THE era of steamboating had now arrived. The Clermont, built by Robert Fulton ,and furnished with English engines by Boulton & Watts, of Birmingham, had made her first trip on the Hudson from New York to Albany in August, 1807, and was afterwards continuing to run on the river.
In 1809 the Accommodation, built by the Hon. John Molson at Montreal, and fitted with engines made in that city, was running successfully between Montreal and Quebec, being the first steamer on the St. Lawrence and in Canada.
The experience of both of these vessels had shown that the new system of propulsion of vessels by steam power was commercially profitable, and as it had been proved successful upon the river water, it was but reasonable that its application to the more open waters of the lakes should next obtain consideration.
Peace having been declared in February, 1815, the projects were immediately revived and in the spring of that year a British company was formed with shareholders in Kingston,Niagara,York, and Prescott, to build a steamboat to ply on Lake Ontario. A site suitable for its construction was selected on the beaches on Finkle's Point, at Ernestown, 18 miles up the lake from Kingston, on one of the reaches of the Bay of Quinte.
A contract was let to Henry Teabout and James Chapman, two young men who had been foremen under Henry Eckford, the master shipbuilder of New York, who during the war had constructed the warships for the United States Government at its dockyard at Sackett's Harbor. Construction was commenced at Finkle's Point in October, 1815, and with considerable delays caused in selection of the timbers, was continued during the winter. (Canniff,Settlement of Upper Canada). The steamer was launched with great eclat on 7th September, 1816, and named the Frontenac, after the County of Frontenac in which she had been built.
A similar wave of enterprise had arisen also on the United States side and it becomes of much interest to search up the annals of over a hundred years ago and ascertain to which side of the lake is to be accorded the palm for placing the first steamboat on Lake Ontario. Especially as opinions have varied on the subject, and owing to a statement made, as we shall find, erroneously, in a distant press the precedence has usually been given to an American steamer.
The first record of the steamboat on the American side is an agreement dated January 2, 1816, executed between the Robert Fulton heirs and Livingston, of Clermont, granting to Charles Smyth and others an exclusive right to navigate boats and vessels by steam on Lake Ontario.
The terms of the agreement set out that the grantees were to pay annually to the grantors one-half of all the net profits in excess of a dividend of 12 per cent. upon the investment. On the 16th of the next month a bill was passed in the Legislature of New York incorporating the "Ontario Steamboat Co.," but in consequence of the too early adjournment of the Legislature did not become law.
By an assignment dated August 16th, 1816, Lusher and others became partners with Smyth, and as a result it is stated (Hough-History of Jefferson County, N.Y.) "a boat was commenced at Sackett's Harbor the same summer."
In the description of this launch of the Frontenac given in the September issue of the Kingston Gazette, the details of her size are stated. "Length, 170 feet; beam, 32 feet; two paddle wheels with circumference about 40 feet. Registered tonnage, 700 tons." Further statements made are, "Good judges have pronounced this to be the best piece of naval architecture of the kind yet produced in America." "The machinery for this valuable boat was imported from England and is said to be an excellent structure. It is expected that she will be finished and ready for use in a few weeks."
No name is given of the steamer, nor the date of the launch, but this item has been considered to have referred to the steamer named Ontario, built at Sackett's Harbor and in consequence of its having apparently been launched first, precedence has been claimed for the United States vessel.
This item, "A steamboat was lately launched at Sackett's Harbor," develops, on further search, to have first appeared as a paragraph under the reading chronicles in "Niles Weekly Register," published far south in the United States at Baltimore, Maryland. From here it was copied verbatim as above by the Kingston Gazette, and afterwards by the Quebec Gazette of 26th Sept., 1816.
Further enquiry, however, nearer the scene of construction indicates that an error had been made in the wording of the item, which had apparently been copied into the other papers without verification.
In the library of the Historical Society at Buffalo is deposited the manuscript diary of Capt. Van Cleve, who sailed as clerk and as captain on the Martha Ogden, the next steamboat to be built at Sackett's Harbor six years after the Ontario. In this he writes, "the construction of the Ontario was begun at Sackett's Harbor in August, 1816." He also gives a drawing, from which all subsequent illustrations of the Ontario have been taken. Further information of the American steamer is given in an application for incorporation of the "Lake Ontario Steam Boat Co." made in December, 1816, by Charles Smyth and others, of Sackett's Harbor, who stated in their petition that they had "lately constructed a steam boat at Sackett's Harbor" - "the Navy Department of the United States have generously delivered a sufficiency of timber for the construction of the vessel for a reasonable sum of money" - "the boat is now built" - "the cost so far exceeds the means which mercantile men can generally command that they are unable to build any further" -"the English in the Province of Upper Canada have constructed a steam boat of seven hundred tons burthen avowedly for the purpose of engrossing the business on both sides of the lake."
It is more reasonable to accept the statements of Capt. Van Cleve and others close to the scene of operations rather than to base conclusions upon the single item in the publication issued at so far a distance and without definite details.
It is quite evident that the item in Niles Register should have read "was lately commenced," instead of "was lately launched." The change of this one word would bring it into complete agreement with all the other evidences of the period and into accord with the facts.
The movements of the steamers in the spring of 1817 are more easily traced. Niles Register, 29th March, 1817, notes, "The steamboat Ontario is prepared for the lake," and Capt. Van Cleve says, "The first enrollment of the Ontario in the customs office was made on 11th April," and "She made her first trip in April."
The data of the dimensions of the Ontario are recorded, being only about one-third the capacity of the Frontenac, which would account for the shorter time in which she was constructed. The relative sizes were
No drawing of the Frontenac is extant, but she has been described as having guards only at the paddle wheels, the hull painted black, and as having three masts, but no yards. The Ontario had two masts, as shown in the drawing by Van Cleve.
No distinctive date is given for the first trip in April of the Ontario, on which it is reported (Beers History of the Great Lakes) "The waves lifted the paddle wheels off their hearings, tearing away the wooden coverings. After making the repairs the shaft was securely held in place."
Afterwards under the command of Capt. Francis Mallaby, U. S. N., weekly trips between Ogdensburgh and Lewiston were attempted, but after this interruption by advertisement of 1st July, 1817, the time had to be extended to once in ten days. The speed of the steamer was found to seldom exceed five miles per hour. (History of Jefferson County.Hough).
In the spring of 1817 the first mention of the Frontenac is in Kingston of her having moved over on 23rd May to the Government dock at Point Frederick, "for putting in a suction pipe," the Kingston Gazette further describing that "she moved with majestic grandeur against a strong wind." On 30th May the Gazette reports her as "leaving this port for the purpose of taking in wood at the Bay Quinte. A fresh breeze was blowing into the harbor against which she proceeded swiftly and steadily to the admiration of a great number of spectators. We congratulate the managers and proprietors of this elegant boat, upon the prospect she affords of facilitating the navigation of Lake Ontario in furnishing an expeditious and certain mode of conveyance to its various ports. "
The opening route of the Frontenac, commanded by Capt. James McKenzie, a retired officer of the royal navy, was between Kingston and Queenston, calling at York and Niagara and other intermediate ports. The venture of a steamer plying on the open lakes, where the paddle wheels would be subjected to wave action, was a new one, so for the opening trips her captain announced, with the proverbial caution of a Scotchman, that the calls at the ports would be made"with as much punctuality as the nature of lake navigation will admit of." Later, the steamer, having proved her capacity by two round trips, the advertisements of June, 1817, state the timetable of the steamer as "leaving Kingston for York on the 1st, 11th, and 23rd days," and "York for Queenston on 3rd, 13th, and 25th days of each month, calling at all intermediate ports. "Passenger fares, Kingston to Ernestown, 5s; Prescott, £1.10.0 ; Newcastle, £1.15,0; York and Niagara, £2.0.0; Burlington, £3.15.0; York to Niagara,£1.0.0." Further excerpts are: "A book is kept for the entering of the names of the passengers and the berths which they choose, at which time the passage money must be paid." "Gentlemen's servants cannot eat or sleep in the cabin." "Deck passengers will pay fifteen shillings, and may either bring their own provisions or be furnished by the steward." "For each dog brought on board, five shillings." "All applications for passage to be made to Capt. McKenzie on board." After having run regularly each season on Lake Ontario and the Niagara River her career was closed in 1827 when, while on the Niagara River, she was set on fire, it was said, by incendiaries, for whose discovery her owners, the Messrs. Hamilton, offered a reward of £700, but without result. Being seriously damaged, she was shortly afterwards broken up.
Such were the careers of the first two steamers which sailed upon Lake Ontario and the Niagara River, and from the data it is apparent that the Frontenac on the British side was the first steamboat placed on Lake Ontario, and that the Ontario, on the United States side, had been the first to make a trip up lake, having priority in this over her rival by perhaps a week or two, but not preceding her in the entering into and performance of a regular service.
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This volume is copyright The Estate of Ivan S. Brookes and is published with permission of the Estate. The originals are deposited in the Special Collections of the Hamilton Public Library.