Table of Contents

Title Page
Author's Note:
Table 1: Estimated Cost per Ton of Early Canadian Great Lakes Steamboats
Competition and Profitability
Table of Illustrations

To paraphrase Dickens, few steamboats in the history of the Great Lakes have been as well known, and as little known, as the Frontenac. While the debate occasionally resurfaces as to whether she was the first steamboat or merely the first Canadian steamboat on the Lakes, most histories devote the obligatory paragraph to the Frontenac and then move on to other interests.

The Steamboat Frontenac by James Van Cleve 1827, built in Bath, Ontario in 1816. Image courtesy Gerald T. Gervin
Particularly disturbing is the extent to which these brief accounts mangle what little original research has been done on the vessel. A complete historiographical analysis of the Frontenac would be pedantic, but credit should be given to those few authors who have contributed something to our knowledge of the vessel. These include Canniff (1869), Scadding (1873), Van Cleve (1877), Robertson (1896), Cruikshank (1926), Horsey (1942) and Preston (1954).1 While his research was confined to fleshing out Van Cleve, H.A. Musham's 1943 article does draw together the various strands of the Frontenac's career and compares and contrasts it with that of her American rival, the Ontario.2

Most of this research focuses on three stages of the Frontenac's career--the circumstances of her construction, launch and first sailing. Those in search of additional colour draw into this mix an advertised set of rules for passengers and her destruction at Niagara. Nevertheless, while the Frontenac played a critical role in the introduction of steam technology to the region, most writers have been preoccupied with the nationalistic question of "who was first?"

Although we will return briefly to the question of precedence, the broader question of technological innovation raises a whole range of issues which need to be addressed. The navigation of open water by steam was a new phenomenon. Was this what the promoters intended to do? To what precedents did those responsible for her design turn? Where did they recruit people to build and operate her? How did they organize their business affairs? How profitable were these affairs? How did they seek to protect themselves from the risks associated with such a pioneer venture? How successful was the new technology in competing with existing transportation services?


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