AFTER the tour with Lord Dufferin had been concluded the "Chicora" was returned to Collingwood and laid up again to rest her reputation great and widespread as it was before, having been still more enhanced. At last early on a gray morning of August, 1877, under tow of a wrecking tug, there stole gently away from Collingwood the steamer which had been the greatest glory of the port, her red paddles trailing lifeless in the water like the feet of a wounded duck.
As General Freight and Passenger Agent (Oct., 1873 to Jan., 1878) of the Northern Railway of Canada, the "Chicora" as she lay at Collingwood was much under my notice, and in travelling to Buffalo on railway business the water route by the Niagara River was most frequently taken. There was no route on the Upper Lakes upon which the "Chicora" could be successfully employed. It was considered that she could not be returned to the Lower Lakes because it was said that having been brought up the canals from Montreal, the "guards" added at Buffalo, which made her width fifty feet at the main deck could not be removed without serious damage in order to reduce her to the then Welland canal width of only 26 feet. As under the then trade conditions she could neither be profitably run nor be returned to the Lower Lakes, the steamer was of little worth to her owners, and could be readily purchased. It had for some time appeared to me that there was an opening for a good boat upon the Niagara River route. The "City of Toronto" plying to Lewiston and the New York Central was getting insufficient and out of date in equipment. The Canada Southern Railway at Niagara-on-the-Lake was not satisfied with the "Southern Belle." Why not get the "Chicora" and strike out for a career of one's own? So I started to study the position having always had a mechanical turn and had practical experience in railway and machine construction.
Keeping one's ideas to one's self the boat was examined and careful scrutiny ascertained that the "guards" could be removed and replaced without interference with the hull, so that this first obstacle to her being brought to the Lower Lakes could be overcome.
But there were other obstacles which cropped up. To begin with, a pier of one of the smaller locks in the Welland (150 x 26) was said to have inclined inwards so that there was not sufficient width even after the "guards" had been removed, for the 26-ft. hull to pass through.
Again, Chicora was 230 feet long. If the vessel was brought down in two pieces through all the locks to Lake Ontario, there was no dry dock on the lake of sufficient length into which she could be placed so that these parts might be put together again. A further obstacle and a fatal one. The only place where the two parts could be put together again her full length of 230 feet long was Muir's dry dock, at Port Dalhousie, but that was above the last lock of the canal, which required to be passed to get down to Lake Ontario, and this lock was only 200 feet long!
The game was apparently impracticable. It was not more impossible to put a quart into a pint bottle, than it was to put the full-sized 230-foot Chicora into the 200-foot Dalhousie lock and lower her to Lake Ontario. No wonder other people had given the job up, and the steamer could be easily bought.
Just about this time I noticed an announcement in the press that in order to provide for the construction of the lower locks at the Ontario end of the new Welland Canal, the Canadian Government intended, after the close of navigation the next autumn, to draw off the whole of the water in the five-mile level above the Port Dalhousie lock between there and St. Catharines.
The idea at once arose, why not put the Chicora into the 200-foot lock with the upper gate open, so that although she would extend 30 feet beyond the regular lock, she would then be in a total actual lock of five miles long.
Going over again to Port Dalhousie, the whole position was carefully surveyed. It was found that on the troublesome lock there was three-quarters of an inch to spare, so that trick could be turned successfully. Closer investigation developed that the 200-foot lock problem at Port Dalhousie was, as will be stated later, more capable of being solved than appeared on the surface. It was now evident that the practical part of the work could be done successfully. The next thing was to provide for connecting support. My first railway service had been in that of the Great Western Railway in 1872-73 in the divisional office at London, and afterwards in charge of the terminal yard and car ferries at Windsor, under Mr. M. D. Woodward, Superintendent.
During that time the General Manager was Mr. W. K. Muir, who had transferred, and was now General Manager of the Canada Southern Railway, operating the branch line between Buffalo and Niagara. Enquiry led to an understanding that a contract could be made for a full service by a first-class steamer between Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake in connection with the route to the Falls and Buffalo, as the size of the Southern Belle was not satisfactory.
Armed with all this information, and having made up the estimates of cost and possible earnings, the whole matter was laid before the Hon. Frank Smith, who then had a part interest in the Chicora. The proposition was that we should buy out the other owners, bring the Chicora through the canal and put her on the Niagara Route, where she could earn good money.
One was to do the work and the other to find the backing for the funds required. In this way for him a dead loss would be revived and a good future investment found, while the junior would enter into a work in which with energy he would be able to secure a lasting reward for his enterprise and ability in transportation business. He agreed and we proceeded to carry out the project. The purchase was made early in 1877, the original purchasers and registered owners of the steamer being Hon. Frank Smith and Barlow Cumberland.
In this way began a partnership which lasted through life. Sir Frank (knighted in 1874) was a man of quick decision, of great courage, and indomitable will. Every company with which he became identified felt the influence of his virile hand. A charter for the Niagara Navigation Company, Limited, with a capital of $500,000, was obtained from the Dominion Government.
The first issue of the stock of the Company was entirely subscribed by the Frank Smith and Cumberland representatives and the transfer of the boat to the new company made in 1878. The first Board of Directors were: President, Hon. Frank Smith; Vice-President, Barlow Cumberland; Directors, Col. Fred. W. Cumberland,John Foy, and R. H. McBride;Barlow Cumberland, Manager; John Foy, Secretary. Preliminary work had been actively in progress at Collingwood in dismantling the steamer and preparing her for a long and eventful journey. As the engines had been laid up and would not be required until after the reconstruction at Toronto, they were not again set up, but the tug, W. T. Robb, was brought up from Port Colborne to tow the vessel to Buffalo.
Here began the closing era of this century of steam navigation in the Niagara River. The story of the next and final thirty-five years is the story of the rise and expansion of the Niagara Navigation Company, its vicissitudes and competitions, and the final success of the enterprise. Reminiscence of the series of hot competitions which were worked through and of the men and methods of the period are set out as matters of record of an eventful series of years on the route.
Captain Thomas Leach was in charge of the voyage to Buffalo, where Captain William Manson, of Collingwood, took charge of the crew with some carpenters and the engineers. Mr. Alexander Leach was purser and confidential agent. A more faithful officer and devoted servant never was found. He had been purser of the steamer Cumberland until she was wrecked on Isle Royale,Lake Superior, 5 August, 1876.
The tow from Collingwood was uneventful and the steamer arrived at Buffalo and was placed in the Buffalo Dry Dock Company's Works, they having put her together when brought up from Halifax. Two barges were purchased and put alongside the guards, unrivetted and lowered upon the barges in single pieces.
The paddle bores were removed, the wheels taken to pieces, numbered, and put on the barges, and everything stripped off the sides of the hull, so that she was reduced to her narrowest width, cleared of everything, to go through the canal. The steamer was then put into dry dock, cut in two and the parts slid apart.
It was intended to take the steamer across Lake Erie to Port Colborne as a single tow. Two long sixteen-inch square elm timbers were placed on deck across the opening and strongly chained to smaller timbers; timbers were also put fore and aft to take the pull and keep the two parts of hull from coming together. It all reads easily, but took much consideration and time in working out the problems. And as the enterprise was unusual and not likely to be repeated the details are given as matters of interesting record. It was a strange looking craft that came out of dock. Two parts held far apart from one another by the big timbers, and the water washing free to and fro in the opening between. It was a tender craft to moor in a narrow river where heavily laden vessels coming and going banged heedlessly against one another. We were fortunate, however, in obtaining the permission of the United States Marine Department that we might lie unmolested and alone alongside Government wharf on the west side of the river while waiting for weather. A great deal of public interest was being taken in the venture and on every hand we received cheerful and ready assistance. Mr. David Bell, whose daughter had married Mr. Casimir Gzowski, of Toronto, was especially helpful, doing good work for us in the foundry and machine shops. The Dry Dock Companies seemed like old friends, the curious public often visited us, and the enterprising newspaper reporters kept us well in the readers' view. So we towed out of dock, dropped down the river and tied up at our allotted berth. The barges with their strange-looking cargo had been sent separately across to the canal to Port Colborne at the first opportunity.
It was the beginning of October when the weather was uncertain, the water restless, and we had to be very careful in selecting a day to take such a crazy craft as a steamer thus separated in two parts across the thirty-four miles of the open lake.
Buffalo in the seventies was a very different place from what it is at present. The lower city alongside the river and Canal Street, crowded with cheap boarding houses for sailors and dock gangs, reeked in ribaldry and every phase of dissolute excitements. The vessels frequenting the ports in those days were mainly sailing vessels, the era of great steam freighters not having come. The stay of the vessels was much longer, their crews more numerous, and being less permanent, were easy victims to the harpies and the drink shops which surrounded and beset them. The waterside locality of Buffalo had then a reputation and an aroma peculiarly of its own.
Crazy horse cars jangled down the main Main Street to the docks. The terminus of the Niagara Falls Railway operated by the New York Central, was at the Ferry Station, the cross-town connection to the Terrace and Exchange Street not having been put in. The Mansion House was the principal hotel of the city, and its lower storey on the street level, entirely occupied by the ticket offices of all the principal railway and steamship companies of the United States. The business centre of the town was in the vicinity.
Arrangements had been established with the United States Weather Bureau, whose office was well up town, to give us earliest advice of when they thought there would be from six to eight hours of fair weather ahead. Many a messenger trotted between, and many an hour was spent in their office, waiting for news, for there were no telephones to convey information.
The elements seemed against us. For a fortnight we had a succession of blows from almost every direction, one following the other without giving a sufficiently calm interval between. It was wonderful to see how quickly the water rose and fell in the harbour. A steady blow from the west would pile the water up at this east end of the lake and we would rise six feet alongside the wharf in a few hours, to fall again as the wind went down or changed, the outgoing water creating quite a rapid current as it ran out of the river.
It was during this waiting time an incident occurred which came within an ace of putting an end to one career. The last thing in the evening a visit was always made from the hotel to the boat to see that all was well. In front of the face of the Government Wharf there was a continuous line of "spring piles" for its protection, with the heads cut off to the level of the dock. One dark and rainy night, when stepping from the deck of the steamer, mistaking the opening in the darkness for the edge of the wharf the next step put the leader into the opening and he dropped through into the river. Soon Manson's voice was heard calling, "Are you there, Mr. Cumberland?" A lamp was lowered; the distance from the floor of the dock to the water was some six or eight feet, and many iron spikes projected through the piles.
A storm was subsiding and the water running out fast, but by holding on to the spikes a way was worked up until a hand was reached by Manson and the adventurer was hauled up to the top. Sitting on the edge of the wharf with dripping legs dangling in the opening Manson's exclamation was heard, "Sakes alive; he's got his pipe in his mouth still!" They say the reply was, "Do you suppose I'd open my mouth when I went under?" It was a close call, and Mrs. Cumberland was always anxious until at last we got the Chicora safely to Toronto.
At length advice was received from the Bureau that we could start, so the tug was called and about 6 a.m. we were under way. We had tried to get some insurance for the run across, but the rate asked was excessive that we determined to go without any, a determination which added zest to the enterprise. We didn't want to lose the boat and wouldn't have taken any the less care or precaution even if the insurance companies would have carried the risk for nothing. In this connection it is open to consideration whether the moral hazard of a marine risk is not of more importance even than the rating of the vessel, and that good owners are surely entitled to better rates than simply the "tariff schedule" which their vessel's rating calls for. The prevailing inconsistent system is very much like that of the credit tailor whose solvent customers pay for his losses on those who fail to pay their bills.
The morning was cold and calm. We made down the river and rounded out into the lake, on which there still remained some motion from previous gales. It was curious to stand on the edge of the deck and see the chips and floating debris carried along in the wide opening between the two parts.
We had come by a slanting course down and across the lake, reaching in under Point Abino in good shape and were rejoicing that the larger portion of the crossing was well over. As we rounded from under the lee of the Point and passing it, changed our course for Port Colborne, a nasty sea come down from the northwest with an increasing breeze. We were soon in trouble, the bow-part began to roll and jump on its own account at a different rate than the more staid and heavy after-part, sometimes rising up on end and then seeming to try and take a dive, but held from going away by the long elm timbers which writhed while their chains squealed and rang under the strain.
The worst sensation was when the seas, coming in on the quarter, swept through the opening between the two parts, swishing between the plates and dashing against the after bulkhead made it resound like a drum, sending the spray up over the deck while they coursed through the lower side. It was very exciting, but not at all comfortable. The pace of the tug seemed to get slower and slower, but all we on board could do was to keep the long timbers and their fastenings in their places, see that the bulkheads held their own, and stand by and watch the contest with the waves.
Making all arrangements for the next few days, the leader hurried home, fagged out, but exultant, for the worst part of the journey was over and we had put the rest of the way fairly under our own control.
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This volume is copyright The Estate of Ivan S. Brookes and is published with permission of the Estate. The originals are deposited in the Special Collections of the Hamilton Public Library.