By Brian Roulston
Once hundreds of steamboats navigated the inland seas from the St. Lawrence Canal to the western beaches of Lake Superior. Without those floating workhorses of the nineteenth century, it would not have been possible to carry such large quantities of people or cargo. At least in part, the railroad owes its existence to the steamer for the transportation of railroad ties and tracks. Together, the steamer and the railroad were vital to the Industrial Revolution and the establishment of the Canadian and American West.
Robert Fulton introduced the first commercially successful steamboat, the Claremont, on the Hudson River between New York City and Albany in 1817. A decade later, Frontenac, the first steamboat on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes was launched at Finkle’s Point, near Kingston. Small and slow, it could do no more than 7 knots on a peaceful, sunny day. For nearly 10 years, Frontenac made runs from Preston to Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton along the beach strip to Niagara, seldom turning a profit.
Acceptance of the steamboat was slow. Commerce was not enough to justify investing in such large and highly-priced watercraft. Early steamers, owned by fur traders or small investors, hauled trinkets, furs and pelts for trade between naval posts, indigenous people and the merchants.
The steamers were slower than the sailboats of the day. However, sailboats relied heavily on wind and currents for their every movement. Early steamboats carried a few passengers and very little freight, simply because the paddle wheels and the machinery to move them took up most of the space. In the 1850s, new steamships appeared on the Great Lakes – John Ericsson’s invention of the submersible propeller was faster and took up less space than the paddle wheel allowing more room for passengers, new amenities and cargo.
Starting in 1841, mail steamers regularly carried mail from Kingston to Montréal, and from Montréal to Québec City. In 1852 these services were put on an interconnecting schedule and extended to the head of Lake Ontario to speed up the mail from the Canadian west. By 1865 there were mail steamboats on the Upper Great Lakes connecting Parry Sound, Collingwood, Sault Ste Marie and Fort William with the US Postal Service. Sorting mail was done onboard the steamers, eliminating some of the dead time and post-office handling.
The Hamilton Steamboat Company, formed in 1887, operated in Burlington Bay with little to no opposition for the first 30 years. Passengers rarely waited for more than an hour at the John Street dock for one of their steamers: Mazeppa, Macassa or Modjeska to take them to their destinations.
The first steamboat of the Hamilton Steamboat Company was the 3-year-old Mazeppa bought from the Toronto Island Ferry Service. The coal-fired 31-metre-long steamboat was burnt in the Great Toronto Esplanade Fire during the early hours of August 3rd, 1885. She was rebuilt and made afternoon trips to Hamilton’s most popular swimming destination at the time, Wabasso Beach aka LaSalle Park. During the cooler months, Mazeppa ran commuter service between Hamilton and Toronto several times daily. In1900, after nearly 14 years of service, the vessel was sold to the Owen Sound Transportation Company and transported fun-seekers to Balm Beach, a favoured summer resort for locals.
On the heels of their success with the Mazeppa, the Hamilton Steamboat Company ordered a new $60,000 vessel, Macassa, capable of carrying 700 passengers. Captain Charles B. Hardie passed through the Burlington Canal after a 20-day journey, at 6:00am on June 8th,1889, from the boat builders of William and Hamilton Co. of Glasgow, Scotland. She was almost forty-six metres long, with a beam of seven metres. Onboard that day had been Hardie and his 22 crew members, four stowaways, a scotch pony and a canine for the company’s president.
Macassa was designed to be the finest steamboat ever to cruise Lake Ontario. The front saloon consisted of carved and polished hardwood panels. The staircases were mahogany. The eating room chairs came with lush crimson velvet. Silk curtains and large plate-glass windows gave daylight and ventilation. One of the most modern coal-fired steam engines of its day produced up to 1100 horsepower.
Macassa became a local celebrity; postcards of her were mailed by the thousands to friends and family all across Europe. Vacationers and commuters desired to journey on the steamer – it was comfortable, good-looking, secure and sturdy, even in the most arduous weather.
Macassa and the third steamer the Modjeska regularly ran trips through the hot summers to popular spots such as LaSalle Park and the Burlington beach strip, Lakeside Park in Pt. Dalhousie, and to the C.N.E. grounds in Toronto. Annual trips to Grimsby during the harvest season transported fruits and vegetables to Toronto.
In 1904, anticipating fierce competition from the larger and faster Turbinia, Macassa went to Collingwood to add nine metres in length, enclose the bottom deck, build for passenger cabins and sleeping quarters for the crew. Unfortunately, the modifications caused the steamer to develop an unpleasant sway, even in moderate waters which passengers found rather unsettling. Slowly the Macassa lost its appeal.
The Owen Sound Transportation Company bought Macassa in 1928 and renamed her Manasoo. September 24th, 1928, heading to Owen Sound, its winter port with 22 passengers and 116 head of cattle on board, she ran into gale-force winds near Wiarton. The weight and movement of the cattle and the modifications done earlier made the ship hard to handle. An improperly secured hatch broke open and partially flooded the hold. The Macassa /Manasoo floundered in less than 3 minutes. Two days later, a flipped-over lifeboat was found floating in the water with the cattleman and four crew members barely clinging to it.
I hope you enjoyed reading a very small portion about the history of the steamboats on Burlington Bay and the Great Lakes. In the next edition of the North End Breezes, we will cover the Hamilton Steamboat Company’s Modjeska and Hamilton’s Turbine Steamship Line’s Turbinia.