Part One

By Gerald T Girvin

Commercial steam navigation on the Great Lakes began on Lake Ontario in 1817, when the small American steamer Ontario and the Canadian steamer Frontenac initiated coastal trade connecting the ports emerging along the north and south shores of the lake and on the upper St. Lawrence River.1 Two of the fastest growing settlements on the lake were incorporated as the cities of Toronto and Rochester in 1834, a year which also saw these ports connected by Ontario's first cross-lake steamboat route.

    Impetus for this route, crossing Lake Ontario at its widest breadth, originated with the citizens of the Canadian port of Cobourg, who had grown impatient with the slow speed of the sail craft trading between their port and Rochester on the opposite shore, and clamored for a steamer to be placed on the route.2 Hence in the spring of 1834, the steamer Constitution began her trips from Toronto, along the Canadian coast to Port Hope and Cobourg, thence in a southerly route across the lake on a 60 mile voyage largely out of the sight of land, to the mouth of the Genesee River where the village of Charlotte served as the port for Rochester. This cross-lake service by steamer was to connect Rochester and Cobourg without interruption for the next 116 years.3

    By the 1840s, navigation on the lake had grown to a full scale commercial enterprise. Shipping companies had been organized and incorporated on both sides of the lake. One of the most flourishing ship proprietors on the Canadian side was Donald Bethune, who began his shipping career in 1833 in Kingston with the steamer Britannia. Even with the operation of this first vessel, Bethune overextended his finances and established a business pattern which was to shadow his entire career.4

    Bethune moved his operations to Cobourg in 1840 and secured the award of the government mail contract for Lake Ontario, a service he initiated in the spring of 1841. By 1842, Bethune had an interest in at least ten steam boats, comprising what was called the Royal Mail Line, and was indeed approaching the peak of his career. The mid-1840s saw him regarded as "the largest steam boat proprietor in Canada West.5

    Bethune relocated his business to Toronto after 1845, but financial management remained a nagging problem and repeated business blunders, coupled with the recession of 1848, headed Bethune into his first bankruptcy in November of that year. He was forced to surrender his seven boats to the sheriff of York for auction. Since it was of no advantage to the Bank of Upper Canada for Bethune to sink completely, the bank, which had laid claim to the mortgaged boats a week before the bankruptcy, leased them back to Bethune in the spring of 1849. Before the season's end, Bethune had succeeded in stemming off his fate by organizing Donald Bethune and Company, and recovering ownership of the yesseIs.6

    Proprietors of the American steamboats on Lake Ontario, who were involved in what was basically a coastwise trade, but which often included stops at Canadian ports like Kingston or Toronto, engaged in successive mergers during the I 840s, culminating in the creation of the Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company in 1848. This company operated four lines on the lake and river, including a river line between Ogdensburg and Montreal, and employed I I large steamers in what had become heralded as the Great Northern Route.7

    Canadian steamers at this time, however, were owned and operated by at least six principal proprietors, often in competition, and generally employed relatively smaller vessels capable of navigating the St. Lawrence canals. In April 1850, a meeting was held in Kingston of the principal Canadian proprietors, and Articles of Agreement were drafted establishing a cooperative venture in both routes and rates. Participants were John Hamilton, MacPherson and Crane, Donald Bethune and Company, Thomas Dick and James Sutherland. Three lines were established - the Lake Mail Line from Hamilton and Toronto to Kingston, the River Mail Line from Kingston to Montreal, and the Through Line from Hamilton to Montreal direct without trans-shipment. Bethune entered the venture with one vessel, the Princess Royal, assigned to the Lake Mail Line.8

    The Princess Royal had been built in 1841, and like other wooden steamers of that era, was showing signs of depreciation by 1850. Bethune had invested some 2000 in repairs to the vessel, including new boilers and enlarged paddle wheels. Yet the "Princess" labored with vicissitude when the weather was unfavorable. She encountered great difficulty in adhering to the rigid mail schedule established by the government for service between ports of call. This problem became critical when Bethune received a blistering letter from T. A. Stayner, Deputy Postmaster General of Canada, in December 1850, concerning irregularities in mail deliveries and "numerous defaults." Particular reference was made to the Princess Royal, claiming that "her service was shame fully performed and an injustice," and telling Bethune that: has become clearly evident that she is unequal to the engagement entered into by you and that she should never have been put on the line.

    Fines were imposed on Bethune for the third quarter of 1850 amounting to 750 for the defaults of the Princess Royal.9

    Bethune replied to Stayner on December 26. He explained the repairs already made to the steamer, and pledged further improvements "by increasing the length of her cylinder and adding to her beam to raise her out of the water." And he added a statement which was his first mention of plans for a new steamer:

We are also building a new hull for the Sovereign engine, and increasing its power, so as to make the new Boat at least as fast as any upon the Lake.

Donald Bethune needed a new steamboat - and a faster one.

Building the Maple Leaf.
It was decided to build the new steamer at Kingston, the historic old Canadian city at the foot of Lake Ontario, where all the waters of the Great Lakes empty into the St. Lawrence River on their journey to the Atlantic Ocean. The site would be the Marine Railway Yard, established in 1836 by the venerable Henry Gildersleeve, and now managed by John Counter, a baker who had advanced to become the first mayor of the City of Kingston in 1841.11 The actual design and construction of the boat would be entrusted to George Thurston, the Superintendent of the Yard, regarded as "one of the best nautical draftsmen and ship builders in Canada." Captain Neil Wilkinson of Toronto, master of the Sovereign and captain-designate of the new steamer, would assist Thurston in superintending construction.12

    The shipyard had presumably advertised for tenders to supply lumber for construction sometime in the fall of 1850, for a letter to Bethune from G. 0. Cumming of Kingston, dated November 18, was a response expressing an interest in providing materials "for your new steamer to be built at the shipyard here." Bethune replied to the correspondent on December 7 with a detailed list of specifications for a supply of plank, boards and "scantlings" or timbers, made of pine or cedar, as well as four oak "carbines." In a second letter to Bethune dated December 14, Cumming offered to supply the required lumber at a cost of "ten shillings per square." Judging from the wording of this correspondence and that of Bethune's letter of December 26 to T. A. Stayner, we suspect that the keel for the new hull could likely have been laid sometime in mid-December and the creation of the Maple Leaf begun.13

    Lake steamers of the 1840s and 1850s were generally wooden-hulled vessels of shallow draft. By 1849, the locks of the St. Lawrence canals had been enlarged to 200 feet in length, 45 feet in breadth and nine feet in depth. Most Canadian line steamers on Lake Ontario were built to these canal size limits, enabling them to travel down-river to Montreal when trade warranted. Boats expressed their individuality with the shape of their hulls and placement of masts, stacks and decoration of paddle-wheel housings.14 Paddle wheels remained the most popular form of propulsion for passenger vessels, even after the advent of the screw propeller in the 1840s. Paddle steamers had several advantages for this type of trade. Large bucketed radial wheels extending out from each side of the hull gave greater stability to a high built, shallow draft vessel. The boat was more maneuverable and easier to land at small way ports. And the fact that they afforded a smoother ride than the propellers endeared them in a special way to the traveling public a tradition born out by the fact that Lake Ontario line steamers remained side-wheelers up to the very end of the passenger trade in 1949.

    Low-pressure beam engines were preferred for passenger vessels because the public sup posed that they were safer. The sight of a walking beam cranking up and down high above the main deck with its see-saw motion may have been a fascinating enactment of the energy being generated to propel the vessel. But in operation, these engines shook and chugged vociferously, much like railroad locomotives.

    Most of the passenger steamers were built as packets, designed for the conveyance of passengers and mail. Beam engines located midships left no allowance for a deep hold necessary for bulk cargo, hence any freight carried aboard was necessarily packed in barrels or crates placed on deck, facilitating gang way unloading at minor passenger stops.

    The earliest steamboats had no cabins on deck - passenger facilities were all below, as on a sailing vessel. Developments in the 1840s provided for a complete tier of cabins built above deck - with the boats being advertised as "upper cabin steamers." Between the rows of cabins on either side of the deck was located the "saloon," or large, elongated parlor whose roof rose above that of the adjoining cabin areas, the upper extremity of which was high lighted by rows of narrow horizontal clerestory windows flanking the sides of an ornamented ceiling. An attempt was usually made to so arrange the boat's machinery as to allow an uninterrupted extension of the saloon for the entire length of the upper cabin, from behind the pilot house back to the area of the stem.15

    The Kingston winter of 1850-51 was not the best of seasons for building a steamboat in an outdoor yard. We are told that:

...the unusual severity of the winter and the apparent lateness in which the harbor will be free from ice have both conjoined to retard the making ready of the Steamboats and other lake and river craft.16

    Several steamers were being rebuilt in the yard that winter, and by mid-March, the progress on:

Mr. Bethune's new steamer, as yet unnamed, had been slow - for she is but in the act of planking up, the deep snow having greatly hindered the progress of her completion.

    Her model was declared elegant and eventual completion and launching were predicted for the end of May.17

    The new steamer would be fitted out with the 75-horse-power engine from the Sovereign, an older Bethune craft lying in the Kingston yard. The Sovereign had been originally built in 1839 by the Niagara Harbour and Dock Company for the Honorable John Hamilton as the Niagara. While the builder had usually constructed engines for its vessels in its own foundry, due to a pending legal dispute between the company and Hamilton, her owner, she was reportedly towed down the lake and then down the St. Lawrence to Prescott for the installation of her engines. At this time marine engines were only being produced by the foundries at Niagara and Kingston on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario. Hence, if the Niagara were towed about a hundred miles down river beyond Kingston to Prescott at the head of the St. Lawrence rapids, it is most likely that her engines had originated in Ward's Eagle Foundry of Montreal, which provided most of the marine engines on the St. Lawrence. The Niagara was renamed the Sovereign in 1843, when she was purchased by Bethune.18

    The Sovereign had been removed from the Mail Line in the fall of 1850, and tied up at the Marine Railway Yard, where her engine was removed and taken to the Kingston Foundry to be rebuilt. The goal was a substantial increase in power, and future events were to prove those efforts successful. The rebuilt engine was installed in the new hull along with two new boilers placed side by side to be connected to two slender high smoke stacks placed abreast.19

    As the winter snows melted, progress on the hull accelerated, and by early June, work on the new steamer had advanced sufficiently to ready her for her launch. The date was scheduled for Wednesday, June 18, and Bethune planned gala festivities for the event. Company officials and "a large party of gentlefolks" arrived from Toronto and other ports to be present for the important occasion. The Kingston Argus tells us that:

...she left the ways in fine style, and plunged into her future element amidst the cheers of several hundred spectators, whom the occasion had attracted to the yard. She is a beautiful model; and if we are to judge by the swan-like grace with which she sits upon the water, she promises to be a fast-boat, and in all respects do credit to the Kingston shipwrights.

    She was christened the Maple Leaf in respect for a revered Canadian symbol.

    The Maple L Leaf was afloat! And throughout her career she was to remain a lasting credit to those dedicated shipwrights of Kingston.20

Shipwrights and mechanics were busy during the summer months finishing the decks, cabins and machinery of the Maple Leaf and completing her joiner work and decoration. An unforeseen circumstance had occurred during the boat's construction, which now necessitated some haste in initiating her into regular service. Donald Bethune had once again depleted his financial assets and entered into a personal bankruptcy. Burdened with aging vessels, he was still unable to meet strict Post Office schedules in spite of large sums of money invested in overhauls. In an attempt to correct these problems, he had built two new steamers in 1851, the Maple Leaf and the City of Hamilton. But the high cost of trying to maintain old equipment while financing the construction of new, along with stiff competition and a burdensome debt, was more than Bethune could bear.21

    The tottering Company scrambled to utilize its assets most productively in an attempt to survive. It became crucial to hurry the Maple Leaf into service in order to generate any return revenue that could be recouped. Any thought of mortgaging the steamer could not be considered until the boat was legally registered. By mid-September ship carpenters and painters were still working to complete their endeavors. Nevertheless, Customs surveyors measured the steamer as it lay at Kingston and Bethune conveyed the required information to his office in Toronto for official recording in that port as follows:


No.3 1851
This is to certify that in
pursuance of an Act passed in the eighth year of the reign of Queen Victoria entitled An Act to secure the right of property in British Plantation vessels navigating the Inland waters of this Province and not registered under the act of the Imperial Parliament of the United Kingdom passed in the third and fourth years of the reign of His late Majesty King William the Fourth, entitled an Act for the registering of British vessels and to facilitate transfers of the same, and to prevent the fraudulent assignment of any property in such vessels, Donald Bethune of the City of Toronto ill the Province of Canada, Esquire, General Partner of the United Partnership or firm of Donald Bethune and Company, Steamboat owners and common carriers having made and subscribed the Declarations required by law and having declared that the said Donald Bethune and Company are sole owners of the ship or vessel called the Maple Leaf Of the Port of Toronto, which is of the burthen of three hundred and ninety eight tons, and whereof Neil Wilkinson is master, and that the said ship or vessel was built at Kingston in the said Province of Canada in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and fifty-one, and George 0. Mailleur, Surveyor of Customs, having certified to me, that the said ship or vessel has one mast, and one deck, that her length from the inner part of the main stem to the fore part of the stern post aloft is one hundred and seventy-three two- tenths, her breadth in midships is twenty-four feet seven tenths, her depth in hold midships is ten feet six tenths, that she is propelled by steam, with an engine room seventy-one feet seven tenths in length and two hundred and three tons, that she is sloop rigged, with no bow sprit, is round sterned carvel built, has no galleries and has no figure head; and the subscribing owners have consented and agreed to the above description; and their ownership or property in the said ship or vessel called the Maple Leaf has been duly registered at the Port of Toronto aforesaid.
Certified under my hand at the Custom House in the said Port of Toronto this fifteenth day of September in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and fifty-one.

    Now that the Maple Leaf had been duly registered, Bethune was in a position to use the new steamer as mortgage collateral to help replenish his depleted finances. Two days after her Toronto registration, on September 17, Bethune closed a transaction in which all shares of the Maple Leaf were sold to John Counter. This mortgage was recorded in Toronto and appended to her registration:

    On Friday, September 19, the Maple Leaf was ready for her first voyage out of Kingston and into the open lake. She began her trial trip Friday morning, heading up the lake: the teeth of a gale of wind
which continued until the steamer was within afew miles of Toronto. 

    Whether or not Captain Wilkinson ventured out into a gale deliberately is not certain. He certainly had access to weather information from vessels arriving at the busy port from the west. That the trip under these circumstances may not have been coincidental is intimated by a report that:

    We have no record of her exact speed on this trial run, but we know that she glided past the Admiral, "one of the best sea-boats on the lake" with ease, and on her return trip she overtook the old Princess Royal near Darlington and went "gallantly ahead." The Maple Leaf arrived back in Kingston safely on Saturday morning at nine, making the round trip in less than 24 hours, ahead of the normal time for Lake Mail steamers.24

Passengers Aboard.
Soon after her trial run, the Maple Leaf sailed back to Toronto to obtain her furnishings. These had been purchased progressively during her construction and stored at the Bethune Company quarters in Toronto. Beautiful cabin furnishings -  French beds, draperies, and coverlets: elegant table service - china, silver and fine linens; and plush upholstered chairs and settees for the Saloon. In a few days the Maple Leaf was transformed into an elegant floating hotel.

    One of the most popular events in Canada in 1851 was the great Provincial Fair held at Brockville in September. Canadian steamboats on Lake Ontario anticipated capacity crowds for the event, while American steamers were extending their tourist season as well with passengers for the New York State Fair held at Rochester. It was an ideal time to introduce the Maple Leaf to the traveling public.

    An excursion was first advertised on September 23 in both Toronto and Kingston, announcing departure from Toronto at noon on Wednesday, September 24. The Maple Leaf would tentatively leave Kingston at 6A.M. on Friday, September 26, returning from Brockville late that same night. But due to inclemency of the weather on Tuesday of that week, events at the Fair were postponed and it was advertised in both cities that the entire Excursion schedule would be delayed a day, hence the Maple Leaf sailed from Toronto on her first passenger trip on Thursday, September 25 at noon, from Kingston on Saturday morning, and returned from Brockville Saturday night. Cabin passage from Toronto to Brockville was advertised at five dollars, while deck passage was available for the less affluent at half that price. Passage from Kingston was simply noted as "half the usual fare." The cost of all meals was extra. Some excursionists most likely carried their lunches.25

    The Maple Leaf was built to bolster Bethune' s participation in the Lake Mail Line which had become the Company's primary burden. When she eventually was ready for service, however, Princess Royal was not replaced on the route, and a new line was created for Maple Leaf probably in a bid for added revenue.

    The Articles of Agreement of 1850 provided for a separate Through Line in addition to the Lake and River Mail Lines. This line extended from Hamilton and Toronto down the lake and river, "shooting" the rapids of the St. Lawrence from Prescott down river to Montreal, returning up river by the canals. But the three steamers assigned to this line could not compete successfully with the nine freight vessels on the same route, which carried passengers at cheap rates as an adjunct to a prosperous freight business. Hence the Through Line was not continued by the agreement partners in 1851.26

    One of the parties to the original agreement, MacPherson and Crane of Montreal, however, decided to test the venture again the next year, operating independently. A new steamer, the Champion, was built at Montreal coincidental with the construction of the Maple Leaf. This company also rebuilt the damaged steamer Comet at the Kingston Yard and re-named her Mayflower. The Highlander, built the previous year, was chartered from Hooker and Holton, and became the third steamer on the route. Service on this new Through Line had begun on August 26.27

    The Northern Railroad had completed its line into Ogdensburg in 1850 with direct rail connections to Montreal, as well as Boston and other eastern cities. It was decided to initiate a completely new route from Toronto, paralleling the Lake Mail Line to Kingston, but then continuing on down river to Ogdensburg on the American shore above the rapids, with convenient rail connections for Montreal and Boston. The Maple Leaf began the semi-weekly service on this route on October 6, leaving Toronto at 12 Noon every Monday and Thursday, and arriving at Ogdensburg about 7 A.M. the following morning to meet the morning trains leaving for Montreal at 7:30. The new route was widely advertised to provide passage to Montreal in 27 hours (the Through Line was requiring 33 hours) and offering the option of a rapids trip to Montreal on one of the American steamers from Ogdensburg.28

    The new Maple Leaf enjoyed the adulation of newspapers in every port along her route - but no journal was quicker to praise than the Toronto Daily Patriot, whose favorite epithet for the Maple Leaf was "elegant." The paper reported that the speed of Maple Leaf had been "greatly improved" since her trial trip, and illustrated by relating that she had beat the Champion on a recent trip by twelve minutes, while on another day she had outdistanced the Passport by six minutes. She was earning the reputation of being the "new crack steamer - and with no match on these waters as a sea- boat." But repeated racing evidently had its toll, since we are told that on October 22, Maple Leaf  had "an accident to her machinery" while competing with the Passport. We are not given further details of damage to her machinery, nor any mention of repairs, but the accident could not have been too serious, since she evidently was out of service only a very short time.29

    The Patriot continued its patronage of the Maple Leaf with this laudatory description of the steamer on October 10:

If any incredulous individual feels at all doubtful of the extraordinary changes that are daily taking place in the condition of Canada, and especially in our good city of Toronto, let him step down some Wednesday or Saturday morning to the Wharves, where he will find the latest and newest of all the proud steamers that now enter our harbour - the beautiful MAPLE LEAF - a boat that truly does honour to the Canadian emblem whose name she bears.
    We know nothing of naval architecture and engineering, and cannot pretend to criticize her build, or discuss the power and completeness of her machinery, but we are indebted to her courteous captain for a few facts, which we have noted down for the information of our readers. The MAPLE LEAF' s length overall  is 181 feet; her breadth of beam, 26 1/2 feet; depth of hold, 11 feet. Like most of the newer lake boats, she has a Saloon on the upper deck, 130 feet in length with a row of state rooms on each side and a dining table capable of accommodating 100 guests, besides the ordinary cabin dining table. Of the state rooms, 12 are most comfort ably fitted up with French bedsteads, and the remainder. 32 in all, have two berths in each. Everything is new and good. The Saloon and the ladies' cabin beneath are richly decorated with white and gold cornices and panelling, the chairs and settees cushioned with crimson plush, and curtains of crimson and gold damask. Owing to the anxiety of the proprietors to place the new boat on the Ogdensburg route immediately, the carpenters and painters' work is scarce/v finished as yet, but we saw quite enough to convince us that nothing will be left undone to complete the elegance of her finish. We are particularly pleased with the profusion of stained glass, tastefully and elaborately painted by our friend Mr. E. C. Bull, whose skill has covered every glass door and window with pretty little sketches enwreathed with maple leaves, which would form quite a study for the youthful artist. Let our doubting friend, having seen this magnificent
- and what is better still, this strong and steady steamer - remember the black and comfortless craft that used, once or twice a week, to come puffing into Toronto harbour; and then let him look ahead, and think of the coming day, when dozens of such boats as the MAPLE LEAF will waft into our port their crowds of passengers for the Sault Ste. Marie, for Lake Superior, or the Saskatchewan itself - and if he does not mentally give three cheers for the MAPLE LEAF - and the Rail road - why he must be as blind as a mole - that's all!"30

The Maple Leaf was like the fulfillment of a dream - and a long leap to the future. She was, like the railroad that had not yet reached Toronto (it did in 1854), a forerunner of great and exciting things to happen in a golden future.