Many years ago, before the development of today's supercarriers and modern cargo-handling techniques, much of the freight that was carried by ship on the Great Lakes was what was usually called general cargo or package freight. Such shipments comprised small quantities of assorted materials, and a great many vessels were normally engaged in transporting this general cargo. A number of these ships were operated in conjunction with the various railroads.
But the U.S. railroads were prevented from operating their own lake package freight vessels by virtue of the terms of the Panama Canal Act of 1915, and as time passed it was found that general cargo could be carried more economically by land transport than by water. The largest package freight operation on the upper lakes was that served by the express steamers of the Great Lakes Transit Corporation, which had been formed to run many of the railroad vessels after the divestiture forced by the Panama Canal Act. However, even the Great Lakes Transit operation came to an end during the early 1940s, as its last remaining steamers were either sold off for scrapping or rebuilt and sent to salt water for wartime service.
In due course, the lake package freight trade was left largely to a handful of Canadian fleets. By the 1950s, the only major carriers of general cargo were Canada Steamship Lines, Northwest Steamships Ltd., and the Canadian Pacific Railway, the latter company carrying quantities of package freight in the holds and 'tween decks of its passenger steamers KEEWATIN and ASSINIBOIA. But even these remaining services were destined to come to an end, victims of the availability of cheaper railway and highway transport, the development of containerization, the entry of salt-water vessels into the lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway (thus avoiding trans-shipment of cargo from lakers) and, in the case of the C.P.R. boats, the advent of more stringent rules regarding fire safety aboard passenger vessels. The last lake package freight service was closed at the end of the 1981 navigation season, when Canada Steamship Lines withdrew its last package freighters from operation.
Two of the most interesting package freighters in service during the 1950s were Northwest Steamships' two steam-powered canallers, A. A. HUDSON and SUPERIOR. They were beautiful vessels, with their green hulls and red-and-black stacks, and each of them sported a melodic triple-chime steam whistle. Indeed, the whistle of SUPERIOR was considered to be one of the most beautiful chimes ever heard on the lakes and observers (Ye Ed. included) delighted in hearing it whenever possible.
Although she had a steel hull, PARKS FOSTER sported upperworks that were built of wood, and this included not only the forward and after deck houses, but also the forecastle itself. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the steamer's design, however, was the fact that, in the manner of many of the wooden-hulled upper lakes bulk carriers of years past, she carried two tall smokestacks mounted athwartship. These stacks were certainly impressive, but they tended to give PARKS FOSTER the appearance of being a throwback to an earlier era.
PARKS FOSTER was duly placed in commission by the Owen Transportation Company, and entered service as a package freighter under charter to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. She operated between Sandusky, on Lake Erie, and Sheboygan and Milwaukee on Lake Michigan. She was only to serve for about a decade in this trade, however, for both she and her sister, IRA H. OWEN, were sold in 1900 to the National Steamship Company of Chicago. The managers of this firm were J. G. Keith and Company.
PARKS FOSTER served the National Steamship Company well for more than fifteen years, but IRA H. OWEN was not nearly so fortunate. She was one of the many victims of the foul weather that swept the Great Lakes area during the autumn of 1905, one of the worst seasons ever seen on the lakes. The OWEN foundered, with the loss of all hands, off Outer Island, in the Apostle Islands Group of Lake Superior, on Tuesday, November 28th, 1905.
The first set of boilers fitted in PARKS FOSTER did not last very long, for they were replaced by two firebox boilers, measuring 9.6 feet by 14 feet, which were made by Johnson Brothers at Grand Haven, Michigan, in 1908. We do not know for certain when these boilers were installed in the steamer, but we must assume that it was circa 1908. It would also appear that PARKS FOSTER lost her original twin funnels at the same time that the new boilers were fitted, and thereafter she sported but one well-raked stack of moderate proportions.
In 1916, PARKS FOSTER was acquired by John Prindiville and Sons, Chicago. She was to continue in their ownership through 1920. During that year, her managing owner was listed as Frank Chamberlain of Chicago, but his appearance on the scene was really nothing more than a rearrangement of the previous operation, for Chamberlain was very closely connected with the Prindiville interests.
The Prindivilles and Chamberlain obviously intended that PARKS FOSTER'S duties would include trips down through the old lower canals, for in 1921 the ship was sent to the Great Lakes Engineering Works at Ecorse, Michigan, for shortening to canal dimensions. Her length was reduced to 248.6 feet, which resulted in a decrease in her tonnage to 1640 Gross and 1054 Net. In effect, however, the only actual shortening that was done to PARKS FOSTER was the lopping off of her rather stylish fantail, a surgical procedure that left her forever after with a stern that rounded in the normal manner toward a would-be fantail, only to end in a squared-off rail that made her look as if she had been designed to fit into a sardine can. In reality, of course, that is precisely what was intended for the steamer, for it was necessary that she be able to transit the small locks of the old Welland and St. Lawrence canals, and she was a tight fit indeed, even with her reduced length.
It would appear that, during the period from 1922 until 1928, PARKS FOSTER operated under charter to the Nicholson Universal Steamship Company of Detroit. This arrangement, however, came to an end in the early autumn of the latter year, for the steamer stranded on Lake Huron, near Alpena, Michigan, on Sunday, October 7th, 1928. She was so severely damaged that she was abandoned as a constructive total loss. Be this as it may, however, she was soon salvaged by the famous Reid Wrecking Company of Sarnia and Port Huron, and, having been freed from her perch near Alpena, she was taken to Port Huron for temporary repairs. She was then towed down the lakes and the upper St. Lawrence River to Ogdensburg, New York, where complete repairs to her hull were put in hand by the St. Lawrence Marine Repair Dock Company.
On August 7th, 1929, PARKS FOSTER was purchased by Frank G. Wilson of Westmount, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal. It seems that Wilson was acting on behalf of James Playfair of Midland, Ontario, in this transaction. The vessel was towed to Toronto by the big wooden steam tug JOSEPH L. RUSSELL, which was the former Lake Ontario passenger steamer LAKESIDE, and was delivered to the yard of the Toronto Drydock Company Ltd., which was located in the Keating Channel at the foot of the Don River. There PARKS FOSTER was completely fitted out for her new owner. At this time, she was re-registered in the name of the Great Lakes Transit Corporation Ltd., Midland, which was one of the many Playfair concerns. Her Canadian registry number was C. 154471.
On November 6, 1929, PARKS FOSTER was sold to the North West Transportation Company Ltd., Midland. The formal registration of this transaction took effect on April 5. 1930, at which time the steamer was renamed (b) SUPERIOR. The North West Transportation Company Ltd. had been formed in 1929 by Capt. Archie A. Hudson and his brother, Capt. D'Alton Hudson, with the backing of James Playfair. SUPERIOR had been acquired along with another canal-sized package freighter, the GEORGIAN (33), (a) FORDONIAN (26), (b) YUKONDOC (29), (d) FORDONIAN (34), (e) BADGER STATE, U.S.214598 and C.133077, a motorship which had been built in 1912 at Port Glasgow. SUPERIOR and GEORGIAN were acquired to operate a service between Toronto and the Canadian Lakehead, calling at way ports for upbound package freight and canned goods. On the downbound voyage, the two ships would usually bring a cargo of grain, consigned either to the Bayports or to Toronto Elevators Ltd. The latter firm, which operated a large grain elevator near the western end of Toronto harbour (an elevator that is being demolished during the summer of 1983), was a company in which James Playfair held a large interest.
At this stage, the colours of the North West Transportation Company Ltd. were the same as those of the Playfair fleets. Accordingly, SUPERIOR and GEORGIAN were given grey hulls with crimson boot-topping, white forecastle rails and cabins, and crimson stacks with a wide black smokeband. They looked very handsome in these colours.
The acquisition of SUPERIOR, however, started one of the strangest series of backward-and-forward trading that the Great Lakes ever witnessed. SUPERIOR spent the winter of 1930-1931 at Welland, with a storage cargo of grain. But the allegedly poor condition of the steamer, and particularly of her engine and boilers, made profitable operation next to impossible. Accordingly, the Hudsons returned SUPERIOR to the Great Lakes Transit Corporation Ltd. on July 31, 1931, with the formal transfer taking place on August 6, 1931. Nevertheless, Capt. Archie Hudson and Great Lakes Transit entered into a "new deal" for the purchase of SUPERIOR on September 9, 1931, the formal transfer of ownership in this case taking place on September 16, 1931. Capt. Hudson subsequently stated that even this most recent deal was "no good", and on September 25, 1931, SUPERIOR reverted back to Playfair ownership, the official transfer being effected on September 29, 1931.
SUPERIOR was then laid up at Midland and, after being seriously damaged by fire, she was rebuilt during the winter of 1931-1932 with new engines and boilers, a new steel forecastle, and steel deckhouses fore and aft. Her new triple-expansion engine had cylinders of 17 1/2, 28 3/4 and 47 inches, with a stroke of 33 inches. This machinery had been built back in 1920 by the Canadian Ingersoll Rand Company, but was declared excess when a post-war construction vessel, for which the engine had been intended, was not built. At the same time, SUPERIOR was fitted with her third set of boilers. These were two coal-fired Scotch marine boilers, which measured 12.6 feet by 11 feet. They were built in Great Britain by Barclay, Curie and Company, a shipyard which had constructed many canal-sized steamers for lake service.
With this reconstruction, SUPERIOR looked much like many of the other steam canallers which were then running on the lakes, particularly since her shortening in 1921. Perhaps now, however, we should attempt to outline some of the changes in appearance that PARKS FOSTER/SUPERIOR underwent during her many years of service.
The steamer originally carried but a small, square pilothouse that sat directly atop the forecastle, with an open bridge on the monkey's island and a small texas cabin behind. Her after cabin was large and surrounded by an overhang of the boat deck above. Forward of the after cabin was an indented boilerhouse, out of which rose the twin funnels, and which, in turn, was preceeded up the deck by a large coal bunker. The spar deck was surrounded by a closed wooden rail, and the wooden forecastle, with its four large windows on either side, was surmounted by a closed wooden rail.
By the 1920s, when PARKS FOSTER was being operated under charter to Nicholson Universal, she had been given a raised pilothouse, without open bridge, and her heavy main mast had been replaced by a light stick. She had three cargo ports down each side and sported one cargo elevator, with its hoisting rig protruding up over the deck. By 1930, she had gained a second cargo elevator and her closed deck rail had been cut away down to the front of the coal bunker aft, and to the break of the forecastle forward. Thus, the closed rail remained around the spar deck only in the area of the fantail.
When SUPERIOR was rebuilt over the winter of 1931-32, she gained a new, full-height steel forecastle, with a closed rail for about three-quarters of its length. Atop it were a steel texas and pilothouse much like those of any of the canallers built about that same time. The after cabin was flush-sided (i.e., with no indented boilerhouse or bunker), and there was only a small overhang of the boat deck, and a closed rail only in the area of the after cabin itself. She retained her sideports and her twin elevators to facilitate cargo handling. Her original heavy foremast was, at this time, replaced by a light pole, much like the new main, and her original single steam whistle was replaced by a melodious triple-chime, which undoubtedly was inherited from another vessel. (If any member happens to know where SUPERIOR'S whistle came from, we should be pleased to hear from them.)
SUPERIOR saw only intermittent service during the 1930s as a result of the effects on lake shipping of the Great Depression. She spent the winters of 1932-33 and 1933-34 at Toronto with grain storage cargoes for Toronto Elevators Ltd. During this period, the Hudson Brothers (Archie and D'Alton), Gordon C. Leitch, C. W. Heimbecker, F. H. Dunsford, Donald E. McKay and, of course, James Playfair, had an interest in her operation. In addition, Messrs. Tully and Luke of Midland were also involved with SUPERIOR. The winters of 1934-35, 1935-36 and 1937-38 saw SUPERIOR laid up at Midland with storage grain, while she spent the winter of 1936-37 at Sarnia with storage.
It is reported that, about 1937, Parrish and Heimbecker Ltd., Toronto, began to dominate the operations of SUPERIOR. The steamer had run as a single-ship operation ever since the loss by stranding of GEORGIAN on Grand Island, Lake Superior, on November 28, 1932. In 1938, the Hudsons, with the backing of Parrish and Heimbecker Ltd., formed Northwest Steamships Ltd., Toronto. SUPERIOR was sold to Northwest Steamships on March 30, 1938, and her formal transfer to the new firm took place on April 2, 1938. In addition, the new company purchased the steam canaller RAHANE from the Misener interests (Sarnia Steamships Ltd.), in 1939, and renamed her (b) A. A. HUDSON.
SUPERIOR and A. A. HUDSON were placed on a package freight route between Leamington, Ontario, and the Canadian Lakehead, with upbound calls at Windsor, Sarnia and Wallaceburg. On the downbound trip, the steamers usually carried grain to Goderich or to the ports of Georgian Bay. The vessels had their hulls painted a dark green, while their forecastles and cabins were white. Their stacks were black, with a wide red band and the large capital letters 'NW' in white on the band. SUPERIOR and A. A. HUDSON were very impressive and photogenic indeed in these colours, and looked better than at any other time during their respective careers.
SUPERIOR spent the winter of 1938-39 at Owen Sound with a storage cargo and both she and A. A. HUDSON were destined to spend most of their remaining winters at that port. Capt. Archie Hudson passed away in 1939, and H. C. Heimbecker became president of Northwest Steamships Ltd. Directors of the firm at that time were Messrs. Faessler, Dunsford, and D'Alton Hudson.
In February of 1960, Northwest Steamships Ltd. placed advertisements in the press, in which SUPERIOR was offered for sale. Needless to say, considering her age, no prospective operators came forward to purchase the steamer, and she was sold on July 4, 1960, to Benjamin Newman, a St. Catharines scrap metal dealer. SUPERIOR had been laid up at Windsor, and the tugs ATOMIC and PATRICIA McQUEEN, of McQueen Marine Ltd., Amherstburg, Ontario, were summoned to tow SUPERIOR from her Windsor berth to Port Weller. On her arrival at Port Weller, SUPERIOR was laid to rest along the south end of the Port Weller Dry Docks Ltd. fit-out wall, and there she lay with several other superannuated canallers, notably the Upper Lakes Shipping steamer JAMES STEWART.
SUPERIOR, with her green hull paint much faded, and looking generally well past her prime, lay along the wall at Port Weller for the better part of a year. The wreckers with their cutting torches worked on her very slowly and the dismantling of the aging steamer took not only the autumn of 1960 but well into the 1961 navigation season. Several other canallers were also cut up for scrap at Port Weller at about this time, and it was generally the case that the last remains of the hulls would be towed around to Port Dalhousie, taken up through Lock One of the old canal, and placed on the old Muir Brothers drydock there for final scrapping. Such was not the case with SUPERIOR, however. Her upperworks were all cut off at Port Weller, and we believe that the final remaining section of the hull was eventually taken into the drydock at Port Weller for dismantling.
In this manner ended the career of one of the most long-lived of all of the canallers. She was notable not only for her handsome appearance and her yeoman service during her final years, but also, of course, for the fact that she was one of but a few vessels that were built as upper lakers and shortened for use as canallers in later years. Her story is all the more interesting in that it provides a bit of an insight into one of the earlier shipping ventures of Parrish and Heimbecker Ltd., the same concern that purchased the remains of the defunct Soo River Company during the late summer of 1982 and now operates several of the Soo River ships under the flag of the P. & H. Shipping Division of Parrish and Heimbecker Ltd. Needless to say, the Parrish and Heimbecker influence is much more visible on the lakes these days than it was when the firm provided backing for several small fleets such as Northwest Steamships Ltd.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.