of Prince Edward Island
by Daniel McMurrer & David MacKinnon
Any boat named the Fairy Queen must have been special. The very name conjures visions of a golden hull gliding gently through sunbeams. Our Fairy Queen was a clapped out old dust bucket. “A clumsy, un-powered paddle-wheeler, she was leaky and had a bad habit of running into sandbars. Her crew was often rounded out at the last minute by whoever was hanging around the wharf willing to work for low wages” (PEI: An Unauthorized History 1996, 97).
The ship carried the government mail and had a regular route between Charlottetown and Pictou. Many people traveled by her as a quick way of getting to Nova Scotia.
Inexperienced in the ways of the sea, the captain of the Fairy Queen ordered that the steamer not sail at 6:00 a.m. but wait for the winds to die down. The crew took the opportunity to nip ashore for a few last-minute drinks. Finally, between 11 and 12 o’clock on that October 1853 morning the winds died down and the Fairy Queen sailed off into fairly smooth waters.
At about supper time, not far from Pictou, the ship’s steering rope broke, which it often did. The sailors along with the crew from the boiler rooms managed to repair the rope but forgot about keeping the boiler’s fires going. Fairy Queen now had steering, but no power. Fairy Queen was used to leaking, and relied on a steam pump connected to the main engines to keep her dry. To make matters even worse, the winds had picked up and the vessel became unmanageable.
“With the pump down, and with waves breaking over the hatches, the boat was in danger of foundering. Soon the water broke into the engine room, making it impossible to rekindle the boilers” (PEI: An Unauthorized History 1996, 98).
The Fairy Queen took on water quickly and the crew and passengers tried to bail the ever-rising sea.
The captain ordered for the large life boat (the bigger lifeboat was able to carry 24 and the smaller one 10). As it was launched, some of the crew, including the Second Mate, jumped into the lifeboat and drifted away from the steamer.
The Fairy Queen could not be saved, so the Captain decided to abandon ship. A call for the small lifeboat was made. Two crew, the women and the cabin boy were supposed to be in this lifeboat, but instead, the rest of the crew jumped in and cut it clear.
The Captain knew something had to be done so he tied himself to a rope, jumped into the cold water, and swam over to the large lifeboat, which was tied to the stern rail. He tried to convince the crew to return for the others and managed to persuade his Mate and crew to haul their boat back to the stricken steamer. They were within a few feet of the stern when a wave threw their boat against the Fairy Queen’s hull. The Second Mate had enough and took charge of the lifeboat, he decided to abandon the passengers, save himself and head for shore. The Captain protested, but a crewman, armed with a large oar, suggested otherwise. And so the lifeboats drifted ashore without the passengers and crew.
“The frantic passengers lined the rail, crying to be saved, but the mate sprang forward and cut the rope, heedful of the screams that fell about him and drowned out the very howl of the wind” (My Island, My People 1979, 110).
At midnight the Fairy Queen capsized, “she gave a lurch and broke in two, all were thrown into the water” (PEI: An Unauthorized History 1996, 118).
Only 9 of the 16 people left on board were strong enough to hold on to the wreckage and survive. Their battle was still not over as they spent 8 hours in the harsh sea before drifting ashore.
The next morning a rescue tug from Pictou came across the scene. The Fairy Queen’s bow was still floating at anchor. Her stern was bobbing peacefully a little distance away. There was no trace of survivors. Seven people, including all five women and the cabin boy, were dead.
Folklore has it that on October 7, 1853, residents of Charlottetown claimed that at midnight, at the exact moment the Fairy Queen gave into the angry sea, seven ghostly lights were seen entering the Kirk of St. James. One for each victim of the wreck.
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