Just as we went to press in August with our Mid-Summer issue, it became apparent that the Soo River Company was in grave financial difficulties. We were able to include only a short "late news" item in that issue, for little information was then available and we wished to avoid speculation. Since then however, there have been many significant developments, and we would be remiss if we did not now report at greater length on this most interesting, albeit unhappy, situation.
Robert S. Pierson, the founder of the Soo River fleet, is one of the grandsons of the late Capt. Robert Scott Misener. Pierson had formed Robert Pierson Holdings Ltd. a number of years ago and the name of the company was altered to Pierson Steamships Ltd. in February, 1977. The Soo River Company, the trade name under which the firm operated its ships, came into being in 1975 with the purchase of the steamer SILVER BAY, which was renamed JUDITH M. PIERSON in honour of Robert Pierson's wife.
The fleet grew in size as the years passed, and no fewer than eleven bulk carriers have sailed under the Soo River flag. Of these, two were sold out of the fleet for scrapping, PIERSON INDEPENDENT as a result of severe grounding damage, and H. C. HEIMBECKER because of assorted geriatric problems. During the spring of 1982, Soo River was operating the following nine vessels:
The ships of the fleet were not new nor were they the largest on the lakes, but they kept busy, even during the increasingly poor business conditions of 1982. They were always kept in immaculate condition and looked superb in the rather unusual livery which the company adopted. Soo River appeared to be doing well in all respects and it seemed that the fleet would continue to grow, challenging the position of several older and established Canadian operators.
In the spring of 1982, however, there began to circulate a number of rumours concerning the financial stability of the company. Still, there were no externally-visible signs of major problems and most observers dismissed the stories as being without foundation. On Friday, August 6, however, matters took a sudden turn for the worse, as Pierson Steamships Ltd. made an assignment into bankruptcy as a result of foreclosure proceedings instituted by its major creditor, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. The firm of Peat Marwick Ltd., Toronto, was appointed as receiver.
The Bank had a claim of $5,600,000 against Pierson, having been the major source of financing for its continued operations, but a number of other firms and individuals had claims against the company. As these claims grew in size with additional accounts going unpaid, some of these other creditors threatened seizure of the vessels. The Bank apparently then reviewed its position and realized that, with the scrap market very poor these days, the bottom-line value of the fleet had decreased considerably. Accordingly, the Bank foreclosed. In the meantime, however, other creditors realized that things were coming to a head and, as a result of their various writs, all of the vessels were seized in Canadian ports.
The list of secured creditors included not only the Bank, but also Crown Trust, which held a mortgage on PIERSON DAUGHTERS relating to the purchase of ROBERT S. PIERSON, and Upper Lakes Shipping Ltd., which held a mortgage on SOO RIVER TRADER. The claims of the secured creditors totalled $6.3 million, while thirteen preferred creditors filed claims amounting to the sum of $659,289.01. The more than two hundred unsecured creditors filed claims amouting [sic] to $4,687,309.80, although they were unlikely to recover anything.
The receivers attempted to keep the fleet going, but the arrest of all of the boats by assorted creditors rendered these efforts almost useless. Only J. F. VAUGHAN and ROBERT S. PIERSON saw any great amount of service during August, for they were freed of seizure within a couple of days and were kept busy in regular service. It took considerably longer to free the other boats, and considerable money was expended by the receivers in keeping the crews aboard many of the ships even though they were unable to sail. Eventually, all the vessels were returned to service by the receivers, with the exception of JUDITH M. PIERSON and SOO RIVER TRADER, which remained inactive, and JOSEPH X. ROBERT, which had been laid up during July at Toronto with mechanical problems.
It appeared that things were hopeless, and observers were gritting their teeth in preparation for seeing some of their favourite steamers sold for scrap, when there appeared a saviour for the fleet in the form of what might be called the "Heimbecker Connection". Parrish and Heimbecker Ltd., a long-established firm of grain brokers, had supported the Soo River Company with cargoes for many years and the steamer H. C. HEIMBECKER had been named for one of the partners of the firm.
Parrish and Heimbecker Ltd. made an offer of $2,500,000 for the fleet, a sum rather higher than the forced-sale value of the ships, with an additional $1,000,000 towards the claims being guaranteed by Robert Pierson himself. As a result, the entire fleet was sold to the newly-formed marine division of Parrish and Heimbecker Ltd, but the sale could not be completed until September 16 as a consequence of the complexity of the proceedings. It was anticipated that things could be "regularized" shortly after that date, and that the ships would be busy fulfilling contracts with had earlier been secured by Pierson.
A renaming of all of the vessels has, understandably, resulted from the sale and, when the dust has settled, the following renames will have taken place: PIERSON DAUGHTERS becomes BEECHGLEN JUDITH M. PIERSON becomes FERNGLEN JOAN M. McCULLOUGH becomes BIRCHGLEN E.J. NEWBERRY becomes CEDARGLEN ROBERT S. PIERSON becomes SPRUCEGLEN HOWARD F. ANDREWS becomes ELMGLEN JOSEPH X. ROBERT becomes WILLOWGLEN SOO RIVER TRADER becomes PINEGLEN and J. F. VAUGHAN becomes OAKGLEN
We have no idea what colours will eventually be adopted by the new company although we are a bit fearful in that its elevators are painted a rather brilliant shade of yellow. In the meantime, however, the only change in the ships' colours has been the painting out of the Soo River Company's name or, in the case of HOWARD F. ANDREWS, the "Pierson" billboard. We hope that the new owners might retain the white "mustache" which the boats carried on their bows, and perhaps even the now-famous shamrock which appeared on the stacks and the houseflag. This, however, would seem to be unlikely, and we presume that Parrish and Heimbecker will paint the boats in their own colours. We only hope that those will be as unusual and refreshing as those used for eight seasons by the Soo River Company.
Another major change involves the fleet's offices. The old Soo River office, which overlooked the Flight Locks at Thorold, has been closed and will be sold by the receivers. Parrish and Heimbecker's Marine Division has taken over the Port Credit offices of Westdale Shipping Ltd. and will run the former Soo River boats from there.
P. & H. will also attempt to update some of the ships of the fleet. A most pressing problem concerns JOSEPH X. ROBERT (WILLOWGLEN), which has been the victim of serious mechanical troubles. Immediate steps will be taken to improve her feedwater heating system, and she is expected to see service this autumn on a trial basis. The ROBERT still does not have a coasting license and she may thus only operate in cross-border trade. Another steamer scheduled for major work is ROBERT S. PIERSON (SPRUCEGLEN) which will finally be converted to oil fuel. She has had grievances filed against her at various ports because of her tendency to emit clouds of dense coal smoke. She has had problems at Toronto, Owen Sound, Goderich and the Welland Canal, and the new operators are unwilling to put up with such difficulties.
We sincerely regret that the Soo River Company has passed from the scene, not only because we enjoyed the breath of fresh air that the Pierson years brought to the lake shipping industry, but also because of the problems that the bankruptcy has caused to the principals and employees of Soo River, many of whom were and are members of T.M.H.S. We also regret the change in fleet management to the extent that it may mean the retirement from service of certain veteran steamers. JUDITH M. PIERSON (FERNGLEN) will make a few trips this autumn and will then become a soya bean storage hull at Hamilton, while the ANDREWS (ELMGLEN), idled during the seizure with an ore cargo for Burns Harbor that nobody now wants, is likely to be scrapped because of her poor condition. The latest word is that SOO RIVER TRADER (PINEGLEN) will likely be reconditioned for the grain trade to the Bay Ports.
Nevertheless, we wish Parrish and Heimbecker Ltd. the very best in its new enterprise, and we trust that the company will perpetuate the love of "steamboating" which Robert S. Pierson evidenced from the day of the purchase of his first vessel, although perhaps on a more profitable basis.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.