It has been quite a considerable period of time since we last featured the story of one of the famous early passenger steamers that operated on Lake Ontario and the Upper St. Lawrence River. Having dealt last issue with an upper lake freighter, we thought it would be appropriate to go back to one of those old river passenger boats, and what better choice than one whose career spanned three-quarters of a century.
One of the early steamboat lines on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River was the "Royal Mail Line", which was operated by the Honourable John Hamilton, of Kingston. It was to his order that the iron-hulled passenger and freight sidewheeler PASSPORT was built during 1846 and 1847 at Kingston by William McAusland of the Marine Railway Company. The iron plates for the hull were cut on the Clyde, and were then shipped from Scotland to Kingston for assembling there.
PASSPORT was completed in time to run her trials in June of 1847, but Hamilton did not get around to having his new steamer officially registered until August 17, 1849. The delay is understandable, because in those days there was much less importance given to the keeping of statistics than is the case today, and the inspection and measuring of steamboats was not considered to be a matter of particularly high importance. When PASSPORT was officially registered, she was not given an official number, for no national numbering system for vessels was then in effect in Canada. In fact, it was not until she was rebuilt and renamed in 1898 that the steamer acquired a registry number, C.112142.
PASSPORT was a particularly handsome steamer, at least in the latter years of operation under that name, and there is no reason to suspect that her appearance would have changed much over the years. Her main deck was fully enclosed, except for the area aft of the paddleboxes which had an open promenade around the cabin. It is to be assumed that this portion of the cabin contained the dining saloon. Forward of this was the engine area, and the forward portion of the deck served as the freight room, with access for cargo handling being gained via gangways on each side.
The promenade deck was open forward for observation purposes, with a canvas awning usually being hung over this area to shelter the passengers from direct sun or showers. Accommodations for cabin passengers were located in the large deckhouse, with daylight being introduced into the cabin by means of many windows and a clerestory which ran down the boat deck immediately overhead. Passengers could walk down the passageways on either side of this cabin, and around the stern, but could not entirely circumnavigate the deck, for the narrow promenades were blocked on each side by the steamer's enormous paddleboxes. As was the custom in those days, before the development of the feathering wheel, PASSPORT was fitted with very large radial wheels. The semi-circular boxes that housed them were beautifully decorated with fretwork done in concentric patterns, and they rose up high above even the boat deck.
On the boat deck forward was PASSPORT'S most beautiful feature, an incredibly ornate "birdcage", or octagonal, pilothouse. It had large round-topped windows, and fancy woodcarving everywhere. The house was surmounted by a low crown rising to a centre peak, from which extended upward a fancy finial. On the deck just in front of the pilothouse was an ornate nameboard. We have no way of knowing what colour it was painted, but if subsequent lake tradition could be taken as any indication, then the board may well have been blue with gold lettering. The steamer's extremely substantial stack was set not far abaft the pilothouse; it was not only quite thick but, in order to provide good draft for the boiler, it was very tall. The funnel was surmounted by a very heavy and prominent cowl. Two lifeboats were carried on either side of the boat deck, one forward and one aft of the paddlebox.
PASSPORT carried but one mast, a very heavy pole, complete with topmast, that rose just behind the pilothouse. In later years, this topmast was no longer required and, accordingly, was removed. The steamer sported tall flagstaffs at the bow and fantail, and a long hinged steering pole angled far out forward from the stempost.
PASSPORT operated during 1848 on the route between Kingston and Montreal, and it is said that she was the first steamer equipped with upper cabins to run the rapids of the St. Lawrence River. Her first master was Capt. William Bowen. The 1848 season was apparently a successful one for PASSPORT, but the 1849 season definitely was not. On Wednesday, June 27. 1849, while proceeding upbound from Montreal, PASSPORT grounded on a mud bank off Lancaster, Ontario, some sixteen miles below Cornwall. Whilst the steamer was endeavouring to back off the bank into deep water, "a terrible accident occurred". According to the "Toronto Globe" of July 1, 1849, "the circumstances of the occurrence were as follows.
"It appears that the chief engineer of the PASSPORT has recently been appointed to a better situation, and his successor not having been appointed, the boat on the night of June 27 was in charge of the second engineer. Unfortunately, at the time of the accident, the second engineer had retired to his berth, leaving an inferior officer in command - he being, as afterwards appeared, an illiterate person, unable to read or write.
"About 9:00 p.m., the PASSPORT was off Lancaster, the under deck being loaded with steerage passengers, when the boat took the ground. Orders were given to stop the engine and back out; it appears that to do this from the peculiar construction of the engine, the engineer should have opened one cock and shut another. He opened the first but, it is said, neglected to shut the other. The steam, in consequence, rushed from the cylinder, through the hot well, in among the steerage passengers, and the scene that followed may be imagined. The shriek which broke from the unhappy sufferers, we are assured, was frightful and was heard several miles off. The utmost consternation struck all on board, the character of the accident being for some time unknown; four persons jumped overboard, of whom two were saved, but it is feared the other two were drowned.
"Capt. Bowen and his officers were most energetic, and the simple nature of the disaster having been ascertained and confidence somewhat restored, every exertion was made to relieve the sufferers. A surgeon came off from Lancaster to their assistance, and the scalded passengers having been brought on deck, it was found that 44 were severely injured. We are told that the scene during the night was horrible in the extreme; the cabin was strewed with men, women and children suffering the most frightful agony, and the shrieks of the dying rang throughout the night. After some delay, the boat proceeded to Cornwall, by which time nine of the sufferers had expired."
In fact, thirteen persons died, all of whom were immigrants who had been in the lower decks. None of the cabin passengers were injured, but they did present Capt. Bowen with a handsome testimonial honouring his actions during the unfortunate accident. The fact that PASSPORT had so many immigrants aboard at the time of the accident was not unusual. The Royal Mail Line vessels were primarily built to carry immigrants and the mails, with cabin passengers being taken as well, for a bit of extra profit. The immigrants received no cabin accommodations at all, but were carried in great numbers on the freight deck and in the hold. Small wonder that so many were injured!
By 1851, the Royal Mail Line was operating PASSPORT between Hamilton, Toronto and Kingston, under the command of Capt. Henry Twohy. Her schedule called for her to depart Toronto on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 12:45 p.m. and to arrive at Kingston the following morning, in time to make connections with the river steamer to Montreal. Returning uplake, she cleared Kingston on Mondays and Thursdays at 3:00 p.m., and arrived at Toronto the next morning. She then left Toronto at 8:00 a.m. and continued on to Hamilton, where connections could be made with the Great Western Railway for points west. She returned from Hamilton to Toronto at 3:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays. MAGNET of 1847 and ARABIAN of 1851 were on this service with PASSPORT, and the trio thus provided six sailings each way per week.
Capt. Thomas Harbottle assumed command of PASSPORT in 1854, with the steamer continuing in the same service. Harbottle would remain in PASSPORT for many years, and would later command the famous Niagara route steamer CHICORA. During the 1856 season, the Royal Mail route was extended eastward to Prescott, Ontario, and after leaving Hamilton and Toronto eastbound, PASSPORT would call at Port Darlington, Port Hope, Cobourg, Kingston and Brockville before reaching her final destination. In 1857, "the line was once again extended, this time all the way through to Montreal. Thus passengers no longer faced the necessity of changing steamers at either Kingston or Prescott. By 1858, PASSPORT'S running mates in the Royal Mail Line were KINGSTON (1855), CHAMPION (1851), NEW ERA. (1849) and BANSHEE (1855).
On March 15, 1861, PASSPORT, along with KINGSTON, was sold to Douglas Prentiss, Clark Hamilton and Alexander Campbell of Kingston. They transferred her to the Canadian Inland Steam Navigation Company, and took back a mortgage of $80,000 on the vessel. This mortgage was paid off in 1865. The vessel, however, continued in the "Royal Mail Line" as before, and with the very same running mates.
On Thursday, September 17, 1863, PASSPORT managed to run aground near Coteau-du-Lac, Quebec, with some sixty passengers aboard. She was later reported as being back in service, apparently having suffered very little damage. Nevertheless, on Sunday, November 1, 1863, she sank in Kingston Harbour with a cargo of 100 tons of freight aboard. It seems entirely possible that this sinking may well have resulted from hidden damage suffered in the earlier stranding.
In 1864, Capt. Kelly took over command of PASSPORT, and he was succeeded in 1870 by Capt. Duncan Sinclair. Throughout this period, PASSPORT remained on the same service. It was in 1870 that her owners took the precaution of having the bottom of her iron hull sheathed with rock elm planking. This was often done to iron or steel vessels in order to protect their plating whilst navigating the rapids of the St. Lawrence River, and to minimize the extent of any damage that might result should the hull make accidental contact with any of the rocks that abounded in the rapids.
The year 1875 saw the amalgamation of the Canadian Steam Navigation Company (as it was called) with the Richelieu Navigation Company of Montreal. The new firm which resulted from the merger was known as the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company Ltd., and over the almost three decades of its existence, it became known as one of the most famous Canadian vessel operators of all time.
But meanwhile, back on Thursday, July 7, 1898, while on a run between Clayton and Montreal, CASPIAN stranded on Twin Islands, opposite Thousand Islands Park. She received damage to her stern, but was soon refloated and was taken to Sorel, Quebec. There, she received a complete rebuild from the main deck upward, and she emerged from this reconstruction looking very different indeed. The work done, she was remeasured, and thereafter she was recorded as being 177.6 feet in length, 43.4 feet in the beam (over the guards) and 6.7 feet in depth, with tonnage of 957 Gross and 543 Net.
As well, as previously noted, her engine was either replaced or refitted at this time, and her original large radial paddlewheels were replaced by much smaller feathering wheels. A feathering wheel was one whose bucketboards, instead of simply being mounted on fixed radial arms, were hinged in such a manner that they moved on entering and leaving the water, thereby producing more forward thrust and reducing drag on the water at non-productive moments during the bucket's dip. (More modern lake sidewheelers were all equipped with feathering wheels; Toronto's TRILLIUM still sports them today.)
CASPIAN'S upper cabin on the promenade deck was updated during this rebuild but it was not greatly changed in appearance. It still featured an observation lounge at its forward end, and the clerestory remained to admit light to the interior. The new smaller paddleboxes rose only to about the midpoint of this cabin in height, and passage over the rounded boxes was possible, with the assistance of a small handrail, for those who might wish to fully circumnavigate this deck.
The most startling changes in CASPIAN'S appearance came on the boat deck. Her beautiful old ornate octagonal pilothouse was removed, and in its place was fitted a small, rounded pilothouse, with a small cabin for the master located immediately behind it. The steamer's original big funnel was removed and replaced by a very tall but much less impressive stack, which was so thin that it appeared almost scrawny in comparison with its massive predecessor. The new stack was surmounted by a small roll cowl.
CASPIAN'S original heavy mast was also removed at this time. It was replaced by two extremely light "sticks". One rose out of the master's cabin behind the pilothouse, and the mainmast was stepped well aft. The combination of these light masts and the very tall, thin stack gave CASPIAN a rather odd and unbalanced appearance.
Her rebuilding completed, CASPIAN was back in service for the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company Ltd. in 1899, and she continued in that service through the 1900 season. But by July of 1901, the R & O had both of its big new Lake Ontario steamers, TORONTO (1899) and KINGSTON (1901) in operation, and there was no need for the services of the little CASPIAN. Accordingly, she was sold to the Lake Ontario and Bay of Quinte Steamboat Company, of Kingston, which was operated by Charles F. Gildersleeve. This new owner placed CASPIAN in service on a route from Kingston to the Thousand Islands and also used her on a route between Kingston, the Bay of Quinte (Deseronto) and Charlotte, New York.
CASPIAN served the Gildersleeve company for about a decade and then, through an ironic twist of fate, she wound up hack under the flag of the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company. The Lake Ontario and Bay of Quinte Steamboat Company was absorbed into the R & O in 1912 and, as such, was one of a large number of companies that were merged in preparation for the biggest amalgamation of shipping interests ever to occur on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. It was in June of 1913 that the much-enlarged Richelieu and Ontario was itself swallowed up in the formation of the Canada Transportation Company Ltd., whose name was almost immediately changed to Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., Montreal.
Despite the fact that C.S.L. had actually acquired CASPIAN, the official transfer of her registry to C.S.L. did not take place until February, 1915. During this period, she continued in her old service out of Kingston, at times having NORTH KING as her running mate. But C.S.L. took NORTH KING, (a) NORSEMAN (91), out of commission about 1915, and the venerable CASPIAN was not long in following her into retirement. We can locate no indication that CASPIAN ran at all after 1917, and it would appear that she remained thereafter at the wall in Kingston harbour.
In 1920 or 1921, C.S.L. sold the old CASPIAN to A. A. Larocque of Montreal. This gentleman was the manager of the Sincennes McNaughton Line Ltd., Montreal, which was one of the forerunners of Sin Mac Lines Ltd., the famous towing and salvage firm. Larocque had CASPIAN towed down to Sorel, where her upperworks were stripped off. Her feathering wheels were salvaged, and in 1921 they were fitted aboard the 1895-built DUCHESS OF YORK (25), (b) SOREL (III)(27). (c) PELERIN (II)(35), (d) BELOEIL, which had originally been constructed for the Ottawa River trade, and later served on both Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
It is said that the hull of CASPIAN was refitted as a barge at Montreal in 1921 by the Montreal Dry Dock Company, but if so, it saw very little, if any, service. It was reported that the iron hull was scrapped at Sorel in 1922, or very soon thereafter. Of course, many of the old hulls of that era lingered for many years in boneyards such as that which existed for so long at Sorel, and thus it is now very difficult to tell for certain when some of them actually met their end.
Regardless of the ignominy of her final years, PASSPORT/CASPIAN had served well throughout her long life. She was indeed a great credit to the expertise of those craftsmen who had put her together back in 1847 (and even to the iron makers in Scotland), at a time when the construction of metal-hulled steamboats was an art that was still in its infancy.
(Ed. Note: Much of the information concerning the early years of PASSPORT is taken from Volume Two of Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto, which was published in 1896 by John Ross Robertson, noted historian and newspaper publisher.)
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.