Mechanical Operating History

A specific examination of the mechanical operating history of the Maple Leaf is presented to aid the interpretation of the archaeological record found in the engineering spaces. However, before examining specifics, a brief historical synopsis of the vessel's general working career is presented. For the purposes of this report it is not meant to be a thorough examination of the vessel's history. It is only intended to provide an outline of the historical context in which the steamboat operated.

The Maple Leaf was built in 1851 in Kingston, Ontario for service on Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence River (Figures 1 and 2). The side wheel paddle steamer measured 173.2 feet between stem and stern posts (181 feet overall), 24.7 feet beam, and 10.6 feet depth of hold. A low pressure walking beam engine powered the vessel with steam supplied by two boilers (Certificate of Ownership 1851).

Donald Bethune, Maple Leaf's owner and managing general partner of Donald Bethune and Company, had the vessel built to operate on the Through Line between Hamilton and Montreal. Although Bethune operated the largest fleet of steamboats on the Great Lakes at the time, his influence was ebbing by 1850. Much of his profit came from lucrative Canadian mail contracts. Bethune slowly let the contracts slip from his control by allowing a new group of aggressive steamboat owners to prey on his bad business practices (Baskerville 1975:146-147). In addition, he owned an aging, slow fleet that cost him considerable fines in 1850 for failing to meet postal schedules (Girvin 1993:66). Building a fast new steamboat, the Maple Leaf, was his last desperate attempt to remain in the steamboat business.

Unfortunately for Donald Bethune, the Maple Leaf did not solve his financial problems. The vessel operated on the Through Line in 1852, from Hamilton to Kingston, but proved unprofitable. The following year, the steamboat was assigned to the north shore Lake Mail Line running between Hamilton and Ogdensburg (Girvin 1993:73). Financially, Bethune reached dire straits in late 1853. He fled to England after relieving his business partners of the company's paid-up capital (Baskerville 1975:147).

The stunned and embarrassed partners soon decided to place the Maple Leaf on the cross-lake route. In early spring 1854, the vessel began service between Toronto and Charlotte, New York. Charlotte, located at the mouth of the Genesee River, is the port for Rochester, New York. The Bethune Company finally liquidated all assets in 1855, selling the Maple Leaf to a new company based in Rochester (Girvin 1993:77-81).

The Maple Leaf continued to operate out of Rochester for the remainder of its career on the Great Lakes. The cross-lake route to Canadian ports on the north shore continued to be the vessel's most important trade (Figure 3).

As the decade proceeded, railroad competition increased as lines extended along the lake shore. The financial panic of 1857 further undermined the steamboat trade causing many owners to lay-up their vessels and others to go out of business. The Maple Leaf survived because the cross-lake route was critical to the economic welfare of Rochester. The vessel's owners also expanded their profit base by offering an increasing number of excursion trips (Girvin 1993:92-94). This demanding schedule also caused accelerated wear and tear on all parts of the ship.

The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, found the Union fleet in a dismal state of repair. The small number of government owned vessels made an immediate Federal blockade of Confederate ports nearly impossible. Further, the Union Army required vessels to supply and carry troops. Almost overnight this situation created a tremendous demand by the federal government for surplus merchant vessels. Soon, civilian vessel owners across the United States and Canada were selling and leasing their vessels for the war effort. In August 1862, after eleven years on Lake Ontario, the Maple Leaf was purchased by Boston investors for lease to the Federal Government as a U.S. Army transport.

The Maple Leaf served nineteen months on the southeast Atlantic coast until the early morning hours of April 1, 1864. While steaming down the St. Johns River near Jacksonville, Florida the steamboat struck a Confederate torpedo (Figure 4). It settled to the bottom in less than two minutes leaving the upper deck awash. Four men died in the explosion but the remaining crew and passengers escaped in lifeboats (Proceedings of a Board of Survey Upon the Steamer Maple Leaf [PBS] April 2, 1864).

The Maple Leaf sank in the navigation channel and remained a menace to shipping for two decades. In 1882 and 1888 the Army Corps of Engineers contracted Roderick G. Ross of Fernandina, Florida to remove the remains. The contract called for clearing all obstructions to a depth of 18 feet below mean water (U.S. Army Engineers 1882, 1888). Ross used explosives to break up large pieces of the ship including the paddle wheels, shaft, gallows frame (A-frame) and hogging trusses. Some of the debris was deposited on the shoreline and other pieces were left on the site. The engineering spaces were heavily damaged but the lower hull remained relatively intact (Russell 1883).

This demolition was not the first known damage sustained by the Maple Leaf. Major and minor machinery breakdowns as well as damage to the hull and superstructure occurred as part of the steamboat's normal operational use. Several factors contributed to the daily wear and tear. A large capital investment and high operating expenses are inherent with steam vessels. A return on the investment and profit are only realized when the vessel is working. The resulting heavy schedule placed on these ships to generate a profit caused severe stress and strain on their propulsion systems. Imperfections in design and material, human error and acts of god caused additional breakdowns.

The Maple Leaf makes a good case study of a steamboat's mechanical operating career as revealed by the 1993 investigation. The strains of long shipping seasons and tight schedules show in the archaeological record. Historical documentation of the vessel's career is paramount to interpreting this record. The information helps fill gaps in the archaeological record and explain many details found in the engineering spaces. It is even more important for describing components of the ship that are now gone.

The following discussion centers on events, accidents and repairs as reported by the local press and other sources. Articles written early in the vessel's career generally provide the best descriptions. The engine was taken from an older Bethune boat, Sovereign (originally the Niagara), built in 1839 (Daily British Whig [DBW], March 26, 1851; Heyl 1967:251). The engine builder is not known but may have been Ward's Eagle Foundry of Montreal. This 75 horse power engine was rebuilt by the Kingston Foundry to increase power before installation in the new hull (Girvin 1993:67-68).

An accident on June 12, 1854 caused enough damage to the engine to warrant installing a whole new power plant. The pin fastening the piston rod to the walking beam broke allowing the piston to smash into the cylinder bottom. The disabled vessel was towed to Kingston for repairs by the steamer Boston. "A new cylinder was made at the Kingston Foundry, which along with other repairs, has given her a complete new engine" (Daily News [DN], July 29, 1854; Girvin 1993:79). Each year, down time during winter lay over was used to make repairs and paint the ship. Over the years, worn machinery parts required replacement to prevent breakdowns during the operating season. A new piston was installed in the cylinder during the winter of 1859/1860. This work was done in Rochester, New York by E. Burroughs (Union Advertiser [UA], March 20, 1860). By the time the Maple Leaf sank in the St. Johns River, new engine components completely replaced the original engine.

Two new cylindrical boilers were installed during construction to provide steam for the engine (BDW March 26,1851). They were located in the lower hull amidships on each side of the A-frame, or gallows frame, and marked by two tall smoke stacks. Tremendous forests grew around the Great Lakes region and supplied steam vessels with fuel. In one year alone, 1857, the Maple Leaf's fuel costs reached $14,000. Wood was loaded on board by passing it down through a hatch into the hold (UA, June 3, 1857; Girvin 1993:88).

The Canadian Steamboat Inspection Act required all passenger steam vessels calling at Canadian ports to have an annual safety inspection. Mechanical breakdowns on the lake could be life threatening and these inspections hopefully insured reliable service. Boilers received careful scrutiny because explosions took hundreds of lives in early steam transportation. The Maple Leaf failed an 1858 inspection in Toronto and underwent repairs before resuming passenger trade. Boiler inspection revealed numerous corroded fasteners that caused internal strengthening stays to fail (Risley 1858). These were fixed, a new safety valve installed, and the fire hold enclosed with tin as a precaution against fire (Girvin 1993:89). Five years later, while under Federal charter, the boilers were certified to carry 21 pounds of steam. On the night of her loss the Maple Leaf's chief engineer left orders to carry 15 pounds of steam (PBS). This was her normal operating pressure.

Early in the vessel's third season, the cast iron walking beam broke shortly after leaving Kingston. The Maple Leaf was towed back to Kingston and work started on a new beam at the Kingston Foundry. In less than two weeks the steamboat resumed her scheduled trips on the Lake Ontario (DN, May 2, 11, 1853).

Mechanical breakdowns on the water were not uncommon and often caused by the weather and lake conditions. For example, ice and late winter storms often hindered early season navigation. Twice, one of the Maple Leaf's paddle wheels was damaged during a voyage. The vessel lost a wheel on April 14, 1854 while traveling to Toronto but managed to limp into Toronto Bay on the remaining one. A second wheel was damaged by ice during early spring runs in 1856. In fact, ice battered the hull so badly, the vessel was hauled out of the water for repairs. Ordinarily, the wooden spokes or arms on the simple radial wheels were easily replaced when damaged (UA, May 17, 1856; Girvin 1993:78,85).

Weather was not always the culprit causing breakdowns. Inherent weakness or simply wear and tear caused machinery parts to fail. On July 16, 1859, the Maple Leaf's paddle shaft broke shortly after leaving Charlotte and the disabled vessel returned to port for repairs. Local papers report that a new shaft was installed and the vessel returned to service August 1, 1859 (UA July 16, 19, August 1,3, 1859).

Very little is known about modifications made to the Maple Leaf for service on the ocean as an army transport. Copper or brass sheathing was placed on the hull for protection against shipworms as evidenced by site excavations in 1991 (Cantelas 1992:35). Considering the vessel's specialized use as an army transport, modifications to the superstructure may have been made. Alterations to the cabins and cargo areas are within reason to more efficiently accommodate military use. Unfortunately, nothing is left of the superstructure and most of the cargo space remains inaccessible for the present.