A NEW ERA OF CONTAINER SHIPPING
Vapors rise from the turbines and gravpumps of the Davidson, a container ship pictured here moored at the Saint John Lev Depot on the morning of September 19th, 2023. Formerly the Old Essex, it was re-purposed and re-christened to run consumer goods between the Port City and the Miramichi Metropolitan District as part of Wellspring’s Portageur Program, which was instrumental in combating the risk of loss posed by an ageing, near-defunct merchant fleet.
With a maximum capacity of approximately five thousand containers, the Davidson made the trip up or down river once every two days, allowing for a full cycle of loading, unloading, refueling, and maintaining the vessel. It was a direct response to the burgeoning energy industry that was transforming the interior of the province; much of the material and equipment from the container ship was subsequently transported across NB-108 (known colloquially as ‘The Renous Highway’ or ‘The Plaster Rock Highway’ by the residents at either end) to drillsites in the foothills of the Appalachian mountain range.
Through the Portageur Program, Wellspring was able to rapidly expand regional shipping by retro-fitting international liners at the end of their operational life. Ships such as the Davidson, once capable of hauling in excess of ten thousand containers across the open ocean, were gutted in order to be retrofitted with the anti-grav, engine, and propulsion systems necessary for regional cargo runs. Although it represented a large sacrifice in container volume compared to purpose built designs, the Portageur Fleet granted new functionality to vessels which otherwise would have been decommissioned and scrapped.
SONGS IN THE SHADOWS OF WHALES
The modifications to the Davidson and its generation were far from perfect. They were designed in accordance with all standards of safety, environmental, and quality of life, but unanticipated flaws quickly became apparent during their operation. Crew members were said to have an anecdote for every voyage; Marvel Oxbow, Boatswain of the Davidson between 2023 and 2028, described in his memoirs an incident that was, in his words, “happening twice a trip at least.”
A pump would fail because of a fault in the power distribution, and when it did, the ship would list over in that direction. All it took was a hard cycle whenever it happened, but it was such a frequent problem on all of the Portageur ships that there was a big push for a permanent fix from the crews and maintenance personnel. When the cost analysis was done, it was determined that a permanent fix, involving a complete tear-down and refit of several systems aboard every converted vessel, would be unjustifiably expensive, especially considering that profit losses were minimal, and the concern was primarily with quality of life. The human cost was the least important variable in any of their equations.
– Marvel Oxbow, Birds of Iron, Men of Air (2050)
More infamous than the problems below deck were the problems beneath the hull. Many, if not all, of the ships in the Portageur fleet emitted a high-pitched hum at the limits of their operational capabilities, when the machinery began to resonate through the superstructure and cranes. This was largely drowned out by equipment and noise dampeners for the crew members on board, but the people living along the intra-provincial routes such as that of the Davidson were exposed to levels of noise pollution for which they were entirely unprepared. The vessels were nicknamed ‘whales’, both for their bulk and their high-pitched ‘songs’; originally a sardonic poke at the inland residents over whose homes they passed (“Were you doing any whale-watching today?”), the term may have become one of endearment, even fostering a tourist industry, were it not for their speed. At a mean speed of 5.4 knots (10kph), it took the Davidson almost twenty hours to make a one-way trip, leaving it hanging in the air above residential areas for, in some cases, the better part of an hour.
Public opinion was split largely down the middle. Those directly affected by the ‘whalesong’ were joined in protest efforts by sectarian environmentalists and leftist activists, but the rest of the population were either in favor of, or at worst ambivalent toward, the Portageur Program. Calls for regulation gave way to class action lawsuits, which in turn were quashed by corporate arbiters. Long term studies proved there was some merit to claims of induced tinnitus, at which point the Davidson and the rest of the Atlantic Leviathans had already been retired and replaced with next gen tech.
All biographical information obtained through the Dictionary of Canadian Biography
The C.S. Davidson was named for William Davidson (né John Godsman), one of the original Scottish settlers of the Miramichi area. Born around 1740, Godsman became involved in Scotland’s fishing industry before immigrating to Nova Scotia in 1765 to pursue business opportunities in the New World, whereupon he changed his name to Davidson. A summer visit to the Miramichi river resulted in the entrepreneur’s application for 100,000 acres of land there, with rights to the fish and lumber industries, which was granted on the condition that he and his partner John Cort develop and arrange for settlement of the land.
Davidson’s career was illustrious but plagued by bad luck and unfortunate circumstance. He quickly developed the fishing, trading, shipbuilding, and lumber industries along the Miramichi river; however, the first ship built at the blossoming settlement, a schooner named the Miramichi, disappeared near the Spanish coast, and her sister ship was lost to rocks off the coast of St. John’s Island (now Prince Edward Island). Not long afterward, his contracts in the lumber industry were disrupted by the American revolution, and the settlement was raided by Mi’kmaq groups acting at the behest of rebel sympathizers such as John Allan. Following the war, as the British government struggled to relocate the loyalists flooding into Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Davidson was determined to have failed in fulfilling the conditions of his original grant, and it was escheated, to be replaced with a meagre 14,540 acres.
The setbacks, while considerable, were not enough to break Davidson’s entrepreneurial spirit. He redoubled his efforts at settling his new grant, and used the land as collateral in order to rebuild his businesses, securing contracts which clients including the British navy. By 1789, the year before his death, his three sawmills were running at maximum yield to provide masts and yards for the fleet. But February of 1790 brought a severe storm which caught Davidson as he was snowshoeing on the frozen river, forcing him to bury himself in a haystack on the shore. He never recovered from the exposure, and succumbed after several months of illness.
Davidson’s unwavering dedication to enterprise, and his relentless persistence in the face of adversity, lives on through the vessel that bears his name, lovingly restored and on display at the Wellspring Archival Headquarters.