Of all of the odd types of ships that this writer recalls seeing during his time, one of the most curious was a steam-powered weed-cutting boat which was owned and operated by the Parks Department of the City of Toronto during the first half of the present century. To the best of the writer's knowledge, this vessel was never registered with the Department of Transport and, therefore, did not have an official name or number. The boat was used to cut the marine weeds that grew (and still grow) in profusion in the many lagoons about the Toronto Islands. Many visitors to the Islands saw her and wondered about the strange-looking little sternwheeler that ran up and down the lagoons. They would have been surprised to learn what an historic craft she really was.
Because she was never registered, no details of her dimensions are available. To the writer's knowledge, however, she was about thirty-five feet long, ten to twelve feet beam, and drew about two and a half feet of water. She was powered by a small high-pressure single cylinder marine engine about 4" by 6". This engine drove a stern paddlewheel by means of a shaft and bevel gears. The sternwheel was about five feet in diameter and hinged on the stern so that it could also be used as a rudder. Steam was supplied by a Scotch marine boiler which was located forward of the engine. The size, horsepower, and working pressure of the boiler and engine cannot be ascertained.
Another shaft, which was used to drive the cutting knives, ran on bearings overtop of the engine drive shaft. This was operated off the main shaft by means of a belt clutch which could be disengaged when the "cutter" was not cutting weeds. This would be, for example, at times when the crew was going to the intended work site or coming home. The "cutter" did not cut the weeds under water like a mowing machine, but rather with a scythe-like motion. The drive motion for the cutting knives was unique.
Keyed on the drive shaft was a double-flanged wheel, something like a railroad car wheel, only smaller and having a flange on both rims. This wheel was "bent" so that it ran lopsided. It looked peculiar but, of course, the "bend" had been carefully calculated earlier on the drafting board. The port and starboard shaft ends, which connected to the cutting knives, ran in the flanges of the "bent" wheel so that, when the wheel revolved, the motion was transmitted to the cutting knives which moved under the water. The cutting of the weeds was thus accomplished with a lateral motion.
The knives were actually pieces of steel, bolted onto a frame and sharpened on the forward side. These knives could be raised out of the water by means of a lever so that they could be sharpened; the lever was also notched so that the knives could be lowered to various depths in the lagoons. When the chopped weeds floated to the surface, they were picked up by a gang of men on a scow, which came along a few days later. The men used pike poles and rakes to "harvest" the weeds and, when the scow was loaded, they took it to a remote place on the island where the rotting weeds were used as landfill.
The Weedcutter's life was uneventful. Sometime during the mid-twenties, a passing speedboat swamped her and she sank but, fortunately, there were no casualties. She was soon raised and was then equipped with a bulwark which ran around her to raise her sides and prevent further occurrences of a similar nature. The sudden immersion, however, had done her old Scotch boiler no good and, accordingly, it was replaced with a new boiler which was supplied by H. W. Petrie Ltd. of Toronto, and which, as we remember, carried about 125 p.s.i.
About 1934, the Weedcutter went to Hamilton, ignominiously towed there and back by a gasoline tug, in order to cut the weeds and clear out a regatta course for racing shells. The Hamilton newspapers made quite a fuss about this odd little boat from Toronto, and they dubbed her "Little Mississippi" because of her stern paddlewheel.
The Weedcutter was operated by two kindly "ancient mariners". Bob Kenmore, who ran the engine, also did the steering and looked after his machinery. Joe Farrell fired the boiler, looked after the water, and was lookout and deckhand. The islanders called them "Captain" Kenmore and "First Mate" Farrell. The Weedcutter ran from May through September and, after lay-up in the autumn, Bob would go to Maple Leaf Gardens where he served as engineer. Joe Farrell looked after one of the many skating rinks operated by the Parks Department in the city.
Woe betide any unsuspecting yachtsman who let his craft get in the way of the Weedcutter, for he would soon be cast adrift by the sharp cutting knives which neatly sliced through anchor ropes. More than once, the writer was able to make a few dollars by diving for some luckless yachtsman's "lost" anchor.
The Weedcutter may have been an interesting piece of machinery, but she was hardly the most handsome vessel on Toronto Bay. The piece de resistance was her stack, which normally was quite battered. Indeed, it sometimes assumed a forward rake. This was due to the fact that it frequently collided with many of the low bridges spanning the lagoons when the overzealous operators tried to chop weeds too close in to the bank.
Sometime during the forties, both Bob and Joe passed away and there remained none to give the boat the tender loving care which they had lavished upon her to keep her in working condition. Typical of government agencies, the Parks Department attempted to operate the old boat with only one man; this was an austerity move designed solely for budgetary considerations. It failed, however, for one man did not have the interest or the ability of his two predecessors and the Weedcutter was denied the repairs that were needed to keep her in the pink, as it were.
And, finally, there came the day when some official at City Hall decided that it was no longer necessary to cut the weeds in the lagoons. It was said that fast speedboats with gasoline engines would chew the weeds up anyway and that the city would be saved the time and expense of cutting them. The old boat ran into the early fifties, but by mid-decade she was considered obsolete. She was hauled up on the south shore of Meade's Island (or, as it was commonly called, Island Park itself) just east of the Manitou Road bridge; this was where the Parks Department's "wharf" was located and where the garbage boat CHIQUITA was moored when she was not in use. Ye Ed. recalls Saturday morning trips by motorboat to Centre Island to do the shopping and, passing by in the lagoon, he saw the last remains of the Weedcutter as they were cut up for scrap, or for fill, or whatever. This would have been about 1954 or 1955.
She is gone now, but the writer will always have a soft spot in his heart and a fond remembrance of this unique vessel and her kindly crew. A strange thing she may have been, but she made her special way into the hearts of the islanders. Today, the Island park is administered by the Parks Department of the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, and the lagoon weeds are never cut. They thrive and are fruitful, and there are times when it is difficult to push even a canoe through them. Would that we still had the old Weedcutter to do her thing with them, and to put on a good show for the residents and visitors alike at the same time.
(Ed. Note: Ye Ed. can recall when, as a little kid, he would stand on the bank of the lagoon behind his island home, watching in awe as this strange craft made its way eastwards toward the Algonquin Bridge and then back again to the west. He had always hoped to be able to write something about the Weedcutter, but the information simply was not available.
The original of this article by Capt. Leonard appeared in the April 1977 issue of "Boiler Bulletin". We wish to express to its writer our sincere thanks for his generosity in allowing us to reproduce it here and our apologies for any changes that have crept into it. Of the latter, there were very few, for the original was written by an expert who knows whereof he speaks.)
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.