Maritime History of the Great Lakes
April on the Waterfront in the Gay Nineties: Schooner Days DXXXIV (534)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 18 Apr 1942
Full Text
April on the Waterfront in the Gay Nineties
Schooner Days DXXXIV (534)

by C. H. J. Snider


THERE were a lot of things left unsaid when we started to talk about Toronto's waterfront in the gay 1890's. One was about the old Nipissing wharf.

Remember it?

I don't, but am told I should, and that it was about the foot of Trinity Street, near the Gooderham elevator, a terminal spur for the Nipissing railway, and a centre for a timber and rafting industry at the east end of the Bay, corresponding to the one around the Queen's Wharf and the Northern docks at the west end, which lasted on into the twentieth century. Corroborating the Nipissing as an East End institution I do remember the old red brick Nipissing House on King street east for many years.

The Shipping Toronto the White Oak found when her master and one half of her total crew of two went uptown to spend the price of the best hat money could buy fifty years ago, as first arrivals of the season, was no more like London than Cap. Peer's three dollars was like Bond street. But—


Webster's, and Sharpe's and Melville's ticket offices had the same pictures of square-rigged ocean liners breasting anormous seas, for few would cold-bloodedly embark in an ocean steamer unless they thought she had a full outfit of sails "in case of a breakdown."

Even the Chicora, already ten years on the Niagara route, had sails stowed away somewhere, relics of her blockade running thirty years before.

The Persia, Cuba, Shickluna and other lake propellers which carried passengers and freight would be bending on their brailing foresails and staysails while they painted their funnels for the season, as Capt. Peer trudged the Esplanade.

J. J. Wright's little steam yacht Electric, with shining black sides and round brass-rimmed portholes and a gilt battleaxe at the end of her bowsprit had just succeeded the smaller wood-burning pleasure vessel of the manager of the Toronto Electric Light Co. But she had a full suit of schooner's sails bent to her spars, even to a squaresail on its yard.


The Electric Light was a good customer for the schooners in the nineties. From the time the ice went out of the Bay till the December freeze-up you would find some lore-and-after like the old black-and-green Garibaldi, or the black and-white Wave Crest, or the white-and-green W. Y. Emery, or the black-and-red W. T. Greenwood at the end of the Electric Light wharf at the foot of Scott street, with the steam-hoist biting the soft slack out of their hundred-foot holds. Electric power was for them newfangled trolley cars or the few hundred lamps tended by lamplighters who Hoisted and lowered the glass globes to renew the carbon pencils. They burned out every night. The streets were mainly lighted by gas, and many homes by coal oil.


Around the corner from the Electric Light at Milloy's wharf at the foot of Yonge street, Capt. Wigle would be expected in with the spick-and-span Lakeside, white with green rails. She ran a losing race with the stonehookers for the Harbormaster's Hat until 1897, when she was first in, on March 24th; the first steamer to win the Hat since its institution in 1868. Seventy five cents to St. Catherines was her tariff, and she did a good trade in Toronto passengers and package freight.

Other white steamers fitting out at this time would be the Greyhound for Long Branch and Lorne Park, the Chicoutimi and J. W. Steinhoff for the Victoria Park run, the three black, white and red Niagara boats, Chicora and Cibola, and their tender Ongiara, winter berthed at the Northern docks west of Brock street or Spadina avenue, among the lumber piles and squared timber brought down for rafting.


Soon as the ice was out the Calvin fleet from Garden Island, a big green steam barge and a few tow barges or cut-down schooners, would be in to load the square sticks on deck and in the hold, or perhaps the tug Rival or Chieftain would come to low a dram of rafts down the lake to Kingston. The western waterfront would ring with the chansons of the Frenchies and the clink of caulking irons as hinged sternports or bow ports were caulked after the holds had been filled to the portsills and quilling-up for the deck load would begin.

Apart from the spring visit of the timber fleet and the odd grain cargo the Northern docks were a quiet section of the 'nineties waterfront. One might find members of the green-and-red Mathews fleet there occasionally, loading lumber for Oswego—-that ugly, box car like Laura, the straight Clara Youell with her flaring bow; the bluff Emerald, fated to a mystery end, the chubby Grimsby or Lisgar or Gleneiffer (no, wrong about the Gleneiffer) and the little rabbit Clinton that towed them, or the pea green Niagara, or the dark green Business, each a steam barge with three masts.

The Gleneiffer wouldn't be there, for she lost her foremast and blew ashore at Long Branch in a gale in 1889, and after Pat McSherry got through salvaging her she lay for years in Coghill's drydock away clown at the mouth of the Don, a broom at her remaining masthead announcing in the traditional manner that she was For Sale. Sold she was, at last, for a towbarge, and disappeared from Toronto's waterfront for the Upper Lakes.


The Northern and Northwestern docks, so named by the railways that built them, were busy in the 1870's and 1880's, but in our gay decade they did little but serve as lumber yards and laying-up slips. They were a favorite spot for schooners like the Snowbird or Marcia Hall or Jessie McDonald to hibernate in. Sometimes in poor seasons their hibernation would extend into the summer, or resume after a frantic effort in the spring at fitting out. Freights were low and some of these vessels became too small or too leaky to carry coal, too proud to carry stone, and too late to pick up lumber cargoes; so they would wait for another chance empty and hungry in the Northern docks.

ANOTHER thing unsaid but un-forgot was the happiness of old West Market street slip in the April sunshine, filled with 'hookers in with their first loads, or dockwallopers getting theirs, which would be hookers of a different sort.

This has become very complicated, gentle reader, and clarification is necessary. Stonehookers with their loads of building stone, cribstone, hardheads, cobblers or gravel, the first fruits of their more or less honest toil along the lake shore, were in mind. But alas, in the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of thirst and its quenching.

The sweetest nectar of the nineties this deponent recalls was cold lake water, flowing continuously from the green painted fountain of iron, much like a hydrant, at the corner of Church and Esplanade street east. There was a basin for horses, a lower one for dogs, and humans drank from a thick battered round-bottomed cup of bronze, chained to the fountain to keep waterfront bums from stealing it. The cup shone and looked clean. And the water was sweet and cold. In those days germs, microbes and bacilli were less publicized and easier to get along with, and oil in the lake had not made drinking water the dose it often is now.

But this sweetest nectar was not in mind when the loads of the dockwallopers were mentioned, nor were their loads like unto the loads of the stonehookers, nor of those who patronized the fountain of youth. Their loads, also known as jags, skates, buns, skins-full, et hujus generis omne, were inebrieties as described by the common speech of the port, which also used the term hooker to describe the component parts of the said inebriety. Thus, after swallowing a number of hookers, particularly if these were stiff, the dockwalloper aforementioned would have, in the simple language of his associates, a load.

We trust we make ourselves clear.

Meantime the stonehookers would be unloading, the beautiful blue grey building stone growing in piles with meticulously straight sides and ends and as many dogholes and catacombs inside as possible, so as to make it measure more. Stone cargoes were measured and paid for by their cubic area, not their weight, stone by the toise, gravel by the yard. Hardheads were round granite boulders, and the bigger they were the better they piled out, that is, the more they measured after piling, because of the airspaces between. So stonehookermen developed muscle heaving up the largest boulders, on their rakes to the scow, from the scow to the deck, from the deck to the hold, from the hold to the deck again, and from the deck to the dock. They grew strong at the job; memory recalls Abe Blowers, the one they nicknamed Handsome, with his flaxen moustache, wide shoulders, huge forearms and slim hips; and his brother George, who had the Lillian to the very last days of the stone trade, and was killed by a car on the Hamilton highway. George Blowers was nicknamed Samson, and the stonehookers from Port Credit, whence he hailed, were named the Samson Fleet, as against the Highland Rangers, the ones that hived in Frenchman's Bay and worked the Highlands of Scarboro.


The despised stone trade was the last resort for even some of the largest schooners. Capt. Johnny Williams, brought up in it, never hesitated to put his big Straubenzee into it when he saw a profitable opening, and Capt. Jack Breen often tried it with the smaller Garibaldi. Many others tried once only.

To make a success of the stone trade you had to get your cargo for nothing and sell it for something; there was no profit in the mere freighting of this ship's backbreaking stuff, except it might be in bringing the huge blocks of squared sandstone for the Parliament Buildings and the "New Courthouse" of the nineties, which became the new City Hall in 1900.


The stonehookers were a class both of vessels and sailors who knew how to do it. Small craft, small crews, often father and son. They raked or hooked the stone from the bottom of the lake or the lake shore, paying nothing for it if they could help it, and they were years filling the cribs of the new harbor work with beach stone before the use of concrete. They could also sell granite boulders for the crushers for macadam pavement, and when concrete curbs, sidewalks and foundations came in there was still a demand for their stone from the crushers. They brought in round stones for cobble pavements, and limestone for building, and they marketed sand and gravel on the same general terms. There were forty or fifty stonehookers, half of them hailing from Port Credit.


A dowdy, happy-go-lucky fleet they formed, nesting south of the old St. Lawrence Market; sails mended like patchwork quilts and still full of holes, and hulls leaky as baskets, caulking their gaping seams by stewing in the slime of the sewer slips.

We poured our sewage into the Bay raw and pumped B. coli back from the lake and wondered what we could do about typhoid fever. We took a greater civic pride in cutting down smallpox.

Stonehookers were often modeled like long square boxes and sailed that well. Some were scows, ingeniously streamlined and as ingeniously named. One such was the Lithophone, of Port Credit, a compliment to the new telephone.

Others were round or sharp-built craft ranging from former fur-traders to ex-yachts. Larger ones like the H. M. Ballou, Robert McDonald, Newsboy, Northwest, Maple Leaf, Rapid City and Highland Beauty were well modeled, centreboard schooners, handsome, fast and handy. White above and green or lead-color below was their usual paint, with painted curtains on their transoms, drawn apart to reveal sign painters' landscapes. They clutched eagerly at the odd cargo of coal, lumber, or grain they might get, but a freight of $25 for a hundred-ton schooner's week's work was not enough for them to live on, and that was all a coal cargo would yield at 25 cents a ton. So back they would go to the granite or gravel.


The pea green NIAGARA

The little DEFIANCE at the Queen's Wharf

Bluff-bowed GRIMSBY, a tow barge

In the 1870's and 1880's the Queen's Wharf and Northern Railway docks hummed in the rafting and timber trade.

H.M. BALLOU and SNOWBIRD in their last stages.

SURE SIGN OF SPRING ON THE 1890's WATERFRONT — The SPEEDWELL sailing out and the D. D. CALVIN loading square timber.

When She came to the lakes the old CHICORA still carried sail.

Steam barge BUSINESS frozen in.

Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type
Date of Publication
18 Apr 1942
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.6361970081364 Longitude: -79.371913671875
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
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April on the Waterfront in the Gay Nineties: Schooner Days DXXXIV (534)