The canallers were an interesting breed of lake steamship. They were perhaps the hardest worked of all the lakers as they shuttled back and forth through the old St. Lawrence and Welland Canals with their cargoes of grain and coal as well as just about anything else that could be crammed into their small holds. But if the lives of the canallers were busy, they were also frought with danger, for the canallers were continually bumped in and out of locks hardly bigger than themselves, flushed down the rapids of the upper St. Lawrence, operated in close proximity to ships many times larger than they, and pushed into storms on the upper lakes and the Gulf of St. Lawrence which they might better have weathered in some sheltered anchorage. Be this as it may, very few of them were totally lost in accidents within the confines of the Great Lakes area (although a number did succumb to enemy action and to heavy weather on salt water during both wars). NISBET GRAMMER, our October Ship of the Month, had the misfortune to be one of the unlucky canallers that met an untimely demise in a watery grave.
To properly trace the story of NISBET GRAMMER, it is necessary to go back in time to December 22, 1922 on which date was formed the Eastern Steamship Company Ltd. of St. Catharines, Ontario. The founding fathers of this concern were Judge Louis B. Hart, John J. Rammacher, Edwin T. Douglass, John B. Richards, Norman P. Clement, G. J. Grammer, and the latter's son Nisbet Grammer who also was president of the Eastern Grain, Mill and Elevator Corporation of Buffalo. These gentlemen all had connections with the grain business and all were associated with the firm of Boland and Cornelius, Buffalo vessel managers, and they formed the new company in order to operate ships capable of carrying to eastern coastal ports the grain which the upper lakers were forced to unload at ports such as Buffalo and Port Colborne due to their inability to transit the small locks of the old canals. Nisbet Grammer was named to the position of president of the Eastern Steamship Company Ltd. and Boland and Cornelius, quite naturally, were the operating managers.
Eastern's principals were not experienced in the operation of canal boats or in the building of them, so on the day the company was formed, they made an arrangement with the well-known shipping entrepreneur A. B. Mackay of Hamilton to obtain for the firm the vessels it would need. Mackay was also named to the position of chairman of Eastern. He was to obtain ten new steam powered canallers and he departed immediately for Great Britain to see what could be obtained from British shipyards. It appears that Mackay dealt with Messrs H. E. Moss and Company of Liverpool, who were represented by one Mr. A. G. Jones, and that contracts were let to five British yards who were each to construct two canallers. The yards involved were Napier and Miller Ltd., Old Kilpatrick, Scotland; J. Samuel White and Company, East Cowes, Isle of Wight; Furness Shipbuilding Company Ltd., Haverton Hill on Tees, England; Earles Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd., Hull, England, and Cammell Laird and Company Ltd. of Birkenhead, England. In addition to the two vessels ordered for Eastern, the Cammell Laird yard was also given an odd order for a single ship of the same design. This boat proved to be the EUGENE C. ROBERTS which became the property of A. B. Mackay and appears to have been built as his commission for obtaining the other ships for Eastern. She never ran under Eastern colours.
Cammell Laird made quite an affair out of the launching, a full report of which was carried in The Journal of Commerce on Monday, April 16th, 1923. The sponsor of NISBET GRAMMER was Mrs. A. B. Mackay who, for performing her duties, was handed a bouquet of flowers by Miss Nancy Laird. Mr. R.S. Johnson, managing director of the shipyard, also presented Mrs. Mackay with a gold manicure set in a tortoise-shell case! The report indicated that Mrs. Mackay was very graceful in the discharge of her duties at the ceremonies but also stated that "she threw the bottle with the greatest accuracy and hit the ship exactly on the spot", a description which might lead one to wonder whether she had been practising at the local baseball diamond back home. It was her first launching but she professed that now she had launched one ship, she wanted to do another! As the boat slid stern-first down the ways into the waters of the Mersey, the sun made a dramatic appearance from behind the clouds, an event reported as being an auspicious omen for the ship's career. If only it had been so.
NISBET GRAMMER measured 253.0 feet in length, 43.1 feet in the beam and 17.9 feet in depth. Her Gross Tonnage was 1725 and her Net was 1110. She was classed BS* (Great Lakes and River St. Lawrence) with the British Corporation and was designed with a hold capacity of 130,000 cubic feet for the carriage of grain. Mean draft while loaded was 14 feet. She was given a double bottom which extended all the way fore and aft, the peaks being fitted for the carriage of water ballast. There were three watertight bulkheads and one which was not watertight.
NISBET GRAMMER was powered by a surface-condensing inverted triple-expansion steam engine with cylinders of 16, 27 and 44 inches diameter and a stroke of 33 inches. This machinery gave her a speed of about 10 knots. Steam was supplied at 180 p.s.i. by two single-ended Scotch boilers which were 12 feet in diameter and 11 feet long. They were coal-fired and were fed from wing bunkers which were filled by means of a hatch in the top of the boiler casing in the after cabin.
Double-barrelled steam deck winches were located aft of hatches number one and six and in addition a steam snubbing capstan was placed on the forecastle deck. A large steam windlass was also fitted on the forecastle for use in manipulating the anchor chains. Two anchors were housed in bow pockets. Steering of the vessel was accomplished by means of rods and bevel gearing which operated a Wilson-Pirrie steam steering gear aft. An emergency tiller was located on deck aft and this could be operated with relieving tackle with leads to the capstan.
The steamer was painted in the Eastern Steamship Company's original colour scheme. Her hull was a brown shade and the cabins were white. We can only guess at the stack colours because we have found no historians who can recall them with any certainty and our only source of information is the odd rare photograph showing the Eastern boats in their early years. The smokeband at the top of the stack was black and there was a wide white band on which was superimposed a large black letter 'E'. Above and below the white band were narrow bands of what appears to have been red. Underneath the lower red band was a very narrow black stripe and the remainder of the lower portion of the stack also seems to have been red.
NISBET GRAMMER passed her trials (presumably held on the Mersey) with flying colours and she was handed over to the Eastern Steamship Company Ltd. in late April. She was brought across the Atlantic under her own power and, like most British-built canallers, probably carried a cargo of Welsh coal on her delivery voyage.
The GRAMMER entered service for Eastern on her arrival in Canada and apparently served her owners well. She and her nine cohorts, FRANK B. BAIRD, NORMAN P. CLEMENT, WILLIAM H. DANIELS, EDWIN T. DOUGLASS, ALBERT C. FIELD, JUDGE HART, WATKINS F. NISBET (which followed NISBET GRAMMER from Cammell Laird), ROBERT W. POMEROY and JOHN J. RAMMACHER, formed the nucleus of a fleet which was so successful in its early years that late in 1924 the company went back to British yards with orders for eleven more canallers for delivery in 1925 and 1926.
NISBET GRAMMER looked very much like the other nine Eastern steamers completed in 1923 and like them she changed her appearance very early in her career. The first change came in the first year or so of operation. It seems that Eastern management was not much enamoured of the brown hull colour which it had chosen for its steamboats and before long the ships were turning up with black hulls and white forecastles. This was definitely a change for the better and thereafter the Eastern boats were indeed classy in appearance. The second change was the fitting of an enclosed upper pilothouse, another move which did nothing but good things for the appearance of the steamers. Gone were the years when it was thought to be a mark of distinction and honour for the master and wheelsman to brave the elements in the storms of autumn while standing in straw-filled barrels on the open bridge and so from about 1925 onwards, the Eastern canallers sported rather small wooden upper pilothouses which perched atop the old cabin. The later series of Eastern canallers came from their builders with large square texas cabins and enclosed pilothouses above.
At about the same time as the Eastern boats received their new hull colours, the original stack design disappeared. Thereafter, the line's steamers had black stacks with the white band and black 'E'. This design was to last until the company ceased operations in 1936.
The first three seasons proved to be uneventful for NISBET GRAMMER but her fourth, 1926, was to be her undoing. On May 31st of that year, the GRAMMER was downbound in Lake Ontario with a cargo of grain. The weather was calm and, not surprisingly for that time of year, the lake was shrouded in a dense fog.
The year 1926 had seen an expansion in the package freight service provided by the Canada Atlantic Transit Company which operated steamers from Canadian ports to Lake Michigan. The company, which was controlled by the Canadian federal government, was the beneficiary of the transfer of two salt-water steamers from the Canadian Government Merchant Marine, namely the CANADIAN GUNNER and CANADIAN HARVESTER, canal-sized vessels which had been built just after the end of the first war. The first-named ship had been rechristened CANATCO and had already made her appearance on the lakes. The second was renamed DALWARNIC and on May 31, 1926 she was feeling her way through the fog on Lake Ontario, upbound on her delivery voyage.
Off Thirty Mile Point in eastern Lake Ontario, the paths of the two ships crossed. The DALWARNIC rammed NISBET GRAMMER and the deeply loaded grain carrier was badly holed. She began to take on water rapidly and wasted no time in making her way to the bottom of the lake. Fortunately, the DALWARNIC was able to remain close by and rescued the GRAMMER's crew, all of whom had made good their escape from the sinking steamer and were fished from the lake.
As might be expected, the inimitable Captain Demers, Dominion Wreck Commissioner, called for an enquiry into the accident and the following are the results as reported in the July 1926 issue of Canadian Railway and Marine World:
"Capt. L. A. Demers, Dominion Wreck Commissioner, with Captains J. Ewart and J. Williams as nautical assessors, opened an investigation at Toronto, June 15, into the collision between the DALWARNIC and the NISBET GRAMMER, when the latter was sunk off Thirty Mile Point in Lake Ontario on May 31.
"Judgment was given at Ottawa, June 22, the certificate of Capt. J. A. Cuthbert of the DALWARNIC being suspended for the rest of the season for having failed to exercise the caution which is expected of all seamen, but it was recommended that he be given a first mate's certificate for the season.
"The certificate of Capt. A. Laking of the NISBET GRAMMER was suspended for failing to give implicit instructions to his officer and M. Robson's certificate as first mate was suspended for three months for not having stopped his ship, sounded alarm signals and called the captain, thereby taking upon himself full responsibility. It was recommended that he be given a second mate's certificate if a certified second officer is obligatory on lake steamships.
"The DALWARNIC's mate was exonerated."
NISBET GRAMMER was the only steamer that the Eastern Steamship Company Ltd. ever managed to lose and it was indeed fortunate that her sinking was not accompanied by the loss of any of her crew. Eastern had a relatively good safety record and had the GRAMMER managed to avoid the meeting with DALWARNIC that foggy day out on Lake Ontario, it is highly probable that, along with the other Eastern canallers she would have passed to the ownership of the Upper Lakes and St. Lawrence Transportation Company Ltd. of Toronto in 1936.
Of the 21 canallers originally built for Eastern and the 20 that passed to Upper Lakes and St. Lawrence during the difficulties of the Great Depression, six were lost on salt water during the second war, namely FRANK B. BAIRD, ALBERT C. FIELD, JOHN A. HOLLOWAY, WATKINS F. NISBET, ROBERT W. POMEROY and GEORGE L. TORIAN. Two more were lost by Upper Lakes due to accidents on fresh water, these being JUDGE HART and WILLIAM C. WARREN which were the victims of strandings in 1942 and 1947 respectively. The WARREN was subsequently salvaged and ran for another operator into the 1960's. The remaining twelve all lasted into the 1960's but all but two were scrapped during that decade. Today, only two survive; CHARLES R. HUNTLEY and NORMAN B. MacPHERSON, both units of the second group of ships ordered by Eastern, have been converted for use as dredges, the latter vessel under the name ILE d'ORLEANS.
NISBET GRAMMER came up short in the luck department. Considering that she lasted only into her fourth season of operation, it is not surprising that she was not often captured on film. Indeed, the photograph of her launching which appears in this issue is the only photograph of the vessel of which we are aware. Should any of our readers happen to know of a photograph of NISBET GRAMMER in operation, we should be glad to learn of it so that we might present it for our readers in these pages. Strangely enough, the third vessel of the order from Cammell Laird, EUGENE C. ROBERTS, which was built for A. B. Mackay himself, is also proving to be most elusive and we have never seen a photograph of that ship under her original name either, although several of our members recall having seen the ship with that name on her bows.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.