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New book tells story behind ship that sailed delegates to Charlottetown conference

“Canadian Confederate Cruiser: The Story of the Steamer Queen Victoria” tells the story of the ship that bore witness to the birth of Canada.
“Canadian Confederate Cruiser: The Story of the Steamer Queen Victoria” tells the story of the ship that bore witness to the birth of Canada. - Elizabeth Patterson

BADDECK, N.S. - In 1856, the steamer Queen Victoria, as well as her sister ship Napoleon, each made quick stops in Sydney on their maiden voyages to their new home, Quebec City, on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

They refuelled with coal and continued to their destinations, but it wouldn’t be the Queen Victoria’s last voyage to Atlantic Canada; eight years later the ship took the Fathers of Confederation from Quebec to Charlottetown and back again for the Charlottetown conference.

It would be a historic trip but, unfortunately for the Queen Victoria, the ship wouldn’t make it to the actual birth of Canada in 1867, thanks to a hurricane off Cape Hatteras which sank the vessel.

While the crew and passengers were rescued by the American brig Ponvert, what happened next is disputed until this very day. For Baddeck-based author John G. Langley, it was a story that needed to be told.

“I wrote it because you haven’t heard of it,” said Langley, a retired lawyer and founder of the Cunard Steamship Society.

“The story has not been told. It’s a story about a ship but it’s the story of the founding of our nation.”

The bell from the ship had been given to its rescuers for saving the lives of its crew and passengers. The captain from the Ponvert gave it to a school in Prospect Harbour, Maine, where it rang children to class for 75 years. In 1953, it was presented to the local women’s club and in 2003, it went to the town of Gouldsboro, Maine, where it remains.

While the bell gathered dust in Maine, in the 1960s during planning for Canada’s 100th birthday, organizers began lobbying to have the bell returned to Canada due to its role in taking people to the Charlottetown conference in 1864. But their pleas had little impact on those looking after the bell in Maine.

Although it has made the occasional trip north to be displayed and a replica has been supplied to Charlottetown, the bell is still in U.S. possession, which remains controversial.

Langley says the fact the story is ongoing made it interesting to him to write.

“Around 2008, I was lecturing as a guest lecturer on the QE II, which was the former flagship of the Cunard line, we were going up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City and I was thinking about this little Queen Victoria ship but had no idea I would write the story nor that the story would be as big as it became.

“As I started to research the details of the ship a few years later with the intent to write about it, the realization that there was an ongoing international situation involving the bell whetted my appetite for the bigger story and to produce the whole book. It took a couple of years to put it all together … what kept my interest is the ongoing story — it’s still going on as we speak,” said Langley. “The final chapter has not been written yet on that one.”

However, the final chapter has been written on Langley’s next book which looks at the life of Casey Baldwin, which will be published later this year, just in time for the 100th anniversary of Baldwin flying the HD-4 (hydrodome number 4, an early research hydrofoil watercraft developed by Alexander Graham Bell) to a world speed record on Baddeck Bay on Sept. 9, 1919.

“We hope to launch the book on the same day,” said Langley. “A lot of people will recognize a lot of things because there are personalities from Cape Breton in it and it’s really a story about us.”

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