Coal on the railway

I was driving back from op’s night on the Bayside and Tidewater and to pass the time I started thinking about operations on my next model railway and in particular the types of goods and car movements to plan for. Since my mind is currently focusing so much on the a 1905-1910 era version of the PEIR the focus of my thoughts rested there. Putting my analytical brain cells to work I started piecing together different commodities and what I knew about them, perhaps because I’m still thinking about our trip to Orwell Corner Historic Village earlier last week I started to think about hauling coal on the PEIR. These are the kinds of games I play to pass the time when I’m driving – neat eh?! Anyway. On to coal. Since I introduced this topic with a reference to Orwell Corner I should better explain how that fits in. During our visit we had the fortune to watch a blacksmith demonstration. These kinds of forges were quite common on the Island a hundred years ago and they were pretty much fairly similar in construction. Each blacksmith must have had some reliable way to get coal to feed the fire. I wonder how? The route to get coal seems pretty self-explanatory but some of the details still remain vague for me and I figured I’d start a post here to help me to put together what I can find out and where the gaps in this might be. From the highest view of this commodity on the Island the process is quite simple:

  1. Coal arrives on the Island. Since there are no coal mines on the Island it would have come in by sea.
  2. Off the top of my head I know that Summerside, Charlottetown, Murray River, Montague, Georgetown and Souris all had wharves that were also rail-served. If coal was going to be shipped by rail it would have to be trans-loaded from ship to railcar on  a wharf where the both met.
  3. I haven’t found any references to coal “hoppers” with hatches so I assume that coal was carried by the railroad in gondolas, or more likely, in box cars as was the fashion until at least the late-1930’s on most Canadian railroads.
  4. Presumably coal was sold on the wharf to local merchants from towns on the Island. I’m assuming, and I stress assuming, that these merchants would have purchased it by the car load (fingers crossed on this assumption). These car loads would then be moved out on the next train to that town. Since most towns had a team track/public siding it would make sense that the car would arrive there to be unloaded by hand.

With those kinds of assumptions in my mind I logged on here tonight to see what I could find online to help illustrate some of these assumptions and distill them into something more tangible. First stop, the PEI Provincial Archives website.

I typed the word “coal” into their search engine and came up with these references:

  • Acc3221 — Alice C. Green collection
  • Acc3322 — Owen Connolly fonds
  • Acc4105 — Fred Small fonds
  • Acc4272 — Heber R. Large fonds
  • Acc4501 — Davis & Fraser fonds
  • Acc4562 — Longshoremen who unloaded last coal boat in Charlottetown harbour photograph
  • Acc4595 — Vessey family fonds : [ca 1890-1925, predominant 1915-1919]
  • Acc4742 — Joseph Watson Fyfe fonds : [1897-1906]
  • Acc4906 — David Montgomery fonds
  • Acc4953 — Photograph of Fred Dalziel
  • MHCA0006 — J. Watson MacNaught fonds

One by one I’ll go through them…

Acc3221 — Alice C. Green collection

When her mother fell ill, Alice left her post at Gypsumville to return home to PEI. Lucy recovered but lost her sight as a result of her illness and Alice remained in Alberton to care for her. On 26 August 1948, Alice married Arthur C. Green, a tailor and coal dealer in Alberton. This was Arthur’s second marriage and Alice gained three stepchildren: Alvah, Charles T. and Arthur F.

Arthur’s health began to fail shortly after his marriage to Alice. Alice helped him with his coal business until his death in 1959 at which point she took over running the business. She continued to deal in coal until 1967. In early 1968 she returned to nursing, working as a supervisor at the Maplewood Manor.

Acc3322 — Owen Connolly fonds

Owen Connolly was a prominent member of Charlottetown society. He was the first agent on the Island for the Merchant’s Bank of Halifax and when the Union Bank of Prince Edward Island (later the Merchant’s Bank of PEI) was established in 1860, Connolly was appointed director and eventually, Chairman of the Board. He served as a Justice of the Peace and played an active role in exhibitions and other public occasions in Charlottetown. Also, Connolly distributed coal and blankets to the deserving poor during the winter. He died on 27 December 1887 at the age of 67.

Acc4105 — Fred Small fonds
This one looks interesting and is something that I think I’m going to check out next time I visit the Archives:

This fonds consists of 81 prints and 2 negatives. These are primarily of the waterfront area of Charlottetown, in particular the environs of the Charlottetown Yacht Club. There are many images of club members and activities, including sailing photographs and scenic shots of the West River shoreline. Of particular interest are a few photographs which include the coal shed and yard, the construction of DeBlois Bros., and Bruce Stewart and Co. A separate series of images provide excellent documentation of Crosby’s Mill in Bonshaw.

Acc4272 — Heber R. Large fonds
Great coal merchant reference but for a later period than the one I am researching.

Following service in the Air Force in World War I, Heber R. Large pursued a career in civil aviation for a time in California before returning to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, to enter the coal business. For many years he ran Large Bros. Coal. He was married to Kathleen Isabel Beales of Charlottetown and resided at Westbourne, 17 West Street, Charlottetown. Following in her father’s footsteps, his daughter Sally served with RAF ferry command during World War II.

Acc4501 — Davis & Fraser fonds
This one looks really interesting for it’s level of detail. While not a merchant this is a factory that used coal and perhaps could contain some background on pricing and quantity, etc.

Davis & Fraser Pork Packers operated during the early 1900s at 237-243 Kent Street and later at 316-342 Grafton Street, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. In 1929-1930 the company was listed as Davis & Fraser Pork Packers and Provision Merchants. The same company appeared to operate Island Cold Storage Limited.

The fonds consists of a minute book containing a daily log of the plant’s operation between July 1911 and July 1913. Entries relate to the functioning and reading of the systems, including the engines, pumps, gauges, water, room temperatures, coal, and brine densities. Daily entries also include “weather notes” with a weather key inserted into the front of the volume. The twenty-two weather categories represented by a letter of the alphabet in the key include: Fine & Clear, Fine & partly cloudy, Fair but cloudy, Light rain, Medium rain, Heavy rain, Heavy Showers, Blizzard, Gale, Light Thunder squall, Heavy wind squall, and so on.

Acc4562 — Longshoremen who unloaded last coal boat in Charlottetown harbour photograph
I think this could be a winner too. While this accession is mostly photos taken during the unloading of the last boat in 193_(?) it should include a lot of detail, I hope, that illustrates how the boats were unloaded (Shovels, buckets, etc?) and into what (boat to coal pile or direct to rail cars?) and where (it does indicate Charlottetown but at which wharf?)

Acc4595 — Vessey family fonds : [ca 1890-1925, predominant 1915-1919]
Reference to a member of the family who worked for Nova Scotia Coal. Perhaps little of value for this project.

Acc4742 — Joseph Watson Fyfe fonds : [1897-1906]
While perfect for the time period for my curiousity this accession too seems to be mostly out-of-province references so perhaps not so useful right now.

Acc4906 — David Montgomery fonds
Super neat sounding from the overview notes for this accession. This set actually predates the period I’m interested in right now but could be worth checking out sometime.

Acc4953 — Photograph of Fred Dalziel
Neat to note his involvement as a coal merchant. Perhaps worth building a search based on his name and the business he ran in Charlottetown?

MHCA0006 — J. Watson MacNaught fonds
Not much for this project. Note, on a completely unrelated topic, that this accession includes a reference to a booklet on the planned tunnel/causeway to connect the Island to the mainland. Neat trivia.

So what do we have? Well we have coal merchants, or at least folks who sold it amongst other things in:

  • Charlottetown
  • Alberton
  • Souris
  • Montague
  • Cardigan
  • Summerside

I think that in the above we may be able to piece together how the coal arrived and, in Charlottetown at least, how it was sold. What I’m looking for next is how the coal was shipped to it’s destination when that destination was outside a place where it could arrive by sea. A Google search brought me to The Communities of Eastern Kings website and this quote describing the railway facilities at Elmira:

Elmira had five sets of tracks running off the main line. Since Elmira was the end of the line, a turn table was used in the early years. A pit located below the turn table was used for changing oil, grease and for doing minor repairs. Across the turn table was a two room engine house where the engines were put at night, especially in the winter months. In very cold weather, pots containing seal oil were lit and placed under the engine to keep it from freezing. A two hundred foot coal shed held enough fuel for both railway and local use. A barn to shelter horses, a bunkhouse for crews and sectionmen and small shacks for the conductors and engine crew were all a part of the Elmira station.

Well that’s intersting: “A two hundred foot coal shed…” The site has a Search function so I entered “coal” into that to see what came up and found some more neat references to help illustrate this story. Before I get into those, take a tangent and read this page on Reg MacDonald. Just some neat stuff:
From elsewhere in the site these details begin to emerge:

  • In 1898, a suit of clothes cost $5; a cart-Ioad of coal went for $2.54 and a journeyman tailor received $20 a month, based on a story about the Leards store in Souris.
  • A coal boat, the Citizen, came ashore in North Lake during a snow storm on December 3, 1900 just below the farm of Stephen MacDonald. The captain and his crew survived.
  • This page (click here) includes a picture of a schooner unloading coal at the Mathew and MacLean wharf in Souris

There’s a pile of neat stuff on the Eastern Kings website and I’ll be back to check more of it out later.

Over on the Island Trails website I found this note on their web page for the Iona to Murray Harbour trail:

The foundation of an old coal shed (later an engine shed) has been reused in a park setting to support an open longhouse with historical interpretive panels. A large gazebo overlooks the river near where a large railway roundhouse once stood beside a spot known as “the birches”.

This September 10th my family were planning on riding this trail already as part of a community trail ride. I’m really looking forward to the trip. I’ll have my camera and may also drag along a tape measure to map out this foundation. Since this may to a little too geeky for my ever patient family I may head out before then to measure this foundation. I’ll be interested to see if it’s size is at all similar to the “200 foot” coal shed mentioned on the Eastern Kings site for the Elmira coal shed.

Elsewhere on the Island we come across the construction of the new ferry facilities in Borden in 1916. As part of this massive project a rather large coal trestle was built in the Borden yard to aid in transferring coal from standard gauge hoppers to their narrow gauge counterparts. I don’t have Allan Graham’s book on the railway in front of me here but I think it included some basic dimensions for this trestle. By this point the shift in how coal was arriving has changed from arriving totally by water to now arriving by rail. Presumably coal would arrive in hoppers from the mainland. These hoppers were pushed up the trestle and the coal was dumped down into narrow gauge cars below. While I’ve been assuming box cars for carrying coal until now clearly this trestle would demand that the coal was loaded into gondolas or hopper cars. Likely these were hopper cars as the railway just didn’t have any narrow gauge hopper cars (as far as I know).

My next steps? I’m going to try and get down to the Archives. I want to look up some of the vintage insurance maps to see if there are any/many references to coal sheds or coal merchants on maps for PEI’s smaller communities. I expect I won’t see much as I think I’m reasonable in my assumption that coal was brought in and unloaded at a team track or public siding. That I’ve already found references to facilities in Elmira, Murray Harbour and Alberton however does intrigue me. It makes sense that the railway might have had these combined railway and commercial coal sheds in more places where engines would have been stored. Perhaps this assumption extends to places like Georgetown that had engine sheds. It seems reasonable that if the engines were stored there they’d need fuel and that fuel would need to be stored somewhere.

I’m looking forward to where this thread leads next. Cheers!



  1. There are images of one method that coal reached PEI for distribution. These images show the operations of the Large Bros. Coal Co – and show use of horse carts being loaded off a steamer in Charlottetown harbour. They are on Facebook

    1. Those are really cool photographs with a great story behind them. If the coal was unloaded from the ship to the shore, I wonder if it was then carted to the coalyard and then re-loaded it onto rail cars? Many other rail lines hauled coal in box cars and I wonder if this was done on PEI too?

      1. The various coal yards on the Charlottetown waterfront were generally supplying the local trade – businesses and homes a few ton at a time delivered to their coal shute. With the rail operations being a major consumer of coal themselves and with a capability to move it readily to all parts of the Island – they clearly had a capability to handle their own supply needs. As to what role they played in distributing product from the steamers and how they carried any product directly from the mainland is a good question. I always assumed that hopper cars were the means for hauling bulk coal – but if box cars were used elsewhere they may well have been used here as well. The expert on the PEI Railway is Allan Graham
        He wrote the book on the subject
        It is a great book if you don’t have a copy already – about 300 pictures that really tell the story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s