A Lobster Factory – Somewhere on Prince Edward Island

Normally postcards depict the visual delights available to visitors. On Prince Edward Island it is unusual for a card to show images of the primary industries. While agricultural scenes may abound it is because of the landscape views which include farms and animals. Prolific Island photographer W.S. Louson was particularly active in depicting what would be much later captured in the tourism slogan – “The Gentle Island”.

Also missing in many Louson photos are people, and if they are present at all they seem to appear simply as props.  The fishing industry lacked the landscape appeal of a rolling farmstead and is even less well-served by early postcard images. One of the few exceptions is a Louson card which appears in the Toronto publisher Warwick Bros. & Rutter group which I have referred to as the sepia series. This is an unusual style of photo for Louson as the focus of the image is the dozen or so workers, posed with arms folded or hands behind backs.

Lobster Factory and Crew. Warwick Bros. & Rutter card # 5253. Photo by W.S. Louson.

This card from an unidentified location shows the workers in a lobster factory appearing in front of their worksite.  Lobster factories, or canning plants, were ubiquitous to the coastal areas of the province. The canning of lobsters had begun in the 1850s but it was not until twenty years later that the activity became an industry. Changes in improved canning methods and  fishing techniques, as well as the development of export markets led to a lobster boom. By the close of the nineteenth century it had grown to include 2,353 boats and 4,655 men engaged in the fishery. They pulled over 283,000 traps with a yield of 2,420,000 pounds of lobster.  Almost all of this lobster went to the 240 lobster factories scattered around the provinces coast.

The factories were cheap to build and cheaply built. Often located on sand spits or beaches most were temporary structures in use for only a few weeks a year. Larger operations included cookhouses for the lobster, bunkhouses for the staff, a kitchen, can-making plant and storage sheds for traps and equipment. The factories provided one of the few opportunities for rural women to work outside the home and provided income beyond the chicken and egg production of rural farms.  Because of the short season work at the lobster factory was easily added to the variety of rural occupations.

Unfortunately Louson’s postcard titled “Lobster Factory and Crew” does not have  a location and so seemed to be consigned to the growing list of postcards simply recorded as “scene”.

However I was recently reviewing the holdings of Louson photos at the Public Archives and Records Office in preparation for an upcoming exhibition.  I had looked at this collection before in hopes of finding the original photos of some of the Louson postcard scenes but had had little success.

Canning Factory, Grahams Creek, ca. 1905. Public Archives and Records Office, Louson Fonds. 3466/73.373.161

What I did find was a photo which was from the same time and place. This time the whole building was shown and the assembled crew was posed differently but it was undoubtedly taken the same day. While the photo is not of the same quality as the one used for the post card it may be a better documentary item.

Best of all it had a location noted – Graham’s Creek.  Alan Rayburn’s Geographical Names of Prince Edward Island notes a Grahams Creek in Lot 22 on the eastern shore of New London Bay, inside the Cavendish sandspit.  However, something about this location didn’t seem right. For one thing, although on the shore of the bay it was far from the lobster grounds and factories were built as close as possible to the grounds to enable the sail and oar fishermen to tend their traps.

On the eastern shore of the Island, Graham’s Pond in Lot 63 between Gaspereaux and Launching looked to be a better candidate. A newspaper search revealed that the two terms were used interchangeably. Graham’s Pond has a lobster factory to this day.

Many group photos of lobster factory exist and some even have the individuals identified.  Perhaps in a family album or scrapbook there is a copy of one of the two photos which will rescue the workers of the Graham’s Creek factory from the anonymity imposed the passage of a century.  No longer simply a “scene” we have found the place. It would be nice to know the people.

Author: sailstrait

I am an archivist, historian and small boat sailor. Over the years have built several small boats, the most recent of which was a Medway Skiff. Since 2011 I have been skipper of "Ebony", a 1982 Halman 20. I sail in Northumberland Strait between Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Member of the Charlottetown Yacht Club, PEI Sailing Association and the Northumberland Strait Yachting Association. I have also an interest in the history of the Charlottetown Yacht Club, Charlottetown Harbour, Northumberland Strait and the vessels that have sailed there over the years.

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