Ship of the Month No. 89 Thordoc (I)

Table of Contents

Title Page
The Editor's Notebook
Marine News
Macassa Revisited
The Survivors
A. Andrew Merrilees
Ship of the Month No. 89 Thordoc (I)
Additional Marine News
From The Wheelhouse
Charles Barker
Toronto Harbour's Winter Fleet
Table of Illustrations

Those whose marine activities have centred around the lower lakes and, in particular, the Welland and St. Lawrence Canals, became considerably attached to the many canal-sized steamers which plodded around the area in the years before the opening of the Seaway. There were times, however when observing these boats became rather like watching rabbits; there were a great many of them and it was often difficult to tell them apart. This was particularly true of the Misener, Paterson, and Upper Lakes and St. Lawrence fleets which included many of the "built-by-the-mile-and-cut-off-by-the-foot" canallers which had been spewed out by British shipyards during the 1920s. Of rather more interest were those canallers which had been built before the First World War, for they were seldom built in large numbers from the same plans, and tended to be of much more original design and pleasing proportions.

One of these "different" canallers was a vessel which was built in 1908 for the Western Steamship Company Ltd. of Toronto, a firm controlled by one Captain W. J. Bassett. The order for the construction of the steamer was awarded to Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson Ltd., which put her together at its shipyard at Newcastle-on-Tyne as Hull 798. The vessel measured 248.0 feet in length, 42 feet 10 inches in the beam, and 25.0 feet in depth, these dimensions giving her a tonnage of 2158 Gross and 1375 Net. She was powered by a triple-expansion engine with cylinders of 20 1/2, 33 and 54 inches and stroke of 36 inches. Steam was provided by two coal-fired Scotch boilers measuring 13.6 feet by 10.6 feet.

This is J. A. McKEE as she appeared in the colours of the Western Steamship Co. Ltd. prior to 1914. Photo on the St. Clair River by Pesha.
She was completed late in the summer of 1908 and was enrolled as Br. 125442, her port of registry being Newcastle. It was not unusual for Canadian owners of this period to have British-built canallers registered in British ports, normally nominating the town in which each had been built. The new steamer was christened J. A. McKEE, although we have as yet been unable to discover who this gentleman may have been. It is to be assumed that he was somehow connected with Western Steamship Company.

J. A. McKEE was an exceptionally fine-looking canaller for her day, her lines being rather more appealing than those of certain other boats. Her hull was painted black, the forecastle white above the shelter deck rail, the cabins white fore and aft, and the stack black with what seems to have been a silver band. She carried a full forecastle, on which sat a large round-fronted texas cabin. Above this, and between unusually deep bridgewings, was a large (much more so than normal) rounded pilothouse which sported large windows across its front. The foremast was located immediately abaft the first hatch, while the main was stepped midway down the deck, both masts being fitted with cargo booms. McKEE's after cabin was the usual boxy affair with overhang only beneath the lifeboat stations. Her stern was a graceful counter and her tall, heavy funnel, raked to match the masts, rose abaft the coal bunker hatch.

It was not unusual for the British-built canallers to carry coal across the Atlantic on their delivery voyages, but it was common for their destinations on such trips to be either Montreal or Toronto. Just to be different (although there were, obviously, other reasons), J. A. McKEE unloaded her coal at St. John's, Newfoundland. She then proceeded light to Sydney, Nova Scotia, where she loaded a cargo of rails for delivery at Fort William, Ontario. On her way up the lakes on this, her first fresh water trip, she called at Toronto on Monday, October 12, 1908, presumably for bunkers.

J. A. McKEE soon took up regular duties for her owner, normally carrying grain downbound from the Lakehead for eastern ports and returning with cargoes of rails to be used in the expansion of railroad services in the Canadian mid-west. Her only untoward incident during this period involved a stranding on Grecian Shoal in western Lake Erie off Colchester, Ontario, on July 12, 1910. Fortunately, her steel hull sustained little damage in the grounding and she was soon released.

It is interesting to note that most of the vessels which operated in this fleet were actually owned by the Bassett Steamship Company Ltd., a concern incorporated in 1914 and with which Capt. W. J. Bassett and his successor, Capt. R. D. Bassett, were also involved. Capt. W. J. Bassett himself served as master of J. A. McKEE for a number of years. WEXFORD, a salt water vessel lost during the Great Storm of 1913, was, like McKEE, owned by Western, but, although they were painted in roughly the same colours, MARISKA, GALE STAPLES, BRITON and (so it seems) WESTERIAN appear to have been registered to the Bassett Steamship Company Ltd.

The Western Steamship Company Ltd. sold McKEE on March 1, 1914 to the Algoma Central Steamship Company Ltd., Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. A subsidiary of the Algoma Central and Hudson Bay Railway Company Ltd., A.C.S.S. had an up-and-coming fleet at that time a needed a vessel to replace LEAFIELD, another casualty of the storm of November 1913. J. A. McKEE was soon painted up in the Algoma livery but she retained her old name. She was, however, brought into Canadian registry as C. 125442, her home port being changed to Sault Ste. Marie. The Canadian Sault was, of course, the centre of operations for the Algoma fleet.

In fact, the McKEE was not long to serve Algoma Central, for she was requisitioned by the Dominion government in 1916 for war service on salt water. Her ownership was transferred to the Minister of Railways and Canals, Ottawa, and she was taken to the east coast, where she was to serve for seven years.

Thursday, December 6, 1917 found J. A. McKEE in the vicinity of Halifax, nearing her destination on a trip from Sydney, N.S. Unfortunately, it was on that morning that the French munitions ship MONT BLANC, loaded with some 2,600 tons of picric acid, gun-cotton and T.N.T., collided in Halifax Harbour with the Belgian refugee steamer IMO. The collision was not particularly damaging to either ship, but MONT BLANC caught fire and, her crew having fled immediately, it was not long before the flames reached her cargo. The resulting explosion, audible more than two hundred miles away, caused utter devastation in the area; a large portion of the city of Halifax was levelled, as was much of the surrounding countryside, and the loss of life was staggering. MONT BLANC totally disappeared from the face of the earth and IMO was thrown up on the Dartmouth shore with very severe damage and much loss of life aboard.

Fortunately, J. A. McKEE was not close enough to be destroyed but she did receive damage estimated at $125,000., a substantial sum of money in those days. It was considered that she was worth the cost of repairs, and so she was put back into operating shape and resumed service the following year. It would seem likely that it was at this time that certain small changes were made in McKEE's appearance. Her original masts were replaced by more substantial masts, located in the same positions but equipped with heavier lifting equipment for the cargo booms. The rounded front of the texas disappeared at this time, probably due to explosion damage; thereafter, the texas was nothing more than a basic rectangular structure, although the bridge deck retained its original forward curve. The pilothouse was not substantially altered, although it was given a small sunvisor.

J. A. McKEE continued her government service through the war years, most of her time being spent on the east coast. On November 27, 1918, she managed to strand in U.S. waters near Fisher's Island whilst en route from New York City to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Soon released, she remained in government service despite the cessation of hostilities; all available tonnage was desperately needed in the aftermath of the Great War. During 1920 and 1921, McKEE was chartered by the Ministry to the Dominion Steel and Coal Company Ltd., Sydney, N.S. Whilst in the course of the charter, she grounded on August 28, 1920, on Prince Shoal, a hazard to navigation located near Tadoussac at the mouth of the Saguenay River. McKEE was duly refloated and taken to Levis, Quebec, for repairs.

The post-war duties of J. A. McKEE were to continue yet a while longer but, by 1923, she was back on the lakes, chartered by the Ministry to N. M. Paterson and Company Ltd., Fort William, the shipping company which had been formed about 1915 by the Winnipeg and Fort William grain merchant who was eventually to become a Canadian Senator. In 1926, the Paterson fleet was greatly expanded with the purchase of a number of steamers from the Interlake Steamship Company and, in anticipation of these acquisitions, the company was reorganized as Paterson Steamships Ltd. This firm was incorporated under the Dominion Companies Act in 1926 with authorized capital of $2,000,000., the officers of record being Norman M. Paterson, president; Donald E. McKay, vice-president; E. B. Sutherland, secretary-treasurer; W. H. Hall, general manager; B. E. O'Donnell and P. C. Poulton, directors.

The newly-organized company took over the assets of its predecessor, these including four boats, namely the World War One "Lakers" NORMAN M. PATERSON, (a) CANADIAN ENGINEER (24), and DONALD E. McKAY, (a) CANADIAN PATHFINDER (24), as well as the regular canallers THOMAS J. DRUMMOND and J. A. McKEE, the latter having been purchased outright by Paterson. Interestingly enough, the DRUMMOND had been built for Algoma Central in 1910 and had served it until 1917, carrying rails just as had the McKEE.

With the reorganization of the Paterson interests in 1926 came one of the most distinctive naming schemes ever developed by a lake fleet for its boats. With but a few exceptions, all subsequent Paterson boats have been named for Canadian cities, provinces or territories, the letters 'DOC (standing for Dominion of Canada) being tacked onto the tail of each name. Accordingly, PATERSON was renamed (c) NEWBRUNDOC (I) in 1926, while McKAY became (c) NOVADOC (I). The DRUMMOND was renamed (b) CALGADOC (I) and J. A. McKEE was rechristened (b) THORDOC (I), this name being chosen to honour the town of Thorold, Ontario.

When McKEE/THORDOC entered the Paterson fleet, she was given the usual stack design, black with a large white 'P'. Her hull was black, while the entire forecastle and the cabins were white. Shortly after her renaming in 1926, however, the forecastle was painted black, only the rail above remaining white. At the same time, the company's name was removed from the forecastle and replaced by the diamond logo which has become so familiar over the years. The red diamond, bearing the company name in very small letters, had a black centre on which was superimposed a white 'P'.

Another interesting change in THORDOC's appearance came with the enlargement of the centre three pilothouse windows, these being lengthened downwards to provide increased visibility whilst canalling. Although not immediately, her port of registry was changed from Sault Ste. Marie to Fort William, the normal home port for Paterson steamers.

Although the summer was uneventful, the 1929 season was not a good one for THORDOC, for the autumn brought an accident which very nearly proved to be her undoing. On November 9, having just cleared Port Arthur with 2,000 tons of flour for Montreal, she ran foul of Porphyry Reef. This shoal is a particularly nasty piece of business which lies southeast of Point Porphyry and just off the southwestern end of Porphyry Island, the southernmost of a group of islands lying near the entrance to Black Bay. The bay, of course, is a large indentation in the north shore of Lake Superior, located to the northeast of Thunder Cape. Solidly grounded on the reef, THORDOC was abandoned to the underwriters as a constructive total loss. A salvage contract was soon let and the steamer was successfully refloated on December 5, 1929. She was towed to the shipyard at Port Arthur for repairs and, repurchased by Paterson Steamships Ltd. after her salvage, she was returned to service in 1930.

THORDOC (I), looking as she did near the end of her lifetime, is pictured in the St. Lawrence canals. Photo from the Bascom collection.
The Great Depression of the 1930s struck a heavy blow at the lake shipping industry and most lakers spent considerable time in ordinary. THORDOC's service in the early years of the decade was typical of the times and some detail in this regard will help to show how bad things became. THORDOC managed to keep busy during 1930 and most of 1931, but she laid up during November of 1931 in the Toronto ship channel with a storage cargo of coal. There she remained for the better part of a year, for it was not until September of 1932 that she was fitted out once again. In November 1932, however, she was back in lay-up at Toronto with a grain storage cargo.

THORDOC did not fit out at all during 1933, and she lay in the Toronto ship channel until the spring of 1934. She was then placed in service but did not operate for long; in due course, she was back in lay-up, this time at Fort William with a storage grain cargo that she had loaded there. The grain cargo was unloaded during the spring of 1935, but the steamer remained at the wall at Fort William until she was placed back in service during the spring of 1936.

THORDOC was laid up at Halifax for the winter of 1936-37 and, for the seasons of 1937 and 1938, she was again chartered to the Dominion Steel and Coal Company Ltd. It was at Sydney, N.S., that she spent the winter of 1937-38. Nevertheless, she was back in the lake trade for Paterson by the autumn of 1938, and she spent the following winter at Owen Sound with a storage cargo of grain.

Late in the 1939 season, after the outbreak of World War Two, THORDOC was once more chartered to Dominion Steel and Coal for coastal service. Her normal route at this time was between Sydney and Newfoundland ports. It was whilst on such a trip, on March 30, 1940, that THORDOC stranded on Wingham Point, near Louisburg, Nova Scotia. She became a total loss and, this time, salvage was not possible. And so THORDOC met her fate far from the Great Lakes but in an area which was not exactly strange to her. THORDOC was, however, not alone in her fate, for CALGADOC had been lost with all hands while operating in the same service on November 1, 1937. The Paterson fleet suffered terribly during the war years, NOVADOC (II) being lost by stranding on Lake Michigan in 1940 and the upper laker PRINDOC (I) by collision on Lake Superior in 1943. To make matters worse, no less than eleven of the company's canallers were lost on salt water, a few as a result of weather conditions but most as casualties of enemy action. Had THORDOC managed to survive her last grounding, her services would have been much in demand after the war.

(Ed. Note: Our thanks to James M. Kidd, Chief Purser, for helping us to trace THORDOC's activities during the Depression years.)


Previous    Next

Return to Home Port or Toronto Marine Historical Society's Scanner

Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.