A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

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The Messenger Pigeon Service

Following the work of Dorothea Dix, an increasing public interest in marine search and rescue resulted in a chain of shore-based lifeboats from the Atlantic Provinces to the Great Lakes and, in due course, to the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Before describing this interesting renaissance, mention must be made of the pigeon messenger service, an odd facet of the long struggle to save ships and men from the insatiable appetite of Sable Island.

In these days of instantaneous communication, a first reaction is to treat the pigeon service with something less than the serious intent which lay behind its inception; the facts are that in the nineteenth century many nations had experimented at great length with pigeon messengers, not least by the military, and the despatch of a pigeon from the scene of human disaster, lacking as it did the certainty of modern telecommunication, at least encouraged hope and banished despair.

In the early eighteen nineties, Major-General Donald Roderick Cameron, then Commandant of the Royal Military College at Kingston, wrote a paper entitled "Messenger Pigeons, a National Question" in which he covered the subject at great length envisaging a day when an international pigeon service, if lacking the regularity of the modern air carrier, might at least be credited with some of the services to which we have now become accustomed by that means. General Cameron had married the daughter of Sir Charles Tupper, and his brother-in-law, Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper, was Minister of Marine and Fisheries when the general advocated a pigeon policy. Not unnaturally, marine aspects of the matter were by no means neglected.

In these circumstances, when a scheme was placed jointly in the hands of the marine agent at Halifax and the signal officers of the Royal Engineers at the Citadel, it was carried through with more than the usual dedication and enthusiasm.

"A loft was prepared on the south store at the marine wharf, according to the detailed specifications forwarded by General Cameron. It is divided into two compartments, one for free birds and the other for those to be kept in confinement. . . . ."

Some two dozen birds were specially imported from Liverpool, England, where the fancy was especially strong among the industrial and mill workers of those parts. The credentials of the new flight were impressive, commencing with:

"No. 1 Red Chequer, squeaker, Mr. Cottless No. 11, from dam No. 5 below, which flew from Card (138 miles) in London Flying Club 1889 Young Bird Races, and a splendid mealy cock lost at Marston (95 miles) last week. . . . ."

To a long list of birds, carefully arranged in order of value by reputation, a gift of six of the best Belgian breed, donated by Count de Bury of Saint John, N.B., added a certain Continental flair to the undoubted stamina of a northern pedigree.

With the loft inhabited, the question of management and administration became paramount:

"As none of the employees of the Department here had any special knowledge of the care and training of homing pigeons, the services of Mr. Downs, the well known and experienced naturalist, were secured on 16th., August."

With professional custody assured, for which services Mr. Downs received $100 annually, attention could be turned to an equally essential but more mundane task, and Mr. Neal, the storekeeper for Marine and Fisheries, was detailed to clean out the loft.

Mr. Downs, the eminent naturalist, acting for the marine agent, Mr. Johnston, reported to the Minister on January 12, 1891:

"I make two or three visits to the station each week, and make necessary examinations and enquiries as to the food of the birds, their conditions as to cleanliness etc., and I have much pleasure in bearing testimony to the fact that Mr. Neal and his assistant give all due attention to their duties."

Nor were the military officers any less diligent. Colonel Goldie, Assistant Adjutant General and Major Waldron of the Royal Artillery, together with Captain Dopping-Hepenstal of the Royal Engineers:

". . . . took much interest in the subject of messenger pigeons, hoping that they may be made available for communication between look-out stations at lighthouses on islands and the main-land a matter of much difficulty at present and of much importance in wartime."

Thus encouraged, and with a regular training plan, the unit settled down to serious work. Unfortunately there was a heavy mortality among the pigeons, many never returned from operations, and few were able to complete the difficult flight to Sable Island.

With these matters on his mind General Cameron, in response to a telegram from the Minister, visited Halifax in August 1891. The situation was ominous.

"While some of the unsatisfactory results may be due to lack of proper attention, I think it is mainly due to the circumstance that Mr. Downs who is officially responsible and alone receives remuneration in connection with the loft with all his desire to make progress and his great experience and interest in all that concerns natural history, is not physically fitted, at his age, to do what is needed. For these reasons I submit that Mr. Downs should be relieved of the charge of the loft and sole control transferred to Storekeeper Neal to whose pay some addition, say a dollar a week, should be made."

In the face of this bold and economic measure, matters improved for a while but worse was to come. The birds could not be persuaded to work the Sable Island run in accordance with the plan and, faced with these difficulties, the loft was moved from the Marine and Fisheries wharf to the Citadel and military control. Regretfully dispensing with the help of Mr. Neal, whose duties were taken over by Sergeant Mulholland aided by Private Weaver, and owing to the transfer of Captain Dopping-Hepenstal, the directorship was placed under Captain Mills of the Royal Engineers, Superintendent of Signals.

Sea training resumed; in the Government ship Newfield, Sergeant Mulholland and Private Weaver, together with a Private Tansey whose role is not recorded, spent countless days rolling around between Halifax and Sable Island, only to record that:

". . . the birds seem to be put off their course, and much worried with sea gulls, these latter flying up to and circling round with the pigeons."

It was highly disturbing because:

"The weather was most favourable, but notwithstanding this fact the birds acted very badly and hung around the island for hours; two hours after liberation 6 were counted resting on a building, and at 2 p.m. next day, one was observed in the rigging of the Newfield."

One bird in particular, H 190, gave cause for grave concern, arriving at its loft:

". . . on Tuesday 24th., inst., 22 days after being liberated."

One wonders whether the Lancashire strain had been affected by the Belgian influence but, at any rate, it was clear that the difficulties were immense.

Faced with these events, it was only a matter of time, despite a last ditch stand by Captain Kent, who had succeeded Captain Mills, to shift the operation to an entirely new base at Canso, that the Messenger Pigeon Service should be dropped. It was discontinued in October 1895.