New book tells story of crossings from ice boats to today’s ferries

Published on August 5, 2014

PICTOU – One flip through “Saltwater Road” and many readers will be transported back down memory lane.

The recently published book by Marian Bruce on the tales of travel on the Northumberland Strait takes readers back in time, from the very start of ice boats to recent accomplishments of the Caribou, N.S., to Wood Islands, P.E.I., ferry service.

“I was approached to do a history of the ferries. I was immediately interested because I love the ferries so much and I watch for them every spring,” Bruce said during a recent visit to Pictou. “I wanted to do more than just a corporate history. There are the ferries, but there is what came before.”

For the most part, the book focuses more on the people than the vessels because there is a real connection between people of Pictou County and those living at the eastern end of Prince Edward Island.

“There are a lot of intermarriages, people coming to work over there to work in shipyards, MacGee Pea Factory and the Hamilton Biscuit Factory. It was like a community. There are some religious and ethic similarities as well. It seemed like a community divided by and connected by water,” she said.

Ice boats were early forms of transportation in 1770s, used to transport people and goods to the mainland from eastern P.E.I. Many years later they moved them to the western end of the island to accommodate a shorter section of the strait between P.E.I. and New Brunswick.

“I started out with the ice boats and then I moved into the ice breakers,” she said. “There was a lot of coastal trade and sailing ships that carried freight and a lot of steam ship ferries that went back and forth.”

When her research took her to the start-up of Northumberland Ferries in 1941, she talked to as many people as possible to hear their stories of work on the vessels or their travels across as passengers.

Names such as Malcolm MacLean, George Baird, Bill Hart, Jim Moffat, Rankin Keenan, Lynn Prest, Olive Pastor and Earle Simpson are just a few people who contributed to the book’s long list of stories.

Bruce said people on both sides of the strait have a fond attachment to the ferry service, its boats and the people who worked on them.

“One thing that struck me recently is that we talk about the economic impact and that it’s cheaper to take the ferry, but it developed men and women,” she said. “There is Malcom Maclean who left a one-room school early, got a job as deck hand, became captain and worked on every ship on the fleet. What else was their men and women. There was fishing and farming, but you get to the point in these trades where you don’t get very far. Malcolm went on to teach navigation in Summerside for years and he had to learn trigonometry and all that stuff.”

Dedication and resilience are themes that run throughout the book.  From the determination of the Islanders to make it to the mainland on the iceboats to the start up of Northumberland Ferries, it is clear that no one was giving up on the means to make it across the strait.

Bruce said a group of businesspeople and investors, about a half-dozen men and one woman, came together to start Northumberland Ferries when others said it couldn’t be done. 

They bought one boat in 1939 but because it was wartime, the government recommissioned it for its own use. Undeterred, they tried again and purchased a second boat, but the same thing happened. Finally, they purchased the Prince Nova in 1941 and started up the service.

“They weren’t making any money and only in the second year they bought a typewriter and they needed to meet in borrowed offices,” she said. “It took a tremendous amount of resilience to keep it going.”

However, things started looking up in the 1950s when the investors realized they needed a second boat.

“In late 1950s, they had to have a bigger boat,” she said. “The Lord Selkirk was built and so many people I talked to named the Selkirk as their favourite. It was the first new ship and the first one built here in Pictou. It was a lovely little ship.”

She said the fondness for the ferry service was exemplified when rumours start that it might be in jeopardy. 

“I hope it lasts,” Bruce said. “That is another interesting thing about the history of the ferry service. It was always in trouble and always precarious. In 1950s, government was threatening to take the contract away from NFL and give it to CN which was charging bigger freight rates.”

She said people from across the Island rallied in Belfast to save the service and were relieved when the contract was left with NFL. Northumberland Ferries will continue to be subsidized until 2016 when its contract will come for renewal again.

“Saltwater Road” is available for sale at the McCulloch Heritage Centre on Haliburton Road, Pictou, and Fulmore’s Pharmacy in downtown Pictou. It is also for sale on the Northumberland Ferries vessels and members of the Pictou Historical Photograph Society also have books for sale. A portion of the sales will be retained by the local group.