A Salute to Some Old Steamers – Summer 1981


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The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Helen Ball

Passenger Steamer CAYUGA. Image from Alpena Public Library.

C-A-Y-U-G-A — as children we spelled it out every time we saw her a fine name for a fine steamer. Veterans of two World Wars will remember what a champion job she made of transporting troops to and from the military camp at Niagara-on-the-Lake. I learned to sail a dinghy when I was ten. An important fact, because it was the forerunner of a lifelong interest in boats. Toronto’s harbor was, and still is, a veritable theatre of docks and ships, plus sailing craft of all kinds, shapes and sizes.

So, come back with me seventy-five years when sailing on Toronto Bay in a homemade dinghy which was an education for my brothers and me — Dad and the weather were our teachers — in the unpredictability of wind, and the staying powers of fat jam sandwiches! It was a busy body of water. Lake steamers, carrying passengers and freight, made regular trips daily, there and back, to Hamilton, Port Dalhousie, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Queenston and various other ports of call. Their names “sing” in my memory — Macassa, Corona, Modjeska, Chicora, Lakeside, Garden City and the rest.

I close my eyes and see the Chippewa coming through the eastern gap, her walking beam instantly identifying her — or the Cayuga backing out of the slip at the foot of Yonge Street. I watch her turn slowly around, then proceed at half-speed through a conglomeration of small launches, sailing dinghies, ferry boats, a stonehooker or two, or maybe a tug towing a scow; and joy of joys, a fleet of yachts from the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, heading out into the Lake for the start of a race!

My eyes still closed, I look west. Is that the Macassa, the Modjeska or the Turbinia entering the western gap on her return trip from Hamilton? Ah, it’s the Turbinia, a real ocean-going ship propelled by a turbine engine and triple screws. Her prospective arrival had been reported in the newspaper: she had crossed the Atlantic in six days. We kids were excited, and the view of her from our dinghy couldn’t have been better. We waved our hats, and with our shouts joined in the cheering and whistle blowing by way of welcome! She was built overseas, and early in World War I was called home to England for special duty.

Of a Sunday School picnic at Port Dalhousie, I remember the crowded dock and the excitement of boarding the Dalhousie City, then the wild scramble to commandeer chairs, and a perfect spot in which to unfold them and settle down. She was less impressive than her sister, the Garden City, with her classier cabins and washrooms, but the Northumberland, another seagoing ship, was kinder to unseaworthy stomachs! She behaved like a lady, even in an equinoctial easterly.

Yes, in those days a boat trip was one of a summer’s highlights, whether across the Lake to Niagara and on up the River to Queenston (oh, that beautiful River), or west along the Lake to Hamilton. It was high adventure for both young and old.

Summers on Toronto Island lasted till I was middle-aged, and they left me with a love for wild weather, an interest in old ships and a special pleasure in the smell of fresh water. And now, at forescore years and three, that off-terra firma feeling of parading round the deck, the sound and look of a chugging engine — we always visited the engineroom — the silver-blue sparkle and freshwater smell of Lake Ontario are among the really good things I shall always remember!

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About the Author: Helen Murphy Ball, the author of these nostalgic reminiscences, is a sister of the late Rowley W. Murphy, a devoted, early member of our Society, a recognized Canadian artist, and a contributor to Inland Seas®.

Mrs. Ball began writing verse at an early age and states she has never stopped. She has compiled four chapbooks, is a Life Member of the Cana- dian Authors Association, and was a member for thirty years of the Toronto Pen Guild, no longer in operation. Her poetry and short articles, which she terms as mostly “slices of life “, have appeared in many publications. This is her first contribution to our Journal.


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