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The Magnet. From the collection of the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology.
Niagara. July 2, 1847. A large crowd of spectators gathered on the premises of the Dock Company to watch a launching. More were crowded aboard the steamers Admiral and Telegraph, while the military officials observed the proceedings from HMS Cherokee riding at anchor in the river.1 The object of their attention was the iron hull lying on the ways, one of the very first constructed in these waters.2 The launch came off perfectly and the ship settled into the Niagara's waters "in fine style". With no little sense of relief and accomplishment among Captain James Sutherland and her other owners, the vessel was christened the Magnet.3

For the Magnet this moment marked an auspicious beginning to a career that would span eighty years. Together with the Passport, launched in Kingston just a few months before, the Magnet was the first of a new generation of vessels in the Great Lakes steamboat trades. They were designed to combine durability with the most efficient use possible of the new St. Lawrence canals then reaching completion. Products of what some have seen as a golden age of the steamboat trade - those years between the Upper Canadian rebellion and the opening of the Grand Trunk Railway - both vessels would survive to see the railway nationalized. In the interim, the Magnet's career involved it in many of the organizational changes in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence steamboat trade in the latter half of the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Captain James Sutherland.
For Captain Sutherland the launch marked the opening of a stage in his professional life that is important for the insight it provides into the ambitions and frustrations of one of the region's steamboat captains. His efforts to climb into the uneasy ranks of the entrepreneurial class furnish a useful counterpoint to studies of similar entrepreneurs on the Great Lakes.4 At the same time, many facets of his career parallel those of two other Upper Canadian steamboat captains and promoters in the pre-railway era, Henry Gildersleeve and Hugh Richardson.5 Together, their efforts define one of the principal types of vessel ownership of that period, the promoter vessel. Such a steamer was owned by a large number of partners, each of whom held one or more shares in the enterprise and who were collectively and individually liable for all her debts. As I have argued elsewhere, the promoter steamboats were unique because "in addition to a substantial portion of the capital, [the promoter] brought to the enterprise a knowledge of steamboat operations which was applied to the day-to-day management of the boat. The balance of the necessary funds was then contributed by other investors who were attracted by the promoter's reputation."6 What makes Sutherland's experience particularly significant is that his vessel was built much later than the typical promoter steamboat, in an era when the rising cost of steamboat technology led investors to think twice about backing a vessel with unlimited liability.



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This article originally appeared in Ontario History.