When Alexander Bannerman Warburton, the member for Queens County Prince Edward Island rose in the House of Commons on 20 February 1911 his speech began with the ominous words “It may be wearisome to hon. members of this House to hear this matter brought up periodically…”
Warburton was speaking of the issue of the “continuous steam communication” which had been part of the Confederation agreement but the member from Queens had his own hobby-horse to ride. For him the issue of dependable transportation could be most simply dealt with by changing to port to which the steamers travelled. At the time there were several routes in use: Summerside to Shediac, Charlottetown to Pictou, Cape Traverse to Cape Tormentine, and Georgetown to Pictou. The summer steamers of the Steam Navigation Company used the first two to link the train services of the Island with those of the mainland. In winter the Dominion Government ice-breaking steamers used all the ports and shifted between them as ice conditions allowed. Usually the ice thickened and became impassable west to east so that the Georgetown to Pictou route was the last one to be used each winter.
For Warburton the map told the story. Directly across Northumberland Strait from Charlottetown lay Amet Sound or Tatamagouche Bay with communities of Cape John, Brule and Tatamagouche. Any fool could see that the twenty-four miles across the Strait was shorter than making the dog-leg to Pictou. And from any one of the communities on the shores of Tatamagouche Bay it was a much shorter direct route to Truro and the Intercolonial Railway junction making a short route to Halifax and from there to the wide world.
It was not pre-ordained that the gateway to Prince Edward Island should lead through Pictou. Although the harbour was a good one it was not the only one with favourable conditions for sailing ships and the early steamers. The Brule shore developed a trade with Prince Edward Island that lasted for many years with schooners hauling agricultural goods and limestone back and forth across the strait into the 20th century. It was the discovery of coal that made Pictou an important port and with increased trade and settlement as well as industry, mail and coach routes with Halifax developed.
The shorter distance from Charlottetown to Halifax by travelling as the crow flies was attractive to some of the early steamboat operators. Heard’s Rosebud, the first steamer to be built on the Island, ran between Charlottetown and Tatamagouche in the 1850s in an effort to take trade away from the government-subsidized government steamers. The route had been studied by the P.E.I. Colonial government in 1856 and Admiral Bayfield’s observation that Brule harbour was “the safest and best for direct intercourse with Nova Scotia…” was quoted. In 1864 the Halifax Chronicle carried an advertisement for the “Short and Cheap route between Halifax and P.E.Island” meeting the steamer Heather Belle at Brule and when the Nova Scotia delegates came to what would become known as the confederation conference in 1864 it was from Brule on the steamer Heather Belle, rather from Pictou. The Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company steamers called regularly at Brule Wharf as well as Pictou until 1867. The port was used as an occasional excursion destination from as the trip there and back could be made in one day.
However Pictou’s dominance on the strait was greatly strengthened with the construction of the Nova Scotia Railway from Truro to Pictou Landing in 1867 and its incorporation into the Intercolonial Railway after Confederation but it was not until 1887 that the railway actually ran into Pictou town. The same year what came to be known as “the short line” (The Montreal and European Railway) was built from Oxford Junction to Pictou along the north shore passing through Tatamagouche. However this was far from the direct link between Northumberland Strait and Truro. Proponents of the route were excited by the construction of the Midland Railway between the Annapolis Valley and Truro and its acquisition by the Dominion Atlantic Railway (DAR) in 1905. Extension of the line straight through the 28 miles to Brule could only be a matter of time and the vision of fast steamers across the Strait and a DAR express to Yarmouth and waiting Boston steamers was fodder for editorial comment and political postures. The Halifax Herald wrote of trips from Charlottetown “To Halifax and return in a day” and “a new route to Boston.” In the summer of 1909 things had progressed to the point where the owners of the Harland laid on an excursion to allow everyone to view the proposed port.
Alexander Warburton had been a M.L.A. from 1891 to 1898 and served as premier for a brief period before accepting an appointment as county court judge. Resigning in 1904 to run for politics he was not successful until the 1908 general election and he served only until 1911 when he was defeated.
He may have been infected by the Brule bug when running for Dominion office in 1904. By May 1909 he was in full support of the Charlottetown – Brule route. He first raised the matter in the House that year speaking for almost an hour in a discourse which recounted the history of the colony, his experiences waiting in Pictou for ice-trapped vessels, “a severe and lengthy condemnation of the suitability of Pictou as a winter port” and again and again referring to the shortened distance. The same year his stance was adopted by the Maritime Board of Trade which passed a resolution supporting a trial of the route by the icebreaker Earl Grey.
Emerging like a groundhog seeking his shadow every February for the next two years Warburton rose to his feet to repeat his lengthy but impassioned plea which would introduce an equally lengthy and impassioned rebuttal from the member from Pictou and then the House would return to its normal business for another year.
The route question was rendered moot by the creation of the car ferry service between Cape Tormentine and Port Borden which introduced a dependable winter crossing using the S.S. Prince Edward Island but it refused to die away completely. Even after Warburton went to his reward in 1920 (as Judge of the Probate Court) there were outbreaks of interest in the Brule route. Charlottetown businessman J.O. Hyndman was a proponent suggesting a seven-month steamer service to replace the Hochelaga coupled with the long-sought Truro-Brule direct rail line. A fast steamer could make two round trips per day compared with only one on the Pictou route. The plan was endorsed by the Truro Board of Trade in 1929. However the branch line to Brule was never built and the steamers continued to go to Pictou.
The Brule route was only one of a number of map-induced proposals in the region. There were costly failures such as the Chignecto Ship Railway and those like the Brule route and the PEI rail tunnel which never quite got off the ground. Often what was missing was an appreciation of the demand. In the case of the Brule route the market was simply not there. Even before the car ferry, Pictou was quite adequate. The line on-the-map may have been perfect, but the good was good enough.