Over the last few years, we have frequently featured in these pages the lives of the canal steamers which were, for so long, such a vital link in the commerce of the Great Lakes. In the opinion of many historians, however, the canallers were not the most interesting lakers, this impression no doubt being a direct result of the fact that a large number of the canal boats were built by yards which turned out similar vessels by the dozen. The overwhelming "sameness" evident amongst canallers of each class often resulted in a loss of individual character for each steamer and, for this reason, a good number of these once well-known ships have faded into the depths of relative obscurity as the years pass.
The canallers built prior to the First World War tend to stand out a bit more than their later cousins for in those tender years of canal boat design, the ships had not yet started to roll off the shipyard ways like so many sausages from a butcher's shop. Indeed, some of the early canal steamers were downright beautiful vessels and if a beauty pageant for canallers had ever been held, our March Ship of the Month and her sister would almost certainly have walked off with top honours.
The Montreal Transportation Company grew as the years slid by and eventually dominated the forwarding business from Kingston to Montreal and other St. Lawrence River ports. It was also heavily involved in carrying grain from the lakehead ports of Fort William and Port Arthur. Before the improvements to the St. Lawrence canal system were completed about 1900, the large majority of lake steamers were unable to venture down the river. The locks were smaller than those of the Welland Canal and most of the boats had to unload at Kingston. The M.T.Co. maintained an 800,000-bushel elevator at Kingston and much of the grain trans-shipped there was delivered down the river in company-owned barges. As an example, M.T.Co. supplied the needs of the Ogilvie Flour Mills Company in Montreal and the requirements of this one customer kept a considerable portion of the Montreal Transportation Company's lake and river tonnage in service all season.
The early M.T.Co. vessels were mainly of wood construction but the company began adding steel steamers to its fleet with the building of the famous, although ill-fated, BANNOCKBURN in 1893 and her near-sister R0SEM0UNT (I) in 1896. These two boats were the epitome of design for lower lake steamers in their day but three years after the turn of the century, the M.T.Co. took possession of what some observers feel were the prettiest canallers ever built. BANNOCKBURN and ROSEMOUNT were handsome vessels but were definitely traditional in design even if they were modern for canallers. On the other hand, the later pair, WESTMOUNT (I) and FAIRMOUNT (I) were anything but traditional. They were efficient and progressive and were obviously designed by a marine architect with an artistic flair. BANNOCKBURN and ROSE-MOUNT were basically salt water ships adapted for lake service, whereas WESTMOUNT and FAIRMOUNT were lakers in whose design were incorporated certain features borrowed from ocean-going carriers.
Montreal Transportation placed the order for WESTMOUNT and FAIRMOUNT with the firm of G. S. Swan and Hunter Limited of Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. They were built at the company's yard at Wallsend-on-Tyne in 1903, WESTMOUNT being the shipbuilder's Hull 289. She measured 248.7 feet in length, 42.0 feet in the beam and 20.6 feet in depth, and her original tonnage was 1875 Gross and 1171 Net. The steamer was powered by a triple expansion engine built by the North Eastern Marine Engineering Company Limited, Newcastle. It had cylinders of 21, 35 and 58 inches and a stroke of 39 inches, producing 210 N.H.P. Her boilers were fired with coal.
WESTMOUNT was registered at Montreal as C.114445. The fact that she was registered at Montreal is rather surprising because in those days it was common for canallers built at British yards to be enrolled at British ports such as Newcastle. She was named in honour of the town of Westmount, Quebec, an English-speaking district located inside the boundaries of the city of Montreal. It has long been the home of many of Montreal's anglophone business executives and it is entirely probable that Hugh McLennan himself lived in the area.
WESTMOUNT had far more sheer to her hull than did most of the canallers and her bow, instead of being bluff like most lakers, was noticeably flared. Two rather large anchors were suspended from hawsepipes just above the level of the shelter deck and well forward towards the stem. She was given a full forecastle and a closed rail ran down the deck to the bridge structure which was located abaft the first hatch. As built, she carried a rather large, rounded texas cabin on which was mounted a three-windowed pilothouse and the master's quarters, rather prominent bridgewings extending out to the sides of the ship. WESTMOUNT was normally navigated from an open bridge which was protected by awnings and a high canvas dodger. Before many years had passed, however, she was fitted with a wooden upper pilothouse and this addition greatly improved her overall appearance. Rounded across its face, it had four windows facing forward but most photos make it look as if there were only three, for she usually operated with the centre two windows lowered and the bar between them removed except for a short stump at its base.
Aft, WESTMOUNT was less modern in appearance. On first glance, it might look as if she had a raised quarterdeck but in reality it was flush with the shelter deck, the illusion being created not only by a rather high closed rail which ran around the stern but also by the dark stripe which WESTMOUNT, like other M.T.Co. boats, wore around the base of her cabins. Her boilerhouse, in the old style, was a separate portion of the after cabin, located forward of the accommodations. A large, wide coal bunker hatch was placed forward of the stack. The cabin itself was relatively short and left a large expanse of open fantail behind it. The closed rail around the fantail gave her counter stern a rather heavy look.
WESTMOUNT carried a tall and substantial funnel into whose after side ran an uptake pipe from a donkey engine (much the same as on the upper lakers SUMATRA and CRESCENT CITY). The stack was gracefully raked and was matched by her two heavy masts. The foremast, stepped immediately aft of the bridge, carried one cargo boom slung to work the hatches behind it, while the mainmast, one hatch forward of the boilerhouse, worked one boom facing forward.
WESTMOUNT and FAIRMOUNT were painted in the usual Montreal Transportation Company colours. Their hulls were all black and the cabins white, the steel deckhouses each having a dark band around them. The stacks were black and carried the letters "M.T.Co." in white about a third of the way down from the top. These colours were not altered during the years which the pair spent with the fleet.
Perhaps the best way to describe the two ships would be to say that they looked strong. Despite their graceful lines, they were heavily built and gave the impression that they could stand up to almost anything the lakes might throw at them. In this they were markedly different from many other classes of canallers which looked flimsy and insubstantial.
WESTMOUNT sailed from her builder's yard and crossed the Atlantic under her own power, arriving in Canada in time to enter service during the 1903 shipping season on the lakes. She was normally employed in the carriage of grain from the lakehead ports to Kingston and she could usually be seen towing two of the company's large wooden barges.
In mid-October 1905, WESTMOUNT cleared the Lakehead for Kingston with the barges MELROSE and MINNEDOSA in tow, all three vessels loaded with grain. MINNEDOSA, of course, was the big wooden four-masted schooner which had been built in 1890 at Kingston for the M.T.Co. and she was almost as long as WESTMOUNT herself. In the early days, MINNEDOSA was usually towed by the small steamer GLENGARRY but once WESTMOUNT appeared in the lakes, she and MINNEDOSA were virtually inseparable. MINNEDOSA by this time was only a shadow of her former glory, having been reduced to a barge by the removal of her topmasts.
In any event, on Friday, October 20th, 1905. the trio was downbound in Lake Huron, about two and a half miles off Harbor Beach, Michigan. A gale was raging at the time and MINNEDOSA was overwhelmed by the seas. She broke loose from the tow (it is said that her skipper may have ordered the towline to be cut to save the other two boats) and soon foundered in the trough of the seas with the loss of all on board. MELROSE also broke tow but WESTMOUNT succeeded in recovering her safely.
WESTMOUNT suffered no major accidents (of which we are aware) during her years with the M.T.Co. but she did see major changes in the company which were eventually to lead to the fleet becoming part of Canada Steamship Lines Ltd. Control of the M.T.Co. continued in the hands of the McLennan family during the early 1900s but some time prior to 1914 when the company acquired the Calvin Company, the Calvin family of Garden Island, Ontario, gained an interest in the Montreal Transportation Company. Not long after WESTMOUNT left the fleet late in 1915, control of M.T.Co. was acquired by Roy M. Wolvin who, of course, was one of the founding interests in C.S.L.
By late 1915. Canada was embroiled in the war effort and many of the canal boats were taken to salt water for war service. WESTMOUNT was no exception and in 1915 the Montreal Transportation Company sold her to the Inter-American Steamship Company Limited of Toronto which was actually an enterprise of the Canadian federal government. She was taken to salt water and in 1916 she was renamed (b) WETHERSFIELD. Her old name was perpetuated on the lakes in the big upper lake bulk carrier WESTMOUNT (II) which was built for the M.T.Co. at Collingwood in 1917 and sailed for fifty years.
WESTMOUNT, or rather WETHERSFIELD, made it safely through the perils of war at sea but this is more than can be said for her sister. FAIRMOUNT was requisitioned for wartime service in 1915 and was also taken to salt water. Before the year was out, however, she stranded in the Bahamas and became a total loss.
In 1918, WETHERSFIELD was apparently sold to the Canadian Maritime Company Limited, Montreal. Despite the fact that this ownership continued to be shown in both the Canadian "List of Shipping" and the "British Mercantile Naval List and Maritime Directory" up until 1922, it appears that she was actually sold in 1920 to E. J. Heinz (London) Limited of Montreal. The Heinz ownership was brief for on October 26, 1922, WETHERSFIELD was sold for $8,000 to A. B. Mackay of Hamilton. As mentioned on other occasions in these pages, Mackay was involved in numerous shipping ventures of all sorts. In the transaction involving WETHERSFIELD, he may have been acting as a broker, for on May 10, 1923, he sold her to Arnold Bernstein of Hamburg, Germany .
Bernstein renamed the steamer (c) MAX BERNSTEIN the same year he purchased her and at the time of the transaction her tonnage was shown as 1937 Gross and 1126 Net. About 1926, Bernstein again renamed her, this time giving her the name (d) FORDSON I. It seems likely that it was at this time that she was rebuilt to carry automobiles, trucks and farm tractors. As the photo accompanying this history shows, she was built up amidships and forward of the bridge structure and also was given a much larger pilothouse, although this latter feature may have been added earlier. Her new tonnage was registered as 1941 Gross and 1129 Net. After approximately one year's service in her new trade, she was again renamed, this time becoming (e) TRACTOR.
After an absence of almost thirteen years, the steamer returned to the Great Lakes and on May 11, 1928, she passed Montreal, inbound from Kiel, Germany, and bound for Detroit. At the latter port, she loaded 225 automobiles for delivery at Barcelona, Spain. On her way back to salt water, she stopped at Montreal on May 29th to take on 140 tons of bunker coal. This return to the lakes by the former WESTMOUNT was reported in the July 1928 issue of Canadian Railway and Marine World. Some records indicate that she again entered the lakes in 1932 to load Ford products at Windsor for delivery overseas but we do not have specific dates.
That the old WESTMOUNT finished her days far from the waters of the lakes was indeed unfortunate. Had she remained in the lakes, or at least returned after the close of the First War, she might have lasted a few years longer than she did and her fine lines might have been admired by another generation of shipwatchers. Happily for us, one of her most ardent admirers was the late marine artist Rowley W. Murphy. He captured WESTMOUNT on film in a number of striking poses and she featured in several of his paintings and drawings. These images from the past live on to remind us of the fact that not all of the canallers were the box-like, assembly-line creations that finished out the era of the old canals.
(Ed. Note: For their assistance with the history of WESTMOUNT, we are indebted to George Ayoub and to Jim Kidd. Without their help, we would have been able to say very little about the activities of the steamer subsequent to her departure from the lakes.)
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.