In the May issue, we told the story of the veteran package freighter and grain carrier STARBUCK, so it is only natural that this month we should turn our attention to the vessel's running mate of later years, STARBELLE. It would, perhaps, be more appropriate to introduce her as IMPEROYAL or IMPERIAL COBOURG since for the first forty years of her life she served the Imperial Oil fleet and it was only for the last decade of her existence that she operated for Powell Transports.
Back in the year 1912, Imperial Oil's Great Lakes fleet was still really in its formative stages as it was only for a few years that operators had been carrying petroleum products in bulk rather than in barrels. In 1912 the company placed an order with the Greenock & Grangemouth Dockyard Company Ltd. for the construction at its Grangemouth, Great Britain, yard of two canal-sized bulk tankers for the lake service. The steamers were completed as IMPEROYAL and IMPOCO (II) but unfortunately the latter was to have a very short career with Imperial, being requisitioned in 1914 for use by the Royal Navy as a bunkering tanker. She was returned to Imperial in 1918 but was lost by stranding off Cape Sable, Nova Scotia, in 1920.
IMPEROYAL, known as her builder's Hull 351, was launched in April 1913. She measured 249.5 feet in length, 43.1 feet in the beam, and 19.7 feet in depth. Given official number C, 135209, she was registered at Sarnia, Ontario, and her tonnage was recorded as 2253 Gross, 1384 Net. She was powered by a triple expansion engine built by Cooper & Greig, Dundee, Scotland, having cylinders of 21", 34-3/8", 56" and a stroke of 36". Steam was provided by two single-ended Scotch boilers from the same makers.
As built, IMPEROYAL carried her pilothouse forward in the same manner as IOCOMA built the year earlier, but IMPEROYAL and her sister IMPOCO (II) could be easily distinguished from IOCOMA in that they carried a full trunk deck and were the first Imperial lake steamers to do so.
IMPEROYAL. made it to the lakes in time to serve for part of the 1913 season. She started 1914 on fresh water but in the autumn of that year, under the command of Capt. John Wilkie and with George Findlay as First Officer, she was sent to salt water for service on the Peruvian coast. IMPEROYAL came back to the lakes for the summer of 1915 but the following winter saw her back on salt water running across the Atlantic to France. In the spring of 1916 she again returned to her home waters on the lakes but that fall she headed back to salt water and was to stay there for three years.
In the autumn of 1916, IMPEROYAL commenced running to Norway and Sweden. After a number of trips on this route, she was taken to the Canadian west coast but she did not long linger there. She wound up running between New York and Mediterranean ports and stayed in this trade until 1919 when it was decided that her 24,778-barrel capacity could better be used back on the lakes.
When IMPEROYAL came back to the lake trade, she found that she was no longer the reigning queen of the Imperial fleet. During the time that she had been away, five new steamers had been built; the trio of ROYALITE, SARNOLITE and IOCOLITE had come from the Collingwood Shipbuilding Company Ltd. in 1916 while the next year the same yard had turned out REGINOLITE and TALARALITE, although this latter pair was sent straight to salt water on completion. Not only had her position as flagship been usurped, but IMPEROYAL herself had changed during her stay abroad. Her original pilothouse on the forecastle had not proved an asset on salt water and it had been replaced by a double-deck structure surmounted by an open bridge, this new addition being set back about half way down the deck. Canal tankers quite frequently carried their pilothouses back off the forecastle, but IMPEROYAL's was so far back that it gave her a most distinctive appearance and emphasized the great sweeping sheer of her deck.
IMPEROYAL settled back down into the lake service and, with the exception of a few odd trips back to the ocean, she remained on the lakes through to the Second War. Shortly after the conclusion of the First War, however, the company's stack design was changed from the I.O.Co. monogram in white on a black funnel to black with two white bands and a blue band, the colours that IMPEROYAL was to carry until the end of her service with the fleet. Her hull remained black and her cabins red. The only other major change to affect the steamer in the inter-war years came about 1925 when her bridge structure was altered. She was given an enclosed upper pilothouse similar to those placed on the 1916 trio of steamers. Painted white (in contrast with the rest of her cabins), it was a squarish wooden affair with a wide overhanging roof and three deep windows across the front.
Then after two peaceful decades came the Second War and once again IMPEROYAL headed east to salt water. Dressed in wartime gray, she ran on the Canadian east coast, normally running aviation gasoline to Goose Bay, Labrador. She managed to avoid the perils of wartime navigation and after the close of hostilities she came back to fresh water to resume her regular duties.
By the time she returned, her appearance had changed yet again. Her old "lower" pilothouse, now serving as the texas cabin, was removed and a square cabin fitted in its place. The overhanging brow was cut off her upper pilothouse and a regular sunvisor added as well as a dodger around the top. In all her earlier years, IMPEROYAL had sported a very tall and thin funnel but this was now surrounded by an equally tall but much thicker stack, the old one becoming in effect the "liner". She looked much better after this job as the heavier funnel tended to balance her lines.
In 1947, there occurred a general changing of names that was to affect the entire fleet. Until then, all the Imperial vessels either carried names ending in the suffix "lite" or else manufactured names with some significance to the company's name (e.g. IMPOCO). Now the names were all changed to honour ports served by the company's tankers and hence IMPEROYAL became (b) IMPERIAL COBOURG, the town of Cobourg (containing an Imperial facility) being located on the north shore of Lake Ontario about half way between Toronto and Kingston. Command of the ship was taken in 1949 by Capt. Clifford George Sloane, at that time a 30-year veteran of the fleet.
By 1952, IMPERIAL COBOURG was the oldest vessel in the Imperial lake service although to the eye of some she was still the classiest. Her usefulness was nearing an end and in the fall of that year both she and IMPERIAL MIDLAND, the former TALARALITE of 1917, were put up for sale.
On December 11, 1952, there occurred at Sarnia a memorable event. On that day, IMPERIAL COBOURG cast off from her dock with yet another cargo of gasoline. Instead of heading north up the St. Clair River toward Lake Huron on her usual "milk run" to Parry Sound and area, she turned and steamed down river bound for Toronto. And as she left her dock, she received individual salutes from each of the five other Imperial tankers then at Sarnia, each being answered by her own melodious chime whistle. For, you see, not only was this the veteran tanker's last trip under the Imperial houseflag, but it was also the last trip for her skipper who was retiring from the company's service after so many years.
IMPERIAL COBOURG arrived at the Ashbridge's Bay terminal at Toronto on December 13th, 1952. She unloaded and cleaned her tanks and then sailed for Port Dalhousie. There she laid up in the upper harbour along with her retired running mate IMPERIAL MIDLAND. She was purchased by Powell Transports Ltd. of Winnipeg, Kenneth A. Powell, manager, a firm associated with Hallet & Carey Ltd., prominent grain dealers. In the early spring of 1953, IMPERIAL COBOURG was placed on the Port Dalhousie drydock and there she was rebuilt as a grain carrier.
The steamer emerged with her pilothouse moved back immediately forward of the funnel. She retained her trunk and atop this were fitted folding hatches. As a stemwinder, she showed more than ever the tremendous sheer of her deck and she looked much like a large version of the old "rabbits," small wooden lumber carriers with everything aft. As Powell's other steamer was named STARBUCK, it was only natural that their new acquisition should be christened STARBELLE and it was under this name that she entered service in the early summer of 1953. Her revised tonnage was 2274 Gross, 1349 Net.
STARBELLE operated mainly in the grain trade from the Lakehead to the Bay Ports and to Goderich and about the only interesting occurrence in this stage of her career came late in the fall of 1960. STARBELLE was downbound in Lake Superior with a cargo of grain when on December 9th she radioed for help, having been caught in a severe gale. Her crew was most worried not about the storm itself but rather by the ominous appearance of a crack in the steamer's deck. The U.S. Coast Guard tug NAUGATUCK was sent to her aid and on December 10th STARBELLE arrived safely at the Soo, NAUGATUCK standing by in case of trouble. On closer inspection it was observed that not only had STARBELLE's deck cracked, but also vertical cracks each 18 inches long and about one inch wide had appeared on each side above the waterline.
Surprisingly, the veteran steamer was not forced to lay up where she was (remember the case of EDWARD Y. TOWNSEND six years later?) and after temporary repairs, including the strapping of her deck with steel cables, she was allowed to proceed on her way, clearing the Soo on December 14th. After unloading what had originally been intended as a winter storage cargo, she was placed on the drydock at Collingwood and over the winter permanent repairs were effected.
STARBELLE went back in service in 1961 but by this time, of course, her running mate STARBUCK had long since been scrapped and the little STARBELLE carrying on alone was hardly an economical operating proposition. She ran through the 1962 season and then was laid up at Fort William in the Kaministiquia River at its junction with the Mission River. She was sold to a company known as High & Heavy Rigging Ltd. who planned to rebuild her as a derrick and lightering barge. In 1963 work started on cutting her down to deck level but the job was never completed as planned and the cutting continued until there was nothing left of her. Her last remains were cut up during 1964.
Although she had ceased active operation one half season earlier, she actually lasted longer than her earlier mate IMPERIAL MIDLAND which was converted to a pilothouse-forward bulk carrier at Port Dalhousie the same year as the job on COBOURG was done, MIDLAND had become WILLOWDALE for Reoch Transports Ltd. and was scrapped at Toronto in September 1963. The demise of IMPEROYAL - IMPERIAL COBOURG - STARBELLE left the lakes without what must have been one of its most handsome canallers for never did another canal steamer possess such graceful lines.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.