Before 1841 propeller-driven steamboats were virtually unknown on the Great Lakes. Suddenly, that summer, propellers (as they came to be better known) began to enter the waters of Lake Ontario at Kingston. Before the Vandalia appeared on her trial trips in late November, at least four propellers had made their way up through the Rideau Canal system.
From the depths of a depression in the rebellion years of 1837-38, the economies of Upper and Lower Canada had rebounded dramatically. The movement of ashes, wheat, flour and timber products down the river, combined with the demand of the growing Upper Canadian settlements for manufactured commodities, put heavy pressure on the available shipping capacity. In addition, there was a swelling tide of immigrants from the British Isles westward bound from Montreal.
The Rideau Canal held tremendous potential for speeding the movement of goods and people bound for ports on the Great Lakes. At the insistence of Colonel By, the engineer in charge of its construction, the canal dimensions had been expanded to accommodate the small paddlewheel steamboats of the day. Unfortunately, another military department involved in improving the lower Ottawa river had already built three locks of the Grenville Canal on a scale which would only accommodate the smaller, unpowered Durham boats used as barges on the river.1
Almost as serious was the fact that the small rapids at Ste. Anne's, near the junction of the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence rivers, were only bypassed by using a lock owned by the Ottawa & Rideau Forwarding Company. For a number of years this was both the largest and, at times, virtually the only company in the freight business on the Rideau thanks to the prohibitive rates charged competitors for using their facilities. Finally in 1840, the government agreed to build a "public" lock at Ste. Anne's. With the writing on the wall, the Ottawa & Rideau Forwarding Company negotiated an arrangement which opened the Rideau route to competition.2
By 1838 a trangular pattern had emerged for the movement of the Ottawa & Rideau Forwarding Company barges. A steamer towing one or more barges would set off up the Ottawa River from Lachine, both steamer and barges loaded with merchandise and immigrants. The barges would be taken in tow by another steamer above the tiny Grenville canals and brought up to Bytown (Ottawa) and through the Rideau waterway to Kingston There the upbound cargoes were exchanged for the province's exports. The barges would be sailed or towed (often by different steamers) down to Prescott and then run down the rapids to Montreal. The movement of the steamboats on the Ottawa-Rideau waterways was particularly inefficient but most of the steamboats on the Rideau were too large for the Grenville canal. The obvious solution was to build steamboats that were not only relatively efficient carriers but at the same time small enough to squeeze through the smallest Grenville lock. This is what initially attracted the freight forwarders on the Ottawa-Rideau-St. Lawrence triangle to propeller-driven steamboats.3
Growing dissatisfaction with the Ottawa & Rideau Forwarding Company "monopoly" prompted an attempt in the autumn of 1839 to start a new Joint Stock Company.4 While its supporters failed to raise the necessary £50,000 the venture is of particular interest because they planned to import five or six small iron, British propellers.5
Despite the failure of this proposal there was plenty of competition already established on the St. Lawrence. This included Macpherson, Crane & Co. (who managed the operations of the Ottawa and Rideau Forwarding Company beginning in 1837); Henderson, Hooker & Co.; H. & S. Jones and Wm. Dickinson & Co. In addition there were several smaller companies looking for a share of the business.6
With a favourable opinion from Marshall and Van Cleve, Sanderson & Murray went ahead with plans to employ the Ericsson propellers on barges for the Ottawa-Rideau-St. Lawrence triangle route. The following year Sanderson and Parkin testified before a select committee of the Legislative Assembly inquiring into the forwarding trade. Wm. Parkin estimated that to construct "a Boat with high pressure engine of 30 horse power, drawing 2 1/2 feet of water, with 94 feet length, 19 feet beam and capable of towing 4 barges of 100 tons each 5 miles per hour" would cost £2,600. This was the type of boat he recommended to ply between Kingston and Lachine. A smaller barge, 92' x 18', with a 2' draught, an Ericsson propeller and a 15 or 16 h.p. engine (capable of towing one barge of 100 tones at 3 1/2 mph) he estimated would cost £1,500. George Sanderson talked of a Rideau canal towboat with Ericsson propellers and a 30 to 40 horse power engine costing £3,000 to 4,000.14
The first Sanderson & Murray propeller-barge was built by William Parkin at Brockville in 1840 with a tonnage of 61.4. Its dimensions were 87' x 16.4' with a depth of hold of 5.5'. It had one deck, a rounded stern and was carvel built. The length of the engine room was 13.8 feet. It had no masts, rigging, bowsprit or figure-head.15 It was calculated that she could carry 1000 barrels of flour. Built in New York, the 15 h.p. engine was simple in construction and occupied only a small space in the stern of the vessel. It was connected directly to two fan-shaped propellers revolving on shafts, one on each side of the rudder. The boilers were of the locomotive type with copper flues.16
Less than two weeks later, a second new Sanderson & Murray propeller-barge, Baron Toronto, arrived at Kingston, under the command of John McInnes. While passing through the locks at Old Sly's on July 1, she struck the south side of the gate with such force that the crab-handle was knocked out of the hands of the labourer, severely injuring him. Instead of returning to Montreal via the St. Lawrence, she retraced her route through the various lock-stations to Bytown on July 5th and 6th.19 Named after the Governor-General of Canada,20 she made six trips around the triangle in 1841. Launched some time before May 15, both the barge and her machinery were constructed by Mr. Nelson Walker of Montreal.21 Walker had constructed an "ingenious model" of the engine and propeller after seeing only a sketch of Ericsson's invention, and before any communmication had been made with Mr. Ericsson on the subject.22 Walker obtained Canadian Patent No. 54 for a term of 14 years on an "Improvement Upon Smith's Patent "Archimedian Screw" dated at Montreal on the 24th of March, 1841. When she towed two fully laden barges from Kingston through the rapids to Lachine that fall, the Baron Toronto not only accomplished an extraordinary feat but demonstrated the practicality of the new propulsion system.23 Mr. Walker continued in his exertions to improve his propeller, it being subject to damage from touching the banks of canals, and from the ever present danger of stumps and driftwood coming in contact with the blades. As a result he designed a "Patent Improved Guard Propeller" to solve these shortcomings. It was superior in strength and power and easier to repair. For these improvements he received Canadian Patent No. 55 for a term of 14 years dated at Kingston on the 18th of January 1842. The Juno, Mercury, and Meteor built at Montreal in 1842 for Macpherson & Crane were supplied with Walker's patent propellers by the St. Mary Foundry Company.24
Very little is known about the next propeller to arrive in Kingston. Ericsson's authorized biography mentions that a barge was built for the Canadian Government to run on the St. Lawrence and that "four vessels were put on the Rideau Canal and the St. Lawrence. viz., the Baron Toronto, Royal Barge, Propeller, and Ericsson."27 By examining the lock-master's records we can ascertain that this fourth vessel, built for the Canadian Government, was not in fact named the Royal Barge, but the Union in honour of the union of Upper and Lower Canada announced that February. The lock-keeper's entry at Old Sly's read: "At 1 P.M. passed the Wm Henry for Kingston & the Gov't Steam Barge Union, being out of repair she was in tow of the Wm. Henry with Treasure on board." This was on the 23rd of August. At the Narrows on August 24th the following was recorded: "passed the Wm. Henry steamer Wm. Nunn Master at 10 AM upwards in tow Gov't Steam Propeller Union." Again on August 24th at Newboro another entry reads: "Past [sic] the steamer Wm Henry from Bytown at 11 A.M. with the Gov. propeller in tow, W. Nunns master."28 By comparing these times and dates we are able to identify the log of a previously unknown propeller as belonging to the Union. [see Appendix 1] It describes a trip made from Montreal to Kingston through the Rideau Canal taking 13 days to complete when the other propellers were averaging 4 days for this section. Obviously their boilers were in better condition than those of the Union!
The propeller Union, 97' long by 17' wide (possibly built in Brockville in 1841), should not be confused with another Union which was launched at Kingston in the spring of 1841.29 This paddlewheeler was the former Hamilton, rebuilt and lengthened at the Kingston Marine Railway for service on the Bay of Quinte route.30 Some newspaper references are unclear as to which one is being discussed. One article which deals with the Union concerns a coroner's inquest. The deceased was a fireman on board the Government steam barge Union. After he disappeared during the night, the crew conjectured that he had fallen overboard. A search was made and the body was brought up with a boat hook near the side of the vessel. After due deliberation and a close examination of the evidence the jury reached the startling verdict that he was "Found drowned."31
The last propeller to make its first voyage to Kingston in 1841 was the most famous and long considered to be the first on the Lakes. The Vandalia was built at Oswego for Messrs. Bronson & Croker, Mr. S. Doolittle and Capt. J. Van Cleve (whom we have already seen in New York with the encouragement of George Sanderson). Her maiden voyage to the western end of Lake Ontario and the Welland Canal in late November was followed by two trips to Kingston. The Ericsson engine and propellers were made by Messrs. Dennis & Wood in the Auburn State Prison and weighed from 4 to 5 tons. Since the Vandalia has been written about extensively, there is no need to give a complete description here.32 However, the local newspaper editor, after looking her over during her second visit to Kingston, added some important details: "... She carries 140 tons--draws, when light 2 feet 6 inches, with her machinery--loaded, about 6 feet, depth of hold 8 feet. She is sloop rigged, with an immense main-sail and mast; the Captain admits both are too heavy, and he intends to reduce them during this winter.... The boiler is on the locomotive principle, with about 100 pipes running through it, and when the steam is discharged into the funnel the draft is excellent,--consumes about one-third of a cord of wood per hour, and appears to be perfectly safe from accidents by fire. The Engine consists of two cylinders, of about 12 inches diameter each, working at 50 lbs. to about 25 horsepower, and the connecting rod communicates direct with the crank on the shaft of the propellers, on which are two cogged wheels connected together to govern the motions of both shafts.--The wheels work on each side of the rudder, and are 4 feet 6 inches diameter, working towards each other, on the principle of sculling. The engine makes from 65 to 75 strokes a minute, consequently the propellers travel at that speed.... She generally works with steam at about 55 lbs. pressure, and under favourable circumstances will propel the vessel 9 to 10 miles per hour--The Captain states that the sails did not assist in the voyage from Oswego to Kingston more than one hour of time. She left Kingston for that place on Wednesday night last about 10 o'clock, arrived there early in the morning, delivered her freight and took another cargo, left about 4 o'clock the same day, and reached Kingston last night, Thursday, between 10 and 11 o'clock."33
The arrival of propellers on the Great Lakes before 1841 was almost universally welcomed. The Kingston papers shared the optimistic viewpoint held by those in Oswego, seeing them as a great boon to commerce. "There will be no longer any necessity for remaining in idleness, coped up in harbour for days or weeks waiting for a wind. The Farmer and Merchant at Goderich may ship his wheat and flour, pork and ashes, on Monday morning, and be quite sure that they will arrive at Montreal as soon as a letter of advice will reach the merchant, the risk will be diminished half, and the cost of freight in the same proportion." These vessels would be "contributing to reduce the expense of exporting, and diminishing the costs of our imports--adding to the riches of the farmer, extending the business of the merchant, and increasing the wealth of the Province."38
Although the introduction of propellers did not make as dramatic an impression on the economy as the newspapers were hoping for, some effects were almost immediate. Travelling times decreased; steamers were taking six days or more in 1841 to complete the journey from Montreal to Ottawa to Kingston and back to Montreal. The following year the Propeller performed the voyage round in exactly 4 days and 12 hours, supposed to be the quickest time yet made for the route.41 Higher volumes of traffic also increased public pressure for improvements to the St. Lawrence and Lachine Canals. In 1842 swing bridges were substituted for the old bridges across the Lachine Canal, which permitted craft with masts or funnels to pass through. The owners of the Ericsson propellers were enabled to add a cabin on deck for the comfort of passengers.42 New lake craft such as the London, St. Thomas and Precursor could carry on directly to Montreal instead of unloading their cargo into barges for passage down the St. Lawrence. With the opening of the enlarged St. Lawrence Canals in 1848, Kingston began to lose its "break-in-bulk" function for the St. Lawrence trade.43
We would like to thank David Trotter of Underwater Research Associates for the photographs of the wreck of the propeller GOLIATH. GOLIATH was an excellent example of the first generation of Great Lakes ships equipped with John Ericsson's propeller, launched in 1846 and lost in an explosion in 1848.
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