Anyone familiar with Georgian Bay likely has heard of the inter-island steamer Midland City. When I first wrote this around 2004 for the Midland Free Press there might even have been a few people still living who had worked on the beloved old boat or who, like me, at least had a ride on her.
Those were the days when the Midland City steamed up the shore to Parry Sound in the afternoons, dropping freight, mail and passengers at island communities along the way. Early the next morning she would depart the Sound for Midland, arriving there sometime before noon. After meeting the Toronto train at the town dock she would load up and repeat the procedure.
We were going to town to do some shopping and, since it was just after the Second War and fuel still was in short supply, it was decided to make the trip on the Midland City. We boarded about mid-morning at the Royal Hotel dock in Honey Harbour, and I immediately raced to the main deck and glued myself to the rail to watch the familiar scenery from this lofty vantage point.
To me at that age any boat over about 20 feet (7 metres) was big. Craft like the Waterbus, Brodeur’s gas boat Julie F., and W.E. Preston’s floating grocery store – all of them probably no more than 40 feet – were huge in my young eyes. The Midland City then was a real ship and she was really BIG, about the largest vessel I had ever seen close-up. It was a dream moment for a nine-year-old boy.
With a toot from the whistle the ship eased clear of the dock and picked her way south along the narrow channel past Picnic Island, around the end of Roberts Island, across the mouth of Beausoleil Bay and into the main shipping channel to Midland.
It was a fine summer’s day, sun beaming down and a light breeze rippling the open waters south of Beausoleil. Full of enthusiasm, I dragged the rest of the family up to the open foredeck, the favourite place on a ship for kids who don’t want to miss a thing.
And what a sight we beheld! A marine panorama that lives on in my mind’s eye 75 years later. Off to the left and coming towards us was the venerable old Waterbus carrying fresh milk and freight for cottagers between Honey Harbour and Cognashene. Scattered across the wide channel in the distance were a dozen small boats of varying sizes. To our right and heading straight for us, it seemed, was an enormous black smoke-belching monster that towered over the Midland City as it approached.
Now, as stated above, our ship was big for our part of the world at 150 feet (about 46 metres). The mammoth charging towards us was 200 feet longer, much wider and higher and nearly six times the gross tonnage. She was the SS Eastern States. With her sistership Western States and other big U.S. cruise ships like the North American and South American, she would bring hordes of American tourists to Canadian ports like Midland. Such visits were a boon to the local economy.
The Eastern States was just departing from an overnight stay at the Midland town dock. She had rounded Midland Point and was working up speed towards the open bay as we turned into the steamer channel going in the opposite direction.
Enthralled with the spectacle of this huge, stately black steamer with white superstructure festooned with hundreds of waving passengers along her rails, I watched the great paddlewheels churn up gouts of spray as they pushed the big ship along. The air above us suddenly was rent by blasts from the Midland City’s whistle as she signalled her intent to pass starboard-to-starboard. The large chime steam whistle on the towering smokestack of Eastern States thundered an acknowledgement that seemed to curl my sneaker-clad toes.
From Eastern States’ bow streamed long steep waves that swept ever wider from both sides. As they reach the lowly Waterbus, which to me had seemed too big to feel anything from a passing boat, she rocked and rolled to a frightening degree. Then we steamed into the wake and I got the surprise of my short life when the Midland City herself pitched and rolled as the bigger ship grandly plowed her way past us, leaving a trail of black coal smoke to dissipate in the breeze.
The Midland City really was small, I realized then, even though to we kids she had seemed like the Queen Mary of Georgian Bay. There is an excellent photo in Midland’s Huronia Museum’s collection that shows the relative size of these ships. The Midland City is moored at the town dock in the foreground. Dwarfing her in the background are the famous Canadian steamer Noronic and the popular twins North and South American. (The photo also can be seen on page 222 of James P. Barry’s “Georgian Bay – An Illustrated History”.)
On the way back to Midland one day in the late 1930s a family friend, Arthur Birks, was aboard going to catch the train to Toronto after a visit to Wahnuhke. As the Midland City rounded Present Island she cut the turn too closely and hit bottom hard. By the time she neared Midland Point she was leaking so badly the captain ran her on a sandbar. The skipper sent for small boats to take the passengers across the bay to the town dock. The story goes that while awaiting rescue they were entertained by Mr. Birks banging out popular tunes of the day on the ship’s piano, to the enjoyment of many.
Years later, while upbound near the reef-strewn O’Donnell Point area on a rough and windy day, the ship’s engine stalled. As she drifted closer to almost certain doom on the rocks, legend has it that a terrified woman sat down at the piano and desperately played “Nearer My God To Thee”. It worked, because the engine restarted and the skipper clawed the ship away from danger.
Before she was retired and eventually dismantled in the mid-1950s, sometimes I was on the dock at Honey Harbour or Minnicog or Whalen’s (Cognashene) when the Midland City came in. The crew would bustle around as they tied her up, lowered the gangway, let people on or off, and hauled freight onto the dock. Above at the rails curious passengers gawked at us and we at them. From the dark interior wafted aromas, faintly tantalizing, probably a mixture of cooking and sweets from the snack bar and typical ship odours of diesel, rope and deck caulking.
Nice memories of a time long gone.