Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Pirates in Chains and St. Catharines Slaver Alexander Muir Saw: Schooner Days LXXX. (80)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 18 Mar 1933
Full Text
Schooner Days LXXX. (80)

First drydock to be built on the Welland Canal, and now the last of eight which have flourished on that Great Lakes highway, Muir Brothers' drydock and shipbuilding yard prospers at Port Dalhousie after 83 years' service. It began as a floating box for little wooden sailing vessels. It survives its founders, preserves their name, and, thoroughly modernized and enlarged, answers all the requirements of this age of steam and steel and electricity. It is now, as it always has been, the main local industry of the port. Mr. William C. Muir, son of one of the original "Brothers," conducts it.

The story of those brothers and their drydock is a chapter of pioneer enterprise. If, as here given, it fails to thrill, the fault is in the telling, not the tale.

ALEXANDER MUIR (not the author of the Maple Leaf) was the first of seven brothers, each six feet in his socks.

"He was a tyrant at his mother's breast and a tyrant he will be all his life so let him have his way," said one of his brethren philosophically, when they had all come to man's estate. It was sound sense. If Alexander was a despot, he was a benevolent despot and a competent despot. He was a natural leader. Like his mighty namesake he deserved the title Alexander the Great.

He was born on the Muir homestead since Cromwell's time, Hayocks Farm at Stevenson, near Kilwinning, in Ayrshire, in 1819. As a youngster of thirteen he started off to sea wrapped in a Paisley shawl against the cold. He brought home a cashmir shawl from India. When he came back, steering up the Thames for London, he saw five pirates hanging in chains from gibbets on the river bank. He found his family had moved west in his absence, to the new land of British North America. The whole world is home to the sailor, so he shipped again, and eventually overhauled his father and brothers in Montreal. His father had come out with Alexander Allan, his brother-in-law. Our Alexander urged his brothers to try the luck of the new land with him, and five of the boys — Alexander, William, Bryce, David, and Archibald — voyaged up the St. Lawrence until they came to Garden Island, opposite Kingston. Here there were ships and shipyards to build them; they were on the doorstep of the great inland seas, with Calvins, Brecks, Cooks and other lake-faring families gathering timber in rafts for Quebec and sending their schooners westward into the wilderness.

It was in 1837 when the Muirs came to Garden Island—rebellious times in Upper Canada. Alexander was a loyalist captain in the Royal Artillery that winter, and Alexander Allan was carrying a Papineau gun in Lower Canada!

Alexander got through with his soldiering as soon as might be. He greatly preferred fighting the waves to bayoneting relatives. In fact, his artillery captain's cocked hat had scarcely cooled before he had a sou'wester on his head and was on his way up the lakes with his brothers.

They all made good sailors, and they sailed when times were tough. One of Alexander's first voyages was up to Georgian Bay in the Indian trade. He was wrecked on the way back. He listed the vessels owned in Upper Canada at this time—1837—and "among them, at St. Catharines, a schooner called the Welland Canal. Was built and owned by an old sea captain, who intended taking her to the coast of Africa, as he said, to catch blackbirds and sell them to the Southern States."

If the schooner Welland Canal ever got away from St. Catharines for a slaving voyage, history is discreetly dumb. The next oldest list of lake vessels this chronicler has been able to find is one in the Toronto Globe of 1856, and this gives "schooner Welland Canal, 200 tons; owner, the Town of St. Catharines; estimated value: $4,000." It would be most interesting to know when, where, and by what means St. Catharines became possessed of this potential blackbirder, twenty years after Alexander Muir first heard of her intended venture. Was it a tax sale?

In the same list in the Globe is the steamer Welland, of 120 tons, built at Bath, and valued at $20,000; also owned by the town of St. Catharines. Perhaps the treasurer of the Garden City can tell more about this maritime enterprise of eighty years ago.

Together or in separate ships the Muir brothers voyaged up and down the lakes, from Superior to St. Lawrence, as men before the mast, as mates and eventually as masters. Every time they made the passage of the twenty-six little locks of the "raging canal," as the Welland was nicknamed, and saw battered, leaking, storm-strained, lock-racked hulls limping through, they thought "What a place for a drydock!"

Alexander thought that the very first year, when the Government dock at Niagara couldn't cope with all the business the rebellion brought. It was surprising how many schooners, like Fisty Masterson's little Christina, needed repairs (at Government cost) for injuries suffered at the hands of the rebels!

By 1840 Alexander's mind was made up.

"We'll build a dock," he announced to his brothers.

"Ay," said they. "When?"

"When we have the siller," said Alexander. "How much have ye by?"

They conned their resources. Not enough among them to build a tool shed. But land was cheap. With what money they could scrape together, Alexander made a "down payment" on enough ground at the mouth of the old Twelve-mile Creek to harbor a dock and allow for a shipyard, when it had been cleared and levelled.

Ten years the brothers toiled, up and down the lakes, putting by their savings. In 1850 they had enough capital to make a beginning. They cut down the bank of their lot on the west side of the creek, where the canal came out to the lake at Port Dalhousie. The shipyard site was laid with shovel and barrow. They bought elm trees, three feet thick, for 75 cents apiece, standing on the stump. It was something the Muir brothers remembered with pride ever afterwards, that they began so humbly that the farmer who sold the elms demanded cash before they cut. Their credit was nil.

These elms were for keelsons, like parallel backbones, for a big floating box of heavy oak timbers, which they built on the east side of the harbor, and then floated over to their shipyard site. One end of the box was of pine, and was on hinges. It was weighted.

Their plan of operation was this:

The vessel to be drydocked would approach their floating box. The pine door at the end would be pushed open, and the water would come in and the heavy box would fill with water and sink. The vessel would then be warped into it. The poles would release the weights on the pine door and it would float up behind her, closing the end of the dock. It was a tight fit. Then the water would all be pumped out by a horse-driven capstan, and the dock would float, with the vessel inside, resting on the elm keelsons. The pine door, caulked from the inside, would make the box completely watertight, and work would proceed on the enclosed vessel.

Like most good things, this boon to ships met with violent opposition. The cry was raised that the drydock was going to use so much water that the Welland Canal could not function! It seemed silly, but the Government, with a dock of their own at Niagara, and private interests there too, menaced by competition, refused permission for the Port Dalhousie drydock to operate. At least the Canal Department did. Alexander Muir drove 360 miles to Montreal in the depth of winter to get a permit. At Montreal he was passed from pillar to post. He drove on to Quebec, saw the Governor, and won his case.

The drydock was an immediate success. Not only did it provide long-needed facilities for repairs, but it established a shipbuilding industry in the tiny little canal port. When not working on others' vessels the Muirs were building vessels of their own. On March 6th, 1855, they launched their first, the schooner Ayr, two-masted, plumb-stemmed, black with a white covering-board stripe, sparred like all their products with a greater rake to the mainmast.

It had taken them two years to build the Ayr. They worked on her, of course, when time was slack otherwise. They launched her sidewise from the bank. They called this firstling after their native county in Scotland. She cost $15,646 to build.

Bryce Muir was the brother chosen to be master of her. He once got her ashore at Port Union, at the end of November, and it cost $2,000 to get her off; and a Capt. McDonald, who afterwards sailed her, had to throw overboard a deckload of lumber, in a gale, on his way from the Georgian Bay to Cleveland, and this meant a loss of $2,000 also.

But the Ayr was a remarkably prosperous vessel. Her profits for one year alone paid two-thirds of the cost of building her. In the seasons of 1861 and 1862 she yielded net earnings of $17,664. She was finally bought by Detroit purchasers.

Two years after launching the schooner Ayr the brothers built a lake "barque" that is, a three-masted vessel rigged as a barquentine or topsail schooner. This one cost $13,856, although she was 10 tons larger than the Ayr. She was registered 351 tons and was 134 feet long, 23 feet beam and 11 feet deep. The brethren very appropriately named her Alexander, after their leader.

Archibald Muir was made the master of her. His dominating brother told him, without ado, to load her with square timber and take her to Liverpool, where there was a good market for it!

Port Dalhousie, on Lake Ontario, to Liverpool, across the Atlantic, in a lake centreboarder! Archibald said "Ay." But before going he made his will.

What befell Archibald on his adventurous voyage, and his brothers as they continued their enterprise will have to be told next week.


"Landed" writes in that he cannot find an old schooner for sale anywhere, and what can we do about it? Come in, Landed, any morning at ten, and you shall hear.


Friend Lorne K. Smith, who paints marines so that you want to lick the salt on your lips when you look at them (he has a beauty in the present O. S. A. show) asks if the Thomas W. Lawson wasn't the largest sailing vessel in the world?

The Thomas W. Lawson, of Boston, lost a dozen years or so since, by capsizing at anchor off the Scilly Islands, was certainly the largest schooner in the world. She was built-in 1902 by the Fore River Shipping and Engineering Company of Quincy, Mass., and was 375 feet long, and registered 5,218 tons gross and 4,914 tons nett at Lloyds. She had seven masts, known as fore, main, mizzen, spanker, jigger, driver and pusher also as Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On every mast she had two sails, its proper lower sail and gafftopsail; in addition she had topmast staysails on the main, mizzen, spanker, jigger and driver and she had five jibs, so that she had in all 29 working sails.

That she was the largest sailing vessel ever built is disputed. The German ship Preussen, not a schooner, but square-rigged with six sails on each of her five masts and about a dozen jibs and staysails, had more pieces of canvas and registered 5,081 tons. Whether this was gross or nett is not known. If the tonnage given is nett, she was larger than the Lawson. Some of the Rickmers fleet of German sailing vessels are also put forward as being larger.


Charles Edward Pegley, whose boyhood was spent among the shipyards of Chatham, on the Canadian Thames, sends Schooner Days this poem of his, inspired by the sight of an old sailing hooker, a spanking new steamer, and an airplane, all coming up the Detroit River together one evening:


I saw three Ships sail out of the mist,

On a summer night, when the sun was low,

Three Ships, each part of a separate age,

The Present, the Future, the Long Ago.

Three Phantom Ships they seemed to be,

As through the shadows and misty light

Each passed in silence, and vanished there,

Into the dark of a Summer night.

I saw through the shadows a vessel old,

Spars warped sails tattered, the rigging bare,

Like a thing from which the very Soul

Had gone, and left but the framework there,

A sign of the past, it went from sight,

Into the dark of a Summer night.

Again through the mists I saw revealed,

A wondrous fabric of Iron and Steel,

A wonder Ship, man's gift supreme,

While a thousand lights through the twilight gleamed,

The ship of to-day, a beautiful sight

It passed, in the dark of a Summer night.

Then out from the glow of the setting sun

There rose a Bird Ship, a thing of grace,

Swift through the air, its course to run,

I watched it rise from an unseen place,

The Ship of the future, it winged its flight

On through the dark of a Summer night.

And so they vanished, these vessels three,

In the twilight dim, through the Sun-set glow,

Each part and pride of a different age,

The Present, the Future, the Long Ago.



That staunch British tar and follower of schooner days, Mr Wm. Kingdon, points out, very properly, that it would have been impossible to work from the fore crosstrees at the herculean task of splitting the W. Y. Emery's gaff jaws when that operation had to be performed to free the jammed—yes, that is the word—halliards.

The jaws were six or eight feet below the crosstrees, and you had to get down on the gaff to work. When he had to bury his head in the bunt of the gafftopsail to save himself from being catapulted from the mast-head was on another occasion when the Emery was rolling gunwale under the trough of the sea in fierce snow squalls which had ripped her sails and left her unmanageable.

"You've a good vessel under ye, boys," Capt Alex. Ure kept assuring the crowd. He was right, for she came through.

The Emery was built at Port Burwell for the stave-bolt trade, which meant loading on the shore, and consequent risk of stranding. So she was given double frames and floors. When Johnny Williams and Alex Ure rebuilt her here at the foot of Parliament street, they made such a good job of it, she classed A2 again, which was the highest lake classification at the time.


Speaking of the loss of the Lady Macdonald, Mr. Kingdon, who was before the mast in the fated schooner at the time, corrects the idea that they mistook the bright light on the lighthouse tender, lying in the channel, for the harbor light itself. The latter lamp, in a six-foot lantern was much too big to be confused with anything so small as the steamer was burning. The inside light at Fairhaven, which gave the range for the channel, could not be seen, and the light on the steamer lying in the piers was mistaken for it. This gave a false range for the line of the piers, and the Lady Macdonald wound up on a stone crib outside the harbor. The shock broke her back. The steamer did not have her red and green lights burning, not being under way.

Capt. Jas. McCannel, well known master of the C. P. R. steamer Assiniboia writes from Port McNicoll.

"Along with many other old barnacles who have been flirting with death on the Great Lakes trying to earn a living, lo these many years, I take a great deal of interest in reading 'Schooner Days' and hope some day you will have it put in book form, for never again will anyone so capable attempt to write these stories, as most of the old-time vessel men are with us no more.

"Being ship mates with many of these old characters, was a real pleasure. Their quaint expressions—not always the language of the House of Commons—were very effective at times. Men like Davy Hunter, Saxy Brooks, Farmer Green, Cockeye Searles, and Con Shay, were real men when in a tight pinch--or Squealing Hughie shouting to Black Dan when they were poking about among the islands of the Georgian Bay of a dark night—'Do you see the Half Moons?'—and when the schooner fetched up with her jib boom in the bush, Dan shouts back: 'Ma Goad, Hughie, I guess you hut the full moon!'

"Do get all the details in the Log Book before the last old-timer crosses the river to the Glory Land."


Muir Brothers Drydock—Modern and Ancient—Port Dalhousie

FLEET OF STEEL FREIGHTERS lined up in front of Muir Bros present drydock at Port Dallousie, where all their requirements are met.

BASIN IN FRONT OF MUIRS' DOCK in the sailing days. The schooner Ayr, the first vessel the brothers built, launched 1855, is the black vessel in the centre of the picture. She was about twenty years old at the time the photograph was taken.

Snider, C. H. J.
Media Type
Item Type
Date of Publication
18 Mar 1933
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.20011 Longitude: -79.2668908148194
Ron Beaupre
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
WWW address
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Pirates in Chains and St. Catharines Slaver Alexander Muir Saw: Schooner Days LXXX. (80)