Tag Archives: Water Street

A Puzzle at the foot of Queen Street

Some parts of Charlottetown are blessed with an abundance of historical images. The streets surrounding Queen’s Square are the subject of a large number of drawings, photographs and postcards, many from the viewpoint provided by the public buildings on the square. Other sections of the city are less well provided for. This is particularly true for the waterfront with no public buildings and the unsightly confusion of warehouses, workshops wharves and shops.

A drawing by Charlottetown artist Robert Harris is therefore a welcome addition to the iconography of the waterfront. Harris is best know as a portrait painter but the collection at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery also contains scores, if not hundreds, of small oils and landscape sketches. One of these (probably dating from the 1870s) shows the east side of the foot of Queen Street where it meets the waters of the harbour.

Queen St. Charlottetown by Robert Harris. Collection of the Confederation Centre Art Gallery

At first glance this seems obviously to be the block between King Street and Water with the large brick building at the corner and two similar buildings between it and the building on the corner of King Street.  A wharf (Bourke’s Wharf in the 1860 and later Peake’s Wharf No.2) can be seen south on the buildings and a slip with open access to the harbour where the street met the water.  A stroll down Queen would seem to confirm this.

Postcard view of Charlottetown waterfront ca. 1960 (detail)

The area in the sketch seems to look much as it did sixty years ago as can be seen in the detail from a postcard in the early 1960s with the familiar buildings in place. The exception is the southern mansard roofed building which was the site of Percy Vail’s Oyster Shop, a well known eatery. That building was destroyed by fire in 1976 and the gap remains unfilled except by an unattractive parking lot.

Closer examination of the Harris sketch however, raises a number of questions.  The drawing shows the  water lapping very close to the southern-most building. In fact there appear to be no room for Water Street at all. The buildings, with the exception of the three story block seem to be set well back from the street line which is not how the block looks now.

The most detailed and, for some purposes, useful  views of the area are not from photos or drawings but from plans of the city which show, in great detail, the buildings lining the streets. There are a number of these which show the lower Queen Street area.

Plan of City of Charlottetown 1863 (detail). Lake Map

One of the earliest of these is an inset in the 1863 topographical map of Prince Edward Island by D.J. Lake. Commonly referred to as the “Lake Map.”  This is a fine resource but need to be used with caution.  Firstly it gives only the footprints of the buildings with no indication of their height and secondly the cartographer seems more concerned with the neatness of the layout than with accurate depiction of the realities on the ground. For example he shows the wharves as exactly at right angles from the street grid when in reality things were a little more messy. Rather than being located right in the middle of Queen Street the Queen’s Wharf lay on the west side of the street allowance and was at a slight angle to the street.

The next image comes from the 1878 bird’s eye view of Charlottetown. This view is, unfortunately from the south west and does not show the street from the same perspective as the Harris drawing.  While seeming to be somewhat primitive close examination of the view and comparison with photographs shows that the drawing is remarkably accurate. Rooflines, window placement and out-buildings are all precise.

Panoramic View of Charlottetown 1878 (detail)

This view, some 15 years later than the Lake map, shows both the King-Water block and also the block below Water Street.  It is clear from this that the water’s edge at the foot of Queen is a full block south of Water street and that another street called Peake Street (later Lower Water Street), now long gone, intersected with Queen north of the wharf. Below this there is a collection of smaller warehouses and workshops including a three-story structure on the wharf.  The accuracy of the bird’s eye view is confirmed to some extent by the plan in the 1880 Meacham’s Atlas.

Plan of Charlottetown 1880 (detail) Meacham’s Atlas.

The Atlas plan again shows the distance between Water Street and the water which is at odds with the Harris sketch if it is of the King-Water block. However none of these resources aligns completely with the view on the sketch. Since we do not have a date for the sketch it is difficult to compare the views with precision. Further we may have to allow for artistic license which could allowed Harris to manipulate the scene for visual effect.

If the sketch dates from 1863 or before then the block in the Harris sketch cannot be between King and Water as there were gaps between houses and an empty lot.  By 1878 this had been filled in and the block has largely taken the appearance in still holds.

However, the 1878 and 1880 views hold the key as does closer examination of the sketch itself. At the extreme left of the sketch a rough drawing of a tall building appears. This is almost certainly the present brick structure on the north east corner of Water and Queen. What we have then in the sketch is the block between Water and Peake or Lower Water. There are three buildings, stores with dwellings above, which fit with the 1878 view and the 1880 plan.  Then comes Lower Water street and across that street we have a three story warehouse or shop.  Neither the view or the plan show any setback for the buildings on the street. What appears to be a set-back requires another explanation. We can see the side of the three-story building only because running between it and the three houses is the opening for Lower Water. This too is consistent with the view and plan.  What throws the viewer off is the assumption that what is seen is a single block. Now it becomes clear that the three story building is located on the south-east corner of Lower Water and Queen Streets, very close to the water’s edge. The buildings in this area survived into the late 1930’s, when the DeBlois wholesale operation (visible in the 1960s postcard) was constructed sweeping the last of them away.

So with the exception of a shadowy presence on the edge of the Harris sketch every building shown has now disappeared. Small wonder it can be difficult to see what is not there. As with many historical images we must resist the temptation to make the view fit what we see today and we must find other clues in order to see what is no longer there.


Chairs, Cheese and Raisins – S.C. Holman’s West India House on Pownal Wharf

Today the western end of Water Street is primarily residential.  However in the 19th century Water Street was very much the chief commercial thoroughfare of the community. The streets leading from the grid of the town down to the wharves were prime locations for merchants and businesses serving the port. In 1851 a new establishment – West India House – opened a the corner of Pownal and Water at the head of the Pownal Wharf.  The proprietor was a few years short of thirty and was the oldest son of a lately deceased unsuccessful Saint John merchant, James Holman.


Haszard’s Gazette 19 November 1851 p. 3

Samuel Chadbourne Holman had briefly worked in  Boston but he obviously believed that Charlottetown provided a better opportunity. Prince Edward Island was a growing colony and Samuel’s contacts in New England made importing from the United States easier, this at a time when many Island merchants were still relying on shipment of goods from Great Britain.

From his advertising in Haszard’s Gazette it appeared that he sold just about anything from sleigh bells to cigars but he specialized in wholesale groceries and naval stores for the many ships visiting the harbour. Some things such as “high-proof rum” fell into both categories.  Some of the groceries seem exotic even today; tamarinds, raspberry vinegar, green gage plums, saleratus, and quinces.  Naval stores included oakum, pitch, pine tar, varnish, navy and pilot bread, oil clothing and sou’westers.   Rounding out the offerings were hard goods such as chairs, shirtings, whips, carriage springs, and scythes (40 dozen on offer).

Haszard's Gazette 20 January 1852 p. 3

Haszard’s Gazette 20 January 1852 p. 3

Helping in the shop was Samuel’s youngest brother, Robert Tinson, who had also experience of employment in Boston.  Alas the new business on Pownal Wharf was not to last for long. In the summer of 1852 Samuel left for Boston, possibly to acquire new goods for the store. However he was killed in an accident on the wharf at Augusta Maine in August of that year and shortly afterwards the goods were seized and sold as they had been pledged against debts to a Boston merchant. Samuel left a wife Sarah, and young daughter with the same name who died soon after and whose tiny headstone can be seen in the Elm Avenue Cemetery.

Samuel’s other brother, James Ludlow Holman, was also an aspiring merchant and he had chosen St. Eleanors to start his enterprise. Robert and Samuel’s widow moved to the growing western town where she later re-married.  Within a few years Robert Tinson Holman had started his own store in nearby Summerside. It was to be almost sixty years before the Holman business returned to Charlottetown and by then the commercial centre had moved far from Water Street to the area around Queens Square.  While Holman’s is remembered by many, West India House at the head of Pownal Wharf survives only in yellowing newspaper advertisements.

History is what happens when you’re not looking

Macdonald001A new book has served up notice to me that it is all too easy to forget that history is a living thing. All too often when we think of “historic photos” the mind leaps to sepia toned images of top hatted gents stiffly posed or street scenes with strategically placed gas lamps. Charlottetown Then and Now is a corrective to that view. Compiled by Scott MacDonald using images taken by his father W. Blair MacDonald and brought to date with images of the same locations taken by Scott this is a wonderful little book.

Most of the “historic” photos in this volume date from the 1959 – 1980 period when Charlottetown was undergoing significant change. However that  change was scattered and to some extent gradual and the photos shock with the documentation of just how much change there has been and how easily it escapes notice.  We quickly forget what was there “before” and the new quickly becomes the familiar. When pressed many of us can remember Mills’ Meat Market on Hillsborough Street or Cudmore’s Grocery at the top of Upper Great George Street but we regularly pass by these spots today with nary a thought to what those buildings looked like.  Some have been replaced by other structures but a shocking number are the site of parking lots or parking garages.

We can point to the big changes such as Confederation Centre which filled Market Square and resulted in the disappearance of the Harris Library, the Shaw Building which meant the end of West Kent School and the Drill Hall (and Government Pond) and the Daniel MacDonald Building which stood on the site of a number of small businesses. However it is the other changes that really show up  how much the city has changed in a short period.

About a quarter of the photos are of Water Street and below and it is here that the most change can be seen. A whole class of businesses which once occupied the area have disappeared – businesses that belonged on the waterfront because of the shipping and later the railway access with the Lower Water Street spur extending to Pownal Street. Wholesalers like Deblois Brothers, Clark Fruit and Carvells, bulk goods sellers such as Phillips Feed Service and Pickard’s Coal Yard and what passed in Charlottetown for heavy industry – MacDonald – Rowe Woodworking and Bruce Stewart’s Foundry and Machine Shop.

Macdonald002For those interested in the waterfront this book is a testament to how much has been lost. The whole Coast Guard / Department of Transport infrastructure which dated back to Confederation and which was the centre of port activity is now simply gone.  MacDonald senior’s pictures do not paint a pretty picture. The wharves are crumbling, the buildings unpainted and boarded up and the rail lines are rusted but as long as they were still in view the waterfront was real.  Now it is for the tourists and a somewhat ersatz presentation it is.

Macdonald003The pages contrast the then and now of each location with the occasional archival photo showing the area in the 19th century.  These 1970s and 2010s photos are good documentary records and Scott MacDonald has done his homework in identifying the buildings and businesses.

Away from the waterfront I was reminded by the photos of the large number of automobile related businesses that have either disappeared or moved out of the centre of town.  Car dealers such as Wendall Barbour on Euston Street and F.R. McLaine in Grafton Street, parts and service providers like Batt & MacRae next to MacLaine’s Plymouth dealership. Capital Auto on Kent Street and Whitlock Tire beside Holman’s Parking lot, and then there are the disappearing service stations – at the corner of Prince and Grafton, midway though the block across Queen Street from City Hall and across from the Law Courts and now the abandoned Shell Station at the corner of Great George and Euston.

The buildings which have disappeared often had a certain down-at-the-heel character and not all would have fired the architectural historians passions (although there was an unrecognized mid-19th century gem at the North East corner of Queen and Kent replaced by a nondescript commercial block now housing the Post Office).  To be fair, not all of the disappearances are from developer’s greed. The Queen Hotel and a row of buildings on Grafton Street are shown in flames and there a number of buildings which were abandoned and falling down.  However, the overall impression of the changes does not accrue to the creativity and sympathy of the architectural profession.

The volume is published by Acorn Press who have done much to help tell Island stories. It sells for $19.95.  Buy this book!