As we move into the decade of the 1980s, when the overnight passenger vessel has disappeared from the Great Lakes and the package freighter has almost followed the same route, we tend to lose track of the manner in which these distinctive types of ships evolved. In reality, however, there was a period during which these two trades were the lifeblood of lake transportation, a period encompassing the several decades before the development of the shipment of raw materials in bulk.
A typical steamer of the mid-19th century was the wooden-hulled passenger and freight propellor MONTGOMERY, which was built in 1856 at Newport, Michigan, by the Ward Shipyard to the account of Eber B. Ward and the Estate of Samuel Ward. The master carpenter of the yard, one J. Bushnell, signed the enrollment papers for the new steamer. Eber Ward is no stranger to those readers who are familiar with lake shipping history of the period, for he was one of the most famous vessel operators of the time. Less well known, however, will be the town of Newport, at least under that name. The town became known as Marine City in 1867, and it was under that name that it became a major shipbuilding centre during the years of wooden hulls.
The new steamer was 204.0 feet in length, 34.0 feet in the beam, and 13.8 feet in depth, and her Gross Tonnage was 1104. Unfortunately, we know nothing about her machinery, but her engine was undoubtedly of a very simple nature, probably with but a single cylinder. Her boiler was almost certainly fired with wood. She was enrolled as U.S.16147.
MONTGOMERY was given a hull with a pleasant sheer; she had a straight stem (as was the custom of the day in such vessels) and a rather heavy counter stern. She carried a 'tween deck for the stowage of most of her freight and was equipped with four large cargo ports on each side. Her sides were completely enclosed up to the level of the upper deck, the latter being surrounded only by an open wooden rail. Her hull was strengthened with the usual arch trusses which rose high above both the upper deck and the hurricane deck.
On the upper deck was the passenger cabin, which carried staterooms down either side of a long saloon in which tables were placed and set at mealtimes. We presume that, in the custom of the day, a ladies' cabin was provided as well as a smoking lounge for the gentlemen. The pilothouse was not of the octagonal (or "birdcage") type but was a square structure set on the upper deck forward of the passenger cabin, with the navigational area rising above the hurricane deck. Her single mast, stepped just abaft the pilothouse, was gaff-rigged and carried sail. Her single tall funnel was carried well aft and was almost without rake.
In typical fashion, MONTGOMERY sported a long and ornate steering pole which reached far out past her stem, and a very tall flag staff aft, the latter rising almost to the height of the top of her stack. To protect her wooden hull from the inevitable confrontations with wharves, etc., MONTGOMERY carried wooden timber fenders which hung down from the upper deck, passed over the hull strakes, and just reached the water level. The steamer was painted all in white, with a black stack, and her name appeared in extremely large letters on either side of the 'tween deck between the first and second cargo ports.
MONTGOMERY first operated under charter to the Northern Railway Company of Canada, under the command of Captain Nicholson, on the upper lake route between Collingwood and Chicago. On this route, she ran along with the steamers ONTONAGON, EVERGREEN CITY and HUNTER. Then, during the 1860s, she operated for the Grand Trunk Line along with the propellors B. F. WADE, ANTELOPE and WATERWITCH, providing a tri-weekly service between Sarnia, Milwaukee, and Chicago, with way stops at Mackinac Island and along the west shore of Lake Michigan. While in this service, she was commanded by Capt. Gillies. Eber Ward was agent for the line at Detroit.
By 1878, MONTGOMERY was owned by John Pridgeon of Detroit, another well-known vessel operator of the period. Whilst she was lying at her dock at Point Edward early on the morning of June 10, 1878, it was discovered that she was on fire. Firefighting efforts were immediately begun but the blaze had taken hold in the wooden ship and all attempts to subdue the flames proved futile. The railroad carferry INTERNATIONAL put lines on MONTGOMERY and towed her out to mid-stream in the St. Clair River, there casting her loose to drift downriver. MONTGOMERY was finally beached on the Canadian side of the river, opposite Batchellor's Mill, by the tugs CRUSADER and J. H. MARTIN, and she was still burning at 10:00 a.m. At the time of her destruction, MONTGOMERY'S cargo consisted of 29,000 bushels of corn, 320 barrels of flour, 540 barrels of cornmeal, 200 bags of timothy seed, and 111 bales of broom corn, as well as other miscellaneous items. The cause of the fire was never determined and nothing was saved except for the captain's books. There were no injuries.
The spectacle presented by the burning MONTGOMERY as she drifted down the St. Clair River was "grand and beautiful", according to contemporary press reports. "The light (from the fire) was so brilliant that the entire city of Port Huron was illuminated along with all adjacent points on both sides of the river, and hundreds of people were out watching it." We rather doubt that the untimely demise of MONTGOMERY was greeted with as much enthusiasm by her crew or her owner.
The burned-out hull was towed to the U.S. side of the river, just below Avery's Mill, on the day following the fire, June 11, 1878, so that whatever cargo remained could be salvaged and sold. The press reported that her engine and boiler were valueless, except as old iron, because of the intense heat to which they had been subjected, which had severely warped and twisted the machinery.
Interestingly enough, the hull was not a total loss. Feeling that something useful might be salvaged from it, the remains were acquired by B. Swartout of Algonac, Michigan. MONTGOMERY was towed to Algonac and there was rebuilt in 1879 as a schooner of 709 Gross Tons. She was not renamed at the time of her reconstruction. She seems to have operated successfully in her new role and, by 1889, she had passed to the ownership of G. K. Jackson. That year, he had her converted into a barge at Bay City, Michigan. In 1892, she was owned by the H. M. Handy and Sons Lumber Company of Saginaw, Michigan. It seems highly likely that she ran in the lumber trade all through her years as a schooner and then as a barge.
On Monday, August 29, 1898, whilst out on Lake St. Clair, MONTGOMERY was in collision with the whaleback barge 137 which was, at the time, being towed by the steamer ALEXANDER MCDOUGALL, both whalebacks being then owned by the Bessemer Steamship Company. As a result of the collision, MONTGOMERY settled on the bottom in twenty-one feet of water. She was raised during September, 1898, and was towed to Detroit for repairs. The hull was then 42 years old, a remarkable age for a wooden hull, and it is rather surprising that her owner deemed her worthy of repair.
MONTGOMERY again got herself into trouble during May, 1901, when she stranded on the Charity Islands whilst en route from Lake Superior to Bay City with a cargo of lumber. She was quickly salvaged and returned to service, but the old wooden hull was showing the distinctive signs of its many years of toil, and MONTGOMERY's days were clearly numbered. It was not long before she again found herself in trouble, this time in a predicament from which she would not escape.
On October 20, 1901, the freighter LELAND arrived downbound at Sault Ste. Marie with the crew of MONTGOMERY aboard. Captain Duff, master and principal owner of MONTGOMERY, reported that, on October 19th, while laden with lumber and downbound on Lake Superior in tow of LELAND, the old schooner barge had sprung a leak during heavy weather and had become waterlogged. The bow sank so low in the water that the crew could not move far enough forward to cut the towline. The deckload of lath went overboard in the heavy seas and, in going, it carried away the rigging on one side. LELAND, on seeing the difficulties in which her barge found herself, dropped the towing hawser and manoeuvred alongside MONTGOMERY, releasing her crew who had lashed themselves to the roof of the after cabin of the barge. The crew of MONTGOMERY was rescued in safety and was taken aboard the steamer.
After dropping MONTGOMERY's crew at Sault Ste. Marie, LELAND headed back to Lake Superior to search for the drifting barge. On October 22nd, LELAND located the remains of MONTGOMERY on the beach near Crisp Point. The barge had broken in two and nothing more than the towline and some pieces of canvas could be salvaged. The registered owner of MONTGOMERY, at the time of her loss, was the Port Clinton Transportation Company of Port Clinton, Ohio.
For a vessel of MONTGOMERY'S vintage to have lasted 45 years was quite a feat, considering the many perils that lay in wait for a wooden-hulled boat in the years before the advent of modern navigational aid, and also considering the fact that she had managed to survive the fire of 1878.
(Ed. Note: Photographs of such early steamers as MONTGOMERY are quite scarce and we are indeed fortunate to be able to accompany this history of the boat with a photograph of the vessel in Collingwood harbour, a photo which probably dates to about 1858. The photo is reproduced from an old lantern slide which was in the collection of the late Capt. James McCannell, commodore of the Canadian Pacific lake fleet and long-time master of ASSINIBOIA, and it comes to us through the courtesy of member R. T. "Scotty" McCannell.)
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.