Tag Archives: winter navigation

A very bad poem on very thick Ice

Idealized vision of the Northern Light “surging and smashing” on its way from Pictou to Georgetown.  Illustration: Picturesque Canada 1879.

By no stretch of the imagination could the steamer Northern Light be termed a success. Although much had been promised by the designer and builder of Canada’s first icebreaker at the time of its launch in 1876, it was spectacular in the degree to which it failed to meet expectations.  However coming on the heels of an even greater failure – the steamer Albert – it could still be seen as an improvement.  It appears that when it worked it worked relatively well and the vessel had its fans. Something is better than nothing. As an alternative to the risky iceboat service on the Capes route, spending a day or even a few days pinched in a floe was a burden that could be borne. If the ice and wind conditions were good the passage from Pictou to Georgetown could take as little as four hours. And, unlike the iceboat you didn’t have to help pull the boat.

The following glowing testimonial was the result of a rare four hour trip on 5 January 1884. Experience would show that in most years by mid-January the ice buildup would be so difficult that the steamer would be kept in port for weeks on end. Perhaps it was the rarity of the speedy crossing that inspired to unidentified passenger-poet to put pen to paper. Stealing the meter of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s * “Charge of the LIght Brigade”  he (or perhaps she) recorded the passage of the Northern Light which they had termed “an impatient war horse” across the Strait.

The poem is best when read out loud whilst striking a dramatic pose and making the most of the rhythm of the meter.

  The “Northern Light”

Ice to the  Right of her,
Ice to the Left of her,
Ice to the Front of her,
Surging and smashing.

On the bold steamer goes,
On through the mighty floes,
On with terrific blows,
Shivering and crashing.

Up on the turret high,
Scanning with eager eye,
Watching the dangers nigh,
Stands the brave master.

There too, the Pilot stands,
Grasping the tiller bands,
Waiting his chief’s commands,
To “slow” or go “faster.”

Down in her hold below,
Down under ice and snow,
Down where the fires do glow,
Roaring and hissing:

There, two men watch and gaze,
Watch as the engine plays,
Watch at the mighty maze,
Not a thing missing!

Was there a heart dismay’d,
Was there a man afraid,
Was there a man that said,
“She’d never go through it?”

Not one to reason why,
All there, to do or die,
All there to work and try,
Yes; if they knew it.

Right through the mass she goes,
Up high the ice she throws,
Staggering at all the blows,
Pounding and crashing.

Oh! How we danced and cheered
When past the dangers feared
When our Island we had neared
As on we came rushing.

Having left Pictou at 2 p.m. with freight and twenty passengers the passage must have been unimpeded because the vessel arrived in Georgetown at 6 p.m. and passengers were quickly bustled into the waiting Northern Light Express train for the trip to Charlottetown. Later in the season the “impatient war horse” might better be described as a “reluctant plow horse” as it spent much of the next three months stabled at the railway wharf in Georgetown waiting for the ice the begin to break up.

The Northern Light at the board ice. Pictou Harbour was not infrequentdly impoossible to reach and the ship had to moor at the edge of the ice attached to the shore. Passengers, freight, coal and the mails would be ferried by sleigh out to the ship, sometimes four or five miles from shore. Illustration: Harper’s Weekly 21 Febraury 1885.

  • Tennyson was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom and his works were often parodied. Another PEI link to Tennyson was the house of the Lowden family on Dundas Esplanade, now the Haviland Club and for many years the U.S. Consulate. The house was named “Farringford” which was the name of Tennyson’s residence on the Isle of Wight.

Readers of the blog may be interested in additions which have been made to a number of posts as the result of further rersearch. A note of an early navigational light at the harbour entrance has been added to the history of Blockhouse Point found here. This new information suggests that the light here may pre-date the 1845 lighthouse at Point Prim. More details have emerged regarding the building of the Pownal Street wharf and the revised entry can be found here.