When we think of the passenger service between Toronto and Port Dalhousie it is very easy to dwell on the famous pair of steamers that closed out the operation two decades ago while not giving due attention to some of the earlier vessels that contributed so much to the development of the service. One of the early steamers that became extremely popular not only on the Port Dalhousie route but also in the general excursion trade from Toronto was the EMPRESS OF INDIA.
The new steamer measured 170 feet in length and 9 feet in depth. The hull had a beam of 26 feet but she measured 48 feet over the guards. She grossed 579 tons while her net tonnage was 353. Given registry number 72998, she was christened EMPRESS OF INDIA in honour of Queen Victoria who had been given that title, one that would be carried by succeeding reigning British monarchs until the independence of India was granted in 1948.
EMPRESS was built for A. W. Hepburn of Picton, Ontario, who was a very prominent Lake Ontario vessel operator. He put her into operation in 1876 under the management of the Toronto Navigation Co. According to Robertson's "Landmarks of Toronto," she was a "very great favourite with travellers upon Lake Ontario and also with excursionists." Her first year was spent in the general excursion trade out of Toronto. In 1877 her manager was C. J. McCuaig of Toronto and that year she ran on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays to the mouth of the Humber River (25¢ per head), on Wednesdays and Saturdays to Oakville (50¢), and on Thursdays to Burlington Beach and Hamilton (also 50¢). In addition, she scheduled a moonlight excursion each Friday evening at 8:00 with a band in attendance.
Over the winter of 1877-78 she was given the first of many rebuilds, being "extensively repaired" at Picton. In 1878 she was back at Toronto and this time Hepburn operated her under the Imperial Navigation Co., a name apparently invented to match the name of the steamer. C. J. McCuaig was again manager. This year, however, her schedule was more ambitious and she operated westwards to Mimico Grove, Oakville, Brant House (downtown Burlington), Burlington Beach and Hamilton. Eastwards from Toronto, she served Whitby, Oshawa and Bowmanville. The following year, 1879, she confined her travels mostly to the Lorne Park service, this route taking her to a location somewhat to the west of the present harbour at Port Credit.
EMPRESS OF INDIA, continued in the excursion trade until 1883 when Hepburn, seeing a profit to be made in operating to the Niagara area, established the Niagara Falls Line. The EMPRESS was placed on this route and was the line's first vessel. It would appear that she crossed to Port Dalhousie and passed up through the first lock of the Welland Canal, discharging her passengers on the upper level. She was to serve this route for many years and could be said to have started the Port Dalhousie service in that she was the first major vessel to operate on a permanent basis. EMPRESS was reboilered in 1884 and received further rebuilds in 1886 and 1891. She was commanded by four well-known Masters during the period 1876 to 1893, these being Captains Collier, Hodgins, VanDusen and G. O'Brien in that order.
In 1888, the sixth year for the EMPRESS OF INDIA on the Niagara route, she was faced with her first serious competition as the Lakeside Navigation Co. placed its propeller LAKESIDE on the route under the command of Capt. Wigle. Over the years, this newcomer proved to be one of the most popular steamers on Lake Ontario. The competition between the two lines became hotter as the years passed and the companies fought for the patronage of the crowds seeking relief from the summer heat of the city.
But if competition was fierce when only two ships were involved, it became deadly in 1892 when the newly-formed St. Catharines, Grimsby & Toronto Navigation Co, placed its new sidewheeler GARDEN CITY on the Port Dalhousie route and, in addition, chartered the LAKESIDE. The very next year, the Niagara Falls Line and the S.G. & T. decided to bury the hatchet and merge their operations since the reckless competition could end only in disaster if it were to continue.
Things continued on a quieter and more prosperous level until the close of the 1898 season at which time Hepburn withdrew the EMPRESS and took her to Picton where she was hauled out at the company's own yard. There she was lengthened and completely rebuilt. She emerged in 1899 with a length of 185.1 feet, the same beam as before, and a depth of 9.7 feet. Her tonnage had risen to 700 Gross and 374 Net as a result of the operation. She was renamed (b) ARGYLE and was given a new registry number, 94926, presumably because she was so extensively altered.
ARGYLE entered service for Hepburn's Lake Ontario Navigation Co. and ran from Toronto to Newcastle, Port Hope, Cobourg and Olcott Beach. During this period she was painted all white (she had earlier worn a black hull) and had much more enclosed cabin space on the main and promenade decks than in her Port Dalhousie days. While the records show that in 1907 she was sold at auction to F. T. Hutchinson's Argyle Steamship Co. Ltd., Toronto, it appears that the Hepburn interests were involved with the ship throughout this period since, on February 13, 1911, the Lake Ontario Navigation Co. sold ARGYLE to the Grimsby Beach & South Shore Navigation Co., Toronto, It is possible that the ship may have been repossessed after the sale to Hutchinson.
In any event, the Grimsby Beach & South Shore commenced operation between Toronto, Grimsby Beach and Jordan Harbour, the latter two places being small ports on the south shore west of Port Dalhousie. In 1913 and perhaps part of 1914, ARGYLE operated as GRIMSBY but this name does not appear to have been officially registered and later in 1914 she was properly renamed (c) FRONTIER. Strangely enough, the 1914 Canadian register shows her owners to be the Argyle Steamship Co. Ltd., Toronto, and confusion arises as to whether this was the same concern that purchased her in 1907 or whether it was a new company or a reorganization of the Grimsby Beach & South Shore Navigation Co.
Whatever the case, she was sold in 1915 to the Peoples Steamboat Co. of Chatham, who intended to operate her in the passenger service between Chatham and Detroit. Service was never commenced, however, and the same year she passed to the Frontier Steamship Co. who, in August 1915, were advertising in the Detroit newspapers that "The Steamer FRONTIER, recently remodelled, beautifully furnished, completely equipped with modern conveniences, is now ready to charter day or moonlight excursions. Prices for remaining season reasonable and satisfaction guaranteed."
This guarantee of good times afloat apparently did little to lure prospective excursionists aboard the veteran sidewheeler and it seems likely that she never actually operated in this service either. While lying idle in the Thames River at Chatham in 1916, she settled to the bottom, her oak planking showing its forty years of wear. She lay on the bottom of the Thames until 1918 when she was raised by the Reid Wrecking Co. Ltd. of Sarnia. FRONTIER was then registered to one Margaret Cook of Windsor who may have had some interest in the previous attempts to operate her out of Chatham. The steamer was towed to Detroit where her superstructure was removed and then the creaking old hull was taken out into Lake St. Clair and laid to rest in the swamp near Windmill Point. There, far from Lake Ontario where she had spent her happiest years, her remains rotted until covered over in a subsequent landfilling operation.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.