Early Shipping Days
on Lake Ontario Recalled
By Frederick J. Meagher
With the harbor of Oswego filled with a fleet of many yachts, ranging from tiny Buccaneers to handsome schooner yachts and motor cruisers of every size, all gathered here for the annual regatta of the Lake Yacht Racing association, thoughts of the early marine history of Lake Ontario come to the fore.
Lake Ontario has an interesting history, which began in the fall of 1815 when a grant was obtained from executors of Robert Fulton, who had before that invented the first practicable steamboat with a speed of five miles an hour, and with others held the right of steamboat navigation in the state of New York.
In August, 1816, the first steamboat on the Great Lakes was commenced at
Sackets Harbor under this grant. She was after the model of the "Sea
Horse" then running in the East River around New York and was completed
the following spring and named the "Ontario." On her trial trip to Oswego the
"Ontario" was greeted with demonstrations of great joy. In a day or two she continued the triumphant trip up the lake and ran into a blow a short distance above the mouth of the Genesee river and lost her paddle boxes and met with other damage which made it necessary to return to Sackets Harbor for repairs. She was 110 feet long, with 24 foot beam and had a speed of seven miles an hour,
which in those days was considered marvelous. Her first commander was
Captain Francis Mallahy, U. S. N. In 1823 Captain Robert Hugunin commanded
her and that season she was almost wrecked by grounding on a bar outside the Oswego harbor. She ran between Ogdensburg and the Niagara river and the one way fare for the trip was $14.
In 1823 the "Ontario" was commanded by Luther Wright of Oswego, for years one of the city's foremost citizens. The steamer was not only the first steamboat on the lake but was the first ever built to run on water subject to the swell of the waves and determined the then interesting problem that steamboats were adapted to the navigation of lakes and seas as well as rivers.
In the days of the "Ontario" signal bells were unknown. As a means of communication between the captain and the engineer a man or boy was
placed near the engine room to pass orders from the captain. A man by
the name of Ramsey was engineer on the "Ontario" for several seasons and
"Stop her, Mr. Ramsey;" "Back her, Mr. Ramsey," and other such,expressions
became by-words. At times when the clumsy craft would not come readily up to the wharf, someone would sing out, "give her a stroke sideways, Mr. Ramsey." In
1832 the "Ontario" was hauled out at Oswego near the site of the Northwestern Elevator and the first steamboat that ever ploughed the waters of the Great Lakes was broken to pieces.
The steamer "Sophia," 75 tons, was also built at Sackets Harbor in 1823 and was the first one constructed to ply between Sackets Harbor and Kingston, Ont.
Later the "Martha Ogden," 150 tons, was built in the same place in 1825. She had more "sheer" than the "Ontario," but otherwise was rigged the same. She was put on the route between Oswego, Rochester, Kingston and Sackets. Harbor. The next steamer of note on Lake Ontario was the "United States" which was constructed at Ogdensburg in 1831 and figured in the Patriot war and the battle of Windmill Point, a mile below Prescott. Among the Oswego men who took part in the battle of Windmill Point was the late Clark Cooley, at one time collector of the port of Oswego; Captain W. S. Malcolm, and the late Captain William Williams.
The first schooner to arrive at Oswego after completion of the Welland Canal was the "Erie." One of the early steamers built in Oswego was the St. Lawrence.
The first American sailing vessel to sail on the waters of Lake Ontario after the American Revolution, sailed out of Big Sodus Bay. This is how it came about. In 1789 John Fellows of Sheffield, Mass., started from Schenectady with a boat load of tea and tobacco with the intention of going to Canada to trade.
On reaching Oswego the English commanding officer would not let him pass out of the river and cross Lake Ontario. He returned with his boat and cargo up the Oswego river to the Seneca river and up that into Canandaigua outlet, as far as where the village of Clyde now stands. Here he built a blockhouse
of logs to secure his goods in while he was cutting a road through the forest to Big Sodus Bay. He then went to Geneva and got two or three yoke of cattle and hauled his boat and property across the portage.
He launched his craft at Big Sodus Bay, sailed across Lake Ontario, where he found a ready sale at Kingston for his tea and tobacco and made money. He re-crossed the lake and then sold his boat. This was the first American craft
with sails that ever floated on the Great Lakes and times have changed
since then. If you're in doubt take a look at the handsome fleet of the
latest style boats now floating proudly on the bosom of Lake Ontario
in the famous old Oswego harbor.