Table of Contents

Title Page
Author's Note:
Table 1: Estimated Cost per Ton of Early Canadian Great Lakes Steamboats
Competition and Profitability
Table of Illustrations

Talk of an Upper Canadian steamboat began in the summer of 1815, only a few short months after the news of the end of the War of 1812 reached Kingston. A "respectable person" of that town, it was later recalled, was "earnestly soliciting" his fellow merchants to form an association to build a steamboat. His vision was greeted with laughter and the strong suspicion that he was "possessed of ... the great spirit." 3

However, there was interest in building a steamboat on the American side of the Lake. By the fall of 1815, some Kingstonians learned of negotiations between a group of investors and the Fulton and Livingston estates. 4 The frantic shipbuilding rivalry between the American fleet at Sacket's Harbor and the Royal Navy in Kingston was too vivid a memory for such news to be taken casually. Decked over in both ports were partially finished ships of the line, mute evidence of the fragility of peace and the delicate balance of naval strength.5

By October when Commodore Sir Edward C.R. Owen, the senior British naval officer on the Lakes, began to make public his thinking on the value of steamboats, no one in Kingston was laughing anymore. That spring and summer the Commodore had conducted a detailed investigation of the problems which faced the Navy should war be renewed. His June dispatch to the Admiralty had enclosed his observations regarding the difficulty of transporting goods up the St. Lawrence from Lachine to Kingston. In it, he noted that the passage of freight would be improved if steamers were built which were capable of towing bateaux and Durham boats the length of Lake St. Francis and from Prescott up to Kingston. He then wondered "whether this were better done by Government or by Individuals assisted by Government and making advantage of their passengers..." 6

In a province of barely 100,000 inhabitants, a few months after a prolonged war, it hardly seems surprising that the military value of steamboat transport first came to the fore. Indeed, any private investment in steamboats would be a gamble in a region where the leading urban centre, Kingston, consisted of about 2250 people. York numbered about 1200 and Niagara and Queenston between them less than 1000. 7 On the other hand, those who had lived in the province before the war had seen its population balloon from a few thousand Loyalist refugees to its present size. They would have expected that rate of growth to resume. And, of course, across the lake the Americans were proposing to build a steamboat where none of their Lake Ontario ports rivalled even Niagara. It was naturally assumed that the Americans could not be given the opportunity to trade on the British side of the border.

By October 1815, Commodore Owen had consulted with Sir Sydney Beckwith, the Quartermaster-general. What did he think of the idea of his stores being carried by privately and operated steamboats? Beckwith confirmed Owen's feeling that steamboats would be a valuable improvement, if they were in the hands of "individuals countenanced by Government." Shortly afterwards they called a meeting of "the principal inhabitants" of Kingston to take up the subject. 8

After magistrate Thomas Markland took the chair on that late October evening, Beckwith and Owen set the stage. As one critic of the scheme later envisaged the scene: "Sir Sidney [B]eckwith [sic],... after promising them the support of Government and the transportation of their unwieldy machinery free of expence, instantly aroused their ambition, and their laudable spirit of adventurous enterprise burst forth with unrivalled splendour." 9

It was unlikely, however, that these experienced merchants would venture on a scheme which they knew would cost at least 10,000 on the basis of a Government concession of several hundred. 10 But to men who had made their fortunes selling goods dragged up the unimproved rapids of the St. Lawrence, knowing that the military would take care of this detail would have made the whole proposition more attractive.

Many of the key decisions were made before the gathering broke up. The objective was to improve navigation on the St. Lawrence between Kingston and Lachine. The proprietors formed a joint partnership whose stock, at least to begin, was to be 10,000 in shares of 100. Ten shares were reserved for Niagara and a similar number for York, in case merchants from those communities wanted to participate. Until a response was heard, the Kingston subscribers were limited to five shares each. The only restriction on ownership was emphatic: "No Alien shall hold a Share in the Boat either by Subscription purchase, or transfer." They envisaged the steamboat, not in terms of her dimensions, but as "forty horse power", and the first instalment on the shares was to be used to acquire the necessary engine "from England". The final substantive act was to select a Committee of Management to order the affairs of the association. 11

In brief, the Committee was composed of John Cumming, Henry Murney, John Kirby, Lawrence Herchmer, and Peter Smith with George H. Markland, secretary and William Mitchell, treasurer. 12 Cumming and Smith had been business partners. George H. was Thomas Markland's only son, and Lawrence Herchmer's nephew. Herchmer in turn, was John Kirby's brother-in-law. Smith and Herchmer had, in succession, operated a small Indian trading post at what would become Port Hope. Virtually all of them were involved in Kingston's first attempt to form a bank in 1817, and with the exception of Murney all of them withdrew before it set out on its own unincorporated and ill-fated course. In short the Frontenac was to be led by a tightly knit group of Kingston's business, social and political elite.13

Who else invested? According to one contemporary source, the investors also hailed from Niagara, Queenston, York and Prescott. 14 Subsequent petitions of the vessel's owners included John Macaulay and James G. Bethune (a nephew and brother-in-law of John Kirby) in 1816, and seven years later, Allan MacLean, A. Marshall, Robert Stanton, Hugh Richmond, O. Smyth, William Stennett, James Atkinson, George Hill, W. McLeod, H.W. Wilkinson, and Alexander McLeod, all of Kingston.15 Other known investors include John Spread Baldwin and John Strachan in York and Alexander Hamilton of Queenston.16

The distribution of shares would later draw criticism: "In the expectation of its being a profitable speculation, the shares were principally retained by the Capitalists at Kingston, instead of endeavouring to interest the Inhabitants of Niagara and Toronto and other places around the Lake. This exhibited such a selfishness as to disgust the Merchants and Traders in the upper part of the Province...."17

At a glance this seems a rather astute observation, but it doesn't take into account the circumstances of late 1815. Both York and the villages on the Niagara frontier had been devastated during the war. Undoubtedly, most of the available capital for speculations like the Frontenac was concentrated in Kingston. Moreover, when the Kingston merchants were making their decisions in October 1815, they had in mind a vessel to run from Prescott to Kingston. How much interest could they legitimately expect those in the upper towns to have in a river boat?


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