BELL ISLAND FERRIES OF FORMER YEARS

By Addison Bown

At the inaugural ceremony of the new ferry, "John Guy," on Wednesday, August 24, reference was made to some of the earlier ferries on the Bell Island-Portugal Cove service, Certain name were mentioned but the list given was not complete. For the sake of the record an attempt is made here to set down the story of the ships that have plied the Tickle over the years since Bell Island became a busy mining community.

Before mining began on the Island in the year 1890,’ its population was very small, numbering only a few hundred families. The people lived by farming and fishing. Since a number of them owned their own boats, they made periodical trips to the. local mainland with produce and brought back needed supplies. A service was maintained for 60 years before mining began by Matthew and William Jackman. The former died in 1907 at the age of 98 years most of which he had spent running the mail across the Tickle in a punt before steamers made their appearance in the early 1900s. His son William carried on for many years afterwards as mail courier between the Front and the Mines.

The first ferry of which there is mention after the start of mining was the steam ship Pundit owned by H. Blatch of St. Johns. During the fall of 1895 and the winter of 1895 when the Scotia Company was building its first shipping pier, this launch was hired to tow logs from Kelligrews to the pier. With the completion of the charter it was fitted out with seats for the accommodation of passengers. A petition was later presented in the House of Assembly asking for a subsidy for this boat. It carried His Excellency Governor Murray -the first governor to pay an official visit to the Island on August 5, 1897. Two other steam launches, the Swallow and the Jennie Foote, were also recorded as being in the local service in 1896.

There is also mention that year of the Lady Glover carrying freight to the Island from St. John’s. She was one of the famous line of packets that plied on Conception Bay between Portugal Cove and the North Shore towns-Hr. Grace and Carbonear-before there was a road around the bay. The Lady Glover was also mentioned in 1899 when she was engaged by the mining company to transship to Bell island from St. John’s a quantity of machinery brought in on the Grand Lake.

In 1899 representations were made to the government that the launch plying between Bell Island and Portugal Cove should be changed for a larger one as it was too frail to operate during the fall and winter months. It will be seen from this that the present generation of Bell Islanders were not the first to complain about the quality of the service. They learned it at their parents knees.

A tug named the Favourite was in the service of the mining company in 1899 and brought officials to the island to inspect the ore property at the time of the sale of part of the area by Nova Steel and Coal to Dominion Iron and Steel.

It was reported that year that a new Ferry was under construction in New Glasgow made from ore mined at Bell Island. This was the launch Wabana owned by the N.S.S. & C Company. She was engaged running between the Island and Kelligrews in 1920. That was the year of the famous strike which was settled on neutral ground when management and workmen signed what was known as "the Treaty of Kelligrews.

Between Bell Island and Kelligrews there was a close connection in those early days. The ferries for many years after 1900 made it their regular port of call in order to connect with the trains to and from St. John’s. Mail and passengers traveled mainly by the route while freight was brought around Cape St. Francis from the capital. An excursion from St. John’s by train to Kelligrews and by steamer to Bell Island cost one dollar round trip.

The first steamer made its appearance on the Tickle in the summer of 1901. This was the Greyhound which plied three times a day between Bell Island, Portugal Cove, Broad Cove and Kelligrews. She was withdrawn from the local service in the following year and used to run supplies to Pilley’s Island in Green Bay where a prosperous mining industry was then in progress.

Broad Cove (or St. Phillips as we now know it) was the scene of annual regattas in those years with crews from Bell Island, Lance cove, Topsail, Horse Cove and Portugal Cove competing against the men of Broad Cove. Bell Island held its own regatta for the first time in 1903.

That year was also noteworthy because of the appearance on the local scene of the well-known ferry S.S. Progress. She was owned and operated originally by the Progress Steamship Company and the Angel Engineering and Steamship Company. The Bell Island Steamship Company was formed in the following year, consisting of J.B. Martin, pioneer merchant of Bell Island; George Neal of St. John’s and Capt. J.C. Colbourne, then pier superintendent with Dom. Iron and Steel. The Progress was the first ferry acquired by this company, which was to display its house flag -a red bell on a white ground- on the waters of Conception Bay until the end of 1905.

The Progress sailed every Tuesday from Pitt’s wharf in St. John’s with freight for Bell Island, and on other days she made the round trip from the Island to Kelligrews, connecting with trains and mails to and from St. John’s. Later she began making fortnightly trips to Harbour Grace.

In 1906 there is mention of a smaller steamer the Nereus which was purchased from the Horwood Lumber Company by Capt. Bartlett of Bell Island for use in the local passenger service. She was taken off the Tickle in the fall of 1909 and was lost soon afterwards off the Narrows with two fishermen from St. John’s named Wm. Frampton and Alex Forward.

Another famous name made its appearance in local shipping circles in the summer of 1907. S. S. Mary was purchased in Quebec by the Bell Island Steamship Company and used at first as a freighter between St. John’s and the Island. When she arrived off the Beach in August that year with her first cargo she was too big to berth at the public wharf and the freight had to be discharged in boats and lighters. The Mary replaced the Progress on the Tickle in September when the latter went to St. John’s fore refit." The strict marine regulations of those days required passenger vessels to be inspected and over-hauled every six months. The Mary was licensed to carry 60 passengers.

In the winter of 1909 came the first mention of freight being taken over to the Island by steamers from Portugal Cove. The Mary was laid up in St. John’s at the end of January and freight for the island had to be sent to the Cove from which it was taken over by the Progress. Usually all shipments were made by sea around Cape St. Francis except when the recurring ice blockades enabled local residents to drive their horses across the Tickle and into St. John’s.

A new name made its appearance that year with the coming of S.S. Matilda. Owned by W.J. Scott, J.P., of Fogo and licensed to carry 34 passengers, she plied for a time between Bell Island, Topsail, Portugal Cove and Harbour Grace. Thus in the early part of 1909 there is a record of four craft in the service; Progress, Mary, Nereus and Matilda.

In spite of the number of ferries, complaints continued in those years over the quality of the service. Politicians were not backward in coming forward to take advantage of the situation. One of the famous teams of Kent, Shea and Dwyer came up with his own solution of the transportation difficulties. He brought down the house at a campaign rally when he solemnly promised to build a causeway between the island and the mainland.

In March, 1910, a St. John’s company of which Frank McNamara was the managing director purchased the steamer Euphrates to ply between St. John’s and ports in Conception Bay. She became very well known in local shipping circles over the following years. Mails and passengers were still being conveyed from Kelligrews to the island by way of Broad Cove and Portugal Cove. The public wharf at the Beach was inadequate and the steamers frequently had to go to the nearest company pier and passengers were often obliged to walk up hundreds of steps to the top of the cliff.

The winter of 1911 brought an addition to Frank McNamara’s "fleet" with the purchase of S.S.O. Othar from Crosbie and Company. She was engaged from then on in the local service in competition with the Bell Island Steamship Company. The Othar was formerly a whaler like the Progress and the Mary. She replaced the Euphrates for a time when she lost her propeller of Kelligrews in April, 1911.

The mail subsidy at that time was $2,800 a year and fares over the Cove road by carriage were $4.00 round trip. Fares on the Reid Nfld. Railway between St. John’s and Kelligrews and through to Bell Island were $1.25 first class,95 cents second class. Miners were then earning $1.45 for a ten hour day.

In December 1911, the Bell Island Steamship Company purchased the French trawler Raisine for the freight service between the capital and the island.

Transportation over the Beach Hill was revolutionized in 1913 with the building of a tramway by a new company which received a 50-year franchise. They undertook the construction of a large wharf at the Beach and a Tram road over the hill. Cars were hoisted and lowered on the tracks by cables operated by a steam hoist at the top.

The first sod for the tramway was turned by the Governor, Sir Walter Davidson in April1913, and the first load of passengers and freight was carried over the hill in November. Up to that time freight had to be hauled laboriously by horses up the steep hill. Passengers from then on were carried up or down for a ten-cent fare by the Bell Island Transportation Company.

1913 also saw the first motor bus in operation on Portugal cove road. It was run by the St. John’s Transportation Company of which R.G. Silverlock was manager. The first motor car for the transportation of passengers was operated on the road in 1911 by Joseph Gosine.

Another freighter - S.S. Hawk - was running a service to the Beach and Lance Cove from Bowrings’ wharf in 1913.

The rival companies operating on the Tickle shared honours in the transportation of the first volunteers to leave Bell Island to fight in the Great War. On September 1, 1914, 25 men from Bell Island left for Kelligrews on S.S. Mary. The tide was too low to enable her to dock at that place and the passengers were transferred to the Othar. Proceeding to St. John’s by train the first B.I. contingent marched down Water St. to the Seamen’s Institute and from there to Pleasantville.

In 1916 the Port Saunders was in the local service and was sold at the end of that year to a Norwegian firm for whaling.

 The Bell Island Steamship Company absorbed the Euphrates Steamship Company in 1918. The veteran Progress had been withdrawn from the service by that time and the Company was then operating the Mary, Euphrates and Othar.

At the end of 1920 these three were diminished by one with the loss of Euphrates. The ship left Bell Island for St. John’s on December 28th with her captain and five men on board and was reported overdue two days later. On January 2, S.S. Galileo reported to Cape Race that she had picked up the crew of the sinking trawler many miles out in the Atlantic after she had been driven to sea in a storm. The Mary and the Othar carried on.

In the winter of 1922 the Mary went on a two weeks cruise in search of seals with her captain and a crew of eight. She lost her propeller in the ice but managed to reach Catalina under sail and was towed from there to St. John’s by the Cabot.

In June that year S.S. Pawnee arrived in St. John’s and was fitted up for the Conception Bay service. A former yacht, she had been used as a patrol boat and ice-breaker by the American government during the war and was the fastest steamer to be used in the local service up to that time. The veteran Captain LeDrew of the Othar went in command of the ship. The Pawnee ran daily from Carbonear and Harbour Grace to Bell Island and Portugal Cove.

The Mary 1aid the first telephone cable between Bell Island and Portugal Cove in the fall of 1923.

S.S. Wop under Captain Bourne came into the freighting picture in 1927. Her sister ship, S.S. H.A. Walker, was acquired by the B.I. Steamship Company and in the winter of 1928 was plying the Tickle with the Mary whenever the conditions permitted. The Winchester, a cabin cruiser built in 1920 by the Canadian government, was brought into the passenger service in the summer of 1927 by Albert Mercer who ran between the Island and St. Phillip’s.

The ferries were not fitted for transporting motor cars in those years and were charging $10 each to carry them as freight. The Pawnee was fitted up at Harbour Grace in the winter of 1928 to carry two cars on her deck. However, she did not remain long in the service after that as she was withdrawn in the fall after a series of breakdowns on the Bay.

The Pawnee returned to the service again in May, 1929, for a short time but had to be replaced by S.S. H.A. Walker. The Squires Government was considering a revolutionary step at that time, namely to build a car ferry for the Tickle service.

During the winter of 1928-29 there was mention of the Walter Kennedy being engaged in the freight service between St. John’s and the Island. S.S. Mary ended her days in November 1929, when she drove ashore at Ship Cove, Port de Grave, during a storm. A new freight steamer, S.S. Mary Smith, arrived in the summer of 1930. The Wop was engaged that Spring in taking soundings between St. Phillips and the Island for two submarine cables to convey hydro across the Tickle for the mines. They were laid in November for the Nfld. Light and Power Company by the cable ship Cyrus Field.

In September, 1930, the government announced through the through the member for Bell Island, J.M. Greene, that a contract had been signed with the B.I. Steamship Company for the building of a new steamer. The ship was to be 120 feet long by 20 feet wide, having deck space for five motor vehicles, the cost of the vessel to be $50,0OO. The keel was laid down at Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia in January, 1931 and the Maneco. as she was called, first went into service on July 1st that year.

The Maneco under the command of Captain Colbourne and later Captain Saunders plied the waters of Conception Bay for nearly quarter of a century. No other ferry before or since ‘was so popular with the Bell Island public as this reliable ship which in her long and honourable career was signally honored on two occasions by being chosen to carry royalty from Portugal Cove.

The older boats were gradually dropping out one by one. The H.A. Walker and her sister ship the Wop, were both lost in the winter of 1938. Supplies for their branch store at the Beach were carried for W and J Moores of Carbonear by their two freight boats M.V. Lincoln and the O.K. Service.

Several small boats were engaged in transporting passengers across the Tickle in the late thirties. Those included the Three Sisters, the Garland ant the Golden Dawn. The last two were involved in a collision off Bell Island Beach on November 19, 1940, resulting in a terrible marine tragedy that took 22 lives.

At the end of the Second World War (1945) the Kipawa, which had served in local waters during the war, was placed in operation by the Terra Nova Transportation Company and ran on the Tickle in competition with the Maneco until the latter was withdrawn from the service in 1955. This occurred with the coming of the Elmer Jones and granting of a franchise to the company now operating the local service, the Nfld Transportation, which also acquired the Kipawa from its former owner.

The new ferry, John Guy, is the second ship to be specially built for the Bell Island service. All others except the Maneco were either adapted for service on the Tickle or were used mainly in carrying freight from St. Johns to the Island. Both the Maneco and the John Guy embodied in their construction ideas which their operators acquired from practical experince of local conditions. The Maneco gave faithful service for 25 years. If the John Guy renders the same yeoman service in her lifetime, she will have justified the high hopes that are now reposed in her as the solution per excellence of Bell Islands transportation problems.