Captain James B. Symes
One of the most popular and best known mariners on the Great Lakes is Capt. James B. Symes, who, after a period of two-score years or more of active life, through calm and storm, is still seeing service on the lakes as the efficient commander of the Seguin.
He was born, in 1837, in Leith, Scotland, a son of John Symes, who was engineer on the first Cunard steamer to cross the Atlantic in 1840. In 1856 our subject began his life as a sailor, making his first trip in the humble capacity of decksweep on the passenger steamer Western World, running between Detroit and Buffalo. He steadily worked himself upward, until 1860, when he went as mate on the Canadian steamer Kaloolah, which was lost near Southampton, Ont., in the summer of 1862. In 1863 he was mate of the propeller Niagara, running between Goderich and Chicago, and two years later he became master of the Naubune, running between Collingwood, Perry Sound and Sault Ste. Marie, and on this steamer he took S.J. Dawson and party to what is now called Port Arthur, to build the famous Dawson road through to Fort Garry. In 1866 Captain Symes was granted the first master's certificate issued by the Association of the Canadian Underwriters, a document the Captain highly prizes and always has with him. In 1868 he took charge of the side-wheel passenger steamer Algoma, between Collingwood and Fort Williams, and during the summer sailed her up the Nepigon river to the Hudson Bay post, a route never before taken by a steamer, and the Indians held a great powwow in his honor. In 1869 he opened the famous Symes channel through thousands of islands in the north channel of Georgian Bay, and in 1870 took the first load of government supplies to Fort William for the Red river expedition. He also moved many of the troops, for which he received a very kind letter from the Commandant Colonel (now General) Wolseley, for his kindness. That same fall he moved seventy ladies and children, together with a lot of machinery, from Houghton, Portage lake, to Silver islet. The residents were so pleased with the Captain's uniform kindness and courtesy that they presented him with a handsome gold watch, chain and charm. He had the honor of carrying the first and last barrel of silver ore ever taken out of Silver islet. In 1871 he took charge of the side-wheel passenger steamer Manitoba, and made five trips between Collingwood and Fort William and Port Arthur that fall, and on the opening up of navigation in the spring of 1872 he took her to Sarnia to form the Beatty line between Sarnia and Port Arthur and Duluth. In 1873 he sailed up the Kaministiquia river, and was rewarded with two town lots for sailing the first steamer on that river; and in 1875 he towed the dredge from Sarnia to Fort Williams to open up a channel through the bar at the entrance of the Kaministiquia river, and in 1876 towed a barge that carried the first two locomotives used by the Canadian Pacific railway between Sarnia and Fort Williams. He continued on the Manitoba until 1879, during which time he was the recipient of many presents from those who traveled with him. On September 3, 1879, occurred a terrific gale. Captain Symes was lying at breakwater at Chantry island, near Southampton, and saw the schooner Mary and Lucy going ashore. He at once called for volunteers to man the lifeboat to go to the rescue of the crew; his mate, now Capt. John Byers, and the mate of the steamer Quebec, which was also lying at breakwater, and three others of the crew at once responded. The sea was so heavy that as soon as they were clear of the island the boat capsized, and two of the crew were drowned, the rest clinging to the boat for two hours and a half until they drifted ashore. For the bravery he displayed on this occasion the Canadian Government gave the Captain a gold watch, and to the mothers of the boys that were drowned and to the rest of the crew, silver watches. That season Captain Symes severed his connection with the Beatty Company, and in 1880 he sailed with the propeller Northern Belle between Collingwood and Parry Sound, making daily trips: In 1881 he bought an interest in the company with the Parry Sound Lumber Company, in the steambarge Lothair and consort Corisand, and sailed her until the fall of 1883, when he sold out his interest, and in 1884 took charge of the passenger steamer Quebec for the Beatty line. This vessel was sunk in 1885 in the Sault river and abandoned to the underwriters.
On January 1, 1861, Capt. James B. Symes was married to Miss Margaret Campbell, of Bruce county, Ontario, and four children have blessed this union: John C., a successful steamship master, who died December 12, 1896, at the age of thirty-four years; Duncan J., a telegraph operator; George A., master mariner, a sketch of whom is found elsewhere in this volume; and Margaret J., at home.
Captain Symes has been closely connected with the rapid progress made in navigation on the Great Lakes, and has seen the little sailing vessels give way, first to the side-wheel steamers, and then to the speedy propellers; the little package freight boats to the mighty ships that carry thousands of tons. Many interesting tales of the early days he can tell, and of which he can truthfully say, "a great part of which I was." Though his days number three score and more, he is still as active as many a man much younger. In his political faith he is a stanch Liberalist, and did great service for Alexander McKenzie, and although his intense political partisanship has often placed him in peril of losing his positions, he nevertheless was always ready, and is yet, to enter the fray and enjoy a hot political contest. No one among the lake captains was ever more popular, more highly respected than this well-known master of the Seguin.
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This version of Volume II is based, with permission, on the work of the great volunteers at the Marine Captains Biographies site. To them goes the credit for reorganizing the content into some coherent order. The biographies in the original volume are in essentially random order.
Some of the transcription work was also done by Brendon Baillod, who maintains an excellent guide to Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.