Tag Archives: wreck

Henry Aitken to the rescue

From his house just above the village of Pownal Nathaniel Gay had a fine view out over the low shores of Crown Point and out into Pownal Bay towards Governors Island. On Tuesday morning 28 September 1875 after a night in which the wind blew particularly hard he spotted a vessel stranded on the reef running east from the Island. What made the sight more urgent was that he was able to see men clinging to the rigging as the gale force winds from the West North West tore at the grounded ship.

Chart of Governors Island and Pownal Bay 1869. To reach the Mary Kate on the east reef of the Island the Henry Aitken would have had to go around the Island to the south to avoid the Squaw Point reef.

There was nothing he could do from the shore and the few boats which might be found at Pownal Wharf or along the shore were too small to be of any assistance so he headed along the Georgetown Road towards Charlottetown seven miles to the ferry at Southport where he likely would have had to wait for a boat. He crossed the Hillsborough River and raised the alarm with officials in the city.  Luckily the tug Henry Aitken  was tied to the dock and its owner William Batt readily agreed to attempt to get to the wreck although seas were running high and the gale blowing full force.  The Henry Aitken was an almost new vessel having been built by William H. Batt and launched in the fall of 1874. However as it sat at dockside the tug was low on coal and lacked a boat suitable to get to the wreck which was in shallow waters which the Henry Aitken could not safely enter. Coaling of the steamer began immediately and enquiries were made for a boat.  Both the Princess of Wales and the St. Lawrence of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company were in dock at the time but there was confusion about a lifeboat as the captain of the passenger steamer was concerned about an unknown crew manning the lifeboat. In the delay a boat was secured from Peake Bros.  Five volunteers came forward from those on the wharf at the time and together with the tug’s Captain Robertson, Frank Batt, William Batt, Richard Hayes and Nathaniel Gay  set out on their dangerous mission.  It was now three o’clock, Many hours having passed without an update on the shipwrecked crew, while Nathaniel Gay made his way to town and the time it took for coaling and preparation. No one was certain that the crew of the stricken vessel had been able to stay aboard, or if the vessel was still afloat.

The Henry Aitken was 60 feet long and displaced 38 tons and she had a powerful engine but even she struggled with the conditions. As they left the limited shelter of the harbour waves broke over the tug and water poured through the hatches. Captain Robertson kept two pumps steadily at work and still had to resort to bailing to keep the waters from quenching the fires. The lifeboat in tow was swamped three times by the seas and had to be recovered and emptied. The Henry Aitken approached as close as the captain dared and the lifeboat was launched. The volunteers pulled towards the wreck with alacrity and were able to haul aboard the crew of the schooner who had been lashed to the rigging to prevent being swept into the raging seas.

As with many small coasting vessels there was a small crew with only four aboard; Edward Walsh, the master, two crew, Alex Hamilton and Patrick Kirwin, and a ship’s boy George Wood. All were exhausted, especially the boy, from having been exposed on the endangered ship without shelter but they began to recover once aboard the tug, which immediately began its return to the safety of the harbour, reaching the wharf about seven in the evening. The vessel was the Mary Kate bound inwards from Cape Breton with a cargo of limestone. She was little different from the dozens of small vessels which kept Charlottetown supplied with bulk cargos such as limestone and coal and carried away Island produce to nearby ports.  The name was common and there were several Mary Kates that visited Charlottetown in the early 1870s. One was owned in Charlottetown by W.W. Lord and D. Miller but it is not clear if this was the one which came to grief on Governors Reef.

The report of the incident in the Patriot newspaper concluded; “Too much cannot be said in praise of the brave men who risked their lives on that wild evening to succor their fellow-creatures in distress and we trust that they may receive a substantial reward for their gallant conduct.”

The storm was not the disaster that other storms such as the August gale of 1873* had been but several vessels were reported ashore in Egmont Bay and near Seacow Head and on the Nova Scotia shore.

The following year the Dominion government paid William Batt a reward of $150 for the use of the tug and hire of eight men to rescue the crew of the Mary Kate while the government also paid to clothe the shipwrecked sailors and pay their passage home. The Henry Aitken continued to provide tug and steamer services in the harbour of Charlottetown and in Northumberland Strait until 1889 when she was broken up and taken off the shipping register.

*An excellent account of storms during the period can be found in Ed MacDonald’s “The August Gale and the Arc of Memory on Prince Edward Island” in The Island Magazine Number 56 Fall/Winter 2004

 

A Tramp Steamer out of Charlottetown

One of Prince Edward Island’s myths is that with the decline of wooden shipbuilding in the 1860s the province suddenly became a mercantile backwater. There were small schooners servicing smaller ports, especially where rails did not run, well into the mid-20th century but with few exceptions such as the Ocean Steamships S.S. Prince Edward and the Steam Navigation Company’s S.S. Summerside, Islanders failed to embrace the change from wood and wind to iron, steel and steam.

Like most generalizations this has a good deal of truth in it. However, there were exceptions and the experience of the S.S. William is an example of Islanders bucking the trend.  The steamer William, unlike local coastal boats like the Harland, City of London, and Electra was not a regular visitor to outports and did not possess a faithful following of farmers and excursionists.  She was part of a larger fleet of tramp steamers which went where there were cargos and carried anything that would pay the bills. For some she was simply a tired old steamer but for others she was as essential as rail cars and tractor trailers are today, carrying cargos of produce and cattle away from the Island and bringing back the coal and general goods that the Island needed.

The William was a small ship as steamers go, just 120 feet long and 20 wide and registered at 210 tons. And she was well used before she came to the Island. Built on the Tyne in 1876 she was a coal carrier sailing out of Bristol. After a dozen years in the British Isles she was “sold foreign” and came to Prince Edward Island. Her new owners were Donald Farquharson a Charlottetown merchant and MLA (and later premier) and Captain Ronald McMillan who had a coal yard on the Charlottetown waterfront as well as West River connections.

She reached the Island in May 1888 and was immediately put into service.  Unlike the arrival of new passenger steamers the new vessel in the harbour attracted little notice as she began an irregular service. In 1888 she visited Boston carrying potatoes, Cow Bay  (now Port Merion) Cape Breton picking up coal for the Island, Pictou, Mulgrave and other small ports  including Pownal. She solicited freight shipments to Boston or Montreal or cattle bound for St. John’s Newfoundland. Coming to the Island she usually had general goods or coal. 1889 trips included a delivery of 60 head of cattle from Stanley Bridge to St. Pierre and Newfoundland, shipments of coal from Sydney to Stanley Bridge, potatoes and produce to Boston and New York, and at least one trip to Montreal with general cargo.

Without surviving records it is difficult to know if the venture was profitable. Clearly one of the partners in the business had concerns. In May 1890 evidence was heard in Chancery Court where Donald Farquharson brought an action against Capt. Ronald McMillan, the managing partner, claiming that the steamer had not been managed in a careful and prudent manner and asking that the court appoint a new manager and have the accounts reviewed and disallow expenses.  The court however found that there had been no mis-management.  The action obviously suggested the lack of a harmonious partnership. The year had not been kind to the William as she required a new boiler and only weeks later she struck hard on Tormentine Reef on a voyage with coal from Sydney to Miramichi and had to be beached to prevent her from sinking. That may have ended her work for the season as she was hauled up on the hard in Charlottetown for extensive repairs including replacement of several broken hull plates and re-riveting of the ship from stem to stern, a job which kept eleven men employed for the whole winter. These were serious financial issues and led late in the year to an Admiralty Court action by the crew for unpaid wages. This resulted to a seizure and sale of the vessel. By early December ownership was in the hands of Captain Ronald McMillan and his brother Hugh from New Haven.

Re-launched in April of 1891 she returned to itinerant voyages to and from the Island with potatoes, produce coal and what ever other cargo she could secure. In June she carried 7,300 cases of lobster to New York, the largest shipment ever made by a single shipper. The end of that year was also the end of the McMillan Brothers William. The William was lost on the rocky shores of St. Pierre on 28 December and one unfortunate seaman lost his life. Seven others were saved by St. Pierre fishermen who were later rewarded for their actions by the Government of Canada – $3.00 each for 15 fishermen.

The experience with the William did not necessarily serve as a cautionary tale. The steamer was not Farquharson’s only shipping venture. In 1889 he had purchased a Clyde-built vessel, the 150 foot iron screw steamer Coila and it seems to have operated in competition with McMillan through 1891. The Coila was lost off Cuba in 1896.  After that there seems to have been little appetite on the Island for coastal vessel operations. Tramp steamers would come and go from Charlottetown harbour for decades to come but they would be owned and registered elsewhere.