In 1840 a joint stock company was formed at Niagara, called the Niagara Harbour and Dock Company, and under their auspices several new vessels were built, out of which was formed the " Royal Mail Line of Steamers "These began to run as soon as navigation opened in the following year, being widely advertised under the heading;--
At half-past 7 o'clock evening, Sunday and Thursday, the St. George.
At 12 o'clock noon, Monday and Thursday, the Niagara.
From Kingston at 9 o'clock morning-Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Of these steamers the St. George has often been mentioned and fully described. The Niagara belonged to the Honorable John Hamilton, She was built at Niagara and was of 475 tons burthen. On her trial trip from Niagara to Kingston she accomplished the distance in 16 hours, a remarkably high rate of speed.
On the NiagaraCaptain Elmsley displaced Captain Sutherland, and the City of Toronto was commanded as formerly. There were no other changes, and the steamers ran as in 1841, connecting with the Brockville and Gildersleeve at Kingston for Dickinson's Landing.
In 1843 the Niagara had become the Sovereign, remaining under her former captain, and there were no other alterations, excepting that the steamers connected at Kingston for the first time with vessels running direct to Montreal. Their advertisement ran thus:--
These boats being strongly built, expressly for the navigation of the River St. Lawrence, and having low-pressure engines, afford a desirable conveyance to persons wishing a safe, comfortable and speedy passage.
In the next year, 1844, the Royal Mail Steamers recommenced their trips early in May, there being no alterations whatever between Toronto and Kingston, either in the vessels or their commanders, but a third steamer, known as the Caledonia, was added to those running between Kingston and Montreal. Three of these steamers also began to run in 1844 between Kingston and Coteau du Lac, namely, the Highlander, Captain Stearns; the Canada, (2nd) Captain Lawless, and the Gildersleeve, Captain Bowen. The latter the year previously had run with the Brockville from Kingston to Dickinson's Landing. The Canada above mentioned was a large vessel of 450 tons burthen, built at Prescott. Her master, Captain Lawless, had previously been in command of the Kingston.
On July 1st the Royal Mail Line reduced their fares in consequence of the opposition they experienced from the Frontenac, (2nd) Captain Ives. Cabin was $3, deck $1 50 on the latter; whereupon the mail steamers made their fares $2 and 50 cents for each class respectively. The original fares had been $3 50 and $1 50.
In 1846 there was no change in the vessels comprising the mail line between Toronto and Kingston. They remained as they were the season previously, and the changes in the steamers connecting with them at Toronto and Kingston were very slight.
Running in connection with the R. M. steamers between Toronto and Niagara, as well as between the former port and Hamilton, were the steamers Chief Justice Robinson and Eclipse, and excellent accommodation they afforded the public.
These continued to ply in 1848, and in connection with them, between Montreal and Kingston, were the Passport, Highlander, Canada. (2nd) and Henry Gildersleeve, commanded by Captains Bowen,Stearns, Lawless and Maxwell respectively.
In 1850 there were again changes in the R. M. line, it consisting once more of three steamers from Toronto to Kingston, namely, the Princess Royal under her former captain, the Magnet, Captain James Sutherland, and the City of Toronto, also under her old master. For a very short time in the beginning of the season the Sovereign, Captain Neil Wilkinson, formed one of the line to Kingston. This was while the City of Toronto was employed elsewhere. In 1851 the Passport displaced the Sovereign, Captain Henry Twohy being in command of her, there being no change in the other steamers.
In 1852, though there were few changes on the lake steamers, the vessels indeed with their commanders remaining the same, there were many minor alterations The arrangements for the season were as follows:--
Passport--On Mondays and Thursdays, from Kingston to Toronto and Hamilton, at 3 p.m., on the arrival of the river boat, arriving at Toronto early next morning, and leave there for Hamilton at 8 a.m., and return from Hamilton to Toronto at 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Princess Royal--On Wednesdays and Saturdays, from Kingston to Toronto and Hamilton, at 3 p.m., on the arrival of the river boat, arriving at Toronto early next morning; and leave there for Hamilton at 8 a.m., and return from Hamilton to Toronto at 3 p.m., on Mondays and Thursdays.
The three steamers were the Magnet, Arabian and Passport, the two former still under their old commanders, while the last was under Captain Harbottle, in place of Captain Twohy, the former remaining in command of her for many subsequent years.
That is now (1893) thirty-nine years ago, and Captain Harbottle in a green old age, is still living, while one of his sons, like his father before him, worthily to himself and with credit to his principals, commands a lake steamer.
The following were the arrangements of this line for the season:--The River Line, composed of the Banshee, Capt. Howard; New Era, Capt. P. G. Chrysler; St. Lawrence, Capt. Maxwell; Ottawa, Capt. Kelley, left the canal basin, Montreal, daily, at nine o'clock a.m., and Lachine on the arrival of the twelve o'clock (noon) train from Montreal (except Sundays, when they left on the arrival of the nine o'clock train), calling at all intermediate ports, arriving in Kingston early on the following day, where they met the Lake Ontario steamers Kingston, Capt. Hamilton; Passport, Capt. Harbottle; Arabian, Capt. Sclater; Magnet, Capt. Twohy, for Cobourg, Port Hope, Toronto and Hamilton, connecting at Hamilton with the Great Western Railway for London, Chatham, Windsor, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and all ports on Lake Michigan; and at Lewiston for Niagara Falls, Buffalo, and all ports on Lake Erie. Passengers taking the evening train of the Grand Trunk Railway met the steamers at Coteau Landing, thereby avoiding hotel expenses at Brockville. The lake steamers also connected at Brockville with the morning express train, and was the only direct line for Kingston, Cobourg, Port Hope, Darlington, and Toronto. To tourists this line afforded a most comfortable, pleasant and expeditious conveyance, the steamers being fitted up with elegantly furnished saloons and state rooms, passing through the beautiful scenery of the Lake of the Thousand Islands and all the rapids of the St. Lawrence by daylight.
In 1857 there were yet more changes, the line being advertised as being " the only line without transhipment," and being made up of the following first-class steamers, viz: --Kingston (iron), Captain Kelly; Banshee, Captain Howard; Passport (iron), Captain Harbottle; New Era, Captain Maxwell; Champion, Captain Sinclair; Magnet (iron), Captain Twohy--built expressly for lake and river navigation, commodious, staunch, and well found with every requirement for safety, and fitted and furnished with every modern convenience and comfort.
One of these steamers left the canal basin, Montreal, every day (except Sundays) at 9 a.m., and Lachine on the arrival of the noon train from Montreal, for Hamilton and intermediate ports, direct, without transhipment, connecting as follows:--At Hamilton, with the Great Western Railway for London, Chatham, Windsor, Detroit, Chicago, Galena, St. Paul, Milwaukee, etc.; at Toronto, with the Northern Railroad for Mackinaw, Green Bay. and all ports on Lake Michigan; at Niagara, with the Erie & Ontario Railroad for Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, Cincinnati, etc.
The Royal Mail Line had now lost its distinctive character, the bulk of the mails being at this time carried by the railways, but it is impossible to conclude this description of the line without a brief reference to some of its leading officials and ship owners.
In 1843 he was appointed secretary and treasurer of the Mail Line owned by Donald Bethune, Andrew Heron and Captain Thomas Dick, all now deceased. In 1857 he embarked in the hardware business. In 1866 Mr. Holland was appointed superintendent of the London and Lancashire Insurance Company and the Phoenix Life of Hartford, and in 1870 became manager of the Ontario Branch Agency of the Equitable Life. In 1880 he assumed the management of the Union Mutual Life of Portland, Maine, and in 1884 was assistant manager of the Etna Life. In September, 1887, he took the responsible post of special agent to the Canada Life of Toronto, and held the same position until his death in 1889.
Mr. Holland married in 1843 Miss Cowan, only daughter of the late Alex. Cowan, senr., of Pittsburgh, County of Frontenac, Ont., grand-niece of the late Capt David, of the Royal Navy. Mr. and Mrs. Holland had six daughters and three sons born to them. The eldest and youngest of the latter died.
There were in the fleet several old salts, originals in their way, brought up as regular seamen, having navigated nearly all quarters of the globe in sailing vessels. One in particular, Capt. Wm. Gordon, a brother-in-law of Capt. Thos. Dick, was a noted sailor of the old school, and had all the feelings and prejudices of his class against any innovation of established rules of all sailing crafts, and had a most thorough contempt of steam as a means of propelling power, which he said was a humbug, "a delusion and a snare." Mr. Bethune was at the time Capt. Gordon made his appearance in Toronto building at Niagara the steamer Admiral, and arrangements were made that Gordon should command her. In fitting it out he had the steamer rigged as much like a sea-going sailing craft as possible, two masts, large main and foresail, foretopsail, square sail, jib and flying jib, and a four-pound carronade mounted on the bow. The vessel was painted black, with a narrow streak of white around above her guards. All the Royal Mail steamers on the lake when built were rigged in the same way. The City of Toronto and Princess had three masts, but after a time this rigging was found in the way and caused accidents, so they were changed, and reduced to only one mast and jib, and soon Gordon had the mortification of seeing his favorite rigging removed. He said " the owners were a set of lubbers, for what did they know about it, and who ever heard of a ship without masts!" Capt. Gordon was one of the finest and best hearted men possible, and a great favorite with the travelling public. He bad always a funny story to relate. He was very partial to his cabin waiter, a colored man, known as Harney, well advanced in years and most faithful. He trusted him with the key of the locker, and when he asked his friends into the cabin, to taste some particularly fine brandy, Harney always attended to their wants. One day he told Harney to bring on some biscuits, a morsel of old cheese, and "the trimmings." The captain looked at the bottle, and said " Harney, how's this I Where is the brandy I left yesterday ? Who has been drinking it?" Old Harney quietly replied, "I don't know, Sar, 'spect it must be either you or me." The Captain then said: " Look here, you old black rascal, I don't want your assistance in drinking my own brandy, and if this occurs again I will stop your grog, so now take a horn, and put the rest away." " Thank you, Captain," said Harney, " I won't take no more till you give me leave." Poor Capt. Gordon ! During the cholera of 1849 both he and his excellent wife were carried off. In appearance he was a fine-looking man, about six feet in height, well built, perhaps rather too corpulent. He was every inch a sailor, and in listening to his yarns one would be reminded of that splendid character portrayed by Dickens in his "Dombey & Son," Captain Cuttle.
Some of Captain Gordon's anecdotes required quite as much verification as Captain Cuttle's quotations. It would have been as interesting as amusing to attempt the task. When they were found the searcher might very reasonably " make a note of it."
Captain Henry and William Twohy, Capt. Thos. Dick and Capt. Jas. Dick, Capt. Taylor and Capt Neil Wilkinson, were all thorough seamen and gentlemen. Henry Twohy was perhaps a man possessed of more general information, at least he had the faculty of amusing his passengers on almost all subjects. He was well read and informed. Capt. Colcleugh, of the Princess, and late of the Arabian, was another eccentric man. Although not bred to the sea, he was a most careful and painstaking officer. He prided himself on his skill in bringing in his steamers to the wharf without even " scratching the paint," but it was a long process. He was a great snuff-taker, and on occasions when he had completed anything he thought clever the snuff-box was frequently used. He was a man highly educated, and a most popular and agreeable companion.
One of Mr. Bethune's most trusted and faithful officers, and a great favorite (who shall be nameless), one time committed the great mistake of starting from Toronto to an American port an hour before the advertised time. It was supposed that he had been indulging too freely that morning, (which was most unusual), as he was practically a total abstainer, and although the mate and engineer remonstrated with the captain, it had no effect. The consequence was that he left his purser ashore and others of the crew, and what was worse, an Englishman and his wife, who intended to go with the steamer on their way to England, and who had sent the nurse and children, including a young infant, to the boat in advance, discovered, when too late, that the steamer had left. One can imagine their feelings on learning the facts. Mr. Bethune, the proprietor, on being told the state of affairs, got ready another steamer which was in port, and started in pursuit of the runaway, overtook her, and transferred the crew and passengers. Fortunately the boat arrived at her port in time, and no harm came of the affair. The captain was suspended for the trip, but on returning to Toronto was reinstated, and such was the confidence reposed in him from his general unexceptionable conduct that his own promise was deemed a sufficient guarantee that the offence would not occur again, and it never did.
Both the public and the owners of the steamboats were fortunate in obtaining the services on the different routes of men who were both popular with the former and who efficiently discharged their duties towards the latter.
There are few of those who travelled in days now long since gone by who have not a pleasant recollection of the captains referred to, and also others thus affectionately written of by one who knew many of them most intimately:
"Capt. Ralph Jones, steamer William IV.; Capt John Cowan, steamer William IV., chief officer old Frontenac, built in 1816-17; Capt. Edward Harrison, steamer Queen of the West; Capt. Thos. Miller, steamer Union; Capt. Harbottle, steamers Passport and Chicora; Capt. Chas. Perry, steamers Highlander, Bowmanville and Her Majesty; Capt. Duncan McBride, steamers Admiral and Princess Royal; Capt. Duncan Sinclair, steamers Passport, Algerian and Bavarian; Capt. Arch. Sinclair, steamer Monarch: Capt. Thos. Leach, steamers Chief Justice, Arabian and Chicora; Capt. Chas. Charmichael, steamer Kingston, burnt, captain and some of the crew and passengers lost; Capt. Duncan Milloy, steamers Zimmerman and City of Toronto; Capt. Wm. A. Milloy, steamer City of Toronto; Capt, Hon. Jno. Elmsley, steamer Sovereign; Capt. George Schofield, steamer Maple Leaf.
"And the captains on the river steamers were equally popular men, in fact all the captains in the fleet were justly so. One captain in particular is well worthy of notice, Capt. Robt. Kerr. He was one of Mr. Bethune's first, and one of his most faithful, officers, and one of the pioneers on the Rochester route, a man of very few words, always at his post, and punctuality was deemed by him of great importance. In appearance he was, as compared with most men, a giant: his height was about six feet five inches, and built in proportion, in fact, a splendid specimen of a man. His strength was immense, and yet he was one of the most quiet and inoffensive men possible, a strict disciplinarian on duty, and would allow no undue familiarity from his chief officer or crew, courteous and polite to his passengers, which rendered him a great favorite with all who knew his real worth. His son, Robt. Kerr, jr., a most promising and rising man, and the pride of the old captain, was all through the American civil war when quite a youth, and now holds some good position of trust in one of the chief railways.
"Some captains, although good seamen, are not expert in bringing a steamer to the wharf. It requires a particular sort of knack,with firm, good nerves. A clumsy man, which was the exception rather than the rule in Bethune's fleet, would run great danger in breaking fenders and lines and damaging the sides of the vessel, injuring the wharf, and running into other vessels. The most expert captain at this duty was the much-respected and popular commander, John Gordon, who was master of several steamers on the Hamilton route extending over many years. His last steamer, the City of Hamilton, was a swift boat, and it was a sight well worth witnessing to see him bring the vessel to the wharf. He would come in full speed within about two boat lengths of the wharf, and when one would fear by appearances that he would dash into it, he would ring the bell to stop, then a turn or two of the wheel to reverse, and he would lay her close alongside as quietly as a skiff coming in, without (in calm weather) using a line or injuring the paint. Many others were very expert. Those not wishing to run the risk of approaching too swiftly would use their spring lines, which only made a difference of a few minutes, but of course much depended on the weather, and how the vessel was laden. Capt. John Gordon, when the writer had the pleasure years ago of his intimate acquaintance, was a sterling good man. In appearance he was about five feet ten inches, a model in build, and a most courteous man, and in strength herculean. He was highly connected socially. His brother, a captain in one of the Highland regiments, was stationed here. Capt. John Gordon's boat was famous for the splendid table he kept, known well in those days by the travelling public. He gave up sailing many years ago, and at last accounts had turned his attention to farming near Guelph, and was prosperous and happy."
None of the owners alive in 1840 now survive, and very few, if any, of the captains or other officers, but it is more than fifty years ago, and we know that in this, as in all other things, the Latin proverb Tempus edax rerum is but too true.
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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.