The barges with the "guards" on them had been sent down through the canal as soon as they had crossed the lake, and were now safely moored at the Ontario level in the outer harbour at Port Dalhousie, there to await the arrival of the united boat. The men in charge returning up the canal to join the main expedition.
Starting from Port Colborne, the two parts of the steamer were separated to go down the canal. The bow part was kept in the lead, but both as near one another as possible, so that the crews could take their meals on the after part, on which they also passed the nights. The stern part was taken down the long upper level by a small tug, but teams were employed in towing for all the remaining portions of the canalling. Memories of things as they then existed on the old Welland are in striking contrast to the conditions obtaining at the present day.
The miseries of human slaves on the "middle passage" of the Atlantic have been dilated upon until sympathy with their sufferings has abounded, but it is doubtful if they were in any way worse than those of the miserable beings then struggling on the canal passage between Lakes Erie and Ontario.
The canal bank and tow paths were a sticky mush, which in those autumn months was churned and stamped into a continuous condition of soft red mud and splashing pools. From two to six double teams were employed to haul each passing vessel, dependent upon whether it was light or was loaded, but in either case there was the same dull, heavy, continuous pull against the slow-moving mass, a hopeless constant tug into the collars, bringing raw and calloused shoulders.
Poor beasts, there was every description of horse, pony, or mule forced into the service, but an all-prevailing similarity of lean sides and projecting bones, of staring unkempt coats, gradually approaching similar colour as the red mud dried upon their hides. Rest! they had in their traces when mercifully for a few moments the vessel was in a lock, or when awaiting her turn at night they lay out on the bank where she happened to stop. It was the rest of despair.
The poor devils of "drivers," boys or men, who tramped along the canal bank behind each tottering gang, were little better off than their beasts. Heavy-footed, wearied with lifting their boots out, of the sucking slush, they trudged along, staggering and half asleep, until aroused by the sounds of a sagging tow line, with quickened stride and volley of hot-shot expletives, they closed upon their luckless four-footed companions. What an electric wince went through the piteous brutes as the stinging whip left wales upon their sides! A sudden forward motion brought up by the twang of the tow line as it came taut, sweeping them off their legs, until they settled down once more into the sidling crablike movement caused by the angle of the hawser from the bow to the tow path.
The new Welland, with its larger size and tug boats, has done away with this method of torturing human and horse flesh. One wonders whether it is the ghosts of these departed equines, that, revisiting the scenes of their torture, make the moanings along the valley, and the whistlings on the hills, as they sniff and whinny in the winds along the canal.
We had a good deal of difficulty at first in our canalling, especially in meeting and passing vessels. The afterpart took every inch of the locks, and was unhandy in shape. However, by dint of rope fenders, long poles and a plentiful and willing crew we got along without hurting anyone else or ourselves.
It was in one of these sudden emergencies which sometimes arise that Captain Manson was thought to have got a strain which developed into trouble later on. He was a splendidly-built fellow, over six feet in height, in the plenitude of youth, handsome, laughing, active, and of uncommon strength, the sort of man who jumps in when there is something to be done, throws in his whole force and saves the situation.
One day on a course in the canal below Thorold we rounded the corner of the height above the mountain tier of locks. It was a wondrous sight to see laid out before us the wide landscape of tableland and valley spread out below, through which we were to navigate and drop down 340 feet on the next four and one-quarter miles. To the left was the series of locks which circled, in gray stone structures, like a succession of great steps, down the mountain side. These were separated one from the other by small ponds or reservoirs with waste weirs, whose little waterfalls tinkled, foaming and glinting in the sun. Directly in front, and below us, were the houses and factories of Merritton, with trains of the Great Western and the Welland Railways spurting white columns of steam and smoke as the engines panted up the grade to the heights of the Niagara Escarpment from which we were about to descend.
Beyond these came glimpses of the canal as it wound its way toward St. Catharines. Still lower down the Escarpment, spires and towers of the city itself, and yet lower and still further away lay on the horizon the blue waters of Lake Ontario. How beautiful and hopeful it was!
As the Greeks when emerging from the strife and struggles of their long and painful homeward march, hailed the sea with shouts of happy acclaim, for beyond those waters they knew lay home and rest. So, too, it might have been for us, or at least for one of us, for another link had been gained in our long and trying voyage. Far away, from the height, we could see Lake Ontario, the goal of the expedition, the ardently sought terminus of our labours, and on the other side of its waters lay Toronto and the future for the bonnie ship. But times to-day are more prosaic, so, taking a hasty but satisfying look, we turned to negotiate the next lock.
That night at the bottom of the tier, the stern part moored in one pond and the bow in the next below, a "jubilation" was held in the after-cabin by the combined crews. We had safely got down all the steps, and had passed the large boat safely through, so that we might well rejoice.
Beyond this day there was not much that occurred; the way was simple and we had got the "hang" of things. At St. Catharines half the city came out to see the strange looking hulk wending its way down the canal, and through the locks, close to the town.
At length we came down through the five mile level where the "Canadian Henley" is now held, with its floating tow path to carry the teams, and arrived at Muir's Dock, just above the final lock at Port Dalhousie, after five days occupied in coming through the Canal. The two parts were moored alongside the gate while waiting for the dock to be made ready for our turn to enter.
The position of the village now known as Port Dalhousie was originally, in 1812 days, being called "Twelve Mile Creek." The creeks, or river openings being then named according to their distances in miles from the Niagara River. This name was afterwards changed to "Port Dalhousie," in honour of Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General at the time the first canal was constructed. The "Port" in those days of the horse canal when we arrived at it was mainly a turning place for the canal crews. Its one principal street facing the canal basin, had houses on one side only, mostly drunk shops, with or without license, with a few junk and supply stores intervening. Its immediate inhabitants, a nomad collection of sailors and towing gangs, waiting for another job. Around and in its neighborhood there was a happy district prolific of fruit and flowers, but in itself, with its vagrant crews called from the world over, it was a little haven not far from the realm of Dante's imaginations. Times, methods and circumstances have all since changed.
Capt. D. Muir, the proprietor of the Dry Dock, with whom both now and later many a pleasant hour was spent, was a fine old character, and although then on the far side of sixty he held himself with square-set shoulders upright and sprightly. He had sailed the lakes until his face had taken on a permanent tan; eyes a deep blue with shaggy overhanging brows, a strong month and imperturbable countenance. He was not greatly given to conversation and had a dry, pawky humour which gave much point to his slowly spoken words, but when, as sometimes, he was in narrative mood, he would string off incidents of early sailing days on the lakes the while he chewed or turned from side to side, some sliver of wood which was invariably held between his teeth. He had no fancy for metal vessels, or "tin-pots," as he called them. "Give me," said he, "good sound wooden vessels, built right," (as he said this you would glean from his emphasis he meant "as I build them.") "If ye hit against anything in the Canawl, ye don't dint; if ye go ashore ye don't punch holes in your bottom, and ye ken pull yer hardest without enny fear uv rippin' it out."
As soon as possible the two parts were put into the dock, the bulkheads taken out, the parts drawn together on launching ways (very cleverly done by Muir's men), and the plates and beams riveted together again by rivetters brought down from Buffalo. The hull, both inside and out, was diligently scraped in every part and thoroughly oiled and painted. The main deck was relaid and Chicora was a ship again.
While all this was going on, Mr. J. G. Demary, the "Overseer" of this section of the canal, and I, had been carefully looking over the canal lock and arranging the procedure for putting the boat in for the final lowering down to Lake Ontario level.
Close examination had proved that the conditions of the Port Dalhousie lock, under water, were much more favorable than appeared on the surface. The lock had been built about thirty years previously and there was very little local knowledge about it.
Like many other problems, it all seems very simple when once the unknown has been studied out and the results revealed, and so it was in this case. The project and the plan of the whole enterprise of bringing the Chicora down had been created by close search into conditions, by the adapting of a sudden opportunity which happened to become available, and thus rendered practicable that which all others had considered to be, and was, impossible.
In an undertaking so exceptional as this was it was unavoidable that unexpected difficulties should from time to time arise, as they often did, yet only to be overcome by decision and pertinacity. Another, at this stage, cropped up which for a time looked most unpleasant and caused much anxiety.
The 230-foot steamer was to be placed in the 233-foot lock, and the water run off so as to bring her to the Lake Ontario level, or 11 feet 6 inches below the upper canal level. It was now found, when trying out every inch of the proposition, that under the water in front of the breast wall there was a big boom, or beam, extending across the lock from side to side.
Demary did not know how it was held in position, for it had been there before he came into the service, but he understood it had been intended to stop vessels laden too deeply from coming up the canal and striking and damaging the stonework of the breast wall.
Enquiry at the Canal Office at St. Catharines resulted in learning that there were no records of it, although Mr. E. V. Bodwell, who was then the Canal Superintendent gave us every aid. That beam had to be got out of the way or difficulty might be caused, so permission was obtained from Ottawa for its removal at our own expense.
First we thought we would saw it through, but soon found that it was sheeted from end to end with plates of iron, so we had to begin the long job of cutting the iron under water. Many a pipe was smoked while watching the progress, when one day it was noticed that heads of the round rods which held up the beam in the grooves were square, suggesting screws on the lower end. So huge wrenches were forged, blocks and tackle rigged up, and after an afternoon's work with a team and striking blows with sledge hammers, we succeeded in getting the screws moving and, happy moment, the beam dropped to the bottom of the lock, where, no doubt, it still remains. So another kink had been untwisted.
Navigation ceased for the year, the canal was closed for the passage of vessels and the upper gates of the lock were opened and firmly secured. The Chicora was brought from her mooring, and placed in the lock with her bow up-stream. The water in the lock was now the same level as that of the upper level. On the 5th December, 1877, the process of drawing off the water of the five-mile level was begun, unwatering the canal as far as St. Catharines. It took ten days or so before the wider areas of the drowned lands were uncovered.
We watched the waters falling lower and lower until at length the steamer began lowering into the lock. Being fully secured, she was held in position clear of all obstacles. All was going well, but slowly, the time taken for the last few feet seeming to be interminable. At last suspense was over and on the 20th December we opened the lower gate and Chicora floated out into the harbour at the Lake Ontario level! The barges were quickly brought alongside, the guards were jacked up and fastened back into place to be completed after we reached Toronto, and the material which had been brought along in the expedition collected and loaded.
Arrangement had been made with Capt. Hall to keep the tug Robb in commission to be ready to tow us over. Being telegraphed for the tug duly arrived, and about noon on 24th December, started out from Port Dalhousie with Chicora in tow.
The air was cold but clear, and we had a fine passage, delighting greatly when the buildings of Toronto came clearly into view - soon we would enter the haven where we fain would be. As we crossed the lake a smart and increasing breeze rose behind. As we came abreast of the shoal near the New Fort (now called Stanley Barracks), and rounded up to make for the entrance to the harbour, suddenly the Robb stopped. Something had evidently gone wrong with the engine. Carried on by our way we swung broadside to the shore under our lee. A quarter of an hour, half an hour, three-quarters of an hour passed as we were steadily drifted by the breeze nearer and nearer to the beach. We could not do anything for ourselves - still there was no movement from the tug - would she never start again? A little nearer and we would go aground among the sand and boulders, to stick there perhaps through the whole of the winter which was so close at hand. After working out our enterprise so far, were we to be wrecked just when safety was less than a mile away? It seemed hard lines to be so helpless at such a stage. But fortune had not abandoned her adventurers, for just in the nick of time we saw the tug moving, the engine had started again and in half an hour the Chicora was inside the harbour, tied up alongside the old Northern Railway Dock, her journey from Collingwood ended on this the afternoon of the day before Christmas Day.
Capt Hall, who was on his tug, had suffered as much from anxiety as had we, for he knew that every other tug on the lake had been laid up, so there would have been nothing left to pull the Robb off had she, as well as we, been carried upon the bouldered shore.
The Robb was the largest Canadian wrecking tug then on the lakes. She had done service in the Fenian Raid of 1866 at the time of the engagement at Fort Erie between the Welland Battery and the Fenians, some of the bullet marks still remaining on her wheel-house. After a long and honourable career she was grounded at Victoria Park, where her hull was used to form a portion of the landing pier, and where some of her timbers may still remain.
What a happy relief it was to be back on old familiar ground again, to meet the cheery greetings and congratulations, of the "Old Northerners" of the Yard, and machine shops who took the utmost interest in this enterprise of their President, Hon. Frank Smith, and their General Manager, Mr. F. W. Cumberland, and formed an affection for the Chicora which is lasting and vivid to the present day.
Christmas was a happy and well-earned rest. We had completed the first part of the undertaking, but not for unmeasured wealth would the experience be repeated. Youth is energetic and looks forward in roseate hope, so the anxieties and risks were soon forgotten, and all nerves turned toward the business engagements and profits, which, now that we had her safe in hand, the boat was to be set to earn.
The balance of that winter, and the spring of 1878 were fully occupied in rebuilding the upper works of the steamer in their new form adapted to her service as a day boat end in overhauling and setting up the engine after their long rest. Not long after our arrival, Captain Manson developed a severe inflammation, which confined him to his room in the Richmond House. Here, bright and cheerful to the last, he died on 29th February and was buried in Collingwood on March 2nd, deeply regretted by all sailorfolk and particularly by our crew. Five others of that crew, lost with the Wabuno and Asia, found watery graves in the waters of the Georgian Bay. The writer is now the sole survivor, and Mr. R. H. M. McBride, and he the only remaining members of the original company.
The comely main stairway which gives such adornment to the entrance hall was then erected in all its grace of re-entrant curves, ornate pillars, and flowing sweep of headrail and balustrade. When one thinks of the unnumbered thousands of travellers Who have passed up and down its convenient steps, ones admiration and respect are raised for the French-Canadian Foreman who designed its form and executed it with such honest and capable workmanship, that to-day it still displays its lines of beauty without a creak or strain.
The octagonal wheel-house of the upper lakes which laid been brought by rail from Collingwood was re-erected with its columned sides and graceful curving cornice under which was again hung the little blockade-running bell, lettered "Let Her B."
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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.