It is now more than sixty years since the passenger steamer CHICORA made her last run from Toronto to the Niagara River and it seems almost inconceivable that such a long time could have passed since this famous vessel was in operation. Perhaps we find this fact so hard to believe because CHICORA's name was for so long synonymous with the Niagara River line and because she was the sole boat operated by the Niagara Navigation Company Ltd. for an entire decade after she made her debut on Lake Ontario.
CHICORA was launched into the Mersey River in February 1864 and was hurriedly prepared to enter service. She had a length of 221.0 feet, a beam of 26.0 feet and a depth of 10.9 feet. Her tonnage was registered as 740. Her iron hull was divided into six watertight compartments and she was given a long turtle-backed forecastle, A prime necessity for a blockade runner was a good turn of speed and to this end CHICORA was fitted with an oscillating, condensing, two-cylinder steam engine which had cylinders of 52" each and a stroke of 48". This engine, built by Faucett & Prescott of Liverpool, developed 180 h.p. and drove her large Clyde River-type sidewheels. With her extraordinarily narrow hull offering very little resistance to the water, she proved to be a very speedy vessel. In a 28-mile speed test on the Mersey with her sistership BADGER on March 26, 1864, she managed a speed of something in excess of 19 knots.
In keeping with the nature of her intended trade, CHICORA was built with as little above decks as possible. She carried no superstructure on deck at all except for the paddleboxes and her guards were of the short English type. Her two very tall and slender funnels were set in tandem, one forward and one aft of the paddlewheels. The funnels were very heavily raked as were the two masts on which auxiliary sail was carried.
The Union forces were on the watch for blockade runners and so to disguise her real identity CHICORA was given the temporary (and apparently unofficial) name of LET HER B prior to her speed trials. The spelling of this name has been a subject of dispute for many years and it is not inconceivable that her name might have been LET HER BE as there were other similar blockade runners with similar names. On the other hand, there were those who claimed to have seen the name LETTER B etched into her brass bell in later years. All things considered, LET HER B is the best-documented of the three spellings.
Three days after her trials, LET HER B was entered to load at Liverpool for Nassau, Bahamas, her agents being Frazer, Trenholm & Company, Liverpool. It was shown at the time that Henry Lafone was her owner but there is no doubt about the fact that the Chicora Company was still her registered owner. She had been fitted with two twelve-pounder guns and carriages mounted in such a way that they could easily be moved on deck in the event of Union harassment.
CHICORA, or rather LET HER B, did not load for Nassau, however, and instead was cleared in ballast for Hamilton, Bermuda, under the command of Capt. John Rains. Before she got away from the Mersey, the steamer had a bit of an altercation with a dock and she was taken back to her berth for repairs. She did not actually clear until April 12, 1864. Her speed can be judged by the fact that on April 20 she was reported due at Hamilton, the report being made by C.M.Allen, U. S. Consul at Bermuda.
LET HER B loaded at Hamilton for Wilmington, North Carolina, and from that point on she resumed her original official name of CHICORA, for it was under this name that she was taken up the Cape Fear River by Wilmington pilot J. T. Burruss. Her arrival at Wilmington was logged in the name of CHICORA. Incidentally, she ran the blockade without incident.
Her second trip was not so peaceful. This voyage took her to Charleston, the ship being under the command of Capt. George B. Boynton. On this occasion she was accosted by Union gunboats and only barely escaped destruction. After the encounter, she managed to limp to the safety of Charleston harbour, her mainmast lost and five of her crew dead.
CHICORA's usual run was from Hamilton to either Wilmington or Charleston, the two main Confederate seaports on the east coast, and she made many such trips through the remainder of l864 and the first month of 1865. In late January she made a trip south to Nassau and loaded for Charleston. She sailed from Nassau on February 1st and a few days later arrived at her destination. Much to his surprise, her captain found the city being evacuated in the face of the attack by Sherman's Union forces. CHICORA was forced to depart quickly and run out past the blockade, which she did in safety, arriving back at Nassau several days later. It is said that CHICORA was the last blockade runner to escape from Charleston prior to its capture on February 7th.
The steamer's career in the service of the Confederacy came to an end very soon after her escape, for her services were no longer needed to support the collapsing South. She had come through the hostilities without being involved in any serious incidents other than her early tangle with the gunboats off Charleston on her second trip. The war ended, CHICORA was taken north to Halifax where she was laid up under the watchful eye of Thomas Gilchrist Rudd, Halifax agent for the Chicora Company. On February 1st, 1866 CHICORA was brought into Canadian registry and was enrolled at Halifax under official number 53588. Her owner was shown as Benjamin Wier, merchant, but it appears that control of the vessel still rested with the Chicora Company or whatever was left of this firm. It is interesting to note that for the rest of her life, CHICORA showed Halifax as her official port of registry (although there is evidence that for a certain period she may have had the name of another port painted on her stern).
In 1867, the year of Canadian Confederation, Great Lakes money began to be invested in CHICORA as she lay at Halifax. Donald Milloy, a member of a renowned Toronto shipping family, purchased a 17/64 interest in the ship on October 28,1867, and on September 14, 1868, the remainder of the vessel's 64 shares were sold to Nicol Milloy, Toronto, to Donald Robertson of Queenston, and to Thomas Burk of Niagara Falls, their interests being 17, 15 and 15 shares respectively. Thomas Rudd took back a $7,000 mortgage and a further mortgage in the amount of $11,000 to Her Majesty the Queen was arranged.
CHICORA was brought as far as Quebec City in 1867 and there she was put in drydock and cut into two sections for the passage up the canals. The two sections were wintered at Sorel and the following spring they were towed up to Buffalo where they were rejoined and the ship converted for overnight passenger service. Her short English-style guards were extended the full length of the ship and cabins were built on the main deck. A "bird-cage" pilothouse was built forward of the foremast on the upper deck. This work completed, CHICORA sailed under her own power for Collingwood, arriving there on September 7, 1868. There the joiners went to work on her interior. Before they could finish, however, CHICORA made a special trip up to Lake Superior, calling at way ports on the North Channel, and the carpenters were taken along, struggling to get the passenger accommodation ready during the course of the trip.
By the spring of 1869, CHICORA was ready to enter her intended service. The main deck cabin extended the full length of the deck and on the upper deck there was a shorter cabin, truncated abaft the after funnel, running back from the pilothouse. CHICORA still sported her original funnels but she now had only the foremast standing. Her interior work all completed, the steamer set off on what was to be her regular run from Collingwood to Fort William with calls along the way at ports along the North Channel, at Sault Ste. Marie, and at way ports on the north shore of Lake Superior. The federal government in Ottawa provided a handsome subsidy to encourage the vessel's operators to open up the route and to carry Her Majesty's mails.
In 1870 the Canadian government faced a serious problem in that the Metis were rising up in revolt in what is now the province of Manitoba. Col. Garnet Wolseley was dispatched with an expeditionary force destined for Fort Garry (now known as Winnipeg) and it was arranged that CHICORA would carry the forces westbound from Collingwood to Fort William. She cleared Collingwood on May 21, 1870, with the first contingent of men and supplies and was accompanied on the trip by the brand new wooden steamer L. SCHICKLUNA towing the schooners ORION and PANDORA. CHICORA was under the command of a Capt. McGean.
At the Soo, CHICORA encountered problems. The only canal then extant was the old State Canal on the U. S. side of the river and as she was carrying a foreign army and its supplies, the ship was refused passage by the U.S. authorities. Finally CHICORA went to the Canadian shore and unloaded Wolseley's troops and their goods. She was then allowed to proceed up the State Canal and she subsequently reloaded her passengers at Point aux Pins. It was when the ship reached the shores of Thunder Bay that Col. Wolseley decreed that the landing there should be known as Prince Arthur's Landing in honour of the Duke of Connaught. The town which grew around the landing was named Port Arthur in 1885.
CHICORA made several trips up the lakes ferrying Wolseley's troops and then brought them back again once the Northwest Rebellion had been quelled. The steamer then went back into her regular trade to Fort William and the route was even extended as far as Duluth. About this time, her upper deck cabin was extended right aft and the pilothouse was lifted up to the hurricane deck. In 1873 CHICORA was sold to the Hon. Frank Smith and Noah Barnhart and they ran her on the same route through that year. Business, however, was faltering and at the close of the season CHICORA went to the wall at Collingwood.
During July and August of 1874, CHICORA was chartered for use as the vice-regal yacht for Governor General Lord Dufferin who was planning a western tour. She was completely refurbished under the direction of Fred W. Cumberland, general manager of the Northern Railway, and was fitted out specially for her honoured passenger. She carried Lord Dufferin across Lakes Huron and Superior and even down Lake Michigan as far as Chicago. But this job finished, there being no work available for her on her normal run, she was once again laid up at Collingwood. It is from this point that she became one of the "Niagara boats" and it is proper at this stage for us to digress for a moment from CHICORA to describe conditions on Lake Ontario's most famous passenger route.
In April 1877 the Hon. Frank Smith was seeking to buy out the interest of the heirs of the now-deceased Noah Barnhart, his partner in the operation of CHICORA.. He found the necessary support in the person of Barlow Cumberland and the two, together with John Foy, set about making plans for operating the steamer on Lake Ontario. The Niagara Navigation Company Ltd. was formed with Smith, Cumberland and Foy acting as president, vice-president and secretary respectively.
CHICORA's upperworks were removed at Collingwood and on August 5, 1877 she cleared that port for Buffalo in tow of the big wooden tug W. T. ROBB. Once at Buffalo, CHICORA was placed on drydock and cut apart for the trip down the Welland Canal. Prior to cutting the hull apart in two sections, the paddleboxes were removed and the guards on either side were lopped off and lowered onto barges, thus reducing the hull to a width suitable for the small locks of the second Welland Canal. In tow of the ROBB, the two pieces of CHICORA left Buffalo on October 17th and together with the accompanying barges they passed down the Canal shortly thereafter. Their destination was Muir's Drydock located at Port Dalhousie in the pond above the canal's Lock One.
In the space of about a month's time, CHICORA's hull was put back together at Muir's, but the guards could not yet be fitted to her sides and that was because one obstacle stood in the way of CHICORA being towed to Toronto where the work was to be completed. Muir's Drydock was located above Lock One and this lock would have to be negotiated before CHICORA was on the level of the lake. But how was a 221-foot steamer to be taken down in a lock that was only 200 feet long?
The answer was surprisingly simple but was possible only because of the construction of the lock chamber. Most modern locks have a high sill under the gates at the upper end, a sill that shows out of water when the lock is drained to its lower level. But Lock One at Port Dalhousie had upper gates which extended down just as far as the lower gates and hence at low water level the only obstruction at the upper end was the gates themselves. CHICORA was placed stern-first in the lock with the upper gates open and the bow of the ship extending out the upper end of the lock. The canal had been closed for the winter and so when the dewatering process began on December 5th, 1877, the whole level up Martindale Pond to St. Catharines could be drained. On December 20th, the level having been lowered as far as possible, the lower gates were opened and the hull of CHICORA was flushed out into the lower harbour. Here her guards were reinstalled and on December 24 she was taken in tow by W. T. ROBB for the last section of the long voyage to Toronto.
At Toronto, CHICORA was completely rebuilt as a day excursion steamer and when she emerged she had tonnages of 931 Gross, 540 Net. She came out of the transformation as one of the most handsome and graceful vessels ever seen on the lake before or since. In the course of all her rebuilds she had acquired a sweeping sheer to her decks that she never had as a blockade runner. Now in addition she had lost the rather cumbersome upper cabin which she had carried in her upper lakes days and she now had on the upper deck only a small and rather ornate cabin amidships, enough only to give the necessary shelter to excursionists in inclement weather. The bow area was completely open for use as an observation area. There was no overhang of the hurricane deck around the cabin but aft there was a full-width deck overhead to shelter passengers, although it was left open at the sides so that passengers could enjoy the refreshing lake breezes.
CHICORA was fitted with much smaller paddleboxes than before and this did much to give her a more refined appearance, as did the rather heavier but still finely raked funnels she was given. In their rake, the funnels were matched by the one tall fidded mast which was carried well forward. The fancy octagonal pilothouse was carried well forward on the hurricane deck.
CHICORA made her first trip on May 24, 1878, the Queen's birthday and a holiday for the populace. Under the command of Capt. Thomas Harbottle, with J. Ellis as first officer, George Moore as chief engineer and Alexander Leach as purser, the steamer left Toronto's Yonge Street slip at 7:00 a.m. with a special excursion for Hamilton. She entered regular service a week later, leaving Toronto at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 1st for the Niagara River. She was an instant success, becoming very popular with the travelling public.
For the first few years, CHICORA faced some heavy competition as other operators kept throwing steamers on the route against her, resenting the intrusion of the upstart Niagara Navigation Company. But by the close of the 1884 season, the last of the competitors dropped from the scene as the Milloys finally abandoned their efforts to compete with the ship that they themselves had brought to the lakes back in 1868. From 1885 onward, CHICORA was completely alone in the Niagara trade and, at last unharassed, she was able to turn a handsome profit for her owners.
The N. N. Co. chartered another steamer, the 142-foot HASTINGS, in 1887 and she assisted CHICORA on the run for it had become obvious that the company needed another vessel to carry the crowds. HASTINGS was only a stop-gap and plans were made to build a new steamer which would be a fitting running-mate for the speedy CHICORA. The new ship was christened CIBOLA and she appeared on the run in 1888, having been built by Rathbun at Deseronto, Ontario. She and CHICORA proved to be a winning combination and the popularity of the service grew by leaps and bounds. The small steamer KATHLEEN, and later the ONGIARA, was placed on a ferry run from Lewiston, New York, to Queenston to feed the cross-lake steamers. But by far the greatest expansionary step the company ever made came in 1893 when the N. N. Co. took delivery of the largest vessel it would ever operate, the 308-foot beam-engined CHIPPEWA which had been built at Hamilton.
With two newer and larger ships operating in the fleet, CHICORA was no longer the pride and joy of the Niagara River line, although she was still an important unit to the company. She gained in importance in 1895 when CIBOLA was destroyed by fire at Lewiston and she and CHIPPEWA had to carry on alone. This state of affairs was not to last for long, however, for in 1896 there appeared the 270-foot sidewheeler CORONA which had been built to replace the burned steamer and was powered by CIBOLA's huge inclined compound engine.
CHICORA, CORONA and CHIPPEWA carried on into the new century, handling the throngs of lake travellers quite nicely, but by this time the years were beginning to show on CHICORA. Since her transformation to a day-boat in 1878, the only major updating given to the vessel had been in 1890 when she was reboilered and generally spruced up a bit. N. N. Co. vessels were always beautifully maintained but by 1904 CHICORA was badly in need of modernization. Her appearance by this time was less classy than downright old-fashioned and so she was taken to the yard of the Kingston Shipbuilding Company Ltd. where at a cost of $37,000 her hull was replated and her upperworks rebuilt. A full-width canopy was built over the upper deck by extending the hurricane deck out to the sides of the ship. At the same time it was also extended forward a bit and on it was built a modern pilothouse similar to those fitted on the Kirby-designed CHIPPEWA and CORONA. Her heavy foremast was removed and a pole foremast was stopped abaft the pilothouse. A mainmast was added aft of the second funnel.
When CHICORA went back into service, she had a profile roughly similar to that of CHIPPEWA and CORONA, and with her graceful sheer, her raked funnels and masts, her cut-away forefoot and her delicate counter stern she was indeed a very good-looking vessel. The profile presented by these three ships of the fleet was one of the most handsome ever seen on the lakes and, in your writer's opinion, no more successful design was ever used in the construction of an excursion vessel.
In 1907 the company commissioned what was to be its last ship, the twin-screw steamer CAYUGA built at Toronto by the Canadian Shipbuilding Company Ltd. CAYUGA, a 305-footer, was destined to be the last steam-powered passenger vessel ever to serve the Toronto-Niagara route. Her advent brought the fleet to such a strength that it was more than capable of handling the flow of passengers crossing the lake and more and more was CHICORA, by now nearing her half century, relegated to the status of spare boat.
CHICORA's last few years of service were years of great change for the fleet of the Niagara Navigation Company. In 1911 the firm bought out the operations of the Hamilton Steamboat Company and also the (Hamilton) Turbinia Steamship Company, thus adding to the N. N. Co. fleet the steamers MACASSA, MODJESKA and TURBINIA. In August 1912 the entire Niagara Navigation organization with its vessels and shoreside properties was merged into the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company Ltd. but there was no noticeable change in the Niagara operations except that R. & O. passengers could now travel through on the line's steamers all the way from Queenston to salt water (hence the company's motto - "Niagara to the Sea"). Through the merger the Niagara boats kept their distinctive funnel marking, red with a black smokeband.
Then in June 1913 came the famous merger which saw the formation of Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., Montreal. Richelieu & Ontario was one of the companies involved and the cross-lake service became known as the Niagara Navigation Division. C.S.L. kept CHICORA on her usual route through 1913 but in 1914 she was placed on the run from Toronto to Olcott Beach, New York. The service was not successful and CHICORA made her last trip on Labour Day, September 7th, going into lay-up at Toronto once she had unloaded what were to be her last passengers.
During the following year the old steamer was stripped of her cabins and machinery and in 1921 her hull was sold to the Warren Transportation Company of Toronto. Converted to a barge, she was renamed WARRENKO and was given a small cabin aft and fitted with a small donkey boiler. She was put into service carrying coal and construction materials but her capacity was severely restricted by her beam of only 26 feet. When carrying anthracite coal, she could load only about 750 tons and even at that she was loaded to the rails. Her net tonnage during this stage of her life was only 278.
WARRENKO was used sparingly by Warren Transportation and she spent much of her time laid up in the Princess Street slip at Toronto, By 1923 she had passed to the ownership of the Quinte Coal & Towage Company and was used in the coal trade almost exclusively. By. about 1926 she was owned by the Pyke Salvage Company Ltd. of Kingston and for them she served mostly in the coal trade between Oswego and Kingston, although on occasion she did venture down into the St. Lawrence. She ran through the thirties and finally met her end when, on September 19, 1938, while under tow of the Pyke tug SALVAGE PRINCE in Kingston harbour, she was rammed and sunk by the Tree Line package freighter SPRUCEBAY. A cofferdam was built around the sunken barge and she was eventually raised but she was never put back into service. WARRENKO was finally hauled ashore at the upper end of Howe Island and there she was dismantled.
During the course of her thirty-six years of service on the Niagara run, CHICORA had been commanded by almost all of the famous N. N. Co. skippers. As mentioned earlier, her first master was Capt. Thomas Harbottle. He was succeeded by, in order, Capt. T. Leach, Capt. J. McCorquodale, Capt. J. McGiffin and Capt. W. H. Solmes. In 1893 the command of CHICORA passed to Capt. James Harbottle, the son of the man who had been appointed master fifteen years previously. There followed many well-known Lake Ontario mariners including Capt. Robert Clapp, Capt. C. J. Smith, Capt. Henry King, Capt. B. A. Bongard and Capt. T. Allen.
If CHICORA's masters were well known for having sailed such a famous vessel, her engineers were noted for the many hours of hard labour they had to put in. In fact, CHICORA had a reputation for being a real workhouse in the engine department. You see, the fact is that CHICORA had the only set of oscillating engines ever installed in a Great Lakes steamer. It was an old-fashioned rig, but one that caused very little trouble over the years. An oscillating engine had no cross-heads or guides and the pistons applied their power direct to the cranks on the paddleshaft. The cylinders and steam chests oscillated, or rocked, on trunions and the valve gear was so complicated that three men were required to answer telegraph commands.
When the vessel was in the process of docking, the chief engineer would sit in a "pulpit" in direct view of the passengers and would handle the six levers that confronted him. There were two throttles, while two other levers controlled the hooking in of the valves and the last pair controlled the condensers. While the chief handled these, the second and third engineers were in charge of the reverse gear wheels and quadrants. A lot of work it may have been, but to Norman Griffin, the last chief engineer CHICORA ever had, no engine was ever so efficient or reliable as the rocking power plant that CHICORA brought with her to the lakes.
Aside from the men that trained on her and then went on to sail other ships of the fleet, CHICORA left one other legacy to her running-mates and that was her name which started for Niagara Navigation a tradition that all of its cross-lake steamers followed. "Chicora" was an Indian word meaning "Land of Flowers" and it was used to describe that area of the southern United States lying from Florida in the east to Louisiana in the west, the heart of the Confederacy. The name was appropriate for a blockade runner and when she came to the lakes none of her owners ever saw fit to change it, perhaps because of its euphonious sound. Messrs Smith and Cumberland liked the name and they decided that all their major steamers should have similar names, all beginning with "C", ending with "A", and having an Indian origin. In fact, when CAYUGA was built a public contest was held to choose a fitting name for the ship and these specifications were laid down to govern the names submitted.
Yes, CHICORA was a ship that served many varying trades and many different people over her seventy-four year lifetime. But she never meant quite so much to anyone as she did to the thousands of Torontonians for whom she held the promise of an escape from the summer heat of the city to the cool breezes of the lake, the fun of being aboard ship, and the relaxed enjoyment of an outing to Niagara.
(Ed. Note: As a result of the early activities of CHICORA being somewhat embarrassing to certain authorities, and in addition the fact that she came to the lakes so very many years ago, many of the details of the early years of this steamer will never be known.
We have tried to present the story of CHICORA as accurately as possible and, amongst the many sources from which information was obtained, we would give particular credit to the various writings of C. H. J. Snider, Capt. Frank E. Hamilton, and Erik Heyl.)
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.