The Royal William and Stellarton coal

The first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean under steam power was done using Nova Scotian coal!

The Royal William, a combination sailing ship and sidewheel steamer, was built in Quebec in 1830 to travel a regular route between Quebec and Halifax. According to Reverend George Patterson’s “History of Pictou County,” written in 1877, “She was of 1,000 tons burden, and had engines of 180 horse power. This was considered enormous in those days, and in all the ports she visited she was regarded as a wonder.”

Patterson argued that Royal William’s size and construction cost were a problem: “Her first summer's work showed the folly of her builders. Not only was she far larger than was needed, but she was fitted up in a style of elegance, that would compare with the floating palaces of the Hudson or the Sound. On her first arrival, the editor of the Patriot pointed out the mistake that had been committed, and while advocating the enterprise, urged that the company should get a boat one quarter of the size, and fitted up in a substantial but plain style.”

The Royal William’s troubles started in 1832 when cholera “was raging in Quebec, and when she arrived in Miramichi, she had the disease on board, and was sent to quarantine, where the engineer died,” according to Patterson. “She only made one or two trips that season.”

The ship was then sold at a substantial loss – she had been built for 17,000 English pounds but sold for only one-third of that given her failure as a commercial enterprise. The new owners had the ship do a couple trips but then decided to send the Royal William to England to be sold.

On August 4, 1833, the Royal William sailed out of Quebec under Captain John McDougall. It stopped in Pictou to pick up 324 tons of coal mined in Stellarton by the General Mining Association, which had a monopoly on most Nova Scotia minerals from 1827-57.

According to Joseph Wilson Henry of Quebec City, who made castings (metal parts) for the Royal William, “…the Pictou coal was considered unequalled for steamboats….”

The Royal William left Pictou on August 18 on a 25-day voyage to England. When it arrived on September 12, it officially became the first ship to cross the Atlantic via steam power, the Stellarton coal having been used to power its steam engines.

Other ships had previously sailed across the Atlantic using a combination of steam and sail, but those ships mostly sailed and only used steam when there was no wind. The first of these to cross the Atlantic was the American ship, Savannah, which did it in 1819.

Captain McDougall later wrote, "She [Royal William] is justly entitled to be the first steamer that crossed the Atlantic by steam, having steamed the whole way across."

As Reverend Patterson put it, “…a Canadian built ship, sailing from Pictou, first proved the practicability of ocean steam navigation, and introduced a new era in the trade of the world.”

The Royal William was eventually sold to the Spanish navy and renamed Ysabel Segunda. The first cannon ever fired from a steamship was on the Isabel Segunda in 1836, another historical distinction for the ship.

The Royal William played another important role in Nova Scotia’s history because one of the shareholders in the Quebec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company, which built the ship, was Nova Scotian shipping magnate Samuel Cunard. Cunard visited the ship repeatedly when it was in port in Halifax, asking endless questions about her. According to J. C. Dantner, second engineer on the ship, Cunard “lost no opportunity to enquire every particular regarding her speed, sea qualities, consumption of fuel; carefully noting down all the information obtained.”

In the 1830s, steamers were mostly being used in rivers and inland waterways because it was believed that their paddlewheels could not withstand the open ocean – it was feared that one big wave could smash them. It was not obvious at that time that coal-powered steam engines would replace sails as the best way to cross the Atlantic.

The Royal William’s successful trip from Pictou to England helped convince Cunard that steamships were the way of the future. Cunard went on to win the contract for the first regular service that carried mail between England and North America on steamships.

Cunard’s shipping empire eventually included famous ships such as the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and still operates today as a cruise line.

Samuel Cunard is best-known for shipping but he was also heavily involved in mining, serving as the Nova Scotia agent for the General Mining Association. See the story at

Cunard’s son William played an important role in the gold rush at the Ovens, which is why the beach there is still called Cunard Beach. See the story at