The quaint old steamers

The photo says it all: coal smoke belching from a hard working freighter steaming into the sun. (“Steaming Down The Sun” © Ritchie With.) When I photographed her in 1964 the era of these ships was coming to a close.

In fact, that was one reason I was able to take the picture – my friend the late Alan Howard of Toronto wanted to capture on film and sound what we could of these old-timers from the deck of one of them, SS Keewatin of Port McNicoll, in her final years running passengers and freight between there and Fort William (Thunder Bay, Ontario). We both were ship buffs and we particularly loved old steamers. So I took photos while Alan recorded their whistles. Unfortunately, after his death that material was lost and never published.

When Walk-in-the-Water, the first steamship on the upper Great Lakes, was launched at Buffalo, New York, in 1818 a new phase of lake navigation began. Steam power brought advantages over sail, especially for commercial enterprises. Maneuverability was improved, a big benefit among Georgian Bay’s myriad islands, channels and reefs. Speed was potentially greater and could be maintained as long as fuel held out. Schedules could be kept more easily and thus profits increased. Of course, steam was more expensive so wind wasn’t totally discarded commercially for another century.

Meanwhile, the design of steamers and their engines evolved from simply adapting schooner-like hulls to accept heavy propulsion machinery, to purpose-built ships. And it actually was decades before steamers were built without auxiliary masts and sails. A bit of canvas to catch the wind could help stabilize a vessel in heavy seas as well as add a little more motive power. And in the early years insurance companies insisted on new vessels continuing to carry sail as a backup to the steam engines.

Smaller than the rest of the Great Lakes, Georgian Bay’s compactness was well suited for steam power. The region’s location in the Lakes system and the diversity of its industries in the 19th and 20th Centuries saw the Bay and its ports bustling with activity. Between the eras of sail and today’s motorships, a remarkable number of steamers plied these waters. Many of them were owned by local ship operators, and many more frequently traded into the Bay from the other Great Lakes.

Half way into the 19th Century construction of wooden steamers began in some of the Bay’s ports, with their machinery being shipped in mainly from the lower lakes. When Collingwood became the terminus of the railway from Toronto in 1855, that town soon also became a leader both as a major port and leading builder of steamships. Rivalling it, however, were Owen Sound and eventually Midland which both had shipyards producing large vessels in wood and later steel.

Smaller ports like Penetanguishene, Meaford, Wiarton, Parry Sound and even tiny Byng Inlet saw various small wooden steamers and tugboats built on their shores.

Unlike today’s slab-sided monsters, lake freighters even up to the 1960s were shaped like ships rather than long boxes. And the steamers, with their white plumes displayed against black smoke (fuelled by first wood, then coal, and finally oil) billowing from their stacks, and the pleasing lines of their individual shapes, had a character and quaintness that appealed to ship buffs around the Lakes.

A few of these old-timers can still be found on the Lakes. Fortunately, many photos and even some designs of these ships have been preserved in museums and other archives, plus private collections in both Canada and the United States.

One of them, I’m very pleased to note, is now back at her old home dock in Port McNicoll, as a well preserved example of Edwardian era steamer design (actually preceding Titanic by five years). She’s the aforementioned Keewatin, the last of her kind on the Great Lakes, and maybe even beyond. (See her here

One thought on “The quaint old steamers

  1. Have read a lot about those steamships—or floating palaces of the Great Lakes. Sounds like another fascinating world to me. Thanks for shaking up my memory!


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