Maritime History of the Great Lakes
In Search of Port Britain: Schooner Days CCCLXXXVI (386)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 25 Feb 1939
Full Text
In Search of Port Britain
Schooner Days CCCLXXXVI (386)

by C. H. J. Snider


"PORT BRITAIN - a small but important village on Lake Ontario, in the township of Hope and the County of Durham. An extensive harbor of refuge and wharves are being erected at this village. Within the breakwater there will be an area of 14 acres, with 14 feet depth of water. The Grand Trunk Railway has a station on the harbor. The village has a trade in shipbuilding. Distant from Port Hope 4 miles and from Toronto 59 miles. Mail daily. Population, 350."—Canada Directory, 1857.

BETWEEN two headlands down the Lake Ontario shore, far from Toronto, we came one day upon a row of piling, scrubbed and worn by the ice of a hundred winters, bleached and blistered by a hundred summers' suns.

It was too substantial to have been a skiff-landing, and it was in an improbable place for a shore reclamation groyne. The beach hereabouts seemed as primeval as though Port Hope, on the eastern horizon, were really where Lowell Thomas dropped it the other day, on the shore of Great Slave Lake. Yet here was one side of the underpinning of an ancient commercial wharf, formed of squared sticks of white oak, driven in side by side in a solid wall. What was visible extended into the lake about sixty feet, two or three feet above the surface of the receding water. The inner extent of the structure was buried under thousands of tons of sand and gravel, piled up by countless surges, during this and last century.

There were timbers of a similar pier or wharf farther along, and still farther, and under five feet of water, indications of the foundations of another pier or landing ways, just before the summer cottages and baseball diamond of Willow Beach showed under the shelter of the western hill.

Were these the last traces, long buried, now revealed by the dropping lake level, of the almost mythical Port Britain, a bustling harbor which had vanished as completely as the great auk or the golden age?

Yes. A few paces more and we came on the entrance to the port, described eighty years before as "unequalled by any port on Lake Ontario, surrounded by hills and heavy bluffs jutting out into the lake, forming a secluded bay in which vessels may seek shelter and safely ride out the most severe storm; it has good anchorage outside, blue clay, and any vessel which might miss the harbor would be sure to hold in safety by her anchors."

What we came on was a rill of water, easily crossed in one stride, trickling through a bar of sand and gravel piled up by the pounding of many breakers. This was Port Britain harbor entrance, once two hundred feet wide, and the weathered oak underpinning was a part of two piers, each two hundred yards long, running out into the lake.

"PORT BRITAIN," said the late Keith Fiskin one evening at the club, "that's the place where the first locomotives for the old Grand Trunk were landed. At the mouth of Marsh's Creek." None of us could dispute the fact, for none of us, although sailing the lake all this century, had ever been there. Neither had he. None of us had ever seen the place, and perhaps this listener was the only one who had ever looked for it when passing up or down the lake. But the biggest binoculars had always failed to reveal anything but empty shoreline where Port Britain should have been.

No railway timetable no postal guide listed station or postal office of this name at this time; and the closest scrutiny from the later showed nothing of A. D. DeGrassi's picture in the prospectus of the Port Britain Harbor Co., of 1856:

"Mile of water frontage on Lake Ontario . . .

"Safe, commodious harbor with piers running out 600 feet into twelve feet depth . . .

"Channel 200 feet wide through the beach . . .

"Wharves, cranes and necessary erections . . . for all freights and merchandise shipped from New York, Boston and Philadelphia via Rochester across Lake Ontario, for all places in connection with the Grand Trunk Railway, the Great Western Railway . . . direct from the vessel to the cars . . . and the Chicago, over the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway, direct from the vessel to the cars."

A dream, perhaps, and certainly sales talk to raise £12,000 capital. Yet when DeGrassi painted the picture large vessels built in the dream port had been for three years racing American schooners in the great grain and lumber trade which has flared out between Chicago and Collingwood on the opening of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron line.

Neither crib nor crane, wharf nor warehouse, pier nor port, now remained. Behind the high heaped gravel bar on the deserted beach the little creeklet was a wider sluggish stream, wandering through a boggy meadow which had once been a pond, or the "area of fourteen acres with 14 feet depth" of the old Directory.

The boggy meadow extended to the embankment of a line of rust-eaten rails. A decayed bridge here spanned the creek. Tangled undergrowth had invaded the old right-of-way and swallowed the longabandoned station yard.

BACK-TRACKING up the creek through ploughland and pasture a mud road was found half a mile inland. It crossed the stream by wooden-railed bridge. Half a dozen houses and a few barns were in sight, where the ground rose. Near the bridge there had been a mill. The pond was still traceable.

A muddy tractor grumbled down the hill and slowed at the crossing.

"Would this be Marsh's Creek?" was asked of the driver.

"Search me," said he. "I never heard it called anything."

"What's the name of the place here?"

"Oh, that!" jerking a hiking digit at the houses. "They call it Port Britain, but I never heard why."

After further cogitation: "Mebbe this crick might a been called Marsh's Crick. I've heard tell family of Marshes once lived here.

G-r-ronk! The gears meshed and the tractor crawled over the bridge and away to the westward.

Yes, the creek was Marsh's Creek and the mill had been Marsh's mill once. The ancient wharf on the shore, and the cluster of houses inland were the stubble of the great Marsh harvest from three thousand acres granted for loyalty to the British Crown.

One house built of squared stone, in the little group demurely climbing up Port Britain hill was vacant. It stared at the inquirer with impassive eyes, its small clean window panes, alternately flashing golden flame and blank and black against the setting sun. On one pane to the westward were scratches like frost fingers might make. Examined from the outside the mark looked like "3581-hsraM." There was another such twisted mark on a pane that faced the south. _It_resembled "6581hsraMBR." They were inverted proof, seen from the wrong side, that Marshes had lived here as early as 1856, as early as 1853; just as the worn old wharf posts was the last, and perhaps also the first, evidence of the once bustling shipbuilding port, where rails and rolling stock for the first railway in Upper Canada were unloaded, and grain, flour, lumber and timber had been shipped to Quebec; where a dynasty rooted in British connection rose, flourished, built its family seats, furnished them with pianos built by its own imported workmen, autographed their window panes with their own diamond rings, launched fleets of schooners and sent them to sea, and faded, leaving to the lonesome lake gulls the remnants of an old wharf and the dim traditions of the greatness of Marsh's Creek and Port Britain.

It is nothing to you, all ye that pass by, that diamond-cut hand-o'-write eighty years old should beckon from the windows of an empty house in a faded village; but it made the recorder's heart throb. Next week may tell why.





Sir,—As a reader of your Schooner Days I was much impressed with the picture of the "City of Rome," which as a lad of 1886 to 1888 I used to see in the West Langton dock, Liverpool or Bootle, running to New York for the Anchor Line, and was always under the impression that Inmans sold her off the stocks to the Anchor Line the same as the "Vancouver" of the old Dominion Line, sister ship to the "City of Chicago," which was lost off the Fastnet Rocks. I may be wrong, but that is my impression.

In reading the account of the "Moravian" striking an iceberg in the Straits of Belle Isle, I take it that she was a sister ship to the "Peruvian," if so, if my memory serves me right, the "Peruvian" was as graceful a little steamer as you could wish to see, barring the "City of Rome," with four masts and two funnels, when she was sailing to St. John's, Newfoundland, along with the "Norwegian" and the "Caspian." This was before she was altered to one funnel and two masts. I never remember seeing the "Moravian," but that account of her being built in the 60's makes me wonder if she was a sister ship to the "Peruvian."


You might tell us a little about some of those old-timers running alongside the river wall in Montreal when you had to cross the tracks to get to St. Catharines street, Joe Beefs, the Bethel, when you could see right along the waterfront to the nunnery that was later burnt down. Such as the "Parisian," "Sardinian," "Sarmation" (the royal ship which brought and took back the Marquis of Lorne), "Circassian" and the "Polynesian," later the "Laurentian," or the "Vancouver," "Sarnia," "Oregon," "Toronto," "Montreal," old Paddy Flynn's boats, the Dominion Line. Or the Beaver Line Lakes "Ontario," "Superior," "Winnipeg," "Huron," "Erie," and revive the memories of some of your population of between four and five million around the period of the late 80's and early 90's.

I was boatswain's boy in the old "Circassian," later an apprentice in the barque "Camphill" and the four-master "General Roberts" out of Liverpool to the west coast, Valparasio, Australia, Melbourne and Newcastle, and to the west coast again with coal. Was there when the "Esmeralda" was sunk, and then again to 'Frisco in the "General Roberts" from London.


You could also give a good yarn about some of those old lumber rafts that used to come to Montreal from various places in Ontario with the skipper and his wife, and the mate and his wife. I used to go up Mount Royal with a couple of pillow cases, gathering apples to peg at those French-Canadian stevedores, until I got my postscript kicked by the old boatswain, Dan Sloan. That nearly laid me out for keeps.

Here's hoping you will understand my writing, for I am not much of a hand at putting letters together so that anybody can understand what I mean. I will now conclude with best wishes; by the way, that was a couple of dandy yarns when you left Fort William or Port Arthur, I forget which, last fall. I will sign myself one of your 1907 emigrants and a reader of The Tely since coming here.

I remain, sincerely yours,



Sir, — I can remember the time when the City of Rome was the idol of sailors, and a type you never see to-day.

When I was a small lad in the later seventies I used to hear my brother speak of the Nyack, the largest steamer in the Lake Superior trade then. I used to hear them speak of the Great Lakes steamer City of Rome. She was the wonder of the lakes, had four spars, very lofty, carried sails, had two funnels. After her it was the H. J. Jerrett, the largest on lakes; then the Omoko for several years, and when I commenced the above were yet big boats.

In my time the E. C. Pope was the lake wonder, and sailors used to go down to see her at the landing place. Then we used to leave orders if they met the Mariposa to be sure and call us. Then the straight-back Selwyn Eddy. "Call us night or day," and that, I suppose, is going on even yet. But on the ocean it was the City of Rome (whose picture you reproduced), Campania, Lucania, Servia, Etsuria and others. It is wonderful the changes that have taken place in ships the last fifty or more years. Do not know how long I will be here. With best regards.

JAS. McCannel.

(Late master C.P.S.S. Assiniboia, retired.)


Dear Sir,—With further reference to your letter of 20th January I have been making enquiries regarding the yacht Merle about which you wrote. I am afraid the results are not entirely satisfactory but they are as follows:

There is no record in the Mudhook Yacht Club Archives of the Opening Cruise in the year 1877 but as this club held several informal cruises to various parts of the Clyde estuary the one at which the cup you mention was won was probably one of these. The cutter Merle was of 9 tons Thames measurement and was built at Port Glasgow in 1873 for Mr. D. M. Hannay, probably by James Reid & Company, and her owner in 1877 was Mr. T. C. Kemp, whose address was Wellpark Brewery, Glasgow. He was a member of the Mudhook Yacht Club from 1876 to 1881, when presumably he died. In 1878 her owner was Mr. J. A. Sparvel-Bayly of Burstead Lodge, Billericay, Essex. In 1880 she became the property of Mr. Frank Harris, Nether Priors, Halstead, Essex, and in 1882 the vessel was acquired by Mr. J. Mottram, Somerton Hall, near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. The yacht foundered in 1883. I do not know if there are any relatives of Mr. T. C. Kemp living at the present time. As it might be of interest to you I am sending you under separate cover a copy of the short history of this club which was compiled by the admiral a few years ago; also a copy of last year's Year Book containing the names of the members and the rules to-day. Amongst other things you will notice that in this club the membership is limited to 40. The Britannia, the yacht of his late Majesty King George, was designed by G. L. Watson, built by the Henderson Bros., and throughout her career sailed by W. G. Jameson and Sir Philip Hunloke, all members of this club. Mr. J. G. Stephen, another member of the club, was the first person to win the Seawanhaka cup for Great Britain. Yours faithfully,

A. M. MacGregor.

Hon. Secretary-Treasurer,

Mudhook Yacht Club, Glasgow.



Looking first toward Toronto and then towards Port Hope. Between looks see the Port Britain of 1856.

PORT BRITAIN HARBOUR, "fourteen acres of deep water" in 1856, as Marsh's Creek meanders lakewards through its remains, eighty years afterwards.

PORT BRITAIN VILLAGE NOW, as you begin to climb the hill.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
25 Feb 1939
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.9306960842394 Longitude: -78.3638233862305
Richard Palmer
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
Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


In Search of Port Britain: Schooner Days CCCLXXXVI (386)