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In the twelve seasons Sutherland had been on the lakes, he had risen rapidly from mate to captain of an old steamer on a backwater route, to commander of one of the crack new steamers on the prestigious Toronto-Kingston trade. But the reputation he had earned on the icy decks of the Traveller in the winter of 1837-38 did not guarantee any security in his employment. When Hamilton had been retrenching in the early 1840s, Sutherland, though among the last to go, had nevertheless been released. Nor was his position any more secure with Bethune, who had also just passed through a financial crisis.20 Whether driven by ambition or a desire for greater security in the terms of his employment, Sutherland began to consider emulating the careers of Gildersleeve and Richardson. The shift from well paid professional to entrepreneur would bring with it new risks, but these the veteran captain was prepared to run.

Unlike some of the other officers of the period who dreamed of investing in their own vessels, Sutherland had not married to great advantage. Nor could his own family support any major business ventures, particularly a steamboat for the passenger trades.21 The average cost of a new wooden-hulled vessel in the 1830s was probably between £8,000 and £10,000,22 whereas Sutherland's annual salary, although substantial by his crew's standards, would only have been in the range of £250 to £300.23 To make the transition from well paid employee to capitalist he needed the help that would come from a dynamic entrepreneurial group in Hamilton, the "ambitious city".

At some point in the early 1840s, Sutherland and his young family had moved from their rented quarters in Toronto, eventually settling on a two-acre lot on the outskirts of Hamilton.24 In so doing he established contact with several of the young community's leading boosters: Sir Allan MacNab, the dashing politician, lawyer, land speculator, and railway promoter; John Young, one of the most active presidents of the Hamilton Board of Trade; and the partners in the Buchanan's wholesale mercantile firm, already one of the largest in the province.25 They and other Hamilton businessmen were anxious to break the city's metropolitan dependence on Toronto and saw transportation as a key factor in that battle. Although they were all inveterate railway boosters, they nevertheless recognized that another aspect of their dependence was rooted in the fact that all package freight and passengers coming up the length of the lake had to change vessels twice, at Kingston and Toronto. But few of Hamilton's boosters had any recent experience in building or managing steamers,26 and they quickly came to see in Sutherland the expert they needed to promote their interests. By 1844 John Young was quietly gathering information on the cost of an iron-hulled steamer designed to pass the locks of the new St. Lawrence canals then under construction.27

In spite of Young's position as one of Hamilton's foremost entrepreneurs and urban boosters, one suspects he had a larger purpose in mind in inquiring about an iron-hulled steamboat. The durability of iron as a construction material had not yet been proved, and it was so expensive that the only iron hulls assembled in the Great Lakes region to that date had been financed from naval funds.28 Whether Young made his inquiries as a stratagem for building a "civilian" gunboat or as a legitimate commercial speculation (with a built-in hedge against wartime disruption of trade) is impossible to prove.

That Young had every reason to be worried about the imminence of war is beyond question. Anglo-American relations by 1844 had undergone a succession of diplomatic crises from the Patriot raids, to the recently settled Maine boundary dispute to the simmering conflict over the Oregon boundary. In the current American presidential election campaign, the slogan "Fifty-four forty or fight!" could be distinctly heard across the border.29

Among those listening were the men responsible for planning Great Britain's defence of the Province of Canada. From the War of 1812 both they and their American counterparts had learned one lesson well: the key to the defence of Canada West lay on the Great Lakes and upper St. Lawrence. But major fortifications and the large garrisons necessary to defend them were too expensive for the economy-minded British government to contemplate. Instead, in the event of war, sufficient troops would have to be rushed into the region from Britain. The success of such a rapid movement of troops depended on control of the lakes. That control would have to be taken and guarded by the small naval contingent on the lakes, and here the strategists were constrained by the Rush-Bagot agreement, negotiated in 1817, which severely limited the number and size of armed vessels on the Great Lakes.30

What the Admiralty needed were civilian vessels - which were outside the restrictions of the Rush-Bagot agreement - that would immediately be available in that critical first stage of hostilities. Across the lake American authorities were outfitting the iron-hulled Michigan as a revenue cutter, a rather transparent subterfuge that was within the letter of the accord.31 Several months before Young's first discreet inquiries, the Niagara Harbour and Dock Company had opened negotiations with the Governor General and senior military officials about subsidizing the construction of three steamers above the Welland Canal that would meet naval standards and could be quickly armed in an emergency. The military strategists had jumped at the opportunity.32

Not long after the agreement with the Dock Company was reached in the spring of 1845, Sutherland, acting for the other, unnamed members of a Hamilton group, quietly petitioned the Admiralty, advancing a strikingly similar scheme.33 The proposal was a simple one - if the British would pay part of the cost of one or more vessels, they would be available to the Navy unconditionally on the outbreak of war in the Canadas. Otherwise the boats would remain in the hands of Sutherland and his associates. The type of vessel contemplated was a fast, double-bottomed iron steamer "of the largest class to navigate the St. Lawrence Canals".34 It would also be of a relatively shallow draft in order to enter most of the Lake Ontario harbours. Although the Hamilton group was not asking for a significantly larger subsidy than the Dock Company, it was offering a considerably more desirable vessel.35

After several months of negotiations a contract was worked out; an unsigned copy, dated May 1846, has been preserved in the Sutherland papers. It clearly set out the specifications of the vessel Sutherland was to build. By February 15, 1847, he was to "construct, build, equip & complete" a steam vessel of the following description:

Length 177 feet
Breadth (overall) 44 feet
(beam) 26 feet
Depth of hull 10 feet
Plating (bottom) 3/8 and 5/16 inches
(hull sides) 3/8 inches
Engine 82 hp low pressure
Boilers (two) 20 psi

In addition it was agreed that the ship carpenters' work would be "plain" and that the hull was to receive "one good coat" of red paint in order to prevent rust. If the vessel was required for military duty immediately upon completion, the Admiralty was to pay £15,280 Halifax Currency for her. Otherwise Sutherland and his associates were to receive £6,112, or 40 per cent of that amount, immediately and the balance, less depreciation, when and if the Admiralty required her.36

From Sutherland's perspective, it was certainly fortunate that the contract for the construction of an iron vessel had been concluded before his former employer caught wind of his actions, especially after the latter's own application for subsidies had been rejected. Even as Sutherland proceeded to gather the materials for the steamer, Bethune began to campaign to have the contract either cancelled or equivalent compensation granted to himself.37

One of Sutherland's first actions in the spring of 1846 was to arrange that the vessel would also be constructed in the yards of the Niagara Harbour and Dock Company.38 He then left for Scotland to arrange the purchase of iron for the new vessel and to clarify the terms of the contract with the Admiralty. Initially there was some talk of having the Magnet prefabricated in Great Britain and then shipped overseas, but after some discussions in Glasgow, where this had just been done with the Passport,Sutherland concluded that it would be quicker to buy the iron and hire men to work it into shape in Niagara.39

Unfortunately the whole timetable collapsed when the bond of agreement with the Governor General that would permit the captain to draw on the Treasury, and which had not been executed when he left Canada, missed the next mails. Thus it was late July before Sutherland, cooling his heels for almost two months, received sufficient funds to place the order for iron with a Liverpool dealer, and December 4 before the shipment was finally unloaded on the wharves in Niagara.40

Time began to press heavily on the enterprise. The Admiralty's deadline for completion, already extended once, was now set for June 1, 1847. An average of seventy men were retained to work on the craft, but only six of them had any experience in working with iron. Saddled with the expense of heating the work area in the winter, filled with a sense of urgency, and despairing lest he fail to meet his commitments and he and his family be ruined, Sutherland began to accuse the Harbour and Dock Company of dragging its feet.41 The boilers that his contract with the Company had specified would be ready by the beginning of February were not available at the end of May because the firm had gone ahead with other orders. "I have reason to believe," he wrote, that some of the company's servants "are doing all they can to delay my work...."42 No doubt he referred to William Cayley, former president and "quasi-manager" (as he has been described) of the Niagara Harbour and Dock Company, Inspector General of the province, and a silent business partner of Donald Bethune. Among his other commitments Cayley was personally liable for many of the debts of those vessels against which Sutherland would be running.43

His initial protests having fallen on deaf ears, Bethune launched a petition in the provincial legislature. The petition, which reprimanded the British government for interfering in the region's steamboat trade, acting in secret, and in short giving money to anyone but Bethune and his associates, received a favourable report from a select committee before being soundly defeated in the Legislative Assembly.44

Meanwhile, the launch having come off successfully, Sutherland struggled to get the Magnet finished. "Would to God I was [at] once clear of the Dock Co.," he complained bitterly to Sir Allan Napier MacNab, one of the early backers.45 To another he complained, "I have been thwarted in every imaginable way, [Bethune,Dick and Heron's] object being to delay my getting out until after the business season should be past."46 And while Sutherland and his men frantically worked, the summer drew to a close. With it passed the opportunity to generate much needed revenue from the over 60,000 immigrants, mostly Irish, many of them suffering from typhoid fever, who in this time of famine were crowding the vessels providing passage westward out of Montreal.47 Although it is true that the first-class passengers were avoiding these vessels as they would the plague, the owners were still making money. And money was what Sutherland needed most when his ship was finally ready in mid-September.

When the Magnet was measured by the customs house authorities that fall, her tonnage was calculated as 235.48 It was also determined that she varied only slightly from the terms of the original contract: a foot shorter in the length of her deck and two feet deeper in her hold.49 The hull was divided into four watertight compartments, a fact that would later prevent her complete loss.50 Although Sutherland had been approached with a visionary scheme for propelling her by high-speed jets of water, the engine room was equipped with a very traditional low-pressure, wood-burning engine.51 Some have argued that the persistence of wood-burning paddle-wheelers was evidence of some shipowners' inability to adapt to new marine technology in an age of propellers and coal-burning engines.52 But wood was still relatively cheap on the lower Great Lakes and provided faster acceleration. While propeller-driven craft could be more fuel-efficient, they moved at only half the speed of a good side-wheeler.

The Magnet's final escape from the Niagara River released a flood of optimism in her Hamilton backers. Talk was rife of a whole line of iron-hulled vessels, sisters to the Magnet, and one group of businessmen went so far as to found and incorporate the Burlington Bay Dock and Ship Building Company.53 Enthusiasm for these projects, however, waned rapidly that fall as the Niagara Harbour and Dock Company folded and the Magnet found it more difficult to break into the passenger steamboat trade than had been anticipated.54


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This article originally appeared in Ontario History.