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

During the eight years that the Frontenac sailed for her original proprietors there was very little change in the personnel of the management committee. George Markland continued to be secretary for some years, and the late William Mitchell was replaced as treasurer by Peter Smith's son, David John. 47 In the absence of financial reports and minute books we can only assess the effectiveness of their management and leadership by the comments of contemporaries and by their political success.

The proprietors of the Frontenac attempted to parlay the novelty of their venture into a variety of legislative and executive concessions. Most notorious was their first petition to the Legislative Assembly, dated 31 January 1816, asking that foreign steamboats and other craft be excluded from the ports of Upper Canada. At the same time they requested that "for a short term of years they may be favored with an exclusive privilege to navigate by steam the waters from Prescott to Queenston within the Province." The first appeal was intended to protect their "territory" from American competition, the second looked over their shoulders at potential Canadian competition.48

The request for a monopoly of local trade was hardly a novel one. Almost simultaneously those financing the Ontario were petitioning the New York State legislature for incorporation and a monopoly of steam navigation on Lake Ontario.49 They were turned down. The Molsons had begged for a monopoly of navigation on the lower St. Lawrence--without success.50 In fact the only established monopoly was that in New York state held jointly by the Fulton and Livingston estates, and this arrangement was under constant assault.51 In consequence it hardly seems surprising that the Frontenac bill was dropped after first reading.

The next legislative target was the lighthouse tonnage duty of three pennies a ton, due every time a vessel entered certain ports. After a year of operation, the managers realized just how hard that duty hit a steamer of considerable burden. They proved unable to persuade the Assembly to exempt steamers. However, they did secure a reduction in the calculated tonnage proportional to the amount of space occupied by the machinery and fuel.52 After a second attempt in 1821 prompted a pitched battle on the floor of the Assembly, the tonnage duties were lifted on all Upper Canadian vessels.53 Once again, the management committee had proven unable to extract any meaningful concessions based on owning the first steamboat built in the province.

Their petitions to the Lieutenant Governor were marginally more successful. An August 1816 request for permission to take wood from the Thousand Islands led to the granting of one island. 54 In December of that year, as has been mentioned, they requested the remittance of their Customs duty for the importing of the engine.55 There is no evidence that this was granted. Finally, in 1823 they demanded that the Governor delay the work on the Burlington Bay canal until there were funds to build one large enough to accommodate the Frontenac.56

Most of the surviving criticism of the management committee comes from two sources: two York observers, and a series of letters containing some of the most vicious vituperation ever printed about a Canadian shipping venture. The Kingston Gazette letters begin in the February 3rd issue when TRUE BRITON remarked that the petition for a monopoly of Lake Ontario would "not reflect much honor on the generosity of the petitioners." Next week's reply took the high ground of clarifying and defending the petition and then exposed TRUE BRITON as "nothing but an ass--cloathed in the skin of the lion."57 By the time the editor called the bickering to a halt in April six pseudonymous writers had climbed into the ring. On the one hand were the "ravings of a splenetic and distempered imagination", while the other wearied of the "declamation, invective, scurrilous personalities and false and malicious insinuations" leveled against him.58 The substance of the debate was the seeking of special privileges for the Frontenac and the hiring of Americans.

While the newspaper debate occurred even before the vessel was launched, later critics included the shareholders. John Strachan, a highly influential member of the Executive Council and a minor shareholder in the Frontenac, complained bitterly of the "want of consistency" in the managers. "...[I]f the speculation has been bad, I will venture to say & I will undertake to prove, that it has been in a great measure owing to the management." 59 Another York critic later claimed that "the management of the Steam Boat Frontenac was so miserable, that, instead of a successful, it became a losing concern...."60

But before looking more closely at the nagging question of profitability, the second level of management needs closer examination--the Frontenac's officers. Unfortunately, apart from the captain, engineer and purser, the only description of the crew is that "the captain and a few others were Scotch and the bulk of the crew Irishmen."61 Nevertheless, the officer's credentials are important indicators of the kinds of skills deemed necessary to operate a 700 ton pioneer steamer on the uncharted waters of Lake Ontario.

At 33 Captain James McKenzie had been bred to the sea, serving in the British merchant marine before joining the Royal Navy and rising to the rank of master. McKenzie first encountered Upper Canada as part of the naval contingent assigned in the spring of 1813 to the defence of the Lakes. A veteran of gunboat raids, the dockyard and the decks of the Wolfe and Prince Regent, McKenzie earned a glowing commendation from Commodore Sir James Yeo. Shipped back to England on half-pay, McKenzie developed an interest in steam engines and their marine applications. Certainly he was aware of the progress of the Frontenac and arrived back in Kingston in time to assist in her outfitting. To those who would offer the Frontenac contracts for the transport of troops and stores, McKenzie's naval status was precisely the reassurance they would need that their interests were in the proper hands.62

Like McKenzie, engineer John Leys was a Scot. But here the similarity appears to have ended. Leys was raised in Aberdeen but had turned his back on the sea and chosen to learn the art of engine building from Boulton and Watt. Like many of the other marine engineers of the era, Leys was enticed from his employers by the steamboat's agents. He took full advantage of their haste, demanding 160 a year for the next two years. When no one else was immediately forthcoming, an agreement was struck and the 25 year old engineer raced off on the next stage for Liverpool. 63

Henry Scadding summed up the relationship between Leys and McKenzie, in the following terms: "At the outset of steam navigation, men competent to superintend the working of the machinery were, of course, not numerous, and Captains were obliged in some degree to humour their chief engineer when they had secured the services of one. Capt. McKenzie, it would be said, was somewhat tyrannized over by Mr. Leys, who was a Scot, not very tractable; and the Frontenac's movements, times of sailing, and so on, were very much governed by a will in the hold, independent of that of the ostensible Commander. Mr. Leys, familiarly spoken of as Jock Leys, was long well known in York."64

One York stockholder assessed the two men from a very different perspective. "The Capn & Engineer", he complained, "have an immense salary..." 65 It is not clear how long Leys stayed with the vessel after his initial contract expired. By 1827, the Frontenac's last season, Leys had formed and dissolved an onshore partnership with his brother, and left to sail on the Canada.66

In a similar fashion, the tenure of purser Alexander O. Petrie is unclear. Petrie never spoke directly of his experience on the Frontenac with historian William Canniff, although he claimed to have settled in the Belleville area about 1809. During the War of 1812 Petrie was a clerk in the Assistant Quarter Master General's office in Kingston, a duty which would have brought his talents to the attention of the Frontenac's backers. 67 In 1816 and the spring of 1817 he was the master of the schooner General Brock, on whose decks he was last seen in mid-June 1817.68 By 1825 he may have left the Frontenac, for at that date he applied for a ferry license to run across the Bay of Quinte from Belleville.69 Like McKenzie, Petrie was a sailor who was familiar with local waters, and who had useful contacts in a key military department.

In general, the management committee of the Frontenac had nothing to show for their political quest for special privileges and had done little to conciliate the ill-feeling between senior officers. Indeed, after the death of the capable William Mitchell, one is left with the sense that the committee offices were sinecures for the magistrates' sons. The ship's officers, by contrast were a competent group of men, even if they displayed little sense of teamwork. To the public, in fact, Captain McKenzie, rather than the owners, came to represent the whole enterprise.


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