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Why would Sutherland, at the age of forty-nine, having successfully taken the first steps up into the entrepreneurial class, want to transfer to the employ of a railway company like the Great Western? Part of the answer lies in the fact that his social status did not decline - he remained the managing director and probably the single largest shareholder in the Magnet. Together with Andrew Heron he chartered another vessel for the 1855 Royal Mail Line, tendered for a share of the mail contract, and with some of his in-laws invested in a mill in Nottawasaga.80

Moreover, the Magnet's backers formed the single largest bloc of the Great Western's Canadian directors.81 The railway was in the process of constructing two palatial new steamboats for the Lake Ontario trade. Although it was widely announced that Sutherland would superintend the construction of the Canada and then command her, these plans somehow went awry. Nevertheless Sutherland retained some position of authority, for the operating accounts of both Great Western vessels include regular transactions with him.82 It was on a free pass issued by the Great Western that Sutherland was travelling in March 1857, eight months after the Canada and America had been laid up as a serious mistake.83

Sutherland had been in Toronto on business, probably connected with the Magnet, for he was seen in conversation with Captain Twohy on the Toronto platform.84 As the train crossed the bridge over the Desjardins Canal, on the return trip, only a few minutes from its Hamilton destination, the locomotive lurched, the wooden span shattered, and the train plunged into the ice-covered canal. Sutherland was one of almost sixty who perished in the wreckage.85 It is ironic that a man who had sailed oceans and lakes safely for thirty-two years should meet his fate in a railway accident.

Some insight into the captain's character was provided by an extended obituary in the editorial column of the Christian Guardian: "In his business he was energetic, cautious and attentive."86 Caution indeed was one of the principal traits of Sutherland's entrepreneurial career. It was most apparent in the rapidity with which he sought shelter in the established Royal Mail lines and supported the cartel agreements by which greater control was exerted over the trade's more troublesome operators.

Sutherland was a lake captain of the "old school" as it might have been described by the time of his death. Unlike some of the Magnet's later captains, who were promoted from the ranks of the pursers, he had been a sailor and a mate. His pride in this and in his record during the rebellion era fuelled the ambition to be servant to no man. But his pride and occasional outbursts of temper did not prevent him from developing an unusually strong bond with the members of his crew.

The "old school" captains had little in their apprenticeship that trained them to deal with "troublesome operators". As Sutherland lamented early in the promotion of the Magnet, "I have...been more accustomed to pull ropes than write letters".87 He quickly found that letter writing and negotiations of all descriptions were constantly required of him. An excellent captain he might be, but the constant harassment from Bethune in the early stages of the project demanded both tact and political savvy. It is to Sutherland's credit that he rose to the challenge.

Margaret Sutherland (nee Robinson).
Sutherland was also a very religious man. In all the years she was under his command, the Magnet was scheduled to lie in her home port over Sunday.88 Born a Presbyterian, he was a convert to Methodism in the 1830s.89 Despite an occupation that kept him away from home most of the week, it was said of him that "he loved his home and his family. They were to him a refuge - a retreat from the anxieties and cares of business and public life".90 This description was amply borne out in his affection for his wife, Margaret, so touchingly expressed in several letters that survive. Theirs was certainly no marriage of convenience: in 1833 neither brought any noticeable wealth to the union, one of their early residences in Toronto was rented quarters over a paint shop, and by 1851 they had no more than a live-in servant helping with the domestic tasks in their Hughson Street home in Hamilton.91 Into Margaret's care was entrusted Sutherland's estate, valued at about £4,000 and consisting largely of real estate and his shares of the Magnet.92 Before long Margaret and the vessel's other owners offered the Magnet for sale.


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This article originally appeared in Ontario History.