During the early years of the twentieth century, there were very few Canadian lake vessel operations which were not touched in some manner by the influence of James Playfair. This gentleman was one of the most colourful and versatile operators ever to appear on the Canadian lumbering or shipping scene but, at the same time, he was also a very controversial figure whose dealings were frequently considered to be new items.
James Playfair was born in Scotland in 1861 and as a youth he made his way to Canada, taking up residence in Toronto. At the age of 19, he was hired by the Toronto Lumber Company which had timber holdings in Simcoe County and mills at Collingwood. Playfair moved to Midland, Ontario, in 1883 and, in 1888, formed a partnership with D. L. White, Jr., of Midland. The original interest of this partnership was in lumbering.
In 1896, Playfair broadened the scope of his operations and entered the lake grain trade. He acquired the small wooden freight steamer W. B. HALL, which had been built in 1885, had her lengthened at the Polson Shipyard at Owen Sound, renamed her (b) ST. ANDREW, and placed her in the grain trade between Fort William and Goderich. His partners in this enterprise were John Waldie of Toronto, and Captain Featherstonhaugh who was master of ST. ANDREW. She served Playfair for five seasons but, on September 20, 1900, she stranded on Blanchard Island in Lake Superior and became a total loss.
Playfair did not long remain away from lake shipping, however; in 1901, he and White, his earlier partner, combined to incorporate the Midland Navigation Company Ltd., Midland, Ontario. The new company had a canaller built to its order in 1901, and then added upper lakers in 1903 and 1907 and two more canallers in 1907 and 1908. The Midland Navigation Company Ltd. remained active until 1910. Playfair had gradually become involved with the MacKays of Hamilton and their Inland Navigation Company Ltd., and in 1910 he acquired complete control of this firm, merging it with his own Midland Navigation Company Ltd. to form Inland Lines Ltd., Midland.
It should be noted that two of the vessels owned by the Midland Navigation Company Ltd. were actually registered for several years to a subsidiary concern, the Empress Transportation Company Ltd. of Midland.
In any event, over the subsequent years, Playfair and his various associates went on to control or at least have substantial interest in Northern Navigation Company Ltd., Midland Towing and Wrecking Company Ltd., Canadian Towing and Wrecking Company Ltd., Sin-Mac Lines Ltd., Consolidated Oka Sand and Gravel Company Ltd., Canada Cuba Line, Georgian Bay Tourist Company of Midland, Muskoka Lakes Navigation and Hotel Company Ltd., Glen Line Ltd., Glen Steamships Ltd., Glen Transportation Company Ltd., Great Lakes Transportation Company Ltd., Great Lakes Navigation Company Ltd., Great Lakes Transit Corporation Ltd., Midland Steamships Ltd., Northwest Transportation Company Ltd., Midland Coal and Dock Company, Fort William Coal and Dock Company, various grain elevators at Midland, Toronto Elevators Ltd., Midland Drydock Company Ltd., Midland Shipbuilding Company Ltd., Canadian Vickers Ltd., and the St. Lawrence Marine Repair Dock Corporation Inc.
James Playfair died on May 25, 1937, but he left a lasting legacy in the ships that he had built and operated and the companies that he had formed or revitalized in times of difficulty. Many fleets currently active on the Canadian side of the lakes owe their existence to the efforts of James Playfair and, had it not been for his activities, the Canadian lake shipping industry might have developed in an entirely different manner.
There follows a detailed history of each vessel known to have been owned and/or operated by the Midland Navigation Company Ltd. It is possible that other steamers may have been chartered by the company for brief periods of service prior to the merger with Inland Navigation Company Ltd. in 1910.
MIDLAND KING, (C.116661). Steel bulk carrier built 1903 at Collingwood by Collingwood Shipbuilding Co. Ltd., Hull 4. Launched Aug. 19, 1903. 366.5 x 48.0 x 28.0, 3965 Gross, 2450 Net. Built for Midland Navigation Co. Ltd. Absorbed 1910 into Inland Lines Ltd., Midland, and 1913 into Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., Montreal. 1914 Canadian register shows owner as James Playfair, Midland, an apparent error. Bound light from Port McNicoll to Fort William, Capt. A. T. Pyette, collided May 18, 1922 with GLENFINNAN in position southeast of Passage Island, Lake Superior. Sustained damage of approx. $20,000. Operated by C.S.L. until onset of Great Depression. After lengthy period of inactivity at Toronto, sold 1937 to Steel Company of Canada Ltd. and towed to Hamilton. Steering gear removed and placed in ROBERT P. DURHAM. Dismantled 1938 at Hamilton.
MIDLAND PRINCE, (C.H6669). Steel bulk carrier built 1906-07 at Collingwood by Collingwood Shipbuilding Co. Ltd., Hull 9. Launched Dec. 5, 1906. 474.0 x 55.0 x 28.0, 6133 Gross, 4560 Net. Built for Midland Navigation Co. Ltd. Absorbed 1910 into Inland Lines Ltd., Midland, and 1913 into Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., Montreal. 1914 Canadian register shows owner as Midland Nav. Co. Ltd., an apparent error. Fractured crank shaft May 17, 1910 while on Saginaw Bay; repaired at Detroit. Bound loaded Fort William to Midland, Nov. 4, 1916, collided with tanker IMPERIAL (I) in position east of Passage Island, Lake Superior; damage relatively minor to each ship. While being towed light from Port Colborne, Dec. 6, 1924, was swept on reef at outer entrance, crushing and sinking tugs JOSEPH H. and HOME RULE. Freed Dec. 7 but both tugs abandoned as total losses. Downbound with grain, May 11, 1925, found to be afire off Dunkirk, N.Y. Assistance rendered by THEODORE H. WICKWIRE and two Buffalo fireboats; fire controlled early next morning. Rebuilt winter 1928-29 at Midland by Midland Shipbuilding Co. Ltd. and converted to conveyor-type self-unloader, 6339 Gross, 4244 Net. Reboilered 1966 at Collingwood with boilers built 1941. Retired at end of 1967 season and laid up at Kingston. Sold 1968 to Marine Salvage Ltd., Port Colborne, and resold through Jacques Pierot Jr. & Sons to Disguaces y Recuperaciones del Sur (Emilio Alonso Castrillo), Spain. Towed from Quebec with C. A. BENNETT by tug ROTESAND, June 7, 1969 and arrived late June at Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain. Dismantling begun July 31, 1969.
MIDLAND QUEEN, (Br. & C.110991). Steel bulk carrier built 1901 at Dundee, Scotland. 249.0 x 42.7 x 20.5, 1993 Gross, 1349 Net. Built for Midland Navigation Co. Ltd. Early in career, spent a year chartered to Dominion government for use as a lighthouse tender. Absorbed 1910 into Inland Lines Ltd., Midland, and 1913 into Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., Montreal. 1914 Canadian register shows owner as Midland Nav. Co. Ltd., an apparent error. Chartered Mar. 10, 1915 to Nova Scotia Steel & Coal Co. for wartime service on salt water, and later to Dominion Iron & Steel Co. Ltd. While en route to Newport, Monmouthshire, England, Aug. 4, 1915, torpedoed and sunk off Fastnet, England. She was the first laker lost to enemy action during World War I.
MOUNT STEPHEN (10), (b) EMPRESS OF FORT WILLIAM, (Br. & C.125443). Steel bulk carrier built 1908 at Wallsend-on-Tyne by Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd. 250.0 x 43.0 x 20.0, 2181 Gross, 1382 Net. Built for Midland Navigation Co. Ltd. but soon transferred to Empress Transportation Co. Ltd., Midland. Absorbed 1910 into Inland Lines Ltd., Midland, and 1913 into Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., Montreal. Chartered Mar. 10, 1915 to Nova Scotia Steel & Coal Co. for wartime service on salt water. Operated 1915 hauling coal from Sydney, N.S., to Montreal. Damaged by ice near Glace Bay, N.S., May 6, 1915. While en route South Shields to Dunkirk, Capt. W. D. Shepherd, mined and sunk in the English Channel off Dover, Feb. 27, 1916.
We can but guess at the colours worn by the Midland Navigation ships prior to 1910. The hulls appear to have been black in the later years but there is reason to suspect that this may not necessarily always have been so. MIDLAND QUEEN appears in a very early photo with a narrow stripe, possibly red in colour, around her hull. Cabins were generally white, although MIDLAND QUEEN originally had her after cabin, deckhouse, and texas painted a dark colour, perhaps red or brown. The stack colours are not known, but the design did include a band on which was carried a flag bearing a diamond and the letters 'M.N.Co.'. The two Empress Transportation canallers carried the same flag and diamond insignia but on a white band separated from a black smokeband and a buff lower stack by what appear to have been two very narrow red bands.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.