Tag Archives: Stanley

A winter crossing on the Stanley – 1890

Canadian Government Steamer “Stanley”. Warwick Bros & Rutter postcard #1694.

Following the unsatisfactory performance over a dozen years of the Dominion’s first ice breaker the Northern Light, the arrival of the C.G.S. Stanley promised relief and a serious attempt to address the goal of “continuous steam communication” across Northumberland Strait. The arrival of the new vessel in time for the 1888-1889 winter was accompanied by lighter than usual ice conditions. The Stanley made almost four times the number of trips that the Northern Light had been able to provide the previous year. Passages were relatively smooth the following winter as well and it looked as if the much-dreaded trip to the mainland on the winter steamer or the even more uncomfortable alternative of the ice boats at the Capes was a thing of the past.

CGS Stanley steaming through heavy ice. Note the iceboat hanging from the davits.

It is in this context that the following account of an early winter trip from Charlottetown to Quebec in 1890 is set. Although the journey involved four different rail lines with changes at Georgetown, Pictou, Stellarton, Truro and Levis as well as the steamer passage, it seemed as if this was simply a matter of routine, marred only by the usual irritations suffered by the usual passengers.  The account of the December trip was published in the Montreal Gazette for December 13 1890 over the name “Lorainne”. Only the section dealing with the trip from Charlottetown to Pictou is reprinted here. This trip without incident, taken so early in the season, was followed by a winter of exceptionally severe conditions and it was soon clear that the Island transportation problems had not been solved. That however, was in the un-knowable future for our contented traveller.

It was about 10 0’clock on a bitter night when the hotel sleigh drove round to the door, and we took our seat by the side of a timid lady, who seemed nervous about everything, and about her trunks in particular. Our drive to the railway station occupied not more than three minutes, and there was the mail express, steaming and snorting, all impatient to be off to Georgetown, the winter port of the province. Late and cold as it was the station was full of people. A rosy-cheeked Irish girl was going off to Boston and her “sisters and cousins and aunts” were grouped round the carriage giving her a hearty send-off. The other passengers were a couple of clergymen, the aforesaid timid lady, and a pretty Pictou girl attended by several gentlemen friends. Arrived at Georgetown it was, for all of us except the timid lady, but the work of a moment to get ourselves and our baggage on board of the Stanley. She, after the manner of her kind, had lost her trunk or misplaced it which gave her the same sorrow and trouble. From the bad air of the train and the bleak air of the wharf, to the clean, cosy Stanley, what change! After a few words with the agreeable and obliging purser, Mr. Dominick Ryan, so well-known to the travelling public of the summer season by reason of his long tenure of office on the steamer St. Lawrence, we were shown to our cabin by another old friend of the route.— the steward – named Smith. Smith is a good Catholic, and many a time has come to the rescue of some one of his coreligionists who on a Wednesday in advent would wistfully consign himself to a dinner of herbs, having per force of conscience been obliged to decline the “stalled ox,” when suddenly a plate of boiled herring would be popped down before him with a whisper of “waiter’s dinner, sir.” A well-known Catholic priest told me having been travelling for some time, he had lost count of the days of the week, and at breakfast on the St. Lawrence, was plunging his knife into succulent steak, when presto! lo!  the plate was whisked away replaced by one of codfish, with a whisper of “Friday,” Sir.

The cabin which was allotted to us on the Stanley was not only cosy, but beautiful in all its appointments. Rich carpet and curtains, a luxurious sofa, two berths, furnished with spring mattresses, eider down spreads, a cabinet de toilette, chairs, foot stools, curtains, in fact every possible luxury. In this charming boudoir, we were supplied with hot lemonade for supper and soon slept most comfortably.

Next morning early, we were awakened by a grating sound against the outer wall of our apartment, and dressing quickly, went on deck to see the Stanley cutting through the ice. Fields of ice over six inches thick lay all around us, but the iron vessel with her powerful machinery cut through it as if it were wax. The air was keen and cold, so that like Sir Joseph Porter, we were glad to go below, where breakfast awaited us. A good breakfast too, beefsteak, sausages, Irish stew, in the consumption of which we were aided by the parsons above mentioned. Nearing Pictou the view on deck was fine. The ice which was at least ten inches thick was bushed and teams with their bells jingling were being driven merrily along. The drivees thereof were far from being such picturesque figures as their brethren, the habitants of Quebec. The farmer “down below” has no distinctive appearance. His coats follow the fashion when new and when old are patched with something more modern. His cap has a square crown, and ears which turn down and tie under his chin. His boots are of a heterogeneous class. He knows not of toque or sash or bottes sauvages. He knows naught, moreover of the time honored carriole. His sleigh is a farm sled with posts stuck in and boards built round if needed. For the rest, his tobacco has pretty much the same flavor as that of the habitant. Fortunately no whiff of that pungent weed reached us from the sleighs that glided along between the rows of spruce trees, parallel to our course. Between us and the sleighs were boys skating – some indeed, so close as to be within hail of the steamer. Steadily we cleft our way amid a shower of feathery snow flakes that betokened the breaking of the “cold snap.” Through piled ice, through flat ice, ice stationary and ice floating, the Stanley moved with equal placidity making Pictou wharf before noon.


On foot across the floes – when the mainland was cut off again.

Dominion Government Steamship “Minto” in the icefield. Raphael Tuck postcard. In addition to lifeboats the Minto also carried two iceboats, one of which is visible on the stern-most davits

The story appeared under a gripping headline — PERILOUS TRIP – PARTY OF NINE WALK THIRTEEN MILES OVER ICE FROM IMPRISONED STEAMER. But was it what it seemed?

St. John, N.B. Feb.26 – Impelled by anxiety to reach their parents who were ill in Boston, two young women led a party of seven persons over 13 miles of ice floes from an imprisoned steamer to Pictou Island and thence to the mainland. The steamer Minto, which runs from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island became icebound on Monday. Among the 40 passengers on board were two young women of different families who had received word that parents were dying in Boston. When they realized the situation of the Minto they expressed determination to set out on foot. Another young woman and four young men also were willing to join in the undertaking.

The party left the steamer shortly before noon on Monday. The sun’s rays on the ice proved almost blinding, and after the party had struggled along on the ice for some miles, one of the young men sank down from exhaustion. The balance of the distance, however, was finally covered although the young women were obliged constantly to assist the exhausted man. They reached Pictou Island about 9 o’clock in the evening.

After passing the night on the island the balance of the journey was made to the mainland on Tuesday, where the Boston women caught the train. Members of the party belonging in St. John reached here today greatly exhausted.

The winter of 1902-1903 was an especially hard one for Prince Edward Island but with two sturdy Canadian Government Steamers providing passage to the mainland there was little anxiety. However, as ice in Northumberland Strait built up it became increasingly difficult for the steamers to negotiate the passage.  The Stanley had been attempting to keep open a route from Summerside to Cape Tormentine while the Minto had what should have been the easier task of running between Georgetown and Pictou.

Early in January the Stanley became stuck in a floe off Seacow Head and would eventually remain imprisoned for 66 days as the ship was dragged by the ice east down the Strait.  By the end of February the ship was located between Merigomish and Pictou Island and although passengers had been sent to shore on ice boats, the crew remained aboard. Coal was running low and without steam in the boilers any hope of being able to manoeuvre in the ice would disappear.

Meanwhile the Minto was having a difficult time getting in and out of Pictou as the same ice that held the Stanley was jammed into ridges which rose in places to a height of 15 feet. On 14 February the Minto left Pictou for Georgetown with orders to get as close to the Stanley as possible and she had aboard some 85 tons of coal to refuel the stranded vessel.  She also had 54 passengers on board heading for the Island. They were warned by the Captain that there was considerable danger of a lengthy voyage as they had not only had to battle the ice for their own passage but also to aid the ice-bound Stanley.  It was reported that ” They said they were willing to take their changes and looked forward to an interesting experience.”  Stuck for  more than a week in the ice, hardly moving, the mood changed from interesting to infuriating.  A report of the trip noted that “After being out a while their good humor vanished, and there was much murmuring.  One young woman went in to hysterics and a young man became insane chafing under the delay.”

Compounding the problems with the ice, the Minto lost one blade of her four-bladed propeller, severely limiting her ability to manoeuvre and reducing her speed.  While the ship carried spare blades which could be bolted on the work required her to go on the marine slip at Pictou and could not be done at Georgetown.


Steamer Minto in Ice, Northumberland Straits. The ice boats can be seen on the stern of the ship.

It is at this point that the dramatic newspaper story above begins to unravel as a few of the details are questionable. What was reported in P.E.I. papers, based on reports from Pictou and later from the ship, was that faced with so many passengers on board, the Minto was running out of food. On the February 23, after 9 days aboard,  the passengers were offered the opportunity to leave the ship and walk the 7 miles to Pictou Island accompanied by crew members who hauled their luggage in one of the iron runner-shod iceboats which were part of the Minto’s equipment.  The journey to Pictou Island took about 4 hours. The group intended to continue their journey across the 14 mile Strait to High Bank or Wood Islands walking or using dories from the Pictou Island fishing fleet. However on reaching Pictou Island the plan changed and they decided to cross from Pictou Island to the mainland, some electing to take the train to Cape Tormentine and cross on the iceboats running at the Capes. On Tuesday 24 February the rest of the passengers, save six who elected to stay aboard, made the same journey on foot to Pictou.  The following day the winds shifted and the Minto was freed to head for the relief of the Stanley. It took five hours to go a mile and then they reached a lead in the ice which enabled them to get within a mile of the Stanley.  They unloaded 45 tons of coal on the ice to be dragged to the Stanley by her crew and then headed for Georgetown arriving the following day, after 12 days in the ice. It would be weeks before the Stanley was finally free.

A dramatic story in itself but what of the news re-printed above?  Garbled at best and sensationalized at worst there are several puzzling details.  The story appeared in the New London, Connecticut,  Daily but there is no mention of the details in either the Island Patriot or the Guardian. If they were trying to reach parents who were ailing in Boston why were they aboard a steamer headed for Prince Edward Island?  And as for “leading” the party it seems instead that the evacuation was under the direction of the crew of the Minto. The story in the Daily conveniently omits the information that a total of 47 passengers apparently made the transfer to shore without incident.

“The time when we were stuck on the ferry for [fill in the blank] hours/days” is part of the story-telling repertoire of almost every Islander of a certain age, however few tales can compare with the experience of those on the Minto in the winter of 1903 who, when faced with the choice between boredom and ice, took to the latter.




Through the ice from Pictou to Georgetown 1905

For those of a certain age living on Prince Edward Island the memory of being stuck in the ice on the ferry was a part of our collective heritage.  If nothing else it taught patience for there truly was nothing the passengers could do – and in some cases nothing the crew could do either.  But we seldom thought the experience was one that tourists would come here to experience. The passage below paints a more attractive picture and one which suggests the firm editorial hand of the Board of Trade.  Because the passage and the delay was a common event we have few eye-witness accounts. Written early in 1905 this one pre-dates the terrible winter when Pictou was blockaded by an ice-jam for weeks on end and no passengers were able to reach the Island except in the small ice-boats on the Capes route and no freight at all was carried. As we liked to say before the bridge “The mainland is cut off from civilization again.”


Ice-locked in Prince Edward Island

The trip in one of these steamers is a novel one, and during the season many tourists journey north to make it. The writer determined to take this trip last January and procured passage on the Minto, which sailed the next morning for Georgetown. We were a party of 40 and, to make a pleasant voyage, we indulged in more or less light revelry. At 7 o’clock we steamed out of Pictou harbor, and when about three miles out we struck the real thing – ice- ice by the ton. The boat’s bow went up and her stern went down, the pumps were working constantly, and  quaver of her machinery shook the whole steamer. Bang! On the top of a large cake of ice. Crash! It broke and she sailed on but only for a few minutes the ice was too much for her – the wind unfavorable – she could go no further. The captain gave orders , she wheeled around, and to the disappointment of all, headed for Pictou. At noon the captain sighted the Stanley off Pictou Island heading for Pictou harbor. There was no time to loose, the whistle blew and the Minto steamed out again . The wind had shifted, she ploughed through the ice and seemed to have a free way. In about an hour we passed the Stanley. She was making good headway and was soon out of sight. For the next couple of hours we encountered little ice  but about 4 o’clock we came to a sudden halt. A rush was made for the deck: pikepoles and crowbars were plying the ice. Slowly she backed a few lengths, put on full steam and headed for the enemy. She ploughed away for two miles through six feet of ice. Again she halted – stuck solid.

The captain, from his position on the bridge, quickly took in the situation and ordered the engines to be stopped. In enquiry we learned that we were to remain on the top of this jam until morning at least, but some on the boat who had been caught in like circumstances before, remarked that we might be there much longer. so we prepared ourselves to bear it.

For the next half hour there was more or less confusion among the passengers to get located for the night. The captain called us together and told us not to be allarmed [sic], but to keep cool. One passenger assured him rather sarcastically that they would have no difficulty keeping cool in the midst of such arctic surroundings.

2010_08_10_10_30_03The party were a jolly lot and soon we became acquainted and exchanged cards. At six supper was served. All sat down and being possessed of healthy appetites. we enjoyed a hearty meal. During the trip the steward and his staff were very kind to us and kept us well supplied in such luxuries of life as the Minto could afford under the circumstances.  Supper over we had an impromptu concert. Gramophone selections, songs and recitations were rendered interspersed with violin and harmonica solos and step dances. After the concert the ladies enjoyed a few games of whist and the gentlemen repaired to the smoking room to indulge in the philosophic weed and swap a few short stories. In this manner the evening was whiled away. At 11 o’clock we turned in. There were not staterooms for all and some slept on couches. By the next morning the wind had shifted a little and the massive ice pan was moving. This looked encouraging and we hope to be able to make an early start. By 7 o’clock the wind and tide had again shifted.  The captain gave orders and we were once again moving towards Georgetown. Every piece of shroud trembled like a leaf. The flagpole on the stem shook like a signal staff in a gale, but the Minto broke the jam and crushed the enemy, quivering the while with the exertion. Up in the wheelhouse the strain was felt as strongly as below. The passengers were alarmed. A severe storm was blowing up from the north-east that kept the captain peering anxiously into the snow ahead. We listed now to the starbord, now to port, ran up, crashed down and hammered our way ahead. Could she stand this sort of thing long?  Twenty minutes later she halted. It took an hour to cut her out. We were making headway, altho the throb of the big engines could be heard in the wheelhouse, and the pumps were throwing frothing streams from her sides. For three hours she kept at it, and then came a blast of the whistle. She stopped. We had been going through some heavy ice.

Her bow was deep down; another list to starboard, she backed up a few yards, stuck her bow up in the air, made for the driving snow and ice, and for a while ploughed doggedly along. Presently we struck open water, and the beat of the engines was restored to a normal state. The sea was a little rough but we sailed along for three-quarters of an hour without any exertion. At last the open water came to an end and we saw the glistening peaks of a pack of heavy ice stretching as far to starboard and port as we could see. In a few minutes we were upon it., and dashed into a lead between two fields of heavy ice eight feet in thickness. When the crash came it was followed by a sharp grind that tells of heavier ice. The Minto trembled, lurched and stopped, backed up and made at it again and this time went through into an expanse of thin ice. The openness we had just made closed up, and quickly too; the ice fields on either side were moving together and in less than two minutes the opening was welded strong.

It was now 3:30 in the afternoon. We had been on the ice since 7 o’clock of the previous morning. Five miles of grinding and crushing had yet to be done before we could reach Georgetown. In the distance we could see the Island coast, the sight of which was hailed with joy, for it assured us that the dangers and anxieties of the trip were over. We sailed along beautifully now, hammering away towards the homestretch. The rest of the trip was pleasant: the wind had died away, the storm abated, and a crimson and golden sunset on the western horizon turned the peaks into great, glittering crystals, presenting a beautiful picture.


At 4:30 we bumped triumphantly alongside the dock. A cheer greeted us from the shore, and we were soon among anxious ones, who had sighted the steamer early in the afternoon, plodding along through the mountains of ice, and who had awaited patiently to see us safely landed. The passengers gave three cheers for the Minto and crew and they deserved it.

Toronto World. Reprinted in the Quebec Saturday Budget 14 October 1905.