Tag Archives: Water Street

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!