It is difficult today to imagine travelling to our nation's capital by steamboat but back about the time of Confederation things were much different and the Ottawa River supported a thriving shipping industry. The most famous of the vessel operators was the Ottawa Steamers Company which in 1864 was incorporated as the Ottawa River Navigation Company. This firm operated a passenger and freight service through from Montreal to Ottawa using combination passenger and package freight sidewheelers together with barges towed by steam towboats.
To assist in the towing of several barges which the company used in the freight trade on the lower route, it ordered a towboat from the Cantin Shipyard at Montreal in 1866. She was a wooden-hulled vessel and she measured 161.7 feet in length, 25.2 feet in the beam (under the guards) and 8.1 feet in depth. Her tonnage was registered as 940 Gross. Power was provided by a single overhead beam engine which she inherited from the passenger steamer PHOENIX which had been built in 1849 and dismantled in 1866. PHOENIX herself got the engine second-hand for it had originally been installed in the small steamer SPEED which operated on the upper Ottawa from 1846 until she burned in 1848.
The Ottawa River Navigation Company made a practice of naming its vessels after royalty or with names indicative of royal positions. Accordingly, the new vessel was named ALEXANDRA in honour of the Princess of Wales who was destined to become Queen Alexandra when in 1901 her husband, Albert Edward, ascended the throne as King Edward VII. As with all ships built in the Province of Quebec prior to the acceptance of a unified Dominion shipping registry in 1874, ALEXANDRA did not receive an official number.
The company owned two freight barges, the ALPHA and BETA which were built in 1866 at Lachine and in 1871 at Quebec respectively. They were used primarily to carry potash to the glass factories at Como and Hudson, and were towed by ALEXANDRA and by MAUDE, the latter being another sidewheel towboat built in 1871 by Cantin.
In 1873 the Ottawa River Navigation Company sold ALEXANDRA to the Ontario and Quebec Navigation Company Ltd. of Picton, a firm operated by the Hepburn Brothers. The Hepburns were well known in the Picton area and operated a large number of passenger and freight steamers on the Bay of Quinte. It appears that ALEXANDRA was used by them as a towboat for the first decade of their ownership but then she passed on to bigger and better things.
By the advent of the eighties, A. W. Hepburn saw that another passenger steamer was needed for the company's service to the St. Lawrence and accordingly ALEXANDRA was despatched to the Cantin yard in 1883. There she was lengthened to 173.7 feet, broadened to 31.0 feet and deepened to 8.4 feet, her tonnage being altered to 863 Gross and 508 Net in the process. She was rebuilt as a combination passenger and package freight carrier and was reregistered as a new vessel because of the extensive rebuild she had received, her new official number being 85768. In addition, she was renamed (b) ALEXANDRIA, the new name being more suitable since it honoured the town of Alexandria Bay which is located on the upper St. Lawrence River.
ALEXANDRIA was now a two-decked nightboat and was quite modern in appearance for her time. She was placed on Hepburn's service from Rochester and Picton to Montreal and Quebec, a five-day round trip costing the grand sum of $16.00. She was scheduled to sail from Picton every Monday at 1:00 p.m. In the fall, when passenger traffic dwindled, she often carried apples and cheese from Brighton to Montreal. Her winters were spent at the Hepburn shipyard on Picton harbour.
ALEXANDRIA served Hepburn on this route for three full decades and became a regular fixture of Picton harbour. Then in 1913 there came the last of a long series of amalgamations amongst Canadian vessel operators that resulted in the formation of Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., Montreal. Hepburn's Ontario and Quebec Navigation Company Ltd. was one of the eight companies which on June 11, 1913 were merged with the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company Ltd. and from this merger appeared the giant C.S.L.
As might be expected, the merger resulted in the new company inheriting not only a superfluity of elderly vessels but also a number of routes whose economic viability was open to question. The C.S.L. management embarked upon a ruthless process of "rationalization" and the result was that many of the older wooden vessels began to fall by the wayside. One of these was ALEXANDRIA which by now was becoming a bit of an anachronism amongst the modern steel steamers. She was relegated to the status of spare boat and saw very little use over the next two years.
But in 1915 ALEXANDRIA was pressed into service to fill in on the Montreal-Toronto package freight route. It would probably have been better had she stayed in lay-up, the way things turned out, but out she came, just in time to hit one of those dirty southeasterly blows that from time to time rear their ugly heads to plague Lake Ontario sailors.
On August 3rd, 1915, a Tuesday, ALEXANDRIA was upbound for Toronto and once out on the open lake she ran into just such a storm. Capt. Bloomfield decided to push on for Toronto in the hope that ALEXANDRIA would hold together long enough to make her destination in safety, but it was not to be. With only 300 tons of cargo aboard, she was riding high in the water and was easy prey for the raging wind and the heavy seas. Her 50 horsepower was simply not enough to hold her on her course and she was pushed further and further towards the lee shore. With the light of Toronto's Eastern Gap in sight, she finally lost her battle and the tired old "Alex" came in on the sands close underneath the Scarborough Bluffs, the high shoreline east of the city.
It wasn't long before those aboard the steamer and the many spectators that lined the Bluffs realized that ALEXANDRIA was doomed. The seas rolling in to shore soon began to dismantle the vessel and once she started to go she wasn't long about it. The hull began to break up about 8:00 p.m. when about 50 feet of the bow broke off. The crew then took to the boats and although these were quickly swamped, all the men reached shore by midnight with the assistance of lifelines rigged from the beach. Just about the time the last man reached shore, the stern section of the ship separated away from the wreck and broke up.
The following morning, only the midship section of the steamer was still visible, the rest having been dispersed along the shoreline as wreckage. ALEXANDRIA had been pushed very close inshore during the night and now she lay facing in a westerly direction and listing over on her port side. The cabin had been badly smashed by the waves and the top section of the funnel had disappeared over the side. Her cargo of pickles and canned vegetables had been washed away and it is said that residents along the shore as far west as Ward's Island stocked their shelves for the winter with supplies that came ashore from the stricken steamer. No doubt a few opportunists used her planking to build new sheds.
Succeeding storms soon broke up what was left of ALEXANDRIA's woodwork and all that remained above water was the walking beam and the upper portion of the boiler, these being quite visible, especially at times of low water. For over twenty years these relics were a feature of the eastern shoreline and many were the east-end children who used the walking beam as a diving platform. But in due course, with the high water and the erosion of the shoreline, the last visible remains of ALEXANDRIA disappeared from sight and local residents were left with their memories of the stormy night that "Alex" came ashore.
But the death of ALEXANDRIA brought life to yet another of the retired C.S.L. steamers. BELLEVILLE was an iron-hulled passenger and freight vessel which had been built back in 1865 as SPARTAN. She too had been laid up after the 1913 merger and had even been stripped in preparation for dismantling. But with the loss of ALEXANDRIA she was refitted and brought back to service for the Montreal-Toronto run and, in fact, managed to last for another eight years of operation.
And still ALEXANDRIA had not come to the end of her useful existence. In 1922 the Western Reserve Navigation Company was refitting the old sidewheeler HURON, (a) DARIUS COLE, which they renamed (c) COLONIAL for their cross-Lake Erie service. She needed new wheels and her owners set out to search for a pair of feathering wheels which might be suitable. They found them in Lake Ontario off the Scarborough Bluffs and an expedition under the leadership of the late Capt. Frank E. Hamilton was despatched to Toronto. In due course the ALEXANDRIA's wheels (which some years before had been redesigned by James Fennell of Cherry Valley, Prince Edward County) were brought to the surface. After reconditioning, they were placed aboard COLONIAL and there they served until September 1st, 1926 when the 41-year-old vessel was destroyed by fire on Lake Erie off Barcelona, New York.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.