Yesterday about noon (Tuesday, July 3, 1883), Messrs. Aitken & Mansel launched from their shipbuilding yard at Whiteinch the steel screw-steamer ATHABASCA, the vessel being the first of three presently building to the order of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, to form a connecting service across the great inland fresh-water seas, Lakes Huron and Superior. Miss Govan of 2 Athole Place, Glasgow, performed the usual ceremony of naming the vessel. The three vessels are built alike and are of the following dimensions: Length 270 ft., breadth 38 ft. 1 in., depth to upper deck 23 ft. 3 in., with gross tonnage of about 1750. As, however, the completion of these vessels will not be carried out until they reach the lakes, it is estimated that their actual tonnage will be about 2400 when a contemplated extensive range of houses built in the American system has been erected on the upper deck. When finished, each vessel will accommodate about 240 first class passengers and 600 emigrants.
The contract for these vessels was placed in the hands of Mr. David Rowan, engineer, Elliot Street, and they will be fitted by him with compound direct-acting screw engines, capable of working to about 1700 indicated horses, the cylinders being 35 in. and 70 in. by 4 ft. stroke, supplied with steam by two steel boilers with a working pressure of 125 lb. per square inch. To obtain strength as well as lightness of draught the hulls are constructed of Siemens-Martin steel supplied by the Steel Company of Scotland, and the bulkheads are arranged to allow of the vessels being divided into two parts to permit their passage through the limited dimensions of the locks of the Welland and other canals leading to the level of the upper lakes. The entire business and details of this contract have been concluded on the part of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company under the superintendence of Mr. Henry Beatty of Montreal, assisted by Messrs. M'Crindell, Schaw & Co., of this city.
Yesterday afternoon (Thursday, July 12, 1883) Messrs. Chas. Connell & Company launched from their shipbuilding yard at Scotstown the steel screw-steamer ALBERTA, one of the three vessels presently being built on the Clyde to the order of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company to form a connecting service across Lakes Huron and Superior. As she left the ways, the naming ceremony was performed by Miss M'Lellan, daughter of the Hon. William M'Lellan, First Minister of Marine of the Dominion of Canada....
Yesterday afternoon (Tuesday, July 31, 1883) Messrs. Aitken & Mansel launched from their shipbuilding yard at Kelvinhaugh the steel screw-steamer ALGOMA, this vessel being the third of three being built to the order of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company to form a connecting service across the great inland fresh-water seas, Lakes Huron and Superior. Miss Schaw, 26 Park Circus, Glasgow, performed the usual ceremony of naming the vessel....
And so, in the words of Glaswegian reporters of the day, began the lives of the first steamers actually built for the C.P.R. Great Lakes Service. True, the railway had operated ships on the lakes for a number of years, but these had all been wooden vessels chartered from other operators.
There was one major change that took place before the new steamers were ready to sail from their birthplaces on the Clyde, and the change has been the cause of a debate which has raged ever since. Note that the newspaper reported that at the time of launch, the first vessel was named ATHABASKA. Read on, and you will see that by the time she cleared port on her delivery voyage, the "K" had been deleted and in its place appeared the more familiar "C" which she was to carry the rest of her life. Unfortunately, no photographic proof of the earlier spelling has yet been found and it seems that the controversy will not subside until a photo is produced. Suffice it to say that if the "K" ever did actually appear on the ship, it took its leave before the ship was ready to clear the builder's yard.
The steamers made their way across the Atlantic with no untoward incidents apart from the leaky boiler which troubled ATHABASCA. In due course, they arrived in Canada and all three were taken up to the Cantin Shipyard at Montreal. There, the ships were cut apart for their passage up the St. Lawrence and Welland Canals. Incidentally, their trips in the St. Lawrence Canals were, we believe, made easier by an escort of paddle tugs belonging to the Calvin Company of Garden Island. Before the closing of navigation for the 1883 season, they reached Buffalo and there were rejoined at the yard of the Union Dry Dock Company, They were subsequently taken back to Port Colborne where they were left for the winter, allowing the carpenters an opportunity to erect the vessels' superstructures.
When ATHABASCA, ALBERTA and ALGOMA left Glasgow, they had no cabins at all on the upper deck apart from a makeshift pilothouse and in this condition they must have looked a bit strange, although we had never discovered a photograph to illustrate. Once they arrived at Port Colborne, however, the joiners went to work and constructed a long cabin on the upper deck. Built of wood, it consisted of a lengthy gallery from the sides of which opened the staterooms. The passenger accommodation was all located on this deck and thus the quarters could only be described as spartan, although they were infinitely superior to the "luxuries" provided on earlier steamers. No dining saloon was provided and so tables were set in the old fashion, right in the main lounge between the rows of staterooms. The entire gallery was surmounted by a clerestory deckhead which protruded above the boat deck and formed a raised area which was used as an observation deck.
A small and unobtrusive pilothouse, four windows across its forward end, sprouted far forward on the boat deck. It was very low in profile and on top was an open bridge. The funnel, located about two-thirds of the way aft, was large and fairly tall, and its fine rake was matched by that of the two masts. The ships carried sail on each mast as a precaution against mechanical failure and the sail was used on many occasions in the early years as an assist to the engines. All in all, the three steamers had a long, low and sleek profile that was decidedly different from the cluttered appearance of passenger vessels that had been built previously for lake service. They proved to be the forerunners of many to follow.
Each ship was painted black with a high boot-top. A closed rail surrounded the upper deck promenade and just below the deck level ran a narrow white stripe the entire length of the ship. Cabins were painted white and the funnel was black with a wide red band at the midpoint of which was a very narrow white band.
The transcontinental railway being built by the C.P.R. was not yet completed and the travelling public thronged to the ships which represented the best available transportation from Southern Ontario to the Lakehead area. A boat train was operated from Toronto to Owen Sound on sailing and arrival days to carry passengers to and from their ship and this train was to remain in operation, albeit with a different northern terminus in later years, for eighty-two seasons. It proved to be the last such operation on the North American continent.
The first year of the new steamship service went relatively smoothly except that ALBERTA came on a bit of hard luck and was involved in no less than five collisions, four of them minor and one more serious. On July 27, 1884, three and half miles off Whitefish Point, she ran down and sank the wooden steamer J. M. OSBORNE. There was heavy fog in the area at the time but neither ship had reduced speed. The OSBORNE was towing the barges GEORGE W. DAVIS and THOMAS GAWN at the time. Three lives were lost in the incident.
Basically, however, the three-ship operation was very successful and it lasted for the better part of two years. The temporary termination of the winning combination was caused by the only major accident ever to befall the C.P.R. Great Lakes Service. The loss of the ALGOMA is a story well known to lake historians, but it is worth repeating here by way of emphasizing the C.P.R.'s excellent safety record on which this incident was the only blemish.
On Thursday, November 5, 1885, ALGOMA cleared Owen Sound for Port Arthur with a heavy load of freight but, fortunately, a very light passenger list (only eleven being booked) due undoubtedly to the lateness of the season and the inclement weather. Her Master was Capt. John Moore. She passed up the Soo Canal on November 6th and was due to arrive in Port Arthur early on the morning of Saturday, November 7th.
A strong tailwind out of the southeast prompted Capt. Moore to run with the sails set in addition to the full power the engines were churning out, but by 4:00 a.m. Saturday morning, the gale still blowing and the weather deteriorating, Capt. Moore ordered all sail but a trisail on the foremast taken in so that the ship might make the passage around Isle Royale and into the protected waters of Thunder Bay. By this time, however, visibility was obscured by a fall of snow and freezing rain and Capt. Moore began to have second thoughts about entering Thunder Bay. Deciding to wait out the storm in what he believed to be the open lake (a tragic misapprehension on his part), he ordered the helm to be put over and the steamer turned back into open Lake Superior. Just as the turn was in progress, the stern of ALGOMA struck Greenstone Rock on Isle Royale.
The vessel was caught fast on the rocky shore. The force of the storm battered her unmercifully and the hapless steamer broke in two just forward of the engineroom, the forward section dropping off into deep water. The wave action soon stripped the cabin from the after end and the surviving passengers and crew, only fourteen in all being still alive, had little to cling to but the smashed rail, the mainmast and the rigging. The Captain himself was seriously injured but managed to keep the survivors together. After a full day on the wreck, they managed to make their way to shore but it was not until Monday, November 9, that with the help of local fisherman, they attracted to the scene a rescue vessel. She turned out to be the ATHABASCA, downbound out of Port Arthur, her crew keeping a lookout for the sistership which was now two days overdue at the Lakehead. The survivors were taken safely aboard.
Salvage of the wreck was out of the question, there being so little left, but in 1886 the engines were removed from the battered stern section of ALGOMA. The machinery was refurbished and placed in the steamer MANITOBA built at Owen Sound to replace the luckless ALGOMA. She did not enter service until 1889, almost four years after the disaster.
In her last gasp of life, ALGOMA had managed to cast a horrible shadow on what was the most triumphant day for the Canadian Pacific. For on November 7, 1885, as ALGOMA was grinding herself to pieces on Greenstone Rock, the Hon. Donald Smith was driving the ceremonial last spike in the C.P.R, transcontinental line at Craigellachie, British Columbia. It truly was a day to remember.
ALBERTA and ATHABASCA finished out the season alone, but the spring of 1886 brought a return to the three-ship operation with the help of the chartered CAMPANA. (Ship of the Month No. 10, issue of October 1970) which served until MANITOBA made her appearance. The first few years of the new ship's life saw her laid up a good bit in Owen Sound as passenger traffic was dropping off with the improvement in rail facilities.
Things went well for the older pair, however, until July 14, 1891. On that morning, ATHABASCA was upbound in the Sugar Island Channel of Little Lake George, St. Mary's River. At the same time, the bulk carrier PONTIAC of the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company was downbound with a cargo of iron ore. It seems that all was not sweetness and light between Capt. James F. Foote of ATHABASCA and Capt. Lowes of PONTIAC, for Capt. Foote took exception to the way PONTIAC refused to give any ground in a passing, crowding the proud passenger steamer to the side of the channel whenever they met. On this occasion, things were not played according to the same script, Capt. Foote held his position in the channel and his vessel struck the PONTIAC a dead bow-on blow opening such a gaping hole in the freighter that she sank on the spot. There was little damage to ATHABASCA but when she arrived at the Soo, the entire foredeck from PONTIAC was balanced across her bows, the whole structure having been torn loose in the impact. Upon the insistence of the insurers, the C.P.R. was forced to dismiss Capt, Foote after the accident, but in view of his actions in upholding the honour of the ATHABASCA and the pride of her owners, he retained the goodwill of the railway and received a healthy pension from them.
Rail facilities continued to cut down on the patronage of the steamers for a few years and in 1895 the company experimented by placing ALBERTA on a new run from Windsor to the Lakehead. She made her first sailing on June 29, 1895, but the service did not last and she was returned to her regular route.
Early in the new century, the two sisters as well as MANITOBA were rebuilt forward and received turtle-backed raised forecastles. To permit a view over the new and higher bows, the vessels' pilothouses were raised so that they protruded a full deck in height above the boat deck. The ships were, however, still conned from an open bridge atop the pilothouse and C.P.R. management was most insistent that this practice should be retained. Their appearance then remained the same for almost a decade with the exception of the advent of new stack colours coincident with the appearance of two new steamers which entered service in 1908. The new stack design was buff with a black top and the two early sisters kept this design, along with their original hull colours, until their retirement. They never received the white hull or the checkerboard on the funnel that MANITOBA and the new pair of steamers later carried.
By 1906 business for the steamers had picked up to such an extent that the C.P.R, ordered two new vessels from the Govan, Glasgow, yard of the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd. At the launching of the first of the new steamers, ASSINIBOIA, on June 25, 1907, Mr. Arthur Piers, manager of the C.P.R. lake steamship department, stated that ALGOMA., ALBERTA and ATHABASCA had originally been planned as makeshift units only and that it had been the intention of the railroad to scrap them as soon as the transcontinental rail line had become established. Mr. Piers admitted that things had turned out much better than had been expected and that in 1907 ALBERTA, ATHABASCA and MANITOBA were still vitally important to the fleet's operations and would not be replaced by ASSINIBOIA and KEEWATIN.
Business was so good, in fact, that in 1910 ATHABASCA was sent to Collingwood where she was taken in hand by the Collingwood Shipbuilding Company and lengthened to 298.8 feet, her tonnage being altered to 2784 Gross and 2349 Net. At this time she lost her turtle-back forecastle but her bow appeared even higher now as a result of a closed rail built atop the forecastle. The operation must have been a success for in 1911 ALBERTA was also sent round to Collingwood. She was made a little longer than her sister, for she emerged with a length of 309.7 feet and her tonnage jumped to 2829 Gross and 2377 Net.
Their old machinery must have proven inadequate for their longer hulls for in 1913 both ships were given new engines and boilers by the Western Dry Dock & Shipbuilding Company Ltd., Port Arthur. The new engines were of the compound type and had cylinders of 30" and 64" with a stroke of 48". Each ship received two Scotch boilers measuring l4 feet by 11 feet.
The year 1912 saw the eastern terminus of the lake operation changed from Owen Sound to Port McNicoll, a small port on Georgian Bay near Midland. ALBERTA, ATHABASCA, KEEWATIN and ASSINIBOIA changed their base of operation to the new port but MANITOBA continued to carry passengers out of Owen Sound until her retirement at the end of the 1949 season,
ALBERTA at this time was operating with a very unusual chimed steam whistle. It had three chambers but they were located one over another rather than side by side as was the usual fashion. It is said that the whistle came from a shoreside mill. At one stage the company tried to make another like it for the flagship ASSINIBOIA because it had such a melodious tone, but the new whistle never worked properly and eventually was discarded.
In 1916 it was finally decided that MANITOBA, KEEWATIN and ASSINIBOIA could handle the passenger trade and so the older pair was relegated to a freight-only service between Port McNicoll and the Lakehead ports of Port Arthur and Port William (the latter had been added as a port of call when the C.P.R. built docking and elevator facilities there about 1907). The appearance of ATHABASCA and ALBERTA was not altered except by the addition of a rather flimsy-looking wooden upper pilothouse. The company apparently relented on the rule about open bridges now that there would be no passengers on the ships and it was not necessary to maintain appearances. In addition, two of the lifeboats on each side of the boat deck were removed and the davits remained empty, although they too were eventually removed. The passenger cabin remained unchanged and, we presume, offered hitherto unheard-of luxury accommodation to the crewmen of the steamers who had been required, before this to content themselves with their utilitarian quarters in the bow.
ATHABASCA and ALBERTA remained in the Port McNicoll - Lakehead service carrying package freight and bagged flour and feed into the 1930's when the effects of the Depression made themselves felt and the ships operated only sporadically. However, once the shipping world recovered from its bad years, it was decided that the aging pair was no longer needed on the regular service. In an effort to place them in some useful trade, the C.P.R, introduced a new route from Port McNicoll to Milwaukee and Chicago, On this run were placed ATHABASCA and ALBERTA still, of course, in the package freight trade. By this time, the appearance of ATHABASCA was altered somewhat in that the overhang of the boat deck over the upper deck promenade was removed, this operation giving the steamer a particularly bald look, especially at the stern. It offended the sleek and graceful lines which came from her delicate counter and sweep of her hull sheer. Fortunately ALBERTA was never submitted to the same indignity.
In 1944, the pair of steamers had completed a full sixty years of service and with them, the C.P.R. originated its rule that ships be retired at age 60, The company adhered to this rule with MANITOBA, was forced to retire KEEWATIN two years early, but returned to the 60-limit with ASSINIBOIA, which ran two years in freight-only service after the end of her passenger run. ALBERTA and ATHABASCA were laid up at Port McNicoll and remained there for the next several years.
ALBERTA was the first to go. In 1946 she was sold to the American Machinery Company of Jacksonville, Florida. This firm proposed to take the vessel to the Gulf of Mexico via the Illinois Waterway and the Mississippi River, although it is not evident what use they wished to make of her. ALBERTA was towed to Chicago and there was stripped of her funnel and spars so that she could clear river bridges under tow. The project never came to fruition, however, and she lay in this rather sad state until 1947 when she was towed to Indiana Harbor and put out of her misery by the wreckers' torches.
ATHABASCA remained at "The Port" until 1947 by which time it had become obvious that nobody would be interested in buying the old ship for operation. She was accordingly sold to the Steel Company of Canada Ltd. for scrapping. In the post-war years, Stelco's wreckers were doing a land-office business in cutting up old vessels as the firm had purchased all the veteran steamers traded in to the U.S.Maritime Commission by American lake operators during the Second War. ATHABASCA joined the ghostly parade to the torches and on May 27, 1947, she made the passage down the Welland Canal in tow of the tugs HELENA, and TUPPER PORTER. The scrappers were well supplied with work just then and so it was not until well into 1948 that the last remains of ATHABASCA were finally cut up.
And so ended the lives of the two remaining vessels of this famous trio. Their original design had a great influence on passenger vessels to follow and even the tragic loss of ALGOMA, under circumstances her designers could never foresee, did not detract from the success of the remaining sisters. Their sixty-plus years belie the original label of "makeshift units" applied to them by the railway in early years, and stand as a tribute to the quality of the work of their Scottish builders.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.