For all the brave talk of a line of vessels to follow, the Magnet entered the Lake Ontario and upper St. Lawrence steamboat trade in the unenviable position of an independent. It was, moreover, a small world that she occupied, extending only from the lowest lock of the Welland Canal, across Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence to the Lachine Rapids. In another year, however, the return navigation would be extended to the open sea. For the moment Sutherland, as managing director and captain of the vessel, would be fully occupied dealing with the established proprietors of the region.
These businessmen were divided into two distinct groups, with only the loosest of ties and a minimum of good feeling between them. Dominating most of the Lake Ontario passenger routes was Donald Bethune. Apart from having a corner on British patronage in the region, he also financed a freight line run by an ex-captain and his Kingston agent, who were using vessels once described as Bethune's "dead stock".55 Subcontracting for some of Bethune's patronage and a place in the lake mail line between Kingston and Toronto were Heron and Dick,Bethune's co-petitioners in that summer's legislative manoeuvres.
The second group of entrepreneurs comprised John Hamilton,Sutherland's first employer in the Great Lakes region, and two of the most important Canadian forwarding firms, Macpherson and Crane, and Hooker and Holton. All currently confined their operations to the waters below Kingston. The unity of this group was reinforced by a mistrust of Bethune, rooted in his inept attempts to extend his subsidiary freight line into the St. Lawrence forwarding trade and in a controversy over the tendering for the current mail contract.56
Given this uneasy balance of power, the announcement that the Magnet would pioneer a through service between Hamilton and Lachine was certain to antagonize both groups. Almost immediately, the attempt of Sutherland's friends in the Kingston Commissariat office to pass him some patronage at the end of an extremely busy season precipitated another dispute with Bethune. When troops were shipped directly from Kingston to the Niagara frontier on the Magnet,Bethune, who had a contract for this service, was outraged and published angry protests and weighty legal opinions in an open letter to the commander of the forces in Canada.57 When this proved ineffective, he appealed directly to the Lord Commissioners of the Treasury in London.58
To the hazards of outraged privilege were quickly added those of navigation. Late in the season the Magnet struck a rock at the entrance to the Beauharnois Canal and was laid up for repairs.59 Moreover Sutherland had personal liability for between £2,000 and £3,000 hanging over his head, and he faced the prospect of renewed opposition in the spring. For all those reasons he was forced to open negotiations with Bethune for a place in the lake mail line.60
That Bethune ever seriously considered such overtures reveals how insecure his empire was. While he had a variety of aging steamers deployed on several routes on the lake, the key to his empire was his control of the mail contract between Kingston and Toronto.61 Though remunerative in normal circumstances, it imposed severe penalties for delays of the sort caused by the mechanical breakdowns that were beginning to plague his fleet.62 Evidently Bethune concluded it might prove cheaper to subcontract part of the mail service than have Sutherland and the Magnet in constant competition. And so in the winter of 1847-48 the "Admiral of Lake Ontario" conceded the Magnet a place in the Lake OntarioRoyal Mail Line.63
Bethune, nevertheless, still held the upper hand and drove a hard bargain. But for Sutherland, the one-year agreement was an opportunity to buy time in which he could escape from the uncertainties attending an independent pioneer of a "through line" concept and find the relative security of an established line.64
The search for a secure income for the Magnet would not be concluded quite so easily. By the end of the 1848 season the sheriff had seized Bethune's vessels and those of his dependents in the forwarding trade.65 Those who were thankfully counting Bethune out of the shipping trades were given a rude shock when the improvident steamboat proprietor subsequently leased the vessels from some of his creditors and began to assemble the 1849 lake mail line.
With their claims for compensation for various subcontracts entangled in Bethune's complex bankruptcy proceedings, Sutherland and his associates must have concluded that business would be much more peaceful if Bethune could be eliminated. It was a feeling they shared with Heron and Dick and with John Hamilton. Together they began a two-part effort to drive Bethune out of the water. The first step was a competing line on Lake Ontario. A vicious round of price cutting ensued before Bethune surrendered places for the Magnet and Heron and Dick in the Lake OntarioMail Line.66
This was followed by a joint tender for the new Kingston-Toronto mail contract. Should Bethune be excluded from this service there would be little likelihood of his staging a second return. When yet another group of creditors began suing for the value of the supplies advanced to Bethune over the 1849 season, the other shipping proprietors may be forgiven for believing Bethune to have been ruined.67 Later, Sutherland would ruefully accept responsibility for urging Hamilton and Dick to raise the value of their tender even higher.68 But Bethune was successful in persuading eighty-one other investors to join him in a limited partnership and quickly underbid the others, securing the mail contract for yet another three years.69
Determined not to be cut out, Sutherland abandoned thoughts of pursuing his opposition and began negotiations with Bethune. Despite his general dislike for Bethune and his tactics, Sutherland used his superior bargaining position to assure himself that money paid Bethune for the Magnet's services would be passed on to the subcontractors rather than to other creditors, and that rates for passage and freight would only be altered by mutual consent.70
In fact, Sutherland need not have struck his colours so quickly. When John Hamilton and his forwarding associates threatened to continue the battle with a Montreal-Hamilton through line in the 1850 season, they forced Bethune and the major steamboat proprietors to meet them in Kingston late that April.71 Among those attending were James Sutherland and Edward Jackson, representing the Magnet's owners. The steamboat owners signed articles of agreement binding them into a cartel that would replace the power of the contractor, upon which Bethune's reputation had been built, with that of an assembly of the participants. This arrangement provided the kind of stability in the trade that Sutherland had been seeking, and he kept the Magnet within the cartel for the remaining years of his life.72
One may wonder how the Magnet thrived, having survived the most turbulent period in the Royal Mail Line's chequered history. A second accident late in the 1849 season left the vessel lying in eight feet of water in Port Darlington. None of the fifty passengers aboard that night were harmed, but there was extensive damage to the cabins and furniture on the lower deck.73 More serious was a midnight collision three years later with Bethune's vessel, the Maple Leaf. The Magnet had to be towed into Presqu'ile Harbour, and her owners eventually sued successfully for £600 in damages based on the negligence of the Maple Leaf's officers.74 Neither of these accidents proved a serious financial setback.
One major improvement was undertaken in the same period. Although the Magnet's hull may have represented the latest advances in shipbuilding technology, her interior design was strictly traditional - the main cabin below decks with a smaller ladies' cabin above, both lined with sleeping berths to be pulled down at night, and only a few private rooms. In 1846 the Highlander and the Passport (probably imitating the Hudson River steamers) had begun to revolutionize this design, moving the main cabin up to the promenade deck, where, clear of the engine room, it was extended the full length of the vessel. Within five years every other vessel in the Royal Mail and Through Lines had either converted or been built to that pattern.75 The Magnet's renovations were undertaken in preparation for the 1851 season, "compelled" as Sutherland dryly put it, by "the remonstrances of his passengers".76 His evident reluctance to make the change may have stemmed from his commitment to the naval authorities, who would not have approved of cabins cluttering the firing deck.
To operate a passenger steamboat like the Magnet in this period required a crew of about twenty-five. This included the deck hands to stow the freight, baggage, and tons of cordwood necessary to fire the boilers; and engineers and firemen to supervise and operate the engines. The purser and the steward, together with the cooks, the waiters, and the lady's maid then tended to the comforts of the cabin passengers. Above this activity were the wheelsmen and the mates responsible for the ship's navigation.
In overall command, of course, was Captain Sutherland, who as managing director was responsible to a small executive committee of the shareholders for the profitability of the vessel. In the single surviving fragment of the Magnet's accounts, the gross receipts in an off-peak month amounted to almost 10 per cent of the capital cost of the vessel.77 The only other scrap of evidence in this regard is a letter from one of the few English stockholders, who referred to an estimate of a 25 per cent dividend for the 1851 season. He also warned Sutherland to "make hay whilst the sun shines for the locomotives will soon upset the Steam Boats".78
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This article originally appeared in Ontario History.