Driving on the ice in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

Driving on P.E.I.'s frozen rivers was often the best way to get around by horse and sleigh and later by car on Prince Edward Island 100 years ago or more.

Rivers were used as roads, and frozen bays offered shortcuts

A man named Bill Nelson in a horse-drawn sleigh on P.E.I. circa 1918. (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. Every few weekends CBC P.E.I. brings you one of Dutch's columns. 

With Prince Edward Island fully in winter's grip after the first major snowfall of 2021, Islanders have had to remember how to drive in icy, snowy conditions. 

But imagine 100 years ago or more, when most P.E.I. roads were little more than paths. In fact, driving on frozen waterways was often preferred for several reasons, including that the wind often blew the surface clean.

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)

People first drove horses and sleighs on the ice, and later, automobiles. 

Of course as spring arrived, people had to watch for cracks in the ice. There are many stories about sinkings or near-sinkings involving those whose work required them to travel, like itinerant salesmen and doctors.   

Andrew Murnaghan used to spend winters digging mussel mud in the Johnstons River area of the Hillsborough River. 

He recalled it would take him about an hour and 15 minutes to drive by horse and sleigh to or from Charlottetown to Johnstons River. 

"If the ice was clean, you'd make it in an hour and a quarter," he said.

'One shaft broke' 

It was 1939, which Murnaghan recalled was a "great year for mud" because the ice stayed frozen late in the season but there was not a lot of snow on top of the ice, making digging and travel easy. He'd get about 36 cents per load from local farmers, who spread the rich river-bottom mud on their fields as fertilizer.

In March that year, Murnaghan had a close call.

Andrew Murnaghan remembers driving on the ice with a load of mussel mud in the sleigh when his horse fell through the ice. (Dutch Thompson)

"Some of the young fellas around the digger were out and they went and borrowed a set of old oyster rakes of Joe MacEachern's and Joe wanted them back in that evening," Murnaghan recounted.

"I went in with them, threw them on top of the load of mud and went in with them and dropped them off, and then turned the mare around and was heading out, and this spring was in the shoal and the tide was high, and the sleigh dropped into it — I had an awful snappy big mare, heavy, [1,500 or 1,600 pounds], and she snapped quick when she felt the weakness under her feet, and she took that sleigh out — the load went clean over the tailboard into the hole — and she landed out with the sleigh, and one shaft broke. I had to take the reins off her, the driving reins, and tie them from the front to the sleigh to make a shaft. And then I got into the sleigh and she went home. There was only about three shovelfuls of mud left in the sleigh."

I had the door open already in case the ice broke and she started to sink. I was going to fly out of there and let the car go where it would.— Charlie Bell

Murnaghan said if his mare had not been so quick and sure-footed, they both may have drowned. 

Because the waterways were so clean and clear, he recalled about seven to eight cars going to and from Charlottetown, passing him as he dug mud. 

"That winter they were going up and down every day, clean to Mount Stewart," he said. 

Gas was 30 cents a gallon

In the early days of the automobile on P.E.I., roads weren't cleared as well as they are today.

Charlie Bell remembers driving across Bedeque Bay at night in the 1930s, keeping the door open in case the car sank. (Dutch Thompson)

Charlie Bell grew up in the Carleton Siding-Tryon area of P.E.I., later calling Parkdale home. In the 1930s, he became a commercial salesman on P.E.I., and for many years drove his car on land and sea. He sold housewares like "a lovely line of cutlery," straight razors, hardware like shovels and nails, paint, window glass, heaters and more.

"I bought a Model-A Ford, a used '31 Model-A Ford," from Leonard Trainor of Albany, Bell said. "It was a good little car ... they gave me six cents a mile," for mileage, when gas was about 30 cents a gallon. 

He drove on the clay roads topped with imported gravel from Souris to Tignish, and said he would often get stuck in mud holes, especially in western P.E.I. 

"We used to drive across Bedeque Bay, I remember driving across that one night ... I broke through but luckily didn't get stuck, but I had the door open already in case the ice broke and she started to sink. I was going to fly out of there and let the car go where it would."

'She drowned in the truck'

Such close calls didn't all end so well.

Sterling Robert (Ginger) MacKay grew up in Canavoy, near Mount Stewart, and remembered a mishap that resulted in a drowning on the Hillsborough River.

P.E.I. farmers hauled mussel mud from the bottom of P.E.I.'s frozen rivers using horse-drawn carts in O'Leary circa 1908. (PARO)

"I was following a half-ton truck one day, a friend of mine and his wife, and their truck ... there was a foot of ice, but he was driving along the edge of a crack [in the ice]," MacKay said. "The ice started to sink a little, and the water got over the top and made it slippy, and when he tried to steer the truck away from the edge of the crack, the truck wouldn't steer because it was too slippy." 

The truck kept going but was gradually sinking as the woman in the passenger seat opened the door to try to escape — she could only get the door open enough to get her leg out, because it was scraping along the ice. 

"She drowned in the truck ... he got out on his side," MacKay said. 

MacKay used to play in a band and he said they'd have "a lot of scares" travelling to and from gigs all over the Island, even after they began driving cars instead of horses. 

"We used to travel all over the ice in the winter by car, and there was always spring-holes in the ice you had to watch for," near the edges of the shore he said. 

Spring-holes were areas where there was a spring, and ice didn't freeze as thick. Those who bushed the track knew about the springs and placed the bushes accordingly.

"But on stormy nights you can't find the bushes, so then you're only guessing," MacKay said. "Blind storms. [You'd] depend on the horse."   

'Kept on going blind'

Dr. Roddie MacDonald from St. Peters probably wished he still had his horse to help him find the way one winter day when he was called out to Morell, about 11 or 12 kilometres over the ice down St. Peters Bay.

Colin (Doctor) MacDonald of St. Peters recalled a near-miss on the ice as he accompanied his father, a country doctor, on a house call to Morell. (Dutch Thompson)

The ice would have been bushed for winter travel — that's the practice of sticking spruce trees in the ice to mark the shortest, safest routes to follow.

Colin MacDonald, who died in his 100th year, used to accompany his father Dr. Roddie on many of his house calls, and recalled that very memorable trip.

"My father had a medical call down to Morell, and of course we used a car on the ice in the wintertime you know, if you could get on the ice we could go anywhere," MacDonald said. A neighbour, Carl Anderson, went with Colin and his father.

"We got the car out the three of us and away we went, it was a nice afternoon. We followed the bushes down to the Morell River, where it doesn't freeze over, the mouth of the river," he said. The road was bushed onto the shore, he said, so they went over land safely into Morell Village. 

Their business completed, they set out for home, but the weather shifted.

"It started to snow, it was about five o'clock in the evening, it was getting dusk ... we got out on the ice and we couldn't see in front of us ... we kept on going blind," he said. They kept looking for the bushes that marked the road, but couldn't find them. Eventually they saw something, and got out to check — it was a net set to catch smelts from a hole in the ice.  They'd become turned right around and were heading out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

An early version of of the Bookmobile, which delivered books to communities across the Island, in front of Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown, circa 1930s. (PARO)

"We could have drove right in, you know!" he said. They managed to turn around in the right direction and followed a light toward shore, where they found the bushed road. 

MacDonald said he doesn't remember any of them being very upset at their near-accident — "these things were happening all the time," he said matter-of-factly.   

The old cars were pretty tough. There are several stories of Model-T's going through the ice and to the bottom. Sometimes they weren't retrieved until the ice froze harder, but after flushing out the moving parts of the car with fresh water, away they went. 

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