The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
British Whig (Kingston, ON), 19 Feb 1897

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Francis Somerville, who resides at 195 Colborne street, and who has been engineer of the streamer Empire State for some years past, is one of the oldest mariners in the city. He has retired from the active pursuit of his profession.

A few days ago Mr. Somerville was interviewed by a Whig reporter regarding his early experience, and the following graphic narrative contains some reminiscences (1 line unreadabe) early in the century:

Mr. Somerville says: "In 1838 and 1839 the steamer Great Britain, built and owned by Hon. John Hamilton, was running between Kingston and Oswego, Niagara Falls, Queenston and Lewiston. I served on her during the seasons named and we experienced some stirring incidents. The Great Britain was a large vessel, having two engines and two boilers, an apartment on each side that would hold over thirty cords of wood. Her crew consisted of fourteen deckhands, eight firemen, stewart Samuel Thorold, second mate Hugh McLean, first mate Alexander McDonald, chief engineer Nicholas Chambers, and captain Joseph Whitney, commanding. Stewart Thorold had a large staff of waiters in his charge, for those were the days of heavy lake travel. The vessel had a large cabin below, with a great number of state-rooms, two bar-rooms, one above, the other below, and a fore-cabin, very finely finished.

"In the years mentioned the travel from Oswego to Niagara Falls was very heavy, and I have frequently known the Great Britain to carry three hundred passengers on each trip. They were all 'jolly fellows' and took life very easily. Occasionally a negro band would be engaged for the trip, especially when a large number of passengers from the southern states were aboard - which was quite often. Niagara Falls then, as now, formed the great attraction for tourists, and as only railway then running, that could be made use of, was that between Buffalo, N.Y. and the Falls and from Lewiston to the junction, horses furnished the motive power; the travellers usually transferred there to the cars for the Falls.

Canada, at that time, was in the throws of excitement over the Rebel trouble at Prescott and the burning of the steamer Caroline at the Falls, and a great many of the residents in the United States territory near the frontier were fully determined to have revenge for the destruction of the Caroline, and they proposed to retaliate by burning the Great Britain. But the officers and crew of the steamer were constantly on their guard. Every man was furnished with a musket and a plentiful supply of ammunition. Lewiston was garrisoned by Yankee regular troops, and the soldiers used to come aboard our vessel and assist our captain seeing that our guns were properly loaded. Our crew was on the qui vive constantly, and for my part, if any fighting was to be done I wanted to be in it. I slept with a large horse pistol under my pillow every night. Among the crew was an old soldier, Dick Stanton by name. He was a fine bugler, and as we entered and left the harbor he sounded appropriate calls, standing on the upper deck. The captain appointed him to take charge of the guns while they were being loaded. One day a detachment of soldiers from Lewiston had come aboard, and the operation of loading the muskets was going on. Stanton picked up one of the weapons and was examining the lock.

"Dick," said Capt. Whitney, "is that gun loaded?"

"No, sir," answered Dick, pulling the trigger as he spoke. The gun was loaded and went off, the bullet burying itself in a beam on which a number of men were standing.

"The method of loading boats with wood was not as quick nor as convenient in those days as it is now. I have seen one hundred cords of wood carried aboard on the men's shoulders. The method of procedure was this: Two long, stout sticks provided with cleats to prevent the wood falling off, were laid on the ground about two or three feet apart. Then the wood was piled across until the load was as heavy as two men could carry. One man then lifted the rear ends of the sticks to his shoulders, another raising the forward ends at the same time, and thus the wood was carried to the boat.

A Steamer On Fire.

"In June, 1838, the steamer Sir Robert Peel was sent out and put on the same route as the Great Britain, starting from Prescott and calling at Kingston, Alexandria Bay and Oswego. On one occassion she and the Great Britain cleared from Kingston together, for a race to Oswego. They ran side by side until they were but a short distance from the finishing point. Then the Peel forged ahead to the distance of about two hundred yards. This raised all the combativeness and determination in the composition of our chief engineer, 'Nick' Chambers. We had aboard, as part of our cargo, about thirty boxes of candles, and these the engineer requisitioned. He had them melted, and the wood used in the furnaces was greased with the fat, before being burned, in order to obtain the highest possible steam pressure. The greatest pressure we carried was fourteen pounds. The Peel's boiler was below deck. On board of her was a barrel of turpentine. The head was knocked out of the barrel and the sticks of cordwood were dipped into the liquid before being thrown into the furnace. This worked well for a time, but presently the Peel caught fire and in a few minutes she was enveloped in a cloud of smoke so dense that we could not make out her outlines. She could not continue the race and we rapidly drew ahead. Our captain, with the generous gallantry of a true British sailor, signalled to stop our engines and to go back to the assistance of the Peel. But the signal was not obeyed by our engineer until Capt. Whitney went below and rated him soundly. Then the Great Britain was stopped. Our jolly-boats hung on davits outside our bulwarks, and when we ranged alongside the Peel to take her passengers off I noticed a man standing on her deck holding a small trunk. As soon as he saw his chance he threw the trunk into one of the jolly-boats. The Peel was still making headway, and her side crashed against the boat, crushing it into fragments. Of course the trunk went into the water. It sank like lead, and its owner wrung his hand, jumped about, and acted like a madman, declaring that the trunk contained $14,000. It was not recovered, as no search that I have heard of was ever made for it, and I suppose it is lying at the bottom of the lake yet. Well, the Great Britain took off the Peel's passengers, and then continued her voyage to Oswego.

"On our next trip the Great Britain was in readiness for another race. Her anchor and chains were taken off, and we waited eagerly for the Peel to put in her appearance for another struggle for the supremacy. We were due to leave at nine o'clock, but we waited until close on twelve, and still the Peel came not. At length a man on horseback rode up, post-haste, from Alexandria Bay, and informed us that the Sir Robert Peel had been burned by the 'rebels' or Fenians.

"In 1839 Capt. Whitney took command of the steamer United States. She was a large vessel, very similar to the Great Britain. Capt. Jacob Herchmer succeeded Whitney as commander of the Britain.

"Coming down the lake one fine night we met the United States coming out of the Genesee river, near what is now Charlotte. She ran into us, striking the Britain on the fire-room, in front of the boiler, cutting a large hole in our vessel, and sustaining such serious injury herself that she came very near going down. We had a full passenger list and were crowded for space. About twenty of our passengers were sleeping on the tables in the dining room. Fortunately, however, we managed to make our way to Kingston without loss of life. The Great Britain lay three weeks at this port undergoing repairs.

"Some time later the Great Britain was converted into a three-masted schooner, and she finally met her fate in a storm on the lake."

Are In Thorough Repair - James Swift has been re-elected a director of the R. & O. navigation company. C.F. Gildersleeve in his report said the decrease in the annual expenditure was due to the improved condition of the machinery. The different portions of the steamers including the working parts of the machinery were being continually removed and improved. The steamers, it was perfectly safe to say, did not contain a single particle of the original woodwork or of the working parts of the machinery. The steamers are now in a much better condition than when he joined the company in 1894.

Stuck In The Ice - James H. Macnee on ice yacht Pastime and Mr. Carruthers on Jack Frost sailed to Cape Vincent in half an hour; were coming back by way of Wolfe Island canal when Jack Frost got stuck in air hole, had to leave it until next day.


Cannot Go Westward.

Kingston, Feb. 18th - To the Editor:

I notice that there is an agitation on foot to have the proposed new elevator built at the western end of the harbor and property near the Grove Inn has been suggested. This will not do at all. The forwarding business has for years been carried on at the east end of the harbor, and we storekeepers living in the east end have been depending largely on the vessel trade for our living and certainly will not support any by-law which will take our living from us by removing the forwarding business out near Portsmouth. There is plenty of wharf property to be had in the lower harbor which can, no doubt, be bought at a reasonable figure, as it is now practically lying idle. I would suggest the Carruthers & Kirkpatrick wharf property lying between Princess and Queen streets. This is in a sheltered position and by extending the wharf out a short distance eighteen feet of water can be had. Then another important point is that the property I mention already has railway connection with both the G.T.R. and the C.P.R.

I trust that the elevator company will take this or other property at the lower end of the harbor into consideration before deciding where they will locate, as I want to see the elevator built, but feel firmly convinced that a by-law to grant $25,000 to an elevator to be built out near Portsmouth will not carry in this city.


Navigation In Kingston Harbor.

Kingston, Feb. 17th - To The Editor:

I notice in your issue of the 12th inst. a letter signed "Navigator," in which he makes the statement that a large number of vessels grounded in trying to reach the Montreal transportation company's present place of business, and offers the opinion that this is a potent factor in diverting trade to Prescott and Ogdensburg. Allow me to tell "Navigator" that he is either maliciously mis-stating facts or else is no navigator.

First, with regard to the channel down to the Montreal transportation company's wharves, I know for a fact that there is plenty of water in it to accommodate any vessel which passes through the Welland canal, and only last season I successfully piloted vessels drawing fifteen feet, six inches of water into the premises of the M.T. company. I admit that some vessels did ground in approaching the lower end of the harbor, but there was not over half a dozen cases during the entire season, and these occurrences were not due to an insufficient depth of water in the channel but to ignorance of the harbor on the part of the persons in charge of the vessels.

Then as regards these few and trifling incidents diverting trade from here to Prescott and Ogdensburg that is nonsense, as any steamboat owner will tell you that he would rather any time come to Kingston in preference to going to Prescott. The storage facilities at Prescott are the only reason why trade was diverted from here, and boats will only go to Prescott at Kingston rates when they cannnot get a load for Kingston.

I am afraid your correspondent of the 12th inst. is a "navigator" in name only, certainly he has never sailed a deep draught boat into this harbor and has no practical knowledge of what he undertook to write about.


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Date of Publication:
19 Feb 1897
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Geographic Coverage:
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.22976 Longitude: -76.48098
Rick Neilson
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pd [more details]
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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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British Whig (Kingston, ON), 19 Feb 1897