This Week in History


Winter Crossing: Ice Boats in the Northumberland Strait

For the Week of Monday, December 19, 2016

On December 19, 1827, the ice boat service made its first trip between Cape Traverse, Prince Edward Island, and Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to deliver the mail and transport passengers.

Ice boats ready to cross the Northumberland Strait
©Public Archives and Records Office / Acc2301/273 / circa 1900

At that time, ice boats were the fastest and most reliable mode of transportation between the two provinces during the winter, especially since the first underwater telephone cable was not installed until 1910. The ice boat service made the 15 km trip for 90 years, from 1827 to 1917.

In 1829, the government agreed to make the ice boats a more regular service. In 1886, people who wanted to cross the Northumberland Strait aboard an ice boat had to pay $6. However, the crossing could be made for $3 if the passenger agreed to assist the crew during the crossing!

Ice boats were about 5 metres long by 2 metres wide, and were very light so they would be easy to navigate over the ice. The metal hull was strong in the ice. The crew consisted of four or five men in addition to the captain. The crew, who were harnessed to the boat as a safety precaution, usually pushed the ice boat. Sometimes paddles, oars or a sail were used to cross the unfrozen stretches of the strait.

The ice boat commemoration site in Cape Traverse, Prince Edward Island
©Parks Canada Agency / Agence Parc Canada

The crossings were very difficult at times, and often risky. In March 1885, a snowstorm immobilized three ice boats, with 15 crew members and seven passengers. They spent the night in the middle of the frozen strait, using the boats as shelters against the gusts of wind and snow. No deaths resulted from this misadventure.

Despite the danger posed by the winter crossings, only one passenger and one crew member lost their lives in the 90 years of operation. Finally, in 1917, the government introduced an icebreaker ferry service between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. This marked the end of the ice boat service, as the ferry was safer, faster and more reliable.

The ice boats are a national historic event commemorated in Cape Traverse, Prince Edward Island. To learn more about the history of Prince Edward Island, read The Seventh Province and "The Alpine Path" in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada. Find out more about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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