Although it seems almost inconceivable today, there was a time when the most important Great Lakes vessels were not those carrying bulk cargoes of iron ore or coal, but rather the package freighters operated by the railroads. Almost all of the northern railways had affiliates which ran lake steamers and some of them dabbled as well in the transportation of passengers, although this practice, with one major exception, had pretty well died out by the latter years of the nineteenth century.
One of the most famous railroad-operated lake package freight lines was that which came to be known as the Anchor Line. This operation traced its beginnings back to the middle of the last century, to the enterprises of E.T. and J.C. Evans of Buffalo. In the early 1860s, these gentlemen operated Evans' Buffalo, Milwaukee and Chicago Line as well as Evans' Atlantic, Duluth and Pacific Lake Company. Both of these concerns carried general cargo and, as did most vessel operators of those days, they had railroad connections.
The Anchor Line's colours were, perhaps, the best known on the lakes and certainly enhanced the appearance of the company's boats. Indeed, the colour scheme was so successful that the Great Lakes Transit Corporation, which was formed in 1916 to take over services previously operated by the railroad lake lines, adopted the colours without change, dropping only the old corporate name and mark from the ships' bows. Throughout the years, Anchor Line boats carried green hulls with white upper trim, white cabins, yellow masts, and crimson stacks which later sported a black smokeband. On the bow was a red keystone, symbolic of the Pennsylvania Railroad, on which was superimposed a white anchor.
During the late 1870s, the Anchor Line, by then a well-established vessel operator, undertook to update and expand its fleet, adding several large new package freighters. Amongst these was a steamer christened SUSQUEHANNA, the policy of the company since 1875 having been to name all of its boats for rivers in Pennsylvania. The contract for the construction of the ship and of a sistership was let to Thomas Quayle, the famous Cleveland shipbuilder.
SUSQUEHANNA was a wooden-hulled, 'tween-deck package freighter, entirely typical of the railroad boats of her day. She measured 252.8 feet in length, 36.0 feet in the beam, and 16.2 feet in depth, 1726 tons Gross and 1562 Net. Her hull was stiffened by means of hog braces of the arch type which rose high over the shelter deck. She was powered by a steeple compound engine and her boilers were coal-fired.
Completed in 1878, SUSQUEHANNA was enrolled at Erie (U.S.125669) and entered service for the Anchor Line, running between Lake Erie ports and the upper lakes. She was joined by her sistership, DELAWARE (I), from the same yard, and in 1880 by two near-sisters, CONEMAUGH (I) and JUNIATA (I), built by F. N. Jones at Bay City. These four were the last wooden-hulled steamers built for the line; the company had gone to iron hulls for INDIA, CHINA, JAPAN and ALASKA of 1871, and the famous CLARION and LEHIGH of 1881 were also built of iron. All subsequent Anchor Line boats were steel-hulled.
SUSQUEHANNA's 'tween decks were enclosed by upward continuations of her hull sides and entrance to the freight decks was gained through cargo ports spaced three to each side. Her crew accommodations were located in cabins on the shelter deck and her octagonal pilothouse was far forward on the boat deck. She carried one tall mast forward and her single, raked stack rose from a small house located far aft on the shelter deck. In later years, her tall foremast was removed to be replaced by a lighter pole foremast and a main set abaft the stack. The ornate "birdcage" pilothouse was replaced by a rather ugly structure which had but three small windows across its rounded front and an open bridge above. The height of the hog braces was reduced so that the top of each arch barely rose above the shelter deck rail.
SUSQUEHANNA served her owner well and was renamed (b) CONESTOGA in 1886. The change of name was necessary because a new steel-hulled package freighter named SUSQUEHANNA was built that year at Buffalo. CONESTOGA carried on as before and continued to do so right through the turn of the century. By 1906, however, the Anchor Line was in the midst of a building program designed to update its fleet so that the company might keep pace with the booming package freight business. As new steel steamers were commissioned, the older boats were retired; CONESTOGA was replaced in 1906 and was then sold to the Crosby Transportation Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Crosby line, operated by E. G. Crosby, was very well known in the passenger and general cargo trades on Lake Michigan. E. G. Crosby lost his life in the sinking of the White Star liner TITANIC in April 1912, but the company carried on until 1924. Crosby placed CONESTOGA in service immediately upon her acquisition and ran her primarily between Milwaukee and Grand Haven and Muskegon. For the 1908 season, she was chartered to the Port Huron and Duluth Steamship Company. The Crosby line painted its boats black with white rail and cabins, the stack being all black, and CONESTOGA looked much less elegant at this stage than she had during her Anchor Line years.
CONESTOGA, straying frequently from her assigned route, as verified by photographs of her in strange waters, carried on for Crosby until 1918, at which time she was purchased by the Lake Port Shipping Company of Sarnia. She was operated for Lake Port by Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., Montreal, but C.S.L. never took over actual ownership. As C.140998, CONESTOGA ran the package freight service up the lakes from Montreal but she did not last long, as C.S.L. was already purging the old wooden vessels from its fleet.
There were various means by which the wooden boats took- their exits from the various Canadian fleets. They were scrapped, laid away in boneyards, or wrecked in some unfortunate misadventure, the latter seeming to have been the most "popular". It was on May 9, 1922 that CONESTOGA was downbound in the old Galops Lock (Lock 27) of the Williamsburg Canal above Cardinal, Ontario. She somehow managed to catch fire whilst in the lock and, the fire rapidly reaching the stage where it was completely out of control, the steamer was simply flushed out of the lock and permitted to ground on the north shore of the river below the lock, just a short distance above Cardinal.
There, she burned to a total loss. The cause of the fire was never determined but it was long suggested that her burning was something less than accidental. To this day, as a reminder of her fate, parts of her boiler and steeple compound engine are still visible above the surface of the St. Lawrence River.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.