointed at the arrest of the offender and that a more severe punishment should not at present overtake him; but that he should be placed before the justice and mercy of the civil law.”

No sooner had the St. George cleared Point Prim when a suspicious boat was seen and confirmed to be the escaping villains. The St. George’s Capt. Mathewson came close aboard and ordered the vessel but it dodged back and forth in front of the steamer heading for shallower water where the St. George could not follow. To prevent this it was decided to go aboard the sailing vessel, ramming her if necessary. Given warning of the plan Hiscox replied “If you do I shall go down with her.” Finally the St. George was able to dash into the Dart and carried away the smaller boat’s main mast. Haviland jumped aboard and seized Hiscox and another man found on board. They were taken onto the St. George and secured.  The steamer then proceeded to Pictou and the next day returned to Charlottetown with the English mails and the prisoners aboard and the Dart in tow.

Oyster Scarcity, a Boarding Party, and death in the Bay

In the first half of the nineteenth century the oyster fishery was a profitable one but without re-seeding techniques it was also fragile. Overfishing could wipe out beds and exhaust the supply. Worried about the  need to supply the local market in 1843 the Island legislature passed legislation limiting the exportation of oysters to quantities of less than 10 bushels. At the time Bedeque Bay was a prime location for harvesting oysters.

The following year found a Halifax Oyster Schooner, the Dart in Bedeque harbour. On reports she was buying oysters in excess of the limits, a boat with a constable aboard was dispatched  to board her but he was warned off.  Seeking more force to arrest the schooner’s captain the boat returned later with the Under Sheriff of Prince County, a Justice of the Peace, two constables and two other men aboard.  Shots rang out as the row-boat neared the schooner and three of the boats passengers were wounded, one of whom later died from his wounds.  With no local constabulary the nearest force was in Charlottetown and after a hurried ride to the capital a ship’s boat from the Survey Vessel Gulnare with an armed party was sent to Bedeque on a somewhat futile mission as they were unable to find the Dart which had fled in the darkness.  Given the size of Northumberland Strait and the number of available ports the chance encounter between the Dart and the St. George almost a week later was indeed a slim possibility and a matter of luck.

Trial and Resolution

Island newspapers were quick to convict Hiscox for what the Morning News called a “Daring Outrage” and the Islander took consolation from “the fact that the perpetrators of this vile and inexcusable act are not inhabitants of the Island.”  In order to deal with the matter in a prompt fashion the court issued a hasty commission of Oyer and Terminer for Prince County for 3 December 1844 but even in the short period between arrest and trial some doubts were beginning to creep in.  The Halifax Times suggested that Hiscox was unaware that he was taking oysters illegally and that those attempting to arrest him acted unlawfully.

At the trial there was colourful testimony about the events of the fateful day but as the trial progressed Hiscox’s skillful lawyers, Charles Binns and Charles Young were able to introduce evidence and argument undermining the oyster legislation itself as well as the right of the constables to board Hiscox’s ship.  Although Hiscox had been indicted for murder the jury returned a manslaughter verdict and he was sentenced a three years hard labour.  About a year into the sentence he escaped and was rumoured to have had made his way to Boston.

Sources

Several PEI newspapers in December of 1844 provided detailed information concerning the trial evidence. The matter is also noted in John Mollison’s chapter on the history of Prince County in Warburton and MacKinnon’s Past and Present on Prince Edward Island.