St. Lawrence Steamboat Days – Winter 1951
The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Frederick C. Curry
Steam navigation on the St. Lawrence River followed very closely on Robert Fulton’s invention. In 1809 just two years after the Clermont made her first trip on the Hudson river, a Canadian steamer, the Accommodation ran from Montreal to Quebec. It was fourteen more years before the first steamboat was built on Lake Ontario. This was the Frontenac launched at Finkle’s Point near Bath, a few miles west of Kingston, on September 7, 1816 a year ahead of her American rival the Ontario, launched at Sackett’s Harbour early in 1817. A comparison of the two boats is interesting. The Frontenac was 170 feet long and 700 tons gross while the Ontario was only 110 feet long and 24 feet beam and rated at 237 tons. The latter ship tried weekly trips from Ogdensburg to Lewiston but finding this distance, 600 miles, too much for her speed, which seldom exceeded 5 miles per hour, the frequency was changed to ten days. She continued to run till 1832 when she was broken up at Oswego. The Frontenac ran from Prescott to York until 1837 when she in turn was broken up.
By this time there were numerous steamers plying the river between Prescott and Lake Ontario which is the region this sketch attempts to cover. Some became famous or notorious, according to one’s national or political leanings. For example, the United States, built in Ogdensburg in 1831 at a cost of $56,000, became so unpopular with Canadians as a result of her part in the Battle of the Windmill in 1838 that she was withdrawn from service on this part of the river.
But we are getting ahead of our story. There was for example the Robert Peel built at Brockville at a cost of $44,000 and burned to the water’s edge the year before by the self styled “Admiral of the 1000 Islands” the notorious Bill Johnston, during the so called Patriot War of 1837. Bill also took part in the attempt to capture Prescott which has been dignified with the title of the “Battie of the Windmill,” but only a minor part, for he was in command of a schooner which he stranded on a bar in Ogdensburg harbour. Then he became stranded himself on another kind of bar in Ogdensburg itself while the invasion continued without him. No picture of the Robert Peel seems to exist, but the contemporary steamers that took part in the battle, the Cobourg, Experiment and Victoria seem to have abandoned the tall masts and yards of sailing rig and developed full length deck cabins and two tall funnels. The burning of the Peel was said to have been in revenge for the destruction of the Caroline at Niagara the year before. However, we are not concerned with political implications but rather with the development of vessels employed on the river.
In 1813 a steamboat the Swiftsure was running between Montreal and Quebec City in twenty-two hours; and in 1820 the Kingston Chronicle announced the arrival of the Dalhousie, built at Prescott and making seven miles an hour with a twenty horse power engine of local make. In the rapids section of the river progress was slower. The Neptune ran between Cornwall and Coteau from 1828 to 1840 and even tried to ascend the Long Sault rapids, narrowly escaping being capsized. The Iroquois, fitted with a stern wheel like the Mississippi steamers, ran between Prescott and Dickinson Landing (above the Long Sault) as early as 1830, apparently being able to ascend the Rapid Plat and the Galops. And in 1848, after the opening of the Cornwall canal, which permitted vessels to by-pass the Long Sault, the steamer George Frederic successfully ran the twelve miles of this turbulent rapid in twenty-five minutes.
These were the days when the town of Brockville, my present home, flourished. The Grand Trunk Railway had completed its line from Montreal to this town in 1854 and there was a gap of 100 miles to Belleville where the line for Toronto ended. Between the two stretches of railroad a line of steamships plied and as they carried the mail, became known as the “mailboats,” a term that lasted long after they ceased to function as such. A tunnel under Brockville enabled another railway to bring lumber and other products of the Ottawa valley to the St. Lawrence for shipment eastward, and a picture map published in 1874 shows not only all this activity but also a tugboat with two schooners in tow, the tugboat being evidently a propeller.
These tows of two or three snub-nosed schooners filled with coal were a common sight along the waterfront when I was a boy and we knew them as familiarly as the schoolboy of today knows the new cars on the street. One line in particular was so famous for its decrepit vessels that a story was current that the owner, meeting in Ogdensburg one of his captains gloriously drunk and heading for his ship, stopped to reprimand him. But the captain was at the stage when truths come out and answered, “By Gar, Mr. —–, you don’t think I sail in your boat if I’m sober?”
At that time there were still occasional rafts of timber going down the river and one of my earliest memories of “boating” was of my father suddenly appearing during business hours and snatching me almost from my mother’s arms to place me as ballast in the bow of his canoe and paddle out to meet a raft that he had heard, by the grape vine route, was coming down the river. Being a powerful paddler we were soon alongside and while he chatted with old friends among the river drivers the crew fed me, literally ad nauseam, so that the first thing I did on being restored to my mother was to lose my lunch. Then we were both in the dog-house! But it was an opportunity that never came again. I was a bit older before I took to steam. The occasion was a trip to Toronto with my mother and for some reason we took ship at Kingston on the Corsican, one of the old Richelieu & Ontario Line. I believe we followed the old route along the north shore of the lake by way of the Bay of Quinte and the Murray Canal as this territory seemed vaguely familiar to me when I traversed it again many years later. I was only a small boy and the high light of the trip was a military funeral in Toronto of a Major Mutton. My mother’s people being military turned out en masse to see “Uncle Joe’s” regiment burying their second in command. It was a cold October day and as the casket passed by a callous bystander remarked that it was “pretty cold mutton.”
These were the halcyon days of steamboating on the St. Lawrence. The R. & 0. Line had at least two other steamers operating on the Toronto-Montreal route that I have described. These were the Bohemian and the Algerian. They ran all the rapids between Prescott and Montreal, returning by the canals. There were also a number of propellers carrying package freight and passengers between Hamilton and Montreal, such as the Ocean, Persia, Dundum and City of Hamilton. These were high unwieldy vessels and being too great a draught to navigate the rapids travelled the canals, yet seemed to have no lack of passengers, possibly timid souls to whom the rapids did not appeal.
Among local ships was the car ferry W. H. Armstrong which connected the railways at Brockville with the Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg line at Morristown, New York. She filled once owing to improper loading and sank in 80 feet of water with the loss of one life, that of an agent for the New York Central Railway, but was raised and continued in service for many years. The Thousand Island Steamboat Company operated three steamers between Kingston and Ogdensburg, the America, Empire State and St. Lawrence. They carried orchestras on board and were equipped with the recently invented searchlight, so became very popular for moonlight cruises among the islands. This line was afterwards bought by the Folgers of Kingston.
Out of Alexandria Bay, then in the height of its fame as a summer resort, ran two fast propellers, the New Island Wanderer and Island Belle, making daily trips between Clayton and Ogdensburg, the vessels passing each other near Brockville. So successful were they that a third was added, the Massena. She continued on this route till 1903 when she was destroyed by lightning at Ogdensburg. They were owned then by Holmes Bros. of that city. Another vessel made a short appearance on this route, the Unique. She was very narrow and fast but heeled dangerously on sharp turns and so was not popular when her captain demonstrated her abilities by unnecessary evolutions. I believe she afterwards overturned in the Grass River with an excursion on board.
Not to be outdone Brockville people built a vessel of similar type, named the Brockville, after their town, which served the needs of the cottagers on the north shore of the river and enabled them to commute to their work. She also ran moonlight excursions to Alexandria Bay when the islands were a veritable fairyland as each cottager vied with his neighbor in outlining his home in colored electric lights. Other favorite trips were down the rapids to Sheek’s Island just above Cornwall where a magnificent view of the Long Sault could be had, or by way of Kingston and the Rideau Canal to Westport, the terminus of the Brockville & Westport Railway. Here the vessel discharged her passengers, who returned by rail, while she picked up another load of those who had made the trip out by railway.
The propellers were fast driving the paddle boats off the river because being easier handled they could navigate such narrow passages among the islands as the “Lost Channel” and the “Fiddler’s Elbow.” Up to this time the paddle steamers had all been of the walking beam type with vertical cylinders and usually with low pressure boilers. Their general design was that of the Rothesay, who won short fame by colliding with the tug Myra near Prescott and foundering.
In 1899 the Richelieu & Ontario line (later the Canada Steamship Company) launched a new vessel at Toronto which they named after that city. The Toronto was the first three-decked cabin boat on the river and was fitted with horizontal engines and feathering paddle-wheels which gave her a speed of twenty miles an hour. She ran on a new route crossing the lake from Toronto to Charlotte and then back to Kingston, Ontario and on through the islands, calling at Alexandria Bay, Brockville and Prescott. In 1906 she broke the record established by the Northerner in 1850 by running from the Bay to Brockville in 68 minutes, the Northerner’s time for the 24 mile run being 72 minutes. So successful was she that in 1901 a sister ship the Kingston was launched. She was ten feet longer and had thirty more staterooms, being a twin funnel vessel but the funnels were fore and aft instead of abeam as had been the custom on the older boats.
Daily service was established between Toronto and Brockville where passengers were transferred to the Rapids Prince, an equally luxurious propeller which ran all the rapids between Prescott and Montreal, returning by the canals. In some parts of the river, between the rapids, this vessel attained a speed of thirty-five miles an hour, as accurately as could be checked by driving alongside in a car. At Montreal another transfer was available to those wishing to travel to Quebec or the Saguenay River. This was travel deluxe and soon rivalled Niagara Falls as a honeymoon journey.
In 1937 owing to failing traffic, for which the motor car was mostly to blame, the Toronto was withdrawn and a tri-weekly service maintained by the Kingston until 1950 when following the terrible Noronic disaster a decision had to be made to remodel at great expense or build a new vessel. Neither course was followed and she too was headed for the wreckers, thus ending a full century of passenger service on the river. Appropriately enough the new postage stamp issued this year by the Canadian Postal Service to commemorate their centenary, shows one of the early paddle steamers, the City of Toronto, and on the paddle-box can be read, with a magnifier, the proud title Royal Mail Boat.
Another steamer with a long record on this part of the river was the Britannic of the Montreal & Cornwall Navigation Company. Built in Scotland in 1868 as the tug Rocket for the Allan Line, her 150 foot iron hull was equipped with a double walking beam engine to combat the heavy currents encountered in towing schooners up the lower St. Lawrence. In 1892 she was converted to a private yacht for the owner and one engine removed and in 1898, after another conversion to a cabin passenger vessel, was sold and ran between Montreal and Cornwall. Later she was sold to Collingwood interests and ran between that port and Owen Sound as the Britannic of Collingwood. Then in 1909 she was brought down from the Upper Lakes and put on the Montreal-Kingston run, making a weekly trip that gave Montreallers a five day cruise for the modest sum of $25, a bargain even in those days as the meals and accommodations while plain were good.
From Brockville the Britannic ran a Friday excursion to Kingston that was very popular and the owner being unable to find a local agent persuaded my father, an old friend of his, to act in this capacity. So I found myself, as junior apprentice in the drug-store, on the dock each week with a handful of tickets to sell. It had its reward both in commissions and the friendships I made among the crew and passengers, many of whom took the trip year after year, and I had the run of the boat. She was the last walking-beam vessel to run out of this port and her low pressure cylinder, about 30 inches in diameter and nearly six feet tall was an impressive sight. According to her engineer she could run as soon as the water was hot enough to shave with, and she had no reverse gear. To achieve this result the paddlewheel had to be stopped on dead centre and a steel lever set in a hole through the shaft that worked the valves. This was then turned and steam readmitted so that the wheel began to revolve in the opposite direction. A tedious operation and the cause of much profanity when, as sometimes happened, the mate muffed a landing and called for too many reverses on the “pip” whistle that took the place of an engine bell or telegraph. There were other times when the purser and I sat on each side of the chief to make sure he interpreted the bells properly and to prod him into taking action. There seemed to be a constant war between the engine-room and the deck and a lot of fluent but untranslatable French flowed up and down the open space through which the piston operated the walking-beam.
These happy days were interrupted, first by my wandering off to college and later by the outbreak of war in 1914.
On my way up and down to college I used to see the derelict hull of the old Knapp Roller Boat in Ashbridge’s Bay, now a part of Fleet Street, Toronto. This vessel, perhaps the oddest that ever floated on the broad St. Lawrence, looked like nothing so much as an oversized ship’s boiler lying half out of the water.
This vessel, the first patents for which were issued in 1898, was the invention of a Prescott lawyer who hoped to achieve the speed of 100 miles an hour by rolling over the surface of the water instead of plowing through it in the conventional manner. So he obtained his patent and sold enough stock to build a full sized model. The hull consisted of a double walled cylinder with truncated ends provided with longitudinal fins making it an elongated paddlewheel. The cargo, crew, and engine occupied a platform inside this cylinder and by means of gears working on the squirrel-cage principle the hull was made to revolve and roll through the water. Smoke pipes issued from the ends of the hull but how the affair was steered defies the writer’s memory. The vessel only made two trips, once across the river to Ogdensburg and the other to Brockville. Neither was a success, for on the first occasion the craft rolled up on the sandbar in Ogdensburg harbour and had to be towed off and on the second (a year later, September 24, 1902) the vessel took so long appearing that most of the crowd awaiting her arrival at Brockville dispersed.
I was barely back from college when the First World War broke out and as I was a member of the reserve army I was not surprised to find myself on the bridge of the Donaldson Line Cassandra when she pulled out of Quebec on September 22, 1914 as the signaling officer of the 2nd Battalion East Ontario Regiment. We slid silently down the river by night, the searchlights from the forts following us like the streamers thrown to passenger vessels on happier sailings, but there were no bands and no music.
It was nearly two years later when I made a return trip up the St. Lawrence, this time in charge of two hundred wounded men being sent home. I had been wounded myself but was on furlough and had “worked my ticket” to get this appointment so that I could visit my home. There was great activity on the river but passenger business had fallen to a new low and package freight was more important. Strange sights were seen on the river such as vessels cut in half to pass down the canals, the halves to be reunited at Sorel or some other shipyard. This method of getting oversized freighters out to the Atlantic was also followed in the last war. When the war ended I resumed my task as the Britannic’s agent and made frequent trips on her to Kingston and Montreal. The purser like myself was a veteran and we formed a friendship that outlasted the vessel. She passed up the river to be wrecked in 1938 and may have travelled to China or Japan as scrap. In which case she may have figured in the naval war, a sad ending for a ship with so many happy memories. The Noronic tragedy definitely ended steamboating on the St. Lawrence. It seemed hardly believable that this fine vessel, which had made trips down our way in 1932 and ’33 could possibly have burned so completely. It is doubtful if the gasoline propelled tour boats that now dot the river are any safer, though we have had no tragedies as yet in spite of the many instances of cabin-cruisers exploding or taking fire.
But the river is still a great highway. Strange vessels have passed our doors; a German submarine, the replica of the Santa Maria, the convict ship, Success, Admiral Byrd’s City of New York and others on their way to and from Chicago, in the years between 1918 and 1939. Today our chief interest is in the smart Dutch and Norwegian vessels such as those of the Fjell Line. Ships change but truly Old Man River just keeps rollin’ along.
Read More of Inland Seas Online
This article first appeared in Inland Seas in Winter 1951.