Today we tend to think of Prince Edward Island as being at the end of something – a long drive, a flight, a ferry crossing. In the world of hubs and spokes we are clearly a spoke. You don’t go to Prince Edward Island on your way to anywhere. It is a destination.
However, for one period in the Island’s history this was not the case. In the mid-19th century especially, Prince Edward Islanders saw themselves as, if not the centre of the world, then at least the centre of something. And looking at a map of the region it is not hard to see why. A case in point is the outlook of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company. In an economy of wood, wind and water, sea transportation was the most effective (and in some cases the only) way to move goods and people. The Island sat in the centre of a large basin from northern New Brunswick in the west to Cape Breton in the east. Northumberland Strait touched the long shorelines of three provinces and Charlottetown was the largest port on the Strait.
The Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company’s steamers did much more than connect Prince Edward Island to the mainland. They were the moving parts of a communications web and Charlottetown, rather than being at the end of a spoke, was in fact the hub. Most voyages began or ended at Charlottetown and by passing through the port one could travel aboard ship from one end of the Strait to the other.
Until the railway lines in the region took their final shape the most effective way to get from Saint John to the Miramichi was to cross the Bay of Fundy, travel through Nova Scotia to Pictou and take a steamer up the Strait, touching at Charlottetown and Summerside. The same was true of travel to Cape Breton. A requirement of the earliest subsidies sought by the first Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company from the colonial governments of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia was that western and eastern ports in those colonies would be served.
In the 1860s the Steamers Princess of Wales and Heather Belle were tried on a variety of routes to accommodate the changing transportation patterns. When the railway reached Shediac in 1860 Point du Chêne became much more important for transshipment of goods and passengers destined for points south and west such as Boston and Montreal.
In 1865 the Princess of Wales and the Heather Belle were both providing service across the Strait four days a week. Besides two trips to Pictou the steamers also went to Brule, directly across from Charlottetown, twice. From there the express wagon carried mails on a shorter road to Truro. A year later the Princess of Wales sailed weekly from Charlottetown to Summerside, Shediac, Richibucto and Miramichi, with service to Pictou and Shediac more often.
The following year the schedule published in the Island’s newspapers revealed the full extent of the Company’s attempt to provide a full regional transportation service.
On Mondays one of the company’s larger steamers, the Princess of Wales or the new-to-the-Strait St. Lawrence, left Charlottetown for Pictou, then on to Port Hood in Cape Breton returning to Charlottetown via Pictou on Tuesdays. Wednesday morning saw a steamer leave Charlottetown for Pictou then on to Port Hawkesbury on the Gut of Canso, returning on the same route the following day. Another boat sailed Thursdays from Charlottetown to Pictou, Georgetown and Souris and the next day from Georgetown to Pictou and back to Charlottetown. Tuesdays and Saturdays had a steamer from Charlottetown sailing to points west; Summerside and Shediac, returning the following day. The company’s third boat, the Heather Belle, sailed Mondays for Crapaud (soon to become the port of Victoria), Tuesdays for Port Selkirk (Orwell Brush Wharf) and on other days back and forth to Mount Stewart Bridge.
Sailing times at Pictou and Shediac were determined by great measure by the arrival of the trains from Halifax and Saint John. Integrating passenger traffic with both mainland rail services and the Prince Edward Island Railway timetable was a sound business decision – even if waiting for a late train resulted in late sailings. The service to smaller ports on the island such as Crapaud could vary according to the tides.
In contrast to the old joke, if your destination was up or down Northumberland Strait “you could get there from here,” and most likely how you did it was on a Charlottetown-based steamer. With confederation and the completion of the intercolonial railway from Halifax to Quebec the trains began to displace ships as the most common carrier. The rail line ran up the shore to northern New Brunswick and there was a falling-off of water traffic to that area and so the Steam Navigation Company ceased its western service, while at the same time maintaining its connections with Point du Chêne, now even more important for its links with both the New England and Canadian rail lines. Confederation also brought the subsidized Pictou to Magdalen Islands steamship service which stopped at Souris. One result was that vessels based in Pictou rather than Charlottetown were used on new routes to Cape Breton and the Strait of Canso. Increasing Island demands for daily round-trips between Charlottetown and Pictou and Summerside and Shediac meant that the steamers were unable to continue their routes to other ports and they were gradually abandoned. By the late 1870s the extended routes of the Steam Navigation Company and been subsumed by what had become a shuttle service across the Strait which continued until 1916. What traffic that existed between the eastern part of P.E.I. and Cape Breton enabled the local service of the Three Rivers Steamship Company to continue from 1892 to 1917.
In an ironic twist the improvements in transportation between 1860 and the Great War meant that in some ways Prince Edward Island became more isolated than it had been at the beginning of the period.