1. Functional and Technological Specialization
The situation in the late 1830s saw a particular mix of vessels engaged in the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence marine trades. On the lake, steamboats provided the speed and regular schedules demanded of the passenger and express freight trades. For the movement of bulk staple commodities, schooners were less expensive as they were more energy efficient. Their manoeuvrability was significantly less in the confined waters of the St. Lawrence, however, Consequently, the movement of freight below Kingston was accomplished by a combination of unpowered barges and small freight steamers. The size of the latter was constrained by the smallest lock in the Ottawa-Rideau system. Speed again was not a major concern and these vessels were still being replaced by a generation of more fuel-efficient propellers when the major link in the St. Lawrence canals, the Beauharnois canal was opened late in 1845.
This event allowed the freight forwarders to employ steamers of the same dimensions as the passenger/package freight steamboats. Although the business of converting old passenger boats to tow boats had not been unknown previously, by the mid 1840s it was in full swing. Some of the new boats built for the major forwarding firms were designed on such a scale as to permit their insertion into the passenger lines should the opportunity arise. To differentiate themselves from these "plain Janes" the new steamboats for the passenger trades were constructed with even more elaborate decorations, and more private staterooms. Eventually, as the railways undercut the passenger and package freight markets the forwarders retreated to the use of fuel efficient propellers, eventually building larger and larger lake carriers and converting to coal.
The decision of those in control of the Royal Mail Line to specialize in the expensive excursion fares led to a certain design of steamboat being favoured despite technological disadvantages. The most lucrative trade was the excursion from Niagara, via Toronto, through the Thousand Islands and over the rapids of the St. Lawrence to Montreal. To make this more or less a through trip (a concept important because of the express passage of the Grand Trunk trains over most of the route), the vessels were limited by the size of the St. Lawrence canals. Speed remained a consideration, hence the persistent use of wood, which provided faster acceleration, and of paddle wheels. The latter provided more speed in shallow waters than a screw propellor whose size was severely constricted because it had to be completely submerged. The investment in iron hulled vessels was not only justified by the longer life of the hull, but by the fact that iron symbolized both progress and strength. Such an image was part of the marketing of the steamboat in the rapids, an attraction for the essentially timid, mid-Victorian, middle class tourist.
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Chapter 5 appeared in FreshWater.