How people made their living from the sea in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

In the bygone days of 100 years ago on P.E.I., many Islanders made at least part of their living from the sea, either fishing, as part of a ship's crew, in the navy or on a ferry boat. 

'There was three 10-gallon kegs of rum and one five-gallon keg of rum buried under the veranda!'

Murray Harbour circa 1906-1910. Several schooners, including the Francis D. Cook can be seen in foreground. The Prowse House and store belonging to Albert Prowse and the bridge over the river are visible in the background. (PARO)

Reginald (Dutch) Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past.

In the bygone days of 100 years ago on P.E.I., many Islanders made at least part of their living from the sea, either fishing, as part of a ship's crew, in the navy or on a ferry boat. 

Nowadays most goods move by container ships, but up until the mid-1900s there were still hundreds of schooners hauling everything from coal to stoves around the Maritimes.

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Submitted by Dutch Thompson)

On P.E.I., the shipbuilding trade was good in places like Port Hill, where the province has a museum dedicated to the craft. Island shipwrights like the Egans and Coffins in Mount Stewart, the Lefurgeys in Summerside and the Yeos and Richards in Port Hill turned out hundreds of vessels.

Gus Gregory of Souris came from a family of shipwrights. His great-grandfather had moved from Bristol, England, to Souris West, P.E.I. He was born in 1918, and was 89 when he talked to Dutch Thompson.                                             

Gregory spent most of his life on the water, fishing cod, lobster and mackerel. He also split and salted cod and hake, and worked on the big draggers that fished out of Souris back in the 1960s. His father before him was a lobster fisherman, receiving 50 cents for 100 lobsters back in 1900.

He recalls vessels taking poultry, pork and beef from P.E.I. to St. Pierre and Newfoundland and Labrador, returning to P.E.I. laden with coal from Nova Scotia. 

$42 for 1,000+ pounds of swordfish

Capt. Tom Trenholm of Murray Harbour was the son of a brave sea captain, and was literally raised on the ocean — he even had his own schooner when he was a teenager. During the Second World War, Trenholm and his wife, Mary McGillvary from Louisbourg, N.S., hauled coal and potatoes around the eastern seaboard in the schooner Nellie Dixon. 

Tom Trenholm, left, and his father William Trenholm, right, in 1924. (Dutch Thompson)

"I've been into nearly everything myself, including boat-building," he told Dutch. "That was the best job I ever had in my life, when I started to build boats here and run my own factory." He built more than 20 boats over 20 years, he said. 

For 10 years during the 1930s, Trenholm fished swordfish with a harpoon, steering off his compass and climbing the rigging to keep a sharp eye out for the swordfish, some as big as a tuna.

"I made some good shots at the swordfish and hit a lot of them, some of them I have to say missed!" he told Dutch. "But I got 200 that I'm sure of, that I stuck and held onto." 

Trenholm recalled one day steaming about 50 miles offshore for four hours, when he finally spotted a swordfish. Using a 16-foot-long pole of hard pine, he harpooned the fish, then put his 13-year-old helper out in a dory to hang on to the rope and try to land it. Then as he was circling around he saw another big swordfish, and harpooned it too. He put a buoy on it and went to collect his helper, but the fish was so big — about 650 pounds — the two of them couldn't land it, and had to drag it behind the boat, with the open gills  greatly slowing their speed. With some difficulty they located the buoy on the second fish, and landed it.

"After all that misery, or I guess you could call it excitement, the little bit of money that was in it, you wouldn't want to believe it," he said. It was 1934, and Tom was paid just $42 for both fish — $10 of that went to pay his helper. For the liver, he got 20 cents per pound, since the oil in the liver is thought to be better than cod liver oil.

'Wanted to get into action'

Oliver Smith of Mount Stewart and his father Tom were fishermen, and the family ran a little rum back in the 1930s when the bottom fell out of the fish business. They had a few run-ins with the RCMP.

"At that particular time, anybody'd do anything for money," Smith said.

"When the rum-running started there in the '30s he done most, or all, the rum-running in this area," Smith said. "I used to be with him fishing and went out different trips with him and hauled in liquor." 

'Anybody'd do anything for money,' in the 1930s says Oliver Smith, who fished and ran rum with his father before joining the merchant navy during the Second World War. (Dutch Thompson)

He recalled running rum for the famous Captain Edward Dicks who purchased Dalvay House, and had fond memories of he and a friend siphoning off quarts of liquor to drink themselves, and topping up the kegs with water. 

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Oliver was 21 years old and full of beans and vinegar.

"I wanted to get into action in a hurry I guess, young, and I went to Halifax and I went aboard the merchant navy," said Smith. He travelled to France, South America and the Caribbean, and survived a torpedo attempt by the Germans. He recalled that once sailors signed on to a ship, they were not permitted to leave it until it returned to a Canadian port. 

After about a year, he left the merchant navy, joining the army. 

"One night we were out on a night raid or something like that, it was only a small woods and we got lost. I said 'That's enough for me of the army,' and I remustered and went to the air force." 

The demon rum

Rum-running is how some of the well-to-do families on the Island made their money back in the 1920s and '30s.

Tiger MacKie recalled watching tall ships come in and out of Charlottetown Harbour. (Dutch Thompson)

Charlottetown was a good market for the rum but the narrow entrance to the harbour usually kept the rum-runners out — usually, but not always. 

One of P.E.I.'s best hockey players was Tiger MacKie, born in 1914 in Stanley Bridge and raised on a farm in Southport — part of what is now called Stratford. (His grandfather Henry MacKie had also been a shipbuilder, in what is now called Stanley Bridge). The MacKie farm was more than 100 acres, and ran down to Charlottetown Harbour and as a boy, Tiger sat in the attic and watched the sailing ships dock at the different wharfs: Buntain & Bell, Peakes Quay and Queen's Wharf. 

In the 1920s, at least one rum-running vessel slipped past the coast guard cutter, because one day a surprise awaited the MacKie family. 

"Saturday night, we were sitting on the veranda and we come down Sunday morning and the veranda was thrown apart, and there was three 10-gallon kegs of rum and one five-gallon keg of rum buried under the veranda!" MacKie said with a laugh. 

"Down in our field, there was like a hollow down there, and there was 65 kegs of rum in that hollow. And they disappeared like that. They just come in, there was a schooner-load." 

MacKie was too young to drink the rum, but recalls others saying it was strong stuff. He did remember enjoying the sight of schooners in the Charlottetown Harbour.

"Oh my soul I remember my brother hollering for me to come up to the attic, and there was a four-master come in there and they had 58 sails. It was beautiful!"

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