Tag Archives: Victoria

Italians land in Victoria


Savoia Marchette S.55X flying boat on beach at Victoria P.E.I. July 1933. Photo: Library and Archives Canada / PA070841

Look! … There in the sky… Is it a bird?… Is it a plane? … Is it a boat??? … Well actually it was a plane and a boat   And not so much a boat as a catamaran. And what was it doing flying into Victoria?

Normally Victoria P.E.I. was a quiet little harbour with the odd schooner picking up a cargo of potatoes or oats, or the  S.S. Harland making its regular run between the port and Charlottetown. On the morning of 26 July a number of aeroplanes were seen flying over the Island. One group was spotted in the skies above Georgetown while another came in high above Governor’s Island and passed over Charlottetown.   At about 9:30 am one of the flight over Victoria circled and instead of passing north over the village drifted down into the harbour and landed in the shallow waters of the bay.  As the craft drifted to a stop and threw out an anchor the crew, under the command of Captain Umberto Rovis, emerged, apparently unconcerned about their unscheduled stop in a strange port. Victoria resident C.P. Miller untied his motor boat from the wharf and towed the strange craft into the beach. Although Italian speakers were scarce or entirely absent from Victoria the story gradually emerged with detail being added after the arrival of A.P. Ceretti, master diver for the CNR ferry service at Borden who acted as translator for the five Italian Air Force members aboard the flying boat.

The Italian seaplane was part of a large fleet of seaplanes which was returning from staging a display of aeronautical capability which was unmatched anywhere in the world up until that date.  In the 1920s and early 1930s the Italians played a leading role in the development of long-distance flight.  In 1925 an Italian seaplane was flown from Italy to Australia and Japan. In 1930-31 a fleet of 12 flying boats flew from Italy, across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, north to New York, and back.

Time magazine cover with Italo Balbo

Time magazine cover with Italo Balbo

That flight had been led by General Italo Balbo, Minister of the Air Force and in 1933 he personally conducted another exercise to demonstrate the superiority of Italian aeronautical engineering.  A group of 25 flying boats left Italy, stopping at Amsterdam, Reykjavik,  Cartwright, Labrador, Shediac and Montreal before reaching the destination of Chicago to attend the Century of Progress Exposition. The trip was completed in just under 48 hours of flying.  Balbo received many honours including the cover of Time magazine, a Distinguished Flying Cross awarded by President Roosevelt and promotion to the specially created post of Marshal of the Italian Air Force. The return route was planned with stops at New York, Shediac (the only place with stops both coming and going) , Shoal Harbour Newfoundland, Valentia Ireland, Marseilles France  and Rome. The air fleet was supported by ships of the Italian Navy at many of the their stops.

Balbo's air fleet at Montreal 1933. The cockpit was located inside the wing between the hulls

Balbo’s air fleet at Montreal 1933. The cockpit was located inside the wing between the hulls and just under the engines. Photo:http://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/1990747

The planes were all Savoia Marchetti S.55X models.  This was a unique and stylish design with twin flying boat hulls bridged by a cantilevered wing.  The cockpit was located inside the wing between the hulls. Two engines were mounted back-to-back above the wing and drove counter-rotating propellers.   The wingspan was almost 75 feet and the craft was 55 feet in length.  There were several model variations but all together more than 230 of the design were built. The craft had a maximum speed of 173 miles per hour and a range of more than 2000 miles. The plane was adopted for use as a civilian aircraft in the Soviet Union and by the military in Italy, Brazil, Spain and Romania.

Captain Rovis had been in radio contact with the support team in Shediac and half an hour after the Italian flying boat arrived, a second seaplane, this time the R.C.M.P. flying boat from the Canadian Preventative Service arrived, having flown in carrying the head of the Italian technical contingent at Shediac.  The Italian plane was diagnosed as having a broken water pump which was causing the engines to overheat and the R.C.M.P. plane returned to Shediac for parts. However, a replacement pump was not available and one had to be brought in from Montreal.  In what would still be considered prompt delivery time a new water pump was delivered by air from Montreal to Shediac and then to Victoria arriving at 4 p.m. the same day. The replacement equipment was installed and tested by 8 p.m. but by then the tide had fallen and the plane was stranded on the shore. It was towed off the beach at midnight when the tide was high but the crew elected to wait for daybreak before leaving to catch the rest of the formation which had safely landed in Newfoundland earlier in the day.

Route of Balbo Air Armada 1933

Route of Balbo Air Armada 1933

Balbo’s fleet was held up in Newfoundland by bad weather and faced with continued forecasts of poor conditions the route was changed. Rather than head across the Atlantic to directly Ireland the planes were diverted to route via the Azores, Lisbon and then to Rome. The new routing was slightly longer but it also had the advantage less distance over water between stops.

Today there are only a few memorials of the pioneering flight; a display in the Italian aeronautical museum; Balbo Drive, formerly Seventh Street in Chicago; a column presented by Mussolini to the City of Chicago and Rovis Beach Lane in Victoria P.E.I., named for the captain who fetched up there on 1933 owing to a faulty water pump.

Postscript 2021


Since this original posting was made in 2016 additional images of the seaplane landing have been found by postcard collector Phil Culhane. The event was the subject of a set of real photo postcards of especially high quality. I am indebted to Phil Culhane for allowing the use of these card images.  His on-line gallery of PEI postcards can be found at http://www.PEIpostcards.ca

Click on any photo to see enlarged images 

The History of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company

Princess of Wales in Summerside Harbour 1878. Detail From Panoramic View of Summerside

Princess of Wales in Summerside Harbour 1878. Detail From Panoramic View of Summerside

In 1878 Panoramic Views of both Summerside and Charlottetown were published. The views gave an accurate depiction of the two Island communities and highlighted the commercial and industrial progress being made. Because of the perspective view the largest items on the sheets are the paddlewheel steamers then proudly plying Island waters – the Princess of Wales (mislabeled in the drawing as the Prince of Wales) in Summerside Harbour and the St. Lawrence in Charlottetown Harbour. Also seen in Charlottetown Harbour lithograph was the smaller Heather Belle.

These three boats constituted the fleet of the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company which had been organized in 1863 and was incorporated the following year to take over the contract for service between the colony of Prince Edward Island and the mainland from a New Brunswick company operating the Westmorland. The company was capitalized at £20,000 and shares were held mostly by Island shipbuilders, lawyers and capitalists

Early photo of the Princess of Wales in Charlottetown Harbour. the building behind the funnel is the Methodist Church

Early photo of the Princess of Wales in Charlottetown Harbour. the building behind the funnel is the Methodist Church

The company started operations with the Heather Belle and a new steamer called the Princess of Wales which had been built in Carleton New Brunswick and launched early in 1864. Newspaper advertisements in February said service would begin in April 1864 but in May she was still in Saint John being outfitted The vessel finally arrived in Charlottetown in June and went into service immediately.  At 192 feet and almost 1000 tons she was considerably larger than the Westmorland and there were some fears that she was too large for the trade. However the editor of the Islander noted that the Island had much to draw visitors  “…and if its attractions can be made known to the many thousands who yearly leave the cities of the United States in search of a pleasant retreat, for some months at least, a steamer quite as large as the “Princess of Wales” will be required to convey to our shores the thousands of tourists who will visit us.”  The two steamers each had a weekly route with the Princess of Wales visiting Pictou, Port Hood, Summerside and Shediac from the home port of Charlottetown and the Heather Belle traveling to Pictou , Murray Harbour, Georgetown and Souris.

Paddle Steamer Princess of Wales. The funnel seems to be removed in this photo.

Paddle Steamer Princess of Wales. The funnel seems to be removed in this photo but the walking beam which connected the engine with the paddles can be clearly seen.

General Whiting as she might have looked as a Confederate blockade runner. ship image drawn by Petr Merkulov based on the best available evidence and documentation.

General Whiting as she might have looked as a Confederate blockade runner. Ship image drawn by Petr Merkulov based on the best available evidence and documentation.

The Princess of Wales was joined in 1868 by another steamer, the St. Lawrence.  This paddle wheeler had been built by Messrs Greenan in Mystic, Connecticut in 1863. Launched as the Rafael, the side-wheel steamer was used as a blockade runner during the American civil war under the name General Whiting. Whiting was a general in the Confederate States Army who was captured and later died a prisoner. Under ownership of the Consolidated Steamship Company the General Whiting made at least four successful passages between Nassau and the Southern States and survived the war. Between 1866 and 1868 she was lying in Saint John and probably had been re-built to increase her accommodation. At 201 feet in length and 33 feet in width she was just slightly larger than the Princess of Wales. With a nominal power of 250 horsepower it was claimed she could have an average speed of 10 knots but also be “light on fuel.” Both the Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence carried about 25 crew members.

Paddle steamer St. Lawrence in Charlottetown Harbour 1878. Detail from Panoramic View of Charlottetown.

Paddle steamer St. Lawrence in Charlottetown Harbour 1878. Detail from Panoramic View of Charlottetown.

By 1869 the Steam Navigation Company was running its vessels on several routes: The Princess of Wales and St. Lawrence visited Pictou, Cape Breton, Georgetown, Souris, Summerside and Shediac from Charlottetown on a regular weekly schedule, while the Heather Belle served Mount Stewart, Port Selkirk (Orwell) and Crapaud (Victoria).  In the early years the steamers also provided service to Miramichi and Richibucto.

The 1869 season was not a good one of the company. In early August the two steamers collided at night off Seacow Head.  The St. Lawrence was holed below the waterline and was saved only by being towed to shoal water by the Princess of Wales, which had also been damaged in the collision.  Although the Princess of Wales resumed service the next day the St. Lawrence required extensive repair. She was patched in Summerside and then towed to Pictou to be put on the marine slip for an overhaul.

Steam Navigation Company advertisement in the P.E.I. Directory 1889-1890.

Steam Navigation Company advertisement in the P.E.I. Directory 1889-1890.

Confederation in 1873 was good for the company. Although they had lost much of the Charlottetown to Summerside traffic through the building of the Prince Edward Island Railway, they benefitted from a 20-year $10,000 annual subsidy which was part of the Dominion’s commitment to furnish “continuous steam communication” and the railway links between Island towns and villages made the strait crossing routes more lucrative. In 1876 the company appears to have also have had at least one sailing vessel in their fleet. They are noted as owners of a 46 ton schooner, the Alexander, which had been built in Belfast in 1860.  In 1884 the Princess of Wales was substantially re-built with new steel boilers, more efficient but lighter and smaller, which allowed expansion of the passengers area to accommodate an additional 100 in the main saloon, as well as increased capacity on the freight deck.  The company was re-incorporated in 1890 under Dominion legislation as the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company, this time with $400,000 in capital stock.  John Ings, L.C. Owen, and William Richards, all of whom had been connected with the shipbuilding and ship-owning activities were the first directors.

In the 1890’s, with improved rail connections the routes of the steamers were simplified. One vessel made daily trips from Charlottetown to Pictou to connect with the Halifax train, the other ran from Summerside to Pointe du Chene to meet the train from Saint John with connections to Boston. In 1895 the subsidy was renewed and continued to be paid until the S.S. Prince Edward Island was launched in 1915.  Over the years the fleet had changed. The Heather Belle had been sunk in fog in 1891 and by that time the other wooden paddle steamers were almost thirty years old and feeling their age. In 1893 the St. Lawrence had suffered from a broken shaft which kept her off the routes for about six weeks and required leasing of a replacement.  The Princess of Wales had been the first of the large side-wheelers to go – replaced by the iron steamer Northumberland in 1891.  The St. Lawrence, described the same year  by the American  Counsel in Charlottetown as having “good accommodation for freight and passengers” was kept running until 1896  when the Princess arrived.

The last days of the Princess of Wales were inglorious. After being replaced by the shiny new S.S. Northumberland she was purchased by James Lantalum of St. John and partly broken up. However the hulk was left on the beach near the ferry slip in Charlottetown. In the winter of 1897 she was carried by the ice into the dredged channel and became a hazard to navigation. It was not until 1901 that a dispute about jurisdiction and costs was resolved and the wreck finally removed.

The St. Lawrence was likewise a far cry from her romantic past at the end of her days. Replaced by the S.S. Princess in 1896, her registry was closed in 1897 and her engine was transferred to the Victoria, a Saint John River steamer. By 1903 she was being used as a barge transporting cattle to waiting steamers in the port of Saint John. Her once spacious passenger accommodation had been replaced by stalls for cattle.

In 1907 the last artifacts of the Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence were put on the market. Auctioneer R.B. Norton was selling off surplus and unclaimed goods at the Steam Navigation Company warehouse. Included was the mahogany and walnut furniture from the two steamers; dining tables, chairs, washstands and sinks, 8 mahogany sofas, tables, arm chairs and “a large lot of stuff that cannot be classified. ”

The company itself did not last much longer.  Although it seems to have been profitable to the end, the termination of the subsidy and the arrival of year-round ferry service certainly placed the company at a cross roads.  After disposing of their ships the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company sold their wharf by tender and in August of 1916 the enterprise was wound up after a half-century of service. It was truly the end of an era.

NOTE: More on the panoramic views of Charlottetown and Summerside can be found in the Fall-Winter 1988 issue of The Island Magazine

Pleasant Ways and Days on the Waters of the Bay – 1877

Heather Belle001

Semi-Weekly Patriot 4 August 1877 p. 3

Up until recently pleasure sailing from Charlottetown was not restricted to private yachts. The harbour held a several possibilities for spending time of the water. By picking your day you could go to a number of  destinations, any of which would become an excursion. In 1877 a writer for the Semi-Weekly Patriot calculated there were at least nine different routes, several of which had stops at a number of different wharves and ports.  He writes about the routes to Pictou, Summerside, Crapaud, Orwell, Mount Stewart, Bonshaw, Southport, Rocky Point, and the Islands of Governor’s and St. Peter’s.  Starting from what the writer called the “Queen City of the Gem of the Gulf” the correspondent waxes eloquent about the services to Pictou and Summerside where rail connections opened to the world but other ports were closer at hand. Several of these locations became sites of choice for church teas and picnics and almost every lodge and fraternal association took advantage  of the services offered at least once over the summer season. On Dominion Day 1878, for example, over 400 people crowded onto the Heather Belle for an excursion to Orwell. On the other hand, as seen from the advertisement above, groups sponsoring teas at the outports attracted additional participants by advertising the travel option provided by the steamers. The main business of the  steamers was to provide regular passenger and freight services. However, self-guided tours or “days out” to the destinations up and down Northumberland Strait were also a popular activity.

In a earlier post I noted the Patriot’s observations about the trips up and down the rivers flowing into the bay. Today’s installment covers trips to Victoria and Orwell.

Heather Belle2

Paddle Steamer Heather Belle ca. 1870

Heather Belle

Heather Belle from the 1878 birds-eye view of Charlottetown

But many pleasure seekers desire a shorter trip, say half a day. Then they will take the Heather Belle to Crapaud in early morning on every Saturday going down the harbor, across the “Three Tides” out around St. Peter’s Island, in site of “Governors” and within hearing of the almost ceaseless booming  of the Bell Buoy on its dangerous reef, and along the Island coast with the neat farms and comfortable homesteads, the dancing water and clear air, all rendered doubly beautiful by the morning sun. On arriving at Victoria, passengers can either take carriages and drive to Crapaud three miles, a charming scene, and thence to County line on the Railway, where they can take a mid-day train for home, whole cost $2.00 each; or return to Victoria and home again by boat arriving here about noon. If a special party of 30 or 40 is made up Mr. Hughes will allow them nearly five (5) hours (according to the tide) at Crapaud to aspread the cloths and enjoy the contents of a basket; returning here about 6:30 p.m. The whole trip costs 50 cents each (return) ticket, while ordinary fare is $1.00 for the round trip.

Heather Belle002

Heather Belle schedule 1879 Semi-Weekly Patriot 4 May 21879

For a short and pleasant sail few better opportunities are offered than to Orwell and return, upon Thursday and Tuesday afternoons. The boat leaves at 3 o’clock, when, carrying your lunch basket, you will steam across Pownal and Orwell Bays, touching at the “new wharf” and viewing “High Bank” near which the “Polly” landed her passengers who were, and are to our Province what the pilgrims of the “Mayflower” are to Plymouth Rock, and Massachusetts. Thence the steamer cuts across to China Point within sight of the mouth of Vernon River and the Bridge where there is opportunity given to ascend the rising ground and view the prospect o’er. Everyone will feel better for the scene to fair to see, while parties will have about an hour given them for lunching in some of the pleasant nooks around. returning to Charlottetown about 8 p.m., the round trip costing 30 cents.

The Heather Belle’s officers and owners, are careful and attentive, the boat is well found and safe and passing close to the beautiful shores allows ample opportunity for people to see everything of interest.

The steamer Heather Belle had been built at Duncan’s Shipyard in Charlottetown in 1862. At her launch she was described by the Islander newspaper as  “a beautiful little steamboat.” Initially built to serve the wharves between Charlottetown and Mount Stewart on the Hillsborough River she soon was serving ports in all of the rivers and across Northumberland Strait. In 1864 she carried delegates from the Nova Scotia port of Brule to the meeting in Charlottetown discussing Maritime Union which became a wider discussion on Confederation.