Strait Steamers on Cards

One of the more popular areas for topical postcard collection is the depiction of ships on cards. While the ports of Prince Edward Island were hardly major destinations for steamers the fact of being an island meant a dependence on vessels for connection to the mainland and there are a number of interesting cards showing these essential vessels.

One group of cards centres on the unique needs of the province for “continuous steam communication” sought by the Island Government in 1873 as a condition for confederation. The struggle for links across the winter ice-bound Strait of Northumberland gave rise to a series of ice-breaking steamers and later car-ferries whose images are captured on early postcards. Ships such as the Stanley, Minto and Earl Grey are frequently shown imprisoned in the ice. The irony is that many of these cards were sent by summer visitors who had no direct knowledge of the difficulty and boredom of the winter passage.

These tourists and residents were much more likely to have reached the Island on one of the ships of the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company which provided service while the strait was ice-free, usually between April and December of each year. The Company had been incorporated in 1890 but was successor to the Prince Edward Island Steam Navigation Company, formed in 1863, and so had a near-monopoly for decades before the postcard boom.

One of the earliest cards showing Steam Navigation Company steamers was one printed in Summerside by the Journal Publishing Company

At the turn of the 20th century the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company had two vessels; the S.S. Northumberland, launched in 1891 and the S.S. Princess, built five years later.  Increased passenger travel and freight led to the sale of the Princess in 1905 and the launch a new vessel, the S.S. Empress the same year. The Northumberland normally served the Charlottetown-Pictou route while the Empress travelled between Summerside and Point de Chene  New Brunswick. Schedules of both vessels were linked to railway timetables to provide good communication to Halifax, Boston and Montreal. On my companion marine history blog, Sailstrait, I have provided details about the Princess, Northumberland, and Empress.

Although the Princess may well have been the subject of a postcard as it was still in the service in 1905 I have not been able to find any examples and indeed any photographs of the vessel are scarce. This was not the case with regard to the Northumberland and the Empress.

Although built fifteen years apart the two ships were of a similar appearance and size. Indeed, as shown below, in at least one case a card shows one ship incorrectly identified as the other. A clue to help determine the correct identification may be found by examining the smoke patterns of the two ships in the galleries below. One additional key to sorting them out is that the Empress had more lifeboats than the Northumberland.

Anticipation at Summerside P.E.I. Photo by W.S. Louson, Garden of the Gulf Series. Warwick Bros. & Rutter card#2620

Almost all the major publishers that had cards of Prince Edward Island had at least one showing a ship of the Charlottetown Steam Navigation Company and some publishers such as Valentine and Warwick & Rutter had images of both. Often the cards drew on the same photographic imagery although the photographer is not identified – with one exception. The Summerside image of the Empress at dock is noted as a W.S. Louson image on a Warwick Bros. & Rutter card and although the ship is not identified in his card titled “Anticipation” the Empress was the steamer servicing the Prince County port.

“S.S. Empress” Summerside, P.E. Island C.& Co. [Carter]
The identification is confirmed by a Carter & Co. “red letter” series card showing the same scene and undoubtedly taken at the same time (there are differences in the placement of the boy fishing and the spectator). These two cards are also an excellent illustration of the different treatment given to similar images by publishers. Title, cropping and most particularly shading, clarity and colour can result in cards that initially appear to be quite different  but in reality are almost identical.

An action photo of the Empress steaming is the most commonly seen image as it is used in cards from at least three publishers. Indeed Warwick Bros. & Rutter uses the same image on two cards with different titles. The image is also used on a card by McCoy Publishing and another produced for Maddigan.

Publishers with Northumberland Strait steamer cards to their credit include Kennedy, McLellan, McCoy, Maddigan, Valentine, Journal Print, Pugh, Stedman and Warwick & Rutter. I have been able to find only one card showing both vessels, the Stedman card #2572 probably published for J.D. Taylor and shown to the right.

The cards depicted in  following galleries do not exhaust the possible varieties of Northumberland Strait steamer cards but offer a representative sampling of the cards most often seen. Clicking on any of the cards will show an enlarged image.

Cards showing the S.S. Northumberland


Cards showing the S.S. Empress

The activity of the two vessels coincided with the golden age of the postcard. With the beginning of the ice-breaking rail-car ferry service in 1917 both ships were sold and the company wound up. Henceforth postcards detailed the loading, unloading and sailings of the S.S. Prince Edward Island and her successors.

Postcard of the Northumberland on Lake Ontario after WWI.

Both of these vessels continued to be the subject of postcards after they left Prince Edward Island waters. The Northumberland sailed on Lake Ontario until destroyed by fire after World War II and there are many cards showing the vessel. An excellent history of her life on the lake can be found here. The Empress was put on the Saint John to Digby route across the Bay of Fundy and there are a number cards of her in this role.

As always, I would be interested of learning of other postcards which show the Northumberland Strait steamers, especially the Princess.




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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