The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), Tues., June 23, 1891

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But a bare mention has heretofore been made of the daring passage of the St. Lawrence Rapids by the whaleback steamer J. L. Colby last Tuesday, and the following interesting account of the trip, written by a New York Press reporter, who was aboard the boat, will not be out of place. The Colby left Prescott at 3 p.m., drawing six feet nine inches aft and five feet six inches forward.

"The Colby was in charge of two French Canadian pilots. After experimenting with her steering gear, the pilots ordered her to go ahead. She entered the first rapids, the Galops, flying, increasing her headway eight miles an hour. As she pointed her head in to the edge of the rapids and her bow sank into the water, to an observer on the extreme stern of the vessel she seemed like a mammoth toboggan just starting down a steep chute. At the pitch in the Galops the water runs twenty miles an hour, and with undiminished speed, the Colby plowed into it. She went through the few breakers perfectly. At the foot of the Galops a sharp swing was made from the Canadian toward the American shore. She obeyed the helm like a yacht, and old Willette, the pilot, grinned all over, saying: 'We'll make Montreal, sure.' The Iroquois Rapids were run easily. At Morrisburg the small tug Alert steamed out and followed the Colby the rest of the trip, so as to be near with a line in case of an accident.

"At Farran's Point, six miles above the Long Sault Rapids, the water begins to run at an alarming rate of speed. A sharp turn was made at this point in a very narrow channel, but the Colby was equal to the emergency. Then the Long Sault Rapids, a rapids nine miles in length, with breakers like ocean waves at the head, was in sight, although there is comparatively still water the rest of the distance. This is the first of the really dangerous rapids. The breakers ahead look impassable, but she headed into them. Down hill she plunged. There was not a roll, not a shake, only a gentle undulation as she tossed through the waves. On she went, in and out, from point to point, running so close to the shores at times that it seemed as though she must strike the bank, but the pilot was ready at every turn and brought the steamer around with seemingly marvelous skill. She grated bottom twice near the head of Barnhart's Island, but it was only a rub on the gravel bottom. Pilot Lafrance stepped aboard the tug to follow the Colby, leaving Willette in charge. The steamer once more started ahead, and began the most perilous part of her voyage, shooting the Coteau, Cedar, Split Rock and Cascade Rapids.

"At the Coteau Rapids the engine was stopped, as these and following rapids are extremely shallow, the bottom is full of sharp rocks and the danger is doubled. She jammed into the first rapid with terrific speed and was within ten feet of the rocky shoal that stood far out in the water. She grated the bottom four times, once hard enough to give her a perceptible shake, but she passed through Coteau Rapids safely. Cedar Rapids are six miles below, and the water runs like mad the whole distance.

"Just after leaving the Coteau, the cord of the signal whistle broke. Everybody aboard realized the danger, and everyone was gazing intently at Willette, who stood firmly clasping the wheel, and on whole looked neither to right nor left. The signals to the engineer were made by the big whistle, and also repeated by men stationed at convenient points. The steamer grated the bottom a dozen times between the two rapids. Next she entered the Cedar. The waves here are so choppy that the vessel was given a most peculiar rolling motion, but she did not strike, and went on to the most dangerous rapid yet, the Split Rock. Every person on board held his breath. The entrance to these rapids is a narrow passageway between two masses of rock, the sight of which is enough to apall a passenger on a steamer that is running with great speed seemingly directly toward them.

"Captain McDougall stood immovable, but great beads of perspiration broke out upon his forehead. If the Colby was wrecked, the attempt to get a fresh water whaleback to the ocean would not be made again. If she passed through safely more would follow, and every trade on the ocean would be open to this unique craft. On, on she rushed, gaining speed at every second, until she was in the entrance, and with fearful speed dashed through. There were long breaths of relief, but the Cascades were right ahead, the last rapid to pass on the perilous trip. Through the Cascades she went in rapid time, and was safe on Lake St. Louis.

"As the old pilot left the ship's side and boarded the tug, a shout went up like that of a small army and the whistle blew as it never did before. For nearly an hour no one had spoken above a whisper except the captain as he gave orders. It was the most daring and crafty piece of piloting that has ever taken place in the rapids. The Colby is the first screw steamer that has ever attempted to run them, and great credit should be given, not only to those who risked their lives to bring her through, but to the company who placed their property at such a risk."

Media Type:
Item Type:
Alexander McDougall himself took his brand-new whaleback steamer JOSEPH L. COLBY (US#76933) down the river to the sea, but may have thought better of it when he got to this part of the trip. She was 265 feet and 1,245 gt and built with a double bottom. Some of the topography described here has been completely altered by the St. Lawrence Seaway project.
Date of Original:
Tues., June 23, 1891
Local identifier:
Language of Item:
Dave Swayze
Copyright Statement:
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), Tues., June 23, 1891