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

A strong sense of urgency prevaded the inaugural meeting of the Frontenac's proprietors. The race was on. To overhaul the Americans, the steamboat needed to be "into play" the next year. Before the night was out they had authorized the purchase of the engine and were urging Commodore Owen to petition the Admiralty for "a preference with the Manufacturers in preparing the Steam Engine", as well as transport early in the season.26

This urgency is also evident in two rival accounts of the letting of the hull contract. According to an apologist for the proprietors, writing in the spring of 1816: "...[E]very effort had been made to procure Canadian shipwrights, but that unfortunately ... had proved unavailing. ...[W]hile engaged in this fruitless search after a person among our fellow subjects competent to conduct an enterprise of such importance, two Americans, on whom the greatest reliance could be placed, presented themselves before the committee, and offered to contract for the immediate construction of this large vessel on moderate terms. It is needless to add, that, as this was a business which would admit of no delay, their proposals were accepted." 27

From the distance of some years, a business associate of the two Americans, Henry Finkle, recalled the story much differently. In his account there were the successful American contractors, Teabout and Chapman, and a rival party, "a Scotchman, by the name of Bruce, from Montreal". Bruce was in Kingston several days before Teabout, in response to an advertisement for tenders. Hooker and Crane, two merchants of Sacket's Harbor later involved in the Ontario, contacted Finkle and his partner, Solomon Johns, and asked them to assist Teabout in his application. These being the only two tenders, the committee met to decide between them. The Scots voted for Bruce and the rest for Teabout, with the conclusion being slightly in the latter's favour. The proprietors then hired the disappointed Bruce to inspect the ship's timber where he became a thorn in the side of Teabout. 28

As the man who posted performance bonds for Teabout and his partners, Finkle should be a reasonably reliable source, but there are a couple of problems with his story. No advertising for tenders appears in the local newspapers. Nor were there more than two native Scots on the seven-man Committee of Management. On the other hand, John Bruce would have been a likely candidate for contractor. Bruce's experience with steam went back to the construction of the Accommodation and Swiftsure for the Molsons, and he had assisted in the work on the Malsham. Near the end of the war he had also had a contract for work in the Kingston naval shipyard and may well have known some of the proprietors.29 Certainly, there is a ring of authority in Finkle's exasperation with the "constant contest" between Bruce and Teabout.30

But who the successful contractors were, was less important to some critics than the fact they were Americans. Moreover, these particular Americans, less than a year before, had been in Sacket's Harbor helping build a naval force intended to crush that in Kingston. Henry Teabout, the senior partner, was a young man born in New York City and trained by Henry Eckford, one of the best shipwrights of the period. Teabout's partners included William Smith, another Eckford alumnus, and James Chapman, a block turner. After the war the three had teamed up to build the Kingston Packet which spent the rest of the season in service between Sacket's Harbor and Kingston.31

With a contract for 7000 in his pocket, Teabout spent a couple of days with Henry Finkle searching for a suitable place to begin construction. Not surprisingly, he settled on Finkle's Point, a gravelly piece of land on the edge of the village of Ernesttown (now Bath) owned by Finkle's mother. 32 Having established a site for the work, Teabout immediately left for New York to recruit forty to fifty ship carpenters and to buy the necessary supplies.33 It would have been December at the earliest before they could have gotten into the woods of Ernesttown township to begin hauling out timber. By mid-February, they had "timber sufficient to build a 74 gun ship" gathered on Finkle's Point, and the keel had been laid.34

That summer was one of the coldest on record, with the shipwrights working through a snowstorm in June. But by September, less than a year after the whole project had gotten under way, the vessel was ready to launch. The account of this event is perhaps the most widely quoted passage in Great Lakes history. "A numerous concourse of people assembled on the occasion. But by consequence of some accidental delay, and the appearance of an approaching shower, a part of the spectators withdrew before the launch actually took place. The Boat moved slowly from her place and descended with majestic sweep into her proper elements." 35

On reading that the machinery imported from England was "an excellent structure", some have concluded that the Frontenac was launched with her engines on board.36 Obviously these writers have not examined the next issue of the Gazette where the steamboat was observed sailing down from Ernesttown to wait for her machinery.37 The delay in getting the Frontenac into operation in 1816 was largely due to the subsequent problems in getting the machinery installed and working.

As has already been noted, Gillespie, Gerrard & Co. had approached the firm of Boulton & Watt as early as January 1816. Boulton & Watt was the most important engine building firm in the world, controlling as they did Watt's father's patents. Fulton had used one of their engines for his first steamer, and all of the boats currently running between Montreal and Quebec used Boulton & Watt engines. 38 The company's detailed drawings are dated 15 April 1816 while the final accounting was submitted on May 20. This totalled 3354 Stg. for "Metal Materials of a 50 Horse Power Steam Boat Engine with Paddle Wheel Machinery, Duplicates of sundry parts, and an assortment of Tools & Raw Materials for the erection and repairs of the Engine, delivered at Liverpool". It was exactly the same price charged Hodgson for the Car of Commerce. At the same time, the Frontenac's agents arranged for an employee of Boulton & Watt to come out to Canada to set up and run the engine.39

The ship bearing the engine sailed from Liverpool about June 10 a month before the Admiralty finally responded to Commodore Owen's request for its transport. "Their Lordships are ignorant of the state of the Steam Engine preparing for the Company in this Country but are of opinion that every assistance should be given for conveying it to Canada." Somehow they had missed the pressing tone in Owen's request--but at least they authorized his successor to buy two shares in the vessel. 40

The description of the launch implies that the machinery had already been imported, and the expectation was that all would be in working order in a few weeks.41 In December the proprietors and Robert Hall, Owen's successor as senior naval officer on the lakes, petitioned the Lieutenant Governor for the remittance of 94.4.1 in customs duties which had been levied on the engine at Quebec.42 If the engine had arrived earlier in the season and they had wished to protest the duties, the presumption is that they would have done it sooner. In any case, it was May 23, 1817 before the steamer made her first passage across Kingston harbour. "She moved with majestic grandeur against a strong head wind" and then broke part of her machinery.43

Before moving discussing the operation of the vessel, a final word should be said about the total cost of the Frontenac. Several estimates exist with varying degrees of authority. The costs of the two principal components can be precisely established. Teabout and Chapman were paid 7000 for the woodwork on the vessel, and if Finkle is to be believed, made very little by it. 44 The Boulton & Watt engine cost 3354 Stg. or about 4192 H.Cy. The costs of shipping across the Atlantic and up the St. Lawrence probably brought this figure up to nearly 5000. In August 1817, John Spread Baldwin, one of the York shareholders, claimed that the vessel had cost 14,500. A little over a year later, in a petition to the Legislative Assembly, the proprietors claimed they had spent nearly 16,000 on her construction and outfitting.45

Did the Frontenac's owners pay too much for her? Nine years later, one authority claimed that "she was built at a time when materials were very high."46 Certainly, the evidence of capital invested in the next few Upper Canadian steamers indicates that the Frontenac's price was nearly three times that of the next most expensive steamer. But they were much smaller vessels, almost all of them with cheaper engines built by Ward of Montreal. A glance at >Table I indicates that if anything, the price per ton paid Teabout and Chapman was very competitive. The critical factors affecting its cost were the decisions to build a vessel on the scale of those running between Montreal and Quebec, and to equip it with an expensive English engine.


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