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In the years between 1809 and 1837 just over 100 steamboats were launched by Upper and Lower Canadians. In each case, one of the most critical decisions for the owners was the purchase of the machinery. A wide range of factors influenced this decision including power, size, reliability and price.

For those in competitive markets, perhaps the most important of these was speed. The earliest steamboats in the region were notoriously slow. (45) Each succeeding vessel sought to claim precedence in terms of speed, frequently proving its claim in head to head races--a practice officially disapproved of because there were inevitably "innocent" paying passengers on board. (46) There was also a strong temptation to set someone or something on the safety valve to increase the steam pressure. (47)

It was a simple step to equate increased speed with greater horsepower--especially in discussing the matter with engine builders who charged by the horse. Assuming that the horsepower figures bandied about by founders and owners are to some degree comparable, there is a distinct trend in vessels intended for any given route to greater power combined with greater tonnage. (48) This peaked in the early 1830s with the Great Britain, the John Bull and the Royal William all driven by relatively powerful, twinned engines. (49) Their engines proved trickier to build, expensive to operate and easy to put out of order. As owners came to realize the high operating costs and the loss of cargo and passenger space, the trend was reversed. If the newspaper claims are to be believed the result was a lower horse power to tonnage ratio, but higher speeds. (50)

The physical size of a powerful low pressure engine was a major concern. Perhaps a third of the length of the hull would be consumed by the boilers, cylinders, pumps, frame, cranks and cord after cord of wood. Not only did this mass of castings and and fuel reduce valuable cargo and passenger space but it could have a dramatic effect on vessel draft. To some proprietors the lighter, more compact high pressure engine neatly solved these problems.

But with horrific reports of explosions of high pressure boilers on the Mississippi scattered through the newspapers, public opinion in the Canadas was anything but receptive to the expansive use of steam. Safety was the primary concern of one correspondent of the Montreal Gazette.

"After all the improvements which he promised are made, the fact will still remain, that the use of steam of a high degree of tension is, and must ever be dangerous...for the strength of all materials used in the construction of boilers, put them in whatever form you please, is limited, and no limit has been found to the expansive power of steam."
While he agreed that high pressure was necessary for the comparatively small railway locomotive, "fewer persons are in the vicinity of the boiler and those are not liable to be drowned after being scalded..." (51) Another letter to the editor claimed: "I should as willingly embark in a steamboat carrying two or three barrels of gunpowder as one propelled by a high pressure engine...." (52)

Nor was the concern confined to newspaper columns. The Alciope, for example, was denied a government contract despite being the low tender, because she "is intended it appears for a High Pressure Engine, and as far as I am able to form an opinion I cannot take upon myself the responsibility of contracting with the vessel for the Transport of His Majesty's Troops ...." (53) Her owner retorted that much of the concern was being whipped up by the "jealousy" of "ignorant people" and "those interested on the other side". (54)

The net result of the controversy over high pressure engines is that they were rarely used in competitive waters, instead being employed in shallow draft situations. They were usually built by American engine foundries at Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland or Detroit. Central Canadian foundries and those building for the Hudson River and Long Island Sound markets, concentrated their efforts on improving the "low pressure" condensing marine engine.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding the discussion of the use of higher pressures had revolved around the inherent weaknesses of the materials used in marine engines and the inevitability of breakdowns. For the prospective buyer, a premium was placed on simple, reliable, easily repaired engines. On Lake Ontario in the 1820s, the largest urban centre was not much more than 3500 people, and the most sophisticated metal working equipment was the blacksmith's hammer and anvil. It might take two or three weeks to get a replacement part from Montreal, have it installed and resume running. (55) A poor engine could bankrupt the venture as the crippled steamer lay at dockside. (56) If a major breakdown occurred, such as a broken shaft, the loss of revenue could be devastating. The purser of the Cobourg estimated losses from factory delays and breakdowns in 1833-34 at about 4200, the approximate value of the engines. (57) On the other hand, of course, repairs did constitute a revenue opportunity for enginefounders. (58) Emphasis in recruiting marine engineers was on foundry-trained men who had been involved with the casting and the assembly of the engine on board ship. (59)

While baulky engines cost owners both in terms of repair bills and lost revenues, the most significant cost factor that most owners appear to have considered was initial capital expense. Again, the most significant variable here was power. In the 1820s, John Dod Ward routinely quoted for the entire range of mechanical apparatus from boiler to paddles, at the rate of 48.10 to 50 per horse power. (60) For the typical 40 to 50 h.p. engine of the 1820s this translated into an expenditure of from 2000 to 2500 before the cost of transport to the shipyard. This frequently was half the total cost of the vessel. (61) Another of the attractions of the high pressure engine was its comparative cheapness. Robert Hamilton bought two engines (without the boilers) for $6000 or 6.5.0 per horse power. Whether the savings compensated for the loss of contracts and general trade is not clear, but the vessel was sold after two and a half seasons and converted to sail. (62)

Table I: Deployment of Steamboats with new engines, 1809-1837
Waters Degree of Competition Size of Vessel Objectives of Builders % of new engine installations General Observations
Shallow, narrow waters non-competitive small preserve draft pre '32: 17% Low pressure, low h.p., side wheelers
post '32: 15% High pressure, low h.p., side, stern and centre wheelers
Shallow, narrow waters competitive small, medium preserve draft, speed 19% Low pressure, low h.p. (below 40). Occasionally using horizontal or inclined cylinders. Towboats use up to 70 h.p.
open lake, river non-competitive medium reliability 16% Low pressure, 40-60 h.p., walking beam or crosshead/side lever.
open lake, Montreal-Quebec highly competitive medium to large power/speed, safety 31% Large low pressure, frequently double engines, 45-300 h.p.

Table I suggests how owners made the decision to purchase new engines based on the two principal criteria of the waters in which the steamers were to be placed and the degree of competition in those waters. There is an element of change hidden in the table because competition tended to increase over time. It is generally conceded that the open lakes and Montreal-Quebec routes were highly competitive and that vessels grew larger and more powerful. Steamers like the Great Britain, for example, were among the largest on the continent when first launched. Little attention has been accorded the large number of small steamboats working narrow, shallow waters with relatively little competition. It is clear that after 1832 (all discussion of the safety of high pressure engines aside) these were the engines of choice for shallow waters. The high pressure installations both reduced draft and the initial capital cost of the vessel.

Figure 4: "Unknowns" are included as part of the total of new engines; some may therefore represent additional used engines.
The purchase of a used engine represented more "respectable" savings for steamboat owners in the Canadas. While the process of fine tuning went on with each new engine built, constant experimentation carried with it the risk of failure. Used engines were not only significantly cheaper, but were a "known" quantity. While boilers were almost never transferred to a new hull, the cylinders, shafts and gearing represented a significant capital investment. The early wooden hulls, like boilers, had a life of ten to fifteen years, but there are stories of cylinders cast in the 1830s still propelling sidewheelers at the turn of the century. Because of the expanding nature of the fleet, before 1838 many of these engines were still in their first vessel. Nevertheless, 19% of the installations were of used engines. (see figure 4)Another 15% come from unknown sources and are displayed in figure 4 as part of the total of new engines. Some of these may represent additional used engines. One question which begs for further research is whether setting up a used engine (almost all labour) was more profitable to engine founders than building a new one. (63)

Along with the ten to fifteen year cycle of vessel replacement, demand for steamboat engines responded to the economic cycles of growth and expansion. In general, the size of the steamboat fleet in central Canada grew steadily. Before 1838 there was no long term route abandonment. Indeed, the trend was to replace the passenger and "express packet" functions of sailing vessels and horse-driven ferries. But the most spectacular growth in steamboat service lay in expanding services on established routes like Quebec-Montreal, and Prescott-Niagara from weekly to daily departures. (64)

The cycles of growth are evident from Figure 4. The first cycle leads from the introduction of steam navigation in 1809 to a burst of activity in 1818 and 1819. This seems to have absorbed as much of the profits from the War of 1812 as were likely to be directed towards steamboats and the market sagged in 1820. Most of this demand was met by engines imported from England at prices ranging from 84 to 48 on the Liverpool dockside. (65)

The recovery from the post-war depression was associated with the emergence in Montreal of a major engine founding firm, that of John Dod Ward. Until 1829, despite would-be competitors, Ward and his brothers dominated the market and set the price of engines at 48.10 to 50 per horse power. The apex of this cycle came in 1825 when service on Lake Ontario began to expand.

The third cycle runs from 1830 to 1837, peaking in 1832-33. In those two years, almost one third of the vessels launched before 1837 were equipped with engines. Two factors explain the boom. Serious competition in the Montreal trade finally emerged in the firm of Bennet & Henderson, leading to lower prices for engines. (66) On the other hand, the trade in immigrants, which had grown steadily in the 1820s, soared to new heights. Potential investors saw the decks of established steamers crowded during the summer with hundreds of immigrants. (67) The expanding range of settlement prompted new ventures on Lake Erie, Georgian Bay, Lake Simcoe and other waters. Coupled with the demand for specialized steamboats created by the opening of the Rideau Canal in 1832, orders grew beyond what the established founders could manage and a wide variety of new sources of engines were explored, including American, British and Upper Canadian foundries.

Demand for steamboat engines was consequently both cyclical and expanding. In highly competitive trades the demand for constantly improving, fast, safe, reliable, "conservative" technology helped maintain relatively high "per unit" costs. The demand for improvement both accepted the risks of innovation and sought to minimize them by patronizing a limited range of well-known foundries. Those in the shallow back waters of the region were much more price conscious and more likely to buy the cheaper, lighter, high pressure engines, despite concerns about safety.


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