Seasonal Rarities – P.E.I.’s Iceboat Postcards

If there is one commonality between current postcards of Prince Edward Island and those created prior to the Great War it is scarcity of images taken in winter. The postcard collector might be excused if, based on the subject matter of the cards, they though that there were only three seasons on the Island – summer, spring and fall – and very little of the latter two.

Winter scenes are scarce if not rare. Even with the photographic advances with dry-plate negatives, winter photography could be difficult. While winter photos of Prince Edward Island are not common, postcards with winter scenes are even less so. With only a few exceptions those photographs that can be found mainly show ice-bound winter steamers.

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Crossing Northumberland Strait by Ice Boats. Warwick Bros. & Rutter postcard #2675. This images was probably taken close to shore where the ice was pushed by the tide changes up on the Island shores. This card was also published in an uncoloured edition.

As an island in the northern latitudes the winter posed unusual challenges for transportation and the bulk of visitors (and postcard purchasers) never experienced the barrier that the Strait became in winter. From Confederation in 1873 until near the end of the Great War Prince Edward Island’s relations with the Dominion Government seemed to follow a predictable pattern. The Island would complain that the Confederation promise of continuous steam communication was not being met by Ottawa. A new and more powerful steamer built to tackle the ice would be promised and eventually built. The steamer would fail the test posed by Northumberland Strait’s tide-packed ice. The Island would complain. Another steamer would be built and then another and another. Some of the most attractive postcards of the period are shots of these vessels in the icy grip of winter, stuck between Prince Edward Island and the mainland.   An account of the steamer passage in winter can be found on the Sailstrait blog site.

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Ice Boat service from P.E.I. to Mainland. Haszard & Moore postcard. This card more accurately depicts the struggles to wrestle the boats across the uneven ice surface.

At the same time a unique and more interesting mode of transportation was forced on the Island. The nine mile distance between Cape Tormentine in New Brunswick and Cape Traverse on the Island was the shortest passage across the strait although the fast running tidal currents could also create towering ice-jams. In the mid 1880s the ice-boat service which had begun as contracted passage of the mails was improved by the Dominion government following a disaster on the ice which saw passengers and crew marooned on the ice by storm conditions.  As the passage of the strait was seldom a simple stroll across the ice the boats had to contend with open water, slush, slurry, small ice cakes, floes, pans and board ice.  Using a locally-developed design special ice-boats had been developed. The heavy boats had two iron runners on the boat bottom so that the boats could be hauled and pushed across both flat ice pans and wrestled over pressure ridges with the crew linked to the boats by leather straps which allowed them to pull but also served as a primitive safety mechanism when they slipped or fell through the ice. As well the boats had to be seaworthy to cross open water that might exist almost the whole distance one day and disappear the next.  Professional ice-boat crews manned these boats.  However the addition of passenger traffic to the handling of the mails introduced a new element. There was a two tier pricing system. A premium price allowed the passenger to sit in the boat all the way across battling the bitter cold. A lesser price required the passenger to help haul the boat, usually at some considerable risk of getting wet.

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Striking Board Ice, Crossing at the Capes from Prince Edward Island to the Mainland. Warwick Bros. & Rutter postcard #2669. Board ice is the ice which attaches to the shore and is not normally moved by wind and tide. In this image open water can be seen beyond the boats.

To date I have found only three postcard images of the iceboat crossing.  Two are carefully posed photos, quite possibly taken by W.S. Louson and used on Warwick Bros. & Rutter cards printed in Toronto.  The other was printed in Belgium and published under the Haszard & Moore imprint. This is more of an action shot and is a rare image in itself as it shows the small sails which were sometimes used when conditions allowed.

Even after more powerful ice-worthy steamers were developed the ice boats were called on from time to time as the ships did not always battle with the ice successfully.  The service did not end until 1917 when the powerful railcar ferry S.S. Prince Edward Island began service at the Capes. The iceboat postcards soon became images of an obsolete response to the winter isolation of Prince Edward Island.

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