Shipbuilding on Fortune River


During its peak in the nineteenth century, shipbuilding was one of the key industries on Prince Edward Island, and the local shipbuilders which dotted our provincial landscape ranked amongst the best in the world. In fact, according to the Prince Edward Island Examiner of 18 August 1856, it professed that the Island’s ships, “and the men who command and man them, are a glowing type”, and continued, explaining that “in this Colony shipbuilding has always been considered of paramount importance; and deservedly so, as it has done much to keep up the price of labor, not only in the shipyard, but from the first stroke of the axe that breaks the stillness of the mighty forest, down to the arrival of our ships in the home market, shipbuilding, with its concomitant demands for labor, is continually benefitting our industrial population” (1).

And Bay Fortune, not unlike much of this area of the province, was once a booming locale for shipbuilding, employing many dozens of men in the industry and building countless ships which sailed the world over, with many of them carried “away before a free west wind for Britain” (1). In fact, as was noted in the Island Patriot on 5 September 1874, “from 1845 to 1859, Bay Fortune was one of the most productive shipbuilding parts on the Island.” (6). In those, in Fortune just as elsewhere, shipbuilding reigned supreme, and the course of our people’s lives, both then and now, has been irrevocably shaped by the rise and fall of the shipbuilding tide.

Developing an Industry

Building a ship in Fortune, date unknown.

Building a ship in Fortune, date unknown.

Looking back, now, it seems that these were truly different men of a different age, for is recorded that “at one time it was not an unusual occurrence to meet men in the Island who were accustomed to go into the forest, fell the trees, haul them to their shipyards, construct their ships, launch and rig them, and afterwards sail them successfully to all parts of the world” (8). The boldness and fortitude of these men cannot be understated, but equally important was their willingness to seize the opportunity that time and place afforded them, for while shipbuilding was a boom, it was not to last forever.

Shipbuilding as an industry rapidly swept over the province as the need for sturdy ships, both for transportation and the delivery of goods, grew increasingly high as the nineteenth century marched onwards. With humble beginnings around the middle of the eighteenth century (1740), the industry saw nothing but growth until 1865 (8), wherein by that time it had become, “per capita, twice the size of its counterpart in New Brunswick, and three times of that in Nova Scotia” (4). In fact, by the year of Canada’s Confederation, 1867, the shipbuilding industry on the Island was contributing around $2 000 000 to the provincial economy (8).

Such staggering numbers, coupled with the accessibility of entering the market, left Island businessmen ample opportunity to seek out the craft and stake their claim. Elsewhere, numerous factors had converged which gave further spark to the industry: the Island’s ample timber, skilled tradesmen, and access to the sea were undeniable, and coupled with the threat of a timber embargo with the Baltic states as a result of the Napoleonic wars, as well as a proximity to the American market, the province found itself in a prime place for the development of the industry (5) 

Fortune Carries On

A local ship, fully completed, sails to sea. Date unknown.

A local ship, fully completed, sails to sea. Date unknown.

As Fischer explains, by the middle of the nineteenth century, “all of the prerequisites for a major shipping industry were present on the Island. Local shipwrights and shipbuilders, such as the Dingwells in Bay Fortune, the Orrs in New Glasgow and Rustico, the Coffins at St Peters, the Duncans and James Peake in Charlottetown, and James Yeo and his master builders at Port Hill, had accumulated sufficient expertise and capital to construct durable yet inexpensive vessels for overseas sale. (5)

As mentioned above, Bay Fortune and the surrounding area was no stranger to the development of this lucrative industry. As indicated in The Island Register, in the year 1876 alone there 11 ships built and launched on the Fortune River. Many of these recorded ships came from the shipyard of Daniel Flynn, which was located on the southwest side of the present day Fortune bridge, directly across the Paddles on Fortune River boat launch (6). One such ship, launched by Flynn’s shipyard in 1858 and lauded in the Examiner, was the “Comet”, which was built for the Newfoundland seal fishery, and another, the “Seaflower”, a brigatine of 120 tons (2).

Other prominent shipbuilders in those times were Mr. William Dingwell, who launched ships such as the “Victory”, and Mr. Joseph Dingwell, whose ship, the “Elizabeth”, was noted in the Royal Gazette of 4 August 1840 as being “considered, by competent judges, to be a very handsome vessel, and of superior workmanship” (2).

Shipping advertisement, taken from the Islander newspaper, 1855

Shipping advertisement, taken from the Islander newspaper, 1855

The process of shipbuilding itself was far from advanced, and as is related in Westcountrymen in Prince Edward’s Isle, “it took only a few skilled men, a few simple tools, a lot of knowhow; and a sheltered sloping beach with deep water close inshore to build a wooden ship of 200 to 300 tons, perhaps 100 to 120 feet long…Shipyards were less shipyards in the modern sense than sites where a master builder could put a vessel together and rig her, working slowly with the aid of a few less skilled than himself (Townshend 19). It is said there were two to three hundred workers employed in the various shipyards at one time on Souris River, and it is within reasonable conjecture that at this time similar numbers were to been on the Fortune River as well (7).

The completion of a ship was not merely a matter of economics; it was just as much a cause for celebration. As Townshend explains, a launching of a ship was always an occasion for a party, and it was often the case that locals would gather from all around to celebrate the achievement. Parties would last long into the night, and an account of one such party, in this case of the launching of the “Limelight”, has been passed down thus: “Eddie Donald McCormack was the fiddler at the party at Tom Warner’s. He kept on bravely making music while many strong men slumped to the floor but finally the fiddle dropped from his hand though the bow kept sawing the air but not for long, as Eddie too was thoroughly relaxed on the floor” (7).

However they were built, they were built with skill, and the ships of Bay Fortune sailed the world over, from the mouth of the Fortune River and across the world’s oceans. Many ships saw their genesis in the shipyards which lined the River, and many “schooners, brigatines, and barques were built near the site of the present bridge, then launched and sailed down the Fortune River to continue on to their destination” (6).

A contemporary voice, that of John Astor Aitken, recalls the sight of ships being constructed along the river: “In the 1870s and the early 1880s, there were a number of ships built at Fortune Bridge. I used to watch those beautiful ships coming down the bay with their tall spars and long bowsprits. Just opposite our house was a place in the channel where the ships would sometimes get stuck. It might be days before they could get by that place. Then they would go sailing out into the ocean” (6).


Carrying the Load

Wagon loads of potatoes would be pulled by horse to be loaded aboard the ships.

Wagon loads of potatoes would be pulled by horse to be loaded aboard the ships.

The vessels which sailed Fortune River in the golden age of ships were primarily concerned the delivery of goods from around the world, which could be obtained in no other way. They would arrive, fully loaded at the harbours and shores, stocked with supplies which were needed “for the storekeepers of the area. They were also known to unload lumber, flour, coal, hay, limestone, and fertilizer. Hay and fertilizer were cargoes in the spring, while coal was common in the fall” (3).

Likewise, once the ships were emptied they were loaded with items from the area. Potatoes were the main cargo; while pork, sheep, cattle, poultry, turnips, oats, and bait were also shipped. The schooner was sometimes so full that extra cargo was piled on the deck. Live sheep and cattle were often placed on the deck and swum ashore at their destination (3).

During the harvest season, large numbers of vessels were often at the wharves waiting to be loaded with supplies for shipment abroad, and even in small harbours, such as in Bridgetown, there could be up to seven vessels waiting for potatoes, and in Annandale schooners were once tied up two tiers deep at the pier, while others waited outside of the harbour (3). In fact, in Annandale, “some ships were so large that they required a ‘pilot’ vessel, to guide them in safely” (MacDonald 30). It’s also recorded that “if schooners were going upriver to Bridgetown, they were hauled up with a horse” (3).

And while cargo was typically of standard fare, one of the most unusual cargo ever to be loaded in our area was no doubt that of the cats. According to MacDonald, “a schooner arrived in Annandale and locals were told any and all cats would be purchased on a certain date. Cats from as far away as Forest Hill and Strathcona were gathered and taken to Annandale”, however many arrived only to discover the ship had already sailed away (3).


The End of An Era

A view of Fortune Bridge, as it appeared in Meacham’s Atlas, 1880. The McInnis shipyard is clearly labelled.

A view of Fortune Bridge, as it appeared in Meacham’s Atlas, 1880. The McInnis shipyard is clearly labelled.

But the good times could not last forever, and as the nineteenth century came to a close it was readily becoming apparent that shipbuilding, and the economic boom that had once accompanied it, was fast disappearing. What once been a juggernaut of an industry, the confidence of many, was now beginning to sink. “Sailing vessels, large and small, built and managed primarily by Islanders, were visible symbols of a vital economy. (5), but these symbols were readily slipping away.

As Fischer writes, “Hindsight, of course, allows us to see how misplaced that confidence was. By the late 1860s the shipping industry had begun to founder; despite a brief renaissance in the mid-1870s, and the age of the wooden sailing vessel was rapidly drawing to a close, at least in North America. None of this, however, was obvious to people of the day. In fact, given the information available, the assumption that the shipping industry would continue to serve as the bedrock of the Island economy was quite reasonable (5).

There were two substantial reasons for this rapid decline, “over which the residents of the province have no control, for this state of things is namely caused by the introduction of steam together with iron and steel ships, and the exhaustion of the timber once plentiful for shipbuilding purposes. (8)

By the dawn of the twentieth century the shipbuilding industry, as it were, had faded almost entirely, and left in its wake only the small builders who continued to eke out an existence from what little local demand was still available. The world had moved on, leaving in its wake the remnants and legacy of Island ingenuity and fortitude on the world stage. As Townshend concludes, “for a time after the end of the shipbuilding, a site could be identified by a hole or depression in the ground that marked the sawpit where the logs were sawed into timbers for the ships”, however today, little remains; it is only on occasion that the shifting sands on our northern beaches sometimes expose the ribs of a wooden ship wrecked long ago, the last testament to our fallen giants (7).


  1. The Examiner. “Progress of Shipbuilding in P.E. Island”. The Island Register. 18 August 1856. Web. 21 November 2018.

  2. Island Register. “New Vessel Registrations 1876”. The Island Register. 24 February 2003. Web. 21 November 2018.

  3. MacDonald, Rose Marie. “Those Were The Days”. 1984. Print.

  4. The Guardian. “P.E.I. shipbuilding industry designated as event of national historic significance”. Saltwire Network. 30 September 2017. Web. 24 November 2018.


  6. Townshend, Bonnie. “The Road To Fortune”. 2012. Print.

  7. Townshend, Adele. “Ten Farms Become a Town”. 1984. Print.

  8. MacKinnon. “Past and Present of Prince Edward Island”. 1906. Print.