Although on occasion this section of our publication features vessels which we choose ourselves because we find them to be of particular interest or simply because we feel like writing about them, we often make our selection from requests which we have received from our members. We are always pleased to respond to the wishes of our readers, for in that way we are best able to present information which we know will be of interest.
Over the years, we have received several requests to feature the canal-sized steamer BENMAPLE, a particularly good-looking ship which enjoyed only a relatively short career on the lakes. She was mentioned in the November 1975 issue, when we reviewed the history of the Port Colborne and St. Lawrence Navigation Company Ltd., but we now have the opportunity to present a more detailed look at the history of this steamer.
The Port Colborne and St. Lawrence Navigation Company Ltd., Toronto, was formed in 1912 as the lake shipping subsidiary of the Maple Leaf Milling Company Ltd. The parent firm had opened a grain elevator and flour mill at Port Colborne in 1911, and this structure, although considerably rebuilt after a disastrous explosion and fire which occurred on October 7, 1960, still stands at the end of the West Street Wharf. Grain was brought by ship to the Port Colborne mill for processing there and, as well, grain was trans-shipped via the elevator from large upper lake steamers to the small canallers which carried it down the Welland and St. Lawrence canals to Montreal.
The Maple Leaf Milling Company was later absorbed into the group of companies controlled by James Norris and Gordon C. Leitch, and in time it became known as Maple Leaf Mills Ltd. For some years, Maple Leaf Mills was affiliated with the Upper Lakes and St. Lawrence Transportation Company Ltd., which later became Upper Lakes Shipping Ltd., and still later was reorganized as ULS International Inc. In the early 1970s, however, the ownership of Maple Leaf Mills became the object of a bitter power struggle which developed within the Norris and Leitch family interests, and the shipping and milling businesses were separated as a consequence.
One of the original principals of the Maple Leaf Milling Company, and the founder of Port Colborne and St. Lawrence Navigation, was the famous Toronto financier, Cawthra Mulock. This gentleman was no stranger to the shipping scene, for he also was connected with the National Iron Company Ltd., Toronto, and with its lake shipping affiliate, the National Steamship Company, which operated the canaller NATIRONCO, (a) PIONEER (I)(13).
The first Port Colborne and St. Lawrence vessel was the steel canaller ALGONQUIN, built in 1888, which was acquired in 1912 and sold out of the fleet in late 1915. She later passed to the U.S. flag and was the first U.S. ship lost to enemy action in World War One, being sunk off the Scilly Isles on March 12, 1917. The company also bought the small composite steamer CATARACT, (a) MYLES (06), but by 1916 she had been sold out of the fleet and was cut down to a barge for other operators. From 1916 until 1922, Port Colborne and St. Lawrence owned no ships, and the Maple Leaf Milling grain and flour was carried in other vessels, most notably those of the Montreal Transportation Company Ltd. This fleet was absorbed into Canada Steamship Lines in 1920 (after several years of ownership by some of C.S.L.'s principals), and C.S.L. boats probably carried for Maple Leaf until 1922, when Port Colborne and St. Lawrence Navigation was reactivated to operate BENMAPLE, its last vessel.
BENMAPLE traced her origins back to the Ecorse, Michigan, yard of the Great Lakes Engineering Works, where the steel canaller was completed in 1914 as the builder's Hull 135. She was 250.1 feet in length, 43.0 feet in the beam, and 17.1 feet in depth, with tonnage of 1728 Gross and 1074 Net. She was powered by a triple expansion engine which had cylinders of 16, 26 1/2 and 45 inches diameter, and a stroke of 33 inches. Steam was produced by two coal-fired, single-ended Scotch boilers.
The steamer, a typical canaller of her day, was enrolled as U.S.212420 and was christened INTERNATIONAL (I). She was built for the Atlantic Coast Steamship Company of New York, which was an outgrowth of the old J. L. Crosthwaite fleet, which ran the canallers WACCAMAW, NIAGARA and GEORGETOWN, and carried pulpwood from upper lakes ports to the plant of the Niagara Falls Paper Company, located on the Niagara River some two miles above the falls. However, the Atlantic Coast Steamship Company did not operate INTERNATIONAL for very long, for in 1915 she was sold to the Societe Nationale d'Affretements, of Rouen, France. She was taken across the North Atlantic and entered the French coastal trade as (b) S.N.A. 1. Whilst in French waters, she likely spent a good deal of her time carrying coal, a commodity much in demand at the time due to the war.
At this point, we should note that, in 1915, the Great Lakes Engineering Works began the construction at Ecorse of a vessel which was a virtual duplicate of INTERNATIONAL (I). Laid down as the yard's Hull 146, she was launched as INTERNATIONAL (II) (U.S.213738), but her name was soon changed to (b) CLINCHFIELD. She ran briefly for the Atlantic Coast Steamship Company, but with tonnage for the European coastal trade being much in demand as a result of war losses, the company soon took advantage of yet another lucrative offer, and this ship, also, was sold to the Societe Nationale d'Affretements, which renamed her (c) S.N.A. 3. Her life was extremely short, and she was lost by enemy action in 1917.
Meanwhile, however, S.N.A. 1 continued in service and managed to survive the rigours of wartime service. But the war was not only hard on the European coasters. A great many canallers, and numerous upper lakers as well, went to salt water to aid in the war effort, and many of them were lost whilst wandering far from home. As a result, in the years following the cessation of hostilities, there was a great shortage of canal-sized tonnage, and it was several years before the shipyards at home and in Great Britain could begin to offset this shortage through new construction.
It is entirely probable that Maple Leaf Milling experienced difficulties in having its grain shipped in a timely fashion as a result of this shortage of bottoms. Whatever the reason, the company looked for a ship of its own, and the vessel that caught its attention was none other than S.N.A. 1. The steamer was purchased by the Port Colborne and St. Lawrence Navigation Company, and she returned to the lakes late in the 1922 season. (Some reports suggest that she was given to Maple Leaf Milling as compensation for the loss of ALGONQUIN, but there is considerable reason to question such allegations.)
BENMAPLE was a very handsome canaller indeed, with good lines and lots of sheer to her hull. She had a straight stem and a full raised forecastle, and she carried her anchors high in the bows, suspended from hawseholes very close to the stem. Her forecastle head was protected by long closed steel rails, into which were cut prominent fairleads for mooring lines. She sported a large steel texas cabin, with a rounded front boasting five large portholes to admit light to the interior.
On the bridge deck was a large, rounded pilothouse, with seven big windows in its front and a prominent sunvisor. No navigation was done from the monkey's island on the pilothouse roof, but a large binnacle was affixed there and an open rail ran around the edge of the entire area. There were navigation wings on the bridge deck, and a canvas weathercloth was invariably carried on the rail in front of the pilothouse to provide shelter from the wind and spray. A rather stubby and unraked foremast rose out of the texas cabin immediately abaft the pilothouse.
On the spar deck were six large hatches which gave access to the cargo hold. Two masts rose from this deck, one between hatches two and three, and the other abaft the fourth hatch. The first of these masts was equipped with two heavy cargo booms, while the after mast carried only one boom, slung aft, which could be lashed to the boilerhouse bulkhead. Both spars were gently raked poles, with a noticeable taper to their upper extremities.
BENMAPLE had an unusually long quarterdeck which was raised half a deck level above the spar deck. A large deckhouse was set on the quarterdeck and into its forward end was incorporated the boilerhouse, the front section of which extended well past the break of the poop. An unusual feature of this cabin was the location of the galley on the starboard side, for most lakers have carried the galley on the port side. A closed steel bulwark ran around much of the poop to protect the cabin, and it combined with the raised deck to give an unusually heavy appearance to the steamer's counter stern.
On the boat deck were set two lifeboats, one on each side, suspended from radial davits. The bunker hatch was located far forward on this deck and there was no rail of any nature around it. Numerous ventilator cowls sprouted from the boat deck and, amongst them, just aft of the bunker hatch, rose the gently raked funnel, which was fairly heavy and of medium height.
Once back in lake trade, BENMAPLE spent much of her time running grain from Port Colborne to Montreal but, during the early 1930s, she also was a frequent visitor to Toronto. Toronto Elevators Ltd. owned and operated a large elevator on the Toronto waterfront, near the foot of Rees Street, which was completed in the late 1920s. A development of the Norris and Leitch interests, it was thus affiliated with Maple Leaf Milling, which also had come under their control by that time. BENMAPLE carried many cargoes to Toronto Elevators in the years before the large upper lakers could come to Toronto, and before Norris and Leitch built up their own large fleet of ships.
All of this came to an abrupt end, however, in the early morning hours of Monday, August 31, 1936. BENMAPLE, downbound from Montreal with a cargo of flour for Halifax on what was, for her, a somewhat unusual coastal voyage, encountered fog on the river east of Quebec City, and checked her speed. Upbound in the St. Lawrence River at the same time was the big, quadruple-screw motor liner LAFAYETTE, which had been built for the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique in 1929 by Chantiers et Ateliers de St. Nazaire, Penhoet, France. Registered at Le Havre and 577.2 x 77.7 x 45.5, 25178 Gross and 14484 Net, LAFAYETTE had made her maiden voyage in May of 1930. On Monday, August 31st, 1936, she was on a special cruise, part of which included a trip from Boston up to Quebec City.
BENMAPLE was commanded by Capt. C. A. Johnson of Port Colborne, and her sailing master (pilot) for the trip was Capt. Lebrun of Montreal. Her chief engineer was W. P. Fletcher, and the first mate was E. M. Gallup. As was typical of canallers during the Depression years, no other mates or engineers were aboard. The rest of the crew were: J. Dickie and G. Boyce, wheelsmen; J. Massey and T. Clarke, watchmen; N. McCausky, A. MacLean and R. G. Boyce, deckhands; L. G. Tucker and one Labatt, oilers; J. Sullivan, J. Lillie, S. Nawalkosky and F. Gray, firemen, and H. Hargreaves and G. Mitchell, cooks. Also aboard for this particular trip, occupying cabins in the forecastle, were four passengers: Mr. and Mrs. J. Cavanagh of Toronto, Mrs. Lily Budge of Port Colborne, and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Tillie Splan. John Cavanagh worked in the export sales department of Maple Leaf Milling, while Mrs. Budge was the wife of the Port Colborne manager of the Valley Camp Coal Company.
At about 4:00 a.m., when BENMAPLE was feeling her way through the fog, some 160 miles east of Quebec, 20 miles from Father Point, and 5 miles west of the village of Bic, her pilot, the master, wheelsman Boyce and watchman Clarke, who were all on the bridge, were shocked to see LAFAYETTE loom out of the fog directly ahead of them. The telegraph was rung for full speed astern, but before chief engineer Fletcher could answer the order, the ships collided almost head-on. BENMAPLE immediately began to take on water and the crew rushed to abandon their ship, knowing that she was mortally damaged.
All four of the passengers, however, were trapped in the two cabins which they occupied, for the force of the impact had jammed shut their doors. Crewmen equipped with crowbars and axes broke down the doors and escorted the passengers, who were in their nightclothes, to the deck. One of BENMAPLE's lifeboats was got away, and into it, with some of the crew, went the three woman passengers, and also the pilot, the wheelsman and the watchman who had been on duty, all three of whom were injured. (The master, who also had been in the pilothouse, somehow managed to escape injury.) The lifeboat set out through the fog for the LAFAYETTE and was met by one of the liner's own boats, and those who had escaped from BENMAPLE soon were hoisted to safety aboard LAFAYETTE.
The liner's motor launch, meanwhile, was sent to BENMAPLE and collected Mr. Cavanagh and the rest of the crew, with the exception of John Dickie, 25, of Collingwood, the off-watch wheelsman, who had been crushed to death as he slept in his bunk. His body could not be extricated. The last man off BENMAPLE was the first mate, Gallup, who remained until the rest were safely off, despite the fact that he was injured.
BENMAPLE foundered quickly, going to the bottom in some 60 fathoms of water. With the crew and passengers of the sunken freighter aboard, LAFAYETTE set out for Quebec, but had to anchor in the fog while still some 100 miles from her destination. She finally made port the next night.
Had it not been for the tragic collision, the handsome BENMAPLE undoubtedly would have continued to serve Maple Leaf Mills for many years, and probably would have become part of the fleet of the Upper Lakes and St. Lawrence Transportation Company Ltd. Barring misadventure during the Second War, she likely would have operated until the late 1950s, when the company, like many others, began to dispose of the canallers which the new Seaway rendered obsolete. But such was not to be. The collision not only ended the life of BENMAPLE (whose registry was closed on September 19, 1936), but also that of her owner, for not long after the loss of its only ship, the Port Colborne and St. Lawrence Navigation Company Ltd. was dissolved.
Perhaps some of BENMAPLE's ill fortune rubbed off on the ship that sent her to the bottom of the St. Lawrence, for LAFAYETTE herself was to enjoy only a brief career. On May 4-5, 1938, the liner was ravaged by fire whilst in drydock at Le Havre, and she subsequently was scrapped at Rotterdam.
Ed. Note: Our apologies if the names of any of BENMAPLE's crew or passengers have been misspelled. The story of her sinking was culled from various press reports of the incident, and a wide variety of spellings appeared in the newspaper accounts.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.