Chapter 237
Canadian Lake Navigation

Table of Contents

Title Page
203 The Island Lighthouse.
204 Two Western Piers.
227 The Island in the Forties.
236 Front Street of Old.
237 Canadian Lake Navigation
238 1766 to 1809.
239 Six Eventful Years, 1809-15
240 A New Era, 1816 to 1819
241 A Progressive Enterprise, 1819 to 1837.
242 The Rebellion of 1837-38
243 Complaining Travellers
244 The Trade of the Lake Still Continues to Expand
245 The Royal Mail Line, 1840 TO 57
246 Storms and Shipwrecks -- Great Destruction of Life and Property -- The Commercial Distress in 1857.
247 Gloomy Anticipations for the Spring Trade
248 The Niagara Steamers, 1874-78.
249 Niagara Falls Line - 1883 to 1893.
250 Hamilton Steamboat Co. '87-'93
251 The General History of the Lake Shipping Continued
252 New Steamers
253 Lorne And Victoria Parks.
254 Toronto Ferry Co. 1890-93.
255 Royal Canadian Yacht Club.
256 Canadian Pacific Steamers.
257 The Rochester Route -1889-'93
258 The Ottawa Steamers, 1864-93
259 The R. & O. Company.
260 Tabulated Statements of Various Vessels from 1678 to the Present Time.
Table of Illustrations

An Account of the First Vessels that Sailed Our Inland Waters and of Those Who Manned Them. 1678-1776.

From 1677 to 1893 is little more than two centuries, and it is at the former date at which this history of the Canadian marine begins, when the place where the City of Toronto now stands was simply a portage on Lake Ontario, without houses or permanent buildings of any kind, a spot used by the Huron Indians, not only as a trading place in their dealings with the French, but also as their own headquarters. Those visiting it by land did so, of course, on foot, and those who came by water were transported thither either in bateaux, canoes, or in small vessels of the most primitive description. It is our purpose to give an account in these pages of the development of the shipping on Lake Ontario and the waters immediately adjacent thereto, tracing its growth from its infancy to the present day. The name first given to Lake Ontario by Champlain, the great French discoverer, was not its present one. He called it "Lake St. Louis," after the French monarch. Subsequently, for a brief period it was known as "Lake Frontenac," after the famous Governor of that name, Count de Frontenac, who represented his sovereign here from 1672 to 1682 and from 1689 until his death in 1698. It finally received, and has ever since retained, the name it now bears -- Ontario. The first European who accomplished the ascent of the St. Lawrence from the Atlantic to Lake Ontario was M. de Courcelles, in 1670. He did so in furtherance of the policy that was being pursued by France to secure the fur trade with the Indians in the north and north-west of the American continent. About three years later than this a young French traveller, Sieur La Salle, arrived in Canada full of a project of discovering a route to Japan as well as to the East Indies by penetrating further and further to the west until he reached the northern seas. He disclosed his plans to Frontenac, who had succeeded De Courcelles as Governor of Canada, and quite won him over to his views. Furnished by Frontenac with letters of introduction to influential people at the French Court, he returned to France, and while there obtained from the monarch a grant of the seignory of Cataraqui, together with the exclusive right to trade in the west, and full liberty of exploration. Armed with these extensive powers in 1678 La Salle returned to Canada, and for about a year employed himself in building fortresses at Cataraqui in constructing ships on Lake Ontario and in commercial transactions with the Indians.

The first sailing vessel built upon Ontario was a small schooner of about ten tons burden, constructed at the "Cabins," where Kingston is now. Upon this vessel on November 18th, 1678, La Salle sailed from Cataraqui, his destination being the mouth of the River Niagara. He had as his companions Father Hennepin and Chevalier de Tonti, and on his vessel carried both merchandise and the materials for constructing a ship.

Soon after entering Niagara River, La Salle and Father Hennepin, with their small craft, were brought to a stand at the head of the eddy at Queenston, where lies a large rock, which is to the present time distinguished as Hennepin Rock. Their vessel was wrecked, and the rigging and other stores for the Griffin were lost, though the anchors and cables were saved. This wreck took place at Thirty Mile Point, where there is a very bad shore.

Once more La Salle returned to Frontenac and again by another vessel shipped fresh stores and supplies for the Griffin. The name of this ship is not given, but the other was known as the Frontenac.

The Barque Griffin
There is much difference of opinion as to the exact locality where the Griffin was built and on which side of the Niagara river.Van Cleve, writing in 1878, after very careful study of the matter,says it was at the mouth of a stream entering the Niagara River, six miles above the Falls, and which is now called Cayuga Creek.

This is the very general opinion. But Van Cleve quotes the following all but conclusive testimony:--

"Joshua Fairbanks, late of Lewiston, who came to Queenston in 1793 (before Lewiston was known as such) from Massachusetts, was well acquainted with an old French officer who did not return to France after the conquest of Canada by the English in 1759. This old officer frequently told Mr. F. that the barque Griffin was built at Cayuga Creek (two leagues) six miles above the Falls, and that small spikes and other small articles of rusted iron were frequently found there when he (a young officer) first came to Fort Niagara with the French troops"

After the keel had been laid La Salle requested Father Hennepin to drive the first bolt, but this honor was declined through, as he himself tells us, "the modesty of my religious profession."

As the building of the vessel progressed so did the anger and jealousy of the Indians, and their intention, should a favorable opportunity present itself of burning the ship, was revealed to the French by one of their squaws. From La Salle's biographer we learn that "as spring opened she was ready for launching. The friar pronounced his blessing on her, the assembled company sang Te Deum, cannon were fired and French and Indians, warmed alike by a generous gift of brandy, shouted and yelled in chorus as she glided into the Niagara. Her builders towed her out and anchored her in the stream, safe at last from incendiary hands, and then, swinging their hammocks under her deck, slept in peace beyond reach of the tomahawks of the Indians who gazed on her with amazement. Five small cannon looked out from her port-holes, and on her bow was carved a portentous monster, the Griffon, whose name she bore, in honor of the armorial bearings of Frontenac." (Parkman.)

There is some difference of opinion as to the name of this vessel. Father Hennepin says she was called "The Cataraqui," but Garneau and other writers describe her as "The Griffon," and there is little doubt but that was her name. She is described as "a kind of brigantine, not unlike a Dutch galliot, with a broad, elevated bow and stern, very flat in the bottom, looking much larger than she really was and of sixty tons burden."

At length, in 1679, accompanied by Father Hennepin, who was a Flemish Recollet, and had come from France with him, La Salle on August 9th entered Lake Erie on board the Griffon, this being the first ship which had ever floated upon its waters. He sailed from end to end of it, and going through the Straits of Detroit he then entered a beautiful sheet of water, to which he gave the name of Lake St. Clair. Passing thence through the narrow channel whereupon now stands the town of Sarnia, he reached Lake Huron. Here a terrible storm struck the vessel, and the terrified sailors fell upon their knees, thinking their craft was about to founder. The pilot, too, vehemently upbraided La Salle for having persuaded him to leave the ocean, which he had successfully navigated for so many years, only to meet his end in a wretched lake. But the storm abated. There was a great calm and Michillimackinac, standing on the south side of the strait between Lake Huron and Michigan, was reached, the voyage coming to an end in one of the bays to the north of the latter lake. La Salle remained in the North-west for some time longer, but he sent the Griffon back laden with valuable furs, and she is supposed to have foundered, as nothing more was ever heard or any trace found of her.


There is no doubt that the early settlers of Canada in their journeys from one portion of the country to another had clearly defined and regular routes. In pursuing their way from the Atlantic to the interior of the country the French would at times only ascend the St. Lawrence as far as the mouth of the River Sorel, then proceeding westward, following the course of the river, would enter Lake Champlain and from here proceed to what is now the State of New York. At other times instead of doing this they would continue the ascent of the St. Lawrence until Lake St. Louis or Ontario was reached. The French found it better to proceed by the River St Lawrence, while the English had to follow the high lands separating the rivers flowing towards the great lakes of the north, from those emptying their waters into the Atlantic, The American historian, Wild, tells us:-- "There are four principal channels for trade between the ocean and the lakes. One by the Mississippi to Lake Erie; a second by the Potomac and French creek to the same place; a third by the Hudson and a fourth by the St. Lawrence." (Like OntarioLake Erie has not always borne its present name; it was at first called Lake Okswego). From La Salle's time and for nearly a century later these routes were travelled by Indians, French and English, and last of all by the U. E. Loyalists, either on foot or in open boats, for until the close of the eighteenth century but little advance was made in the modes of travelling either bv land or by water. For many years the canoe was the only vessel used by the Indians, and was employed by them either in hunting or upon warlike expeditions. It was comparatively light and could also be easily hidden on the shores of the lakes or in the thickets and rushes adjoining the rivers. At last the French appeared bringing with them their batteaux, but for a great number of years the birch bark canoe was the only means of transit. In 1685 the Marquise de Nouville, when on his expedition against the Five Nations, conveyed his army across the lake in canoes in two divisions, meeting at Oswego. Referring to inland navigation by this means, Gourley, in writing of Lachine, tells us: "From Lachine the canoes employed by the North west Company in the fur trade take their departure. Of all the numerous contrivances for transporting heavy burthens by water, these vessels are perhaps the most extraordinary; scarcely anything can be conceived so inadequate from the slightness of their construction to the purpose they are applied to, and to contend against the impetuous torrent of the many rapids that must be passed through in the course of a voyage. They seldom exceed thirty feet in length and six in breadth, diminishing to a sharp point at each end, without distinction of head or stern; the frame is composed of some small pieces of some very light wood; it is then covered with the bark of the birch tree, cut into convenient slips, that are "rarely more than the eighth of an inch in thickness; these are sewn together with threads made from the twisted fibres of the roots of a particular tree and strengthened where necessary by narrow strips of the same materials applied on the inside; the joints on the fragile planking are made water-tight by being covered with a species of gum that adheres very firmly and becomes perfectly hard. No iron work of any description, not even nails, are employed in building these slender vessels, which when complete weigh only about five hundred weight each. On being prepared for the voyage they receive their lading, which, for the convenience of carrying across the portages, is made up in packages of about three-quarters of a hundred weight each and amounts altogether to five tons, or a little more, including provisions and other necessaries for the men, of whom from eight to ten are employed to each canoe; they usually set out in brigades like the batteaux, and in the course of a summer upwards of fifty of these vessels are thus despatched." The route they took was up the Ottawa River to the south-west branch, proceeding by it and the cluster of small lakes into which it empties, until Lake Nipissing was reached, from thence to Lake Huron and thus to Lake Superior, proceeding on its northern shore to the Grand Portage, a distance of no less than 1,100 miles from the point at which they departed. When we remember that there were not only the rapids with which to contend, but also the portages, which varied greatly in extent, some only being a few yards wide, others a few miles, and that at all of the rapids and each one of the portages, the canoes and their contents had to be lifted out of the water and carried on the men's shoulders until sailing could be recommenced, we shall have some slight idea of the hardships that had to be endured by the pioneer members of our merchant inland marine service. The batteaux, which were used like the canoes for the transport of both goods and passengers, were many, though not all of them, built at Lachine, some nine miles from Montreal.

Some of them could accommodate as many as five or even six families. They could also carry a large weight of luggage or freight. They were divided into brigades of twelve boats each, and there was a guide, or, as he was generally called, a conductor, with five men under him on each batteau. This conductor filled exactly the same position on the batteau that a captain would do who was in command of a ship. Succeeding the batteaux came at a long interval the Schenectady and Durham boats, but of these and their construction more will be said hereafter.

The English Fleet on the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario, 1758-60
An excellent account of the first vessels which traversed Lake Ontario a hundred and thirty years ago may be found in M. Pouchot's "Memoir upon the late war in North America between the French and English, 1755-60" which was translated and edited by F. B. Hough and published at Roxbury, Mass. In it we find that when the French troops arrived in Canada they were transported "in batteaux for Montreal." (Vol. 1, p. 36.) These batteaux were the boats used for transportation in those early days. In the carriage of freight they would take about three tons and in conveying troops would probably accommodate about twenty -five or thirty men. Pouchot writes:--

"The batteaux used for the navigation of the upper part of this river carry six thousand pounds, and are of peculiar form to enable them to resist the efforts made to take them up the rapids. Those that the English built at the latter place (Montreal) were larger and lighter, but could not endure this navigation after the first voyages. They were always filled with water by the efforts made to keep them up and those of the French did much better service. The English did not furnish their batteaux with sails, which are very essential on good occasions, but they provided good ash oars, while the French used those of pine, which were poor, badly made and used up in great numbers." (V. 2, p. 94.)

He further states that in 1755 the regiments of Guienne and Beam "left on the 19th of July for Frontenac. They embarked at La Chine in bateaux laden with provisions." (V. 1, p. 38) La Chine is a few miles from Montreal. The "Frontenac" referred to was Fort Frontenac, now Kingston, Ont

When it was determined by the British to attack Fort Niagara it was resolved that the officer in command of the force "should receive a sufficient number of batteaux to transport his troops and artillery by way of Lake Ontario." (V. 1, p. 44.)


The troops referred to arrived at Oswego, but sickness "prevented the execution of their designs,"so that awaiting further movements "they also undertook to build vessels to form a fleet upon the lake." (V. 1, p. 45). A foot note to this page of the American edition of this author says: --

"The first English schooner on Lake Ontario was launched this summer. She had 40 feet keel, mounted 14 swivel guns and was made to row when necessary. The fleet fitted out by the English at Oswego in 1753 consisted of a decked sloop of eight four-pounders and thirty swivels, a decked schooner of eight four-pounders and twenty-eight swivels, an undecked schooner of fourteen swivels and fourteen oars, and another of twelve swivels and fourteen oars. All of these were unrigged and laid up early in the fall."

At the surrender of Oswego in August, 1756, the British found quite a ship-building yard "with nine vessels of war, of which one carrying 18 guns was finished. The others were upon the stocks and all their rigging was in the magazines." (V. l,p. 68.)

The French Fleet on the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario, 1758-60
During the spring of 1757 a party of French soldiers descended on Fort George near Montreal "to surprise it, but being discovered they contented themselves with burning a saw mill and some batteaux." (V. 1, p. 76.) A foot note says there were 159 batteaux, with four brigantines and two galleys, each of fifty oars, "without reckoning much wood for construction," and at Fort William Henry on the 18th March the French destroyed 350 batteaux and "four brigantines." Mante states that store houses were burned, with "all the huts of the Rangers and a sloop on the stocks." (N Y. Col. His., X 544, 548.) and "on the side of the enemy Volf, a German officer, came to burn a vessel upon the stocks near Fort Niagara."

In an account Pouchot gives of the attack on Fort George, he speaks of troops "marched by land to the right of the lake, so as to cover the landing of the army, which took passage in batteaux." (V. 1, p. 86.)

He further, in v. 1, p. 97, writing about Niagara, says that the vessels belonging to the French lay at anchor till the wind favoured. "This was at the mouth of the Niagara River, and on this day for the first time were observed "Saint Elmo's Lights on Lake Ontario." The historian, continuing, writes:--

"About eleven o'clock in the evening, as one of these flaws was approaching, some electrical fires appeared on the top of the two masts and at the points of the yards. These lights were eight or ten inches long and appeared to be three or four wide and very brilliant. The sailors alarmed our crew, who at once closed the hatchways, the pipes of the pumps, and other places, where they imagined this fire could penetrate. M. Pouchot was amused at all this and reassured the passengers. When another flaw came on these lights re-appeared again and showed themselves twice afterwards. They disappeared as soon as the clouds removed from the atmosphere the attraction of the vessel, but re-kindled as soon as the clouds came over. They lasted about half an hour each time. At daybreak the wind freshened and blew so strong that we wen: obliged to run with bare poles before the wind, and it being in our stern we arrived at Frontenac in twenty one hours from Niagara. This was one of the shortest passages that had been made, having sailed about ninety leagues in this interval of time." (V. 1, p. 97-98.)

These St. Elmo Lights may be briefly explained. When a large conductor connected with an electric machine is giving a rapid succession of bright sparks to a ball connected with the ground, the sparks cease as soon as a pointed wire connected with the ground is held in the vicinity of the conductor. No discharge is heard, but in the dark a faint glow is seen at the end of the wire, which continues as long as the machine is burned. Remove the wire and the sparks instantly re-commence This glow is known to sailors as St. Elmo's (San Telmo) fire, in old days Castor and Pollux. (Plin. H. N. 2, 37.) Suppose now one of the conductors to be a thunder cloud, the other the surface of the earth, the discharge will usually take place between the places of greatest surface density, and it will in general be more gradual, as these are more pointed and of less capacity.

In writing of the advance of the English on Fort George, Pouchot says (v. 1, p. 111) that the army "set out at six in the morning upon the open lake. First there came five barges and then sixty, which formed the advance guard of the army. Finally, the lake appeared covered with barges, each holding twenty men or upwards." A foot note to page 111 of Pouchot says that "The English army embarked in nine hundred boats and one hundred and thirty-five whale boats, with cannon mounted upon rafts to cover the landing, if necessary."

The French Fleet on the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario, 1758-60
He also says that in 1759 (v. 1, p. 140-141,) when he was sent by M. de Vaudreuil to Niagara, "at La Presentation" (Ogdensburgh) "they found batteaux that had been sent to meet them," and that "they embarked and on the 4th they reached Point au Baril. three leagues above La Presentation. He at once visited the creek where they were building two barques, each for ten pieces of twelve-pound cannon. They should have been ready to launch, but he found one with its planking and the other with only the ribs up. He at once caused the labourers to be doubled and ordered the work to be pushed day and night, while he was himself busy in entrenching this post, which a party might have easily burned with our vessels there. On the 9th they launched one of the barques, which was named the Iroquois."

Pouchot further writes (v. 1, p. 141-142):-- "On the 12th the second vessel, named the Outaouaise, was launched. We may judge from this what diligence had been used in their construction. They were soon equipped. "On the 25th the French troops left for Niagara, arriving there on tie 30th." This would be five days for the journey from Prescott to Niagara, which to-day (1893) would occupy about fifteen hours.

In June of 1759 M. Pouchot had sent a troop of Indians from Niagara to observe the English at Oswego. "These Indians had gone upon the barque Outaouaise, which was caught by a gale of wind so fiercely that its main mast and bowsprit were broken. They were obliged to run down to La Presentation for some time, which prevented them from cruising before the Oswego river to discover the movements of the English." (V. 1, p. 158) A footnote to the original edition of Pouchot on this event reads:--"It is remarkable that these Indians, who had never encountered a tempest in a vessel, were greatly frightened, and threw their ornaments, arms and tobacco overboard to appease the Manitou of the lake. There happened to be a Canadian on board, who was a mere dwarf in stature. The Indians, who had never seen go small a man, took him for a Manitou, and could scarcely be restrained from killing and throwing him overboard like another Jonah."

Pouchot, in writing of the approach of the English army against Niagara, states (v. 1, p. 159) that in 1759 "on the 6th July the Iroquois, at four o'clock in the afternoon, entered the river" Niagara, and that "M. Pouchot learned by this corvette that there were then no English at Oswego," and that "on the 7th seven barges appeared under the steep shores of the lake to reconnoitre the place," and that "he sent out the corvette Iroquois to cruise towards the Little Marsh," and on the 8th "he signalled" from the fort to the corvette "to send ashore the shallop." A shallop is given in Webster as "a sort of large boat with two masts and usually rigged like a schooner." Probably the boat sailed a shallop in 1759 also, and very likely, was propelled by oars. A corvette is a sloop-of-war ranking next below a frigate and carrying not more than twenty guns.

At a later date we read that the corvette "brought despatches from Montreal and Quebec." In writing of the attack on Oswego in 1760 Pouchot says "the English had built five great batteaux, of thirteen oars on each side with a cannon at the end," and an Indian reported that "while fishing in the Bay of Cataracoui he saw two English vessels, which were anchored near Little Cataracoui," and that "the great vessel had three decks and ten guns on each side."

Cataracoui was Kingston harbour. The Iroquois and the Outaouaise were the two armed vessels which did great service for the French on Lake Ontario, but finally fell into the hands of the English.

Two other vessels were the Seneca, of 22 cannon, and the Oneida, of 18 cannon. These vessels were named by Knox, the Historian, the "Onondago" and the "Mohawk."


It is a long cry from 1679, the year in which the first sailing ship, La Salle'sGriffon, appeared upon the lakes until 1755, when we next have any authentic record of sailing vessels being afloat on Lake Ontario.

The treaty of peace with France was signed in the end of 1760, and for the next few years there were few if any vessels on the lakes, except the batteaux and canoes.

Nevertheless we find some progress was being made, as the following interesting passages from the Detroit Tribune will show:-- "In 1766 four vessels plied upon Lake Erie. These were the Gladwin, Lady Charlotte, Victory and Boston. The two latter laid up in the fall near Navy Island, above Niagara Falls, and one of these was burned accidentally November 30th of the same year. A vessel called the Brunswick, owned and commanded by Captain Alexander Grant, made her appearance on the lakes during the year 1767, and was lost some time during the season following. Captain Grant was the commodore of the lakes for two or three years. In 1769, Sterling and Porteous built a vessel at Detroit, called the Enterprise, Richard Cornwall, of New York, being the carpenter. The boatmen, who went from Schenectady with the rigging and stores for this vessel to Detroit, were to have each 20 and ten gallons of rum. They were seventy days on Lake Erie, and two of the number perished with hunger and their bodies were kept to decoy eagles and ravens. They returned to New York in February, 1760, by way of Pittsburg, then called Fort Pitt."

"In May, 1770, a vessel of seventy tons burthen was launched at Niagara, called the Charity. The same year the Duke of Gloucester, Secretary Townsend, Samuel Tutchet, Henry Baxter and four others formed a company for mining copper on Lake Superior. In December they built at Point aux Pines a barge, and laid the keel for a sloop of 40 tons burden. Of the success of this enterprise we are not informed. Subsequent to the above period very little was accomplished in the construe ion of craft for lake navigation, and the few that came into commission were used solely as traders, as were in fact all those previously named. A short time after, 1770, batteaux from Montreal and Quebec, employed by the Hudson's Bay Fur Company, made their annual tours westward, gathering large quantities of furs and returning homeward in the fall. It has been stated that the first vessel built on Lake Ontario was in 1749, but this, we have reason to believe, is not correct."

From this extract, therefore, it would appear that--even allowing it to be correct that a sailing ship was built on Lake Ontario in 1779 -- exactly seventy years had elapsed between the appearance of the first vessel, the Griffon and the one just referred to. The Declaration of Independence by the North American colonies was made on July 4,1776, and during the war which immediately followed thereupon the Home Government fitted up a shipyard at Carleton Island and there built several vessels which were afterwards used in conveying troops and stores along the lake to various ports between the dockyard and Niagara. These will presently be referred to more particularly. Before doing so it must be remembered that until the period of which we are now speaking, all vessels upon the lakes were flat bottomed boats, built to stem the rapids and currents with greater safety, and it was many years before this class of boat was wholly superseded. Travelling in those days was attended with the greatest difficulty and vexatious delays. Distances that could be covered now, even by water, in twenty-four hours, often took nearly as many days, and when people started on a journey it was impossible for them to say with any degree of accuracy how long it would take them to accomplish it.



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This electronic edition is based on the original in the collection of the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston.