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James Sutherland and the Magnet represent nearly the last exponents of one of the early forms of business organization in the Canadian Great Lakes passenger trade. Like Captains Henry Gildersleeve and Hugh Richardson,Sutherland wanted to do something more than sail other men's ships. Following their precedent he invested most of his resources in a vessel, and by selling his expertise as part of the package he persuaded others to join him in the venture. Both Gildersleeve and Richardson began promoting vessels a generation before Sutherland. Their careers represent different ends of the spectrum of success. Gildersleeve always owned his vessels in conjunction with several other investors and concentrated on the Bay of Quinte. He founded a shipping dynasty that was active on the lakes into the twentieth century. Richardson spent all he could to buy out his partners and after some initial success on the Toronto-Niagara run was bankrupted by Bethune. He ended his career as Toronto Harbour Commissioner. Sutherland's career represented a mid-point between success and financial ruin. He never tried to buy out his partners; in fact he was still trying to sell stock after the vessel was in the water. And while he was never bankrupt, neither could he feel completely secure in his success.

Moreover, just as Gildersleeve is representative of Kingston's economic hegemony over the Bay of Quinte in the early nineteenth century, and Richardson was close to the figures who dominated Toronto's rise to prominence, Sutherland's associates represent on a personal level the metropolitan aspirations of Hamilton. In the analysis of the newspapers, railways, and banks, and the economic hinterlands they came to dominate, it is sometimes easy to forget that these institutions were owned by groups of individual investors, many of whom cooperated in other unincorporated ventures. The smaller amounts of capital involved or the lack of institutional status does not make them a less important component in the strategies by which local investors sought to promote their communities. Nor should it be surprising that the Magnet's backers included some of Hamilton's most important business figures or that early in 1847, while the Magnet was taking shape in the Niagara dockyard, City Council adopted a shield and motto where a schooner-rigged steamer symbolized "Commerce".104 Implicit in the landward railway projects promoted by Hamilton's inveterate urban boosters was the concept of the city as a transshipment point. To a large degree the Magnet was responsible for demonstrating the general feasibility of using Hamilton Harbour as the terminus of a Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence line, a terminal point that was still being used sixty years later when the Magnet was finally retired from the passenger trade. It was this success that his associates hoped Sutherland could duplicate when they hired him to design the Great Western's shipping program.

At the same time Sutherland's trials in financing the Magnet illustrate the problems emerging in the promotion of vessels by captains. It was not easy in the pre-railroad era to gather together enough local investment capital to pay for the vessel. The international capital market was difficult to enter, and those Canadians with surplus funds had a wider range of options than ever before as banking and the real estate, commodity, construction, and retail trades boomed along with transportation. Moreover, the Magnet's iron hull represented an expensive technological advance. Despite lower depreciation costs in the long run, the immediate outlays were double those needed for a wooden vessel. To bridge this gap a promoter like Sutherland needed help. In the twentieth century it is common for governments to supply the difference between private capital and the rising cost of technology; in the mid-nineteenth century the Magnet's backers were extremely fortunate in the effect of the Oregon crisis on Admiralty expenditures. A few years later the only option for a steamboat captain eager to enter business on his own was to lower his sights and invest in less expensive vessels for the freight or excursion trades.

The Magnet was an extraordinary legacy. Although her interior design was conservative, Sutherland's vessel made an essential contribution to Canadian inland steamboat technology. Despite the British sources of some of her financing and building materials, she was Canadian in design and construction.


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This article originally appeared in Ontario History.