SINCE ever the changes of season have come, when grasses grow green, and open waters flow, the courses of the Niagara River, above and below the great Falls, have been the central route, for voyaging between the far inland countries on this continent, and the waters of the Atlantic shores.
Here the Indian of prehistoric days, unmolested by the intruding white, roamed at will in migration from one of his hunting-grounds to another, making his portage and passing in his canoe between Lake Erie and Lake Oskwego (Ontario). In later days, when the French had established themselves at Quebec and Montreal, access to Lake Huron and the upper lakes was at first sought by their voyageurs along the nearer route of the Ottawa and French Rivers, a route involving many difficulties in surmounting rapids, heavy labour on numberless portages, and exceeding delay. Information had filtered down gradually through Indian sources of the existence of this Niagara River Route, on which there was but one portage of but fourteen miles to be passed from lake to lake, and only nine miles if the canoes entered the water again at the little river (Chippawa) above the Falls.
On learning the fact the French turned their attention to this new water-way, but for many a wary decade were unable to establish themselves upon it. In 1678 Father Hennepin, with an expedition sent out by Sieur La Salle sailed from Cataraqui (Kingston) to the Niagara River, the name "Hennepin Rock" having come down in tradition as a reminiscence of their first landing below what is now Queenston Heights. Passing over the "Carrying Place," they reached Lake Erie. Here, at the outlet of the Cayuga Creek, on the south shore, they built a small two-masted vessel rigged with equipment which they brought up for the purpose from Cataraqui, in the following year.
This vessel, launched in 1679, and named the "Griffon" in recognition of the crest on the coat of arms of Count Frontenac, the Governor of Canada, was the first vessel built by Europeans to sail upon the upper waters. In size she so much exceeded that of any of their own craft, with her white sails billowing like an apparition, and of novel and unusual appearance, that intensest excitement was created among the Indian tribes as she passed along their shores.
Her life was brief, and the history of her movements scanty; the report being that after sailing through Lake St. Clair she reached Michilimakinac and Green Bay, on Lake Michigan, but passed out of sight on Lake Huron on the return journey, and was never heard of afterwards.
Tiny though this vessel was and sailing slow upon the Upper Lakes, yet a great epoch had been opened up, for she was the progenitor of all the myriad ships which ply upon these waters at the present day. It was the entrance of the white man, with his consuming trade energy, into the red man's realm, the death knell of the Indian race.
With greatly increased frequency of travelling and the more bulky equirements of freightage this "one portage" route was more increasingly sought, and as the result of their voyagings these early French pioneers have marked their names along the waterways as ever remaining records of their prowess-such as Presquile (almost an island); Detroit (the narrow place); Lac Sainte Clair;Sault Ste Marie (Rapids of St. Mary River); Cap Iroquois;Isle Royale;Rainy River (after René de Varennes;Duluth (after Sieur du Luth, of Montreal) ; Fond du Lac (Head of Lake Superior).
From here mounting up the St. Croix River, seeking the expansion of that New France to whose glory they so ungrudgingly devoted their lives, these intrepid adventurers reached over to the Mississippi, and sweeping down its waters still further marked their way at St. Louis (after their King) and New Orleans (after his capital), annexing all the adjacent territories to their Sovereign's Domains.
What a magnificent conception it was of these intrepid French to envelope the British settlements and strengthened by alliances with the Indian tribes and fortified by a line of outposts established along the routes of the Ohio and the Mississippi, to hem their competitors in from expansion to the great interior country of the centre and the west. Standing astride the continent with one foot on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, at Quebec, and the other at New Orleans, on the Gulf of Mexico, the interior lines of commerce and of trade were in their hands. They hoped that Canada, their New France, on this side of the ocean, was to absorb all the continent excepting the colonies along the shores of the sea. So matters remained for a century.
Meanwhile the English colonies had expanded to the south shores of the Lakes Oswego and Frontenac, and in 1758 we read of an English Navy of eight schooners and three brigs sailing on Lake Ontario under the red cross of St. George and manned by sailors of the colonies.
In 1759, came the great struggle for the possession of the St. Lawrence and connecting lines of the waterways. Fort Niagara, whose large central stone "castle," built in 1726, still remains, passed from the French under Pouchot, to the British under Sir William Johnson; a great flotilla of canoes conveying the Indian warriors under Lignery to the aid of the Fort, had come down from the Upper Lakes, to the Niagara River, but upon it being proved to them that they were too late, for the Fort had fallen they re-entered their canoes and retraced their way up the rivers back to their Western homes.
For another fifty years only sailing vessels navigated the lakes to Niagara, and these, and batteaux, pushed along the shores and up the river by poles, made their way to the foot of the rapids at Lewiston with difficulty. These vessels were mainly small schooners with some cabin accommodation.
After the cession of Canada, by the French, the British Government began the establishment of a small navy on Lake Ontario. An official return called for by Lord Dorchester, Governor-General of Canada, gives the Government vessels as being in 1787, Limnale, 220 tons, 10 guns. Seneca, 130 tons, 18 guns. Caldwell, 37 tons, 2 guns, and two schooners of 100 tons each being built. As there was at that time but one merchant vessel, the schooner Lady Dorchester, 80 tons, sailing on the lake, and a few smaller craft the property of settlers, transport for passengers between the principal ports was mainly afforded by the Government vessels. As an instance of their voyaging may be given that of H.M.S. Caldwell, which in 1793, carrying Lady Dorchester, the wife of the Governor General, is reported to have made "an agreeable passage of thirty-six hours from Kingston to Niagara."
In this same year H.R.H. the Duke of Kent [afterwards father of Her Majesty Queen Victoria] is reported as having proceeded from Kingston up Lake Ontario to Navy Hall on the Niagara River in the King's ship Mohawk commanded by Commodore Bouchette.
Further additions to the merchant schooners were the York, built on the Niagara River in 1792, and the Governor Simcoe, in 1797, for the North-West Company's use in their trading services on Lake Ontario. Another reported in 1797 - the Washington - built at Erie, Pa., was bought by Canadians, portaged around the Falls and run on the British register from Queenston to Kingston as the Lady Washington.
The forests of those days existed in all their primeval condition, so that the choicest woods were used in the construction of the vessels. We read in 1798 of the Prince Edward, built of red cedar, under Captain Murney of Belleville, and capable of carrying seven hundred barrels of flour, and of another "good sloop" upon the stocks at Long Point Bay, near Kingston, being built of black walnut. A schooner, "The Toronto," built in 1799, a little way up the Humber, by Mr. Joseph Dennis, is described as "one of the handsomest vessels, and bids fair to be the swiftest sailing vessel on the lake, and is admirably calculated for the reception of passengers." This vessel, often mentioned as "The Toronto Yacht," was evidently a great favorite, being patronized by the Lieutenant-Governor and the Archbishop, and after a successful and appreciated career, finished her course abruptly by going ashore on Gibraltar Point in 1811. The loss of the Government schooner Speedy was one of the tragic events of the times. The Judge of the District Court, the Solicitor General and several lawyers who were proceeding from York to hold the Assizes in the Newcastle District, together with the High Constable of York, and an Indian prisoner whom they were to try for murder, were all lost when the vessel foundered off Presquile in an exceptional gale on 7th October, 1804.
Two sailing vessels, the schooners Dove and the Reindeer, (Capt. Myers) are reported in 1809 as plying between York and Niagara. A third, commanded by Capt. Conn, is mentioned by Canniff, but no name has come down of this vessel, but only her nickname of "Captain Conn's Coffin." This j'eu d'esprit may have been due to some peculiarity in her shape, but as no disaster is reported as having occurred to her she may have been more seaworthy than the nickname would have indicated.
After the battle of Queenston Heights, on October 13th, she had been laden with American prisoners, among them General Winfield Scott, afterwards the conqueror in Mexico, to be forwarded at once to Kingston. The Moira of the royal navy was then lying off the port of York and on her Mr. Richardson, a son of the Captain, was serving as sailing master.
As the Simcoe approached she was recognized by young Richardson, who, putting off in a small boat, met her out in the lake and was much surprised at seeing the crowded state of her decks and at the equipment of his father, who, somewhat unusually for him, was wearing a sword.
The first words from the ship brought great joy - a great battle had been fought on Queenston Heights - the enemy had been beaten. The Simcoe was full of prisoners of war to be transported at once to the Moira for conveyance to Kingston. Then came the mournful statement, "General Brock has been killed." The rapture of victory was overwhelmed by the sense of irreparable loss. In such way was the sad news carried in those sailing days to York.
The Minerva "Packet," owned and built by Henry Gildersleeve, at Finkle's Point in 1817, held high repute. Richard Gildersleeveemigrated from Hertferdshire, England, in 1635, and settled in Connecticut. His great-great-grandson, Obadiah, established a successful shipbuilding yard at "Gildersleeve," Conn.Henry Gildersleeve, his grandson, here learned his business and coming to Finkle's Point in 1816 assisted on the Frontenac, and continuing in shipbuilding, married Mrs. Finkle. When Minerva arrived at Kingston she was declared by Capt. Murray, R.N., to be in her construction and lines the best yet turned out, as she proved when plying as a "Packet" between Toronto and Niagara.
Many sailing vessels meeting with varying success, were plying between all the ports on the lake. The voyages were not always of the speediest. "The Caledonia" schooner, is reported to have taken six days from Prescott to York.Mr. M. F. Whitehead, of Port Hope, crossed from Niagara to York in 1818, the passage occupying two and a half days. In a letter of his describing the trip he enters:-" Fortunately, Dr. Baldwin had thoughtfully provided a leg of lamb, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of porter; all our fare for the two days and a half."
These vessels seem to have sailed somewhat intermittently, but regular connection on every other day with the Niagara River was established by "The Duke of Richmond" packet, a sloop of one hundred tons built at York in 1820, under Commander Edward Oates.
His advertisements announced her to "leave York Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 a.m. Leave Niagara on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 10 a.m., between July and September," after that "according to notice." The rates of passage were: "After Cabin ten shillings; Fore Cabin 6s. 6.; sixty lbs. of baggage allowed for each passenger, but over that 9d. per cwt. or 2s. per barrel bulk."
The standard of measurement was a homely one, but no doubt well understood at that time, and easily ascertained. In the expansion of the size of ladies' trunks in these present days it is not beyond possibility that a measurement system such as used in the early part of the last century might not be inadvisable.
The reports of the "packet" describe her as being comfortable and weatherly, and very regular in keeping up her time-table. She performed her services successfully on the route until 1823, when she succumbed to the competition of the steamboats which had shortly before been introduced. With the introduction upon the lakes of this new method of propulsion the carrying of passengers on sailing vessels quickly ceased.
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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.