The S. S. St. Pierre: Portrait of a forgotten coastal steamer

The painting of the S. S. St. Pierre

The painting of the S. S. St. Pierre

At an Antique Dealers’ Fair in a small Nova Scotia town I came across a rather dark picture of a nineteenth century coastal passenger steamer with auxiliary rig. The dealer said it had been found in an attic at Osborne Harbour, near the coastal town of Lockeport NS. It was oil on paper, dated 1884 and although there is a monogram which appears to be the entwined letters A. H and G, it has not proved possible to trace the painter. It is definitely “folk art” possibly amateur. I acquired the picture and managed to give it a bit of restoration and take some preservative measures: it was very fragile and the paper had been mounted over a canvas, the stretcher of which had warped. After some gentle sweeping with very soft brush, which brought out some clouds and blue sky, and a little paint restoration in one corner, it was safely mounted behind glass in its original frame with an acid free backing.

Although there are the usual folk-artist inaccuracies and distortions, I was pretty sure this was an actual ship. The person to consult was Robin Wyllie, the acknowledged expert on Maritimes coastal passenger steamers. Merely from my description over the telephone, he suggested it was the St. Pierre, built in Yarmouth NS in 1884, the year of the painting. Then, comparing the picture to an engraving of the ship done at the time of her completion, we decided this was most probably the case.


Engraving of the S. S. St. Pierre, courtesy of the Yarmouth County Historical Society

The St. Pierre was built by the Burrell-Johnson Iron Co. Ltd. in Yarmouth NS for the Anglo-French Steamship Company which had been awarded a subsidy by the French Government to carry the mails to and from St. Pierre and Miquelon. She was a modest wooden steamer of 500 tons powered by a compound engine and had auxiliary sail. Her route took her from Halifax through the Bras d’Or lakes to North Sydney, then to St. Pierre, returning the same way. This would have been her summer schedule; her route would have been more direct when ice blocked the Bras d’Or and the Cabot Strait. The St. Pierre was successfully operated on this service until 1895 when the subsidy was instead awarded to a French company. She is subsequently recorded as owned by F. D. Corbett & Co. (Commission Merchants and Steamship Agents) of Halifax. In early 1896 the St. Pierre was bought by the Canadian Pacific Navigation Company of Victoria BC, but she was destined never to reach Pacific waters.

To return to the picture: the painter has exaggerated the size of the ship but this is not just a habit of folk artists. I have a coloured print of a painting of the paddle steamer Quebec (1844-61) by no less an artist than Krieghoff. She was a big sidewheeler, 266 feet long, but if you take the height of a deckhouse as 8 feet he has stretched her out to a impressive 320! Twentieth century poster artists did the same and one of their techniques was to put a tug or other small craft (crewed presumably by midgets) in the foreground while distorting the perspective. Our folk artist has done this by adding a small sailboat with a tiny sailor gazing up at the steamer rushing past.

Well, what has he (or she) done right? The ship is flush decked with a line of portholes (but he has put in too many). The masts, funnel and ventilators and the deckhouses are all correctly placed as in the engraving of the St. Pierre provided by the builders. What is wrong? He has added a yard and a fore course to the foremast, giving her a brigantine rig when actually she was a topsail schooner. He has omitted the lifeboats and the flags are quite wrong: a union flag instead of a red ensign, a blurred house flag but not likely to be that of the Anglo-French Line and a plain red flag at the fore. I think that the artist saw the ship in Yarmouth when it was fitting out, made a quick sketch and went home and painted this spirited if slightly inaccurate picture. One must admit that the sleeker looking hull and additional canvas makes for a more enjoyable image.

It is only fair to mention evidence that might counter the belief that this is the St. Pierre. The house flag mentioned above could be that of the Dominion Atlantic Railway and the black and red funnel would be consistent with that, and there is no sign of the bow decoration mentioned in the newspaper description below. But the ship was only chartered to the D. A. R. briefly during 1895, while black and red were common funnel colours that were easy to maintain. As for the bow medallions, described below, they may not have been installed until the ship was in service. They do not show on the engraving. I believe this the St. Pierre and that this old picture, however imperfect, is a link to the late nineteenth century period of Nova Scotia’s maritime history.

The ship’s service on the mail run to the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon and subsequently and the details of her loss at sea in 1896 while en route to the Pacific are described in the following reports in the Victoria BC newspaper The British Colonist, with input from their Halifax correspondent.


9 February 1896

The S. S. St. Pierre

Description of the Commodious Steamer Recently Purchased by the CPN Co.

A Thoroughly Equipped and Well Appointed Vessel – Her Past Career.

(Special Halifax correspondent of the Colonist)

The steamer St. Pierre was built eleven years ago by the Burrill-Johnson Iron Company of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.  That firm not only constructing the hull and rigging of the steamer, but building her engines and boilers and fitting her out for sea. Her hull is of wood, the durable materials entering into its construction being white oak, hackmatack, pitch pine and juniper. The St. Pierre’s keel length is 154 feet, the length overall being 163 feet. She has a beam breadth of 26 feet 6 inches and her depth of hold is 17 feet 2 inches. The St. Pierre was built for the freight and passenger trade. She has accommodation for thirty saloon passengers and has cargo room for 3000 barrels. The saloon is finished in oak, ash and walnut.  The vessel is rigged as a topsail schooner.  Her engines are 90 horse power nominal and she can attain a speed of 12 knots an hour.

The St. Pierre was built for a Halifax company which had the contract for carrying the mails between Halifax, via Cape Breton, and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland.  These islands, which are the headquarters of a large French fishing business, are all that France retains of her North American possessions, which once included much of the eastern part of this continent.

The St. Pierre’s predecessor on this route was the steamer George Shattuck which had earned the subsidy from France for three or four years ere the St. Pierre was put on. For nine years the St. Pierre carried the mails and earned the subsidy from France. Two years ago, a company was organized in Paris and St. Pierre to build a steamer for the route, sailing under the tri-colour, and France immediately withdrew the subsidy from the St. Pierre and gave it to the new French steamer – the Pro-Patria, commanded by Captain Denis.

Since losing the French subsidy, the St. Pierre has been engaged on various enterprises. Most of the time she has spent on the route between Halifax and the southern shore of Newfoundland to Placentia. Going and coming, the steamer had nineteen points of call.

This winter, the St. Pierre has been relieving the steamer Prince Rupert on the Bay of Fundy route between Annapolis, N.S. and the city of St. John, N. B. The Prince Rupert is the steamer that was built for the Canadian Pacific railway for service on the British Columbia coast. She was built on the Clyde and had started on her voyage to the Pacific, but was recalled when she reached the Canary Islands and was sold to the Dominion Atlantic railway for service on the Bay of Fundy route.

It is a good omen for the St. Pierre’s success in her new sphere of usefulness on the great Pacific that on the Atlantic Ocean and on the rough and rocky coast where she has been engaged for eleven years nothing approaching an accident has entered into her history. There are two reasons for this. One is that she was thoroughly well built by the Burrill-Johnson company who have kindly furnished the Colonist with a cut of the steamer as she lay at Yarmouth after leaving the stocks eleven years ago. The second reason for her immunity from accident is that Captain Argrave is a careful commander who took no risks, but who generally kept his steamer pretty much on time.

The St. Pierre has a white figurehead of busts of St. Peter. Captain Argrave humourously says that the figure on the port bow shows the apostle before the denial, and that on the starboard bow his appearance after the cock crew.

It will be remembered that Captain Sears recently left Victoria for the lower provinces to bring the new vessel round Cape Horn.



22 March 1896


How the steamer “St. Pierre” came to be lost on the Atlantic

Captain Sears and the crew of the lost steamer St. Pierre, who are now on their way home, are expected to arrive here shortly.  The C. P. N. Co., since the loss of the St. Pierre, have been making enquiries for another vessel to take her place, but have not yet secured one. Captain Irving, the company’s manager, has received a long and interesting letter from Captain Sears concerning the loss of the St. Pierre, which had been forwarded from Gibraltar. It appears that the steamer left Halifax on February 13 and was obliged to stop the next day to make repairs to the feed pipe. The following day a storm arose and continued for two days. On the afternoon of the 17th the feed pipe again got out of order on account of the shifting of the boiler. The water above the pipe poured out of the boiler and, to make matters worse, the steamer began to ship seas. Until the 20th the crew worked night and day, but with little success. The ship Fidelio, bound for Bremen, offered assistance, which was reluctantly refused, Captain Sears and some of his officers believing that they could still save the vessel. The water in the ship had been lowered below the boiler but the blocks supporting the boiler were all adrift, and resting on the bilge keel the boiler was swinging with every motion of the steamer.  Realising that nothing further could be done to save the steamer, Captain Sears made signals of distress and attracted the attention of the steamer Normannia, requesting that the St. Pierre be towed to the nearest port. The chief engineer of the German liner, however, was of the opinion that the St. Pierre could not be kept afloat, and when all things came to be considered, the vessel was finally abandoned.


The Normania, the ship the rescued the St. Pierre's crew

The Normania, the ship the rescued the St. Pierre’s crew

These newspaper accounts, compared to those usually found in the media today, show that journalists and the public, certainly those that read the shipping news, were well acquainted with nautical terminology. The writer knew the readers understood what was meant by “topsail schooner” and that the Fidelio, the vessel that first offered assistance to the St. Pierre was a full-rigged sailing ship. We cannot help be impressed by the determined way that Captain Sears and his crew fought to save the ship, though my engineering friends will  note that the name of the Chief Engineer, who surely must have done much of the work, is not mentioned. One term that may not be clear: it is said that when the boiler broke loose from its mountings it came to rest on the bilge keel. I think that should be bilge keelson.  A wooden steamer of the date would very likely have had strong fore-and-aft timbers internally at the turn of the bilge, at least in way of the machinery spaces, and bilge keelson would be an appropriate name for such structural members, although wooden ships did not have bilge keels as we know them.  Also it is assumed that readers are familiar with Matthew 26, v69-74.

I would like to thank Robin Wyllie for his help in identification and especially Linda Silver at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic library who discovered the 1896 items in the Victoria BC British Colonist as well as local Halifax references.

This article was originally published in Argonauta, the internal newsletter of the Canadian Nautical Research Society, in Spring 2012.

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