How a 100-year-old legacy is revitalizing a P.E.I. community

The community of Cape Traverse, P.E.I., threw a big party to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of the ice boats. It was just the beginning of a revitalized interest in the ice boats and the community.

In the days of the ice boats, Cape Traverese was 'the hub of P.E.I.'

From left, Chris Cutcliffe, Andrew MacKay, Scott Cutcliffe, Lori Eggert and Danny Howatt formed the Cape Traverse Ice Boat committee. (Missing from photo is Sharon Kamperman.) (Cape Traverse Ice Boat Committee/Facebook)

There is renewed excitement in the community of Cape Traverse, P.E.I. — thanks to an event that happened more than 100 years ago.

That's when last ice boat — which carried mail, supplies and passengers from the mainland — crossed the Northumberland Strait to Cape Traverse.

"Cape Traverse was the hub of P.E.I. Everything that came or left P.E.I. mostly came in through Cape Traverse, especially in the winter time," said Andrew MacKay, whose home has a view of the Cape Traverse beach where the boats once came in.

The ice boats operated on the Northumberland Strait from 1827 until 1917. There were times they were stranded on the ice for days at a time. (Cape Traverse Ice Boat Committee/Facebook)

"You just look across there and you can almost see or feel the history. It's really cool that so many people endured those hardships, making that trek across the strait."

You just look across there and you can almost see or feel the history.- Andrew MacKay

But the exact month of the ice boats' last crossing was uncertain, until a local resident went to the provincial archives last March and discovered it was in April, 1917.

"When we found out the exact date, we thought, 'jeepers, we need to do something here to commemorate this,'" said MacKay, who quickly formed a committee with a few neighbours.

"Basically our plan was to have a tea party, with some old-fashioned games for the kids to play," he said.

The first ever Ice Boat Festival was born.

The community would like to have a wharf at the beach where the old one used to be. (Cape Traverse Ice Boat Committee/Facebook)

Residents brought food and memorabilia related to the ice boats that had been handed down through generations. 

The day ended with a fireworks display at Cape Traverse.

"It was very short notice but I'm amazed at what we were able to accomplish in a short time," said resident Lori Eggert.

"I think that's a tribute to the passion that all of the people in the group had for the history."

The ice boats carried mail, goods, supplies and passengers between Cape Tormentine, N.B., and Cape Traverse. (Public Archives Canada)

The community wants to make the Ice Boat Festival an annual event. But it's not stopping there.

It would like to see Canada Post honour the ice boats, perhaps with a commemorative stamp or coin.

It hopes to someday replace the wharf.

New monument

And next spring, there are plans to unveil a new monument dedicated to the ice boats, replacing an old replica removed several years ago after the wind and weather took its toll.

It's all part of how the residents are taking pride in their community.

"Any time that I mention that I'm from Cape Traverse and people don't know where that is, I try to educate them," said Eggert, whose long-lost relatives, the Muttarts, used to work on the ice boats.

"I think it's really interesting because that was the only way that the Royal Mail, as it was called at the time, came back and forth from the mainland."

Eggert has heard stories about how strongly the ice boat crews felt about the responsibility of carrying the mail.

"Even when they were stranded out on the ice for days, they refused to burn the mail to keep themselves warm," she said.

Dozens of residents turned out for the first-ever Ice Boat Festival in Cape Traverse lasy April. (Cape Traverse Ice Boat Committee/Facebook)

Eggert also feels a connection to the only ice boat worker who died during the 90-year history of the crossings.

"In the final few months, one man slipped out of the leather strap and slipped under the ice before anyone realized it was too late," Eggert said.

One boat worker died

His name was Lemuel Dawson, and he is buried in the cemetery of the Free Church of Scotland, across the road from her house.

"I think about him every day now," Eggert said. "It's so sad, a touching bit of the history."

The Ice Boat Festival included old-fashioned games for children in the community. (Cape Traverse Ice Boat Committee/Facebook)

Cape Traverse may never become the hub it was in the 1800s, when there were stores, a hotel and a post office.

But MacKay said the number of young families in the community bodes well for the future

"Right on that Wharf Road, there's probably 15 to 20 children on that road now, so it's almost back to what it was years ago," he said.

"We do have some passionate people in the area. We formed this committee just to commemorate the 100th year, and now we want to stay together and continue working on some additional projects."

The ice boat monument at Cape Traverse before the replica was removed. (Cape Traverse Ice Boat Committee/Facebook)
The replica was removed several years ago after the wind and weather took its toll. (Cape Traverse Ice Boat Committee/Facebook)
Students with the Heritage Retrofit Carpentry program at Holland College are building the ice boat replica, which is expected to be unveiled next spring. (Submitted by Parks Canada )


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.