Maritime History of the Great Lakes
"Grand Traffic" On a 30-Ft. Keel: Schooner Days DCCXXII (722)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 15 Dec 1945
Full Text
"Grand Traffic" On a 30-Ft. Keel
Schooner Days DCCXXII (722)

by C. H. J. Snider


Little Lake Ontario Port from Which the Big Cheese Rolled to Washington Had Armada of Vessels Ranging from 11 to 120 Tons— Steam Schooners Early Callers


THAT ancient Port Ontario, whose life history seems to have begun with that of the Big Cheese, was more than a paper port is proved by the old registers and newspaper files. The late Capt. James Sparks, whose Broadview avenue cottage was one of the landmarks of Toronto, used to trade to Oswego with barley eighty years ago and he frequently went to Port Ontario with his schooner Beaver, which, being scow built, was able to negotiate shoal waters. There does not appear to have been more than ten feet of water in the Port Ontario harbor entrance at any time and it was always filling up as the lake waves pushed back the silt washed down by the Salmon River.

The Beaver, being shoal, could get in over the bar and warp her way up to the Port Ontario mills, past the islands—even as far as the present Scenic Highway bridge, probably.

The mills, turned by the Salmon River, ground flour and cut lumber. The country around was good grazing land and the port exported cheese, butter, pork and poultry as well as lumber, shingles—and sand. The latter washed in in inexhaustible quantities and many a barge load went back to stoney Oswego.


First arrival in Oswego harbor in 1846 was the Port Ontario schooner Helena with a cargo of winter sawn lumber, on the 26th of March, which is a cold raw date for sailing. Other known Port Ontario vessels were:

W. S. MALCOLM, 120 tons, built there in 1836 by J. D. Beaupre, apparently an itinerant builder preceding Edward Beaupre of Hatter's Bay, Portsmouth, Ont., who built many Canadian schooners, notably the Oliver Mowat. W. S. Malcolm was a U.S. federal agent and a vessel captain. His action in the Battle of the Windmill at Prescott, 1838, in the Mackenzie rebellion, a year after this schooner was built, saved an international incident from developing into war. A British cannonball took off the head of Solomon Foster, helmsman of the steamer United States, which was engaged in towing schooner loads of rebels and rebel sympathizers towards Prescott. Malcolm, who was aboard the steamer, probably as an unofficial federal observer, took the wheel on his own initiative, and turned the steamer back to Ogdensburg and out of the battle.

The schooner named after Capt. Malcolm was built in Port Ontario in 1836, the first and largest vessel built there as far as is known. She was about 90 feet long. She was sold to Lake Michigan, during the great western migration, and in 1864 was owned by James Barry in Chicago. Her insurable value had then dropped from $5,000 to $500, the usual fate of an old wooden vessel unless she had been rebuilt.

GRAND TRAFFIC, sloop, built by and for Capt. Isaac Page in 1860. Despite her fine name she was only a little scow some [ ] feet long, of 11 tons register and insurable for $300 when new.

MINNIE, schooner, built and owned by J. Ingersoll, in 1859, 23 tons register, valued at $600.

MARIAN, another sloop scow, built by David Tate on Amherst Island in 1856 and owned by R. Ripson in Port Ontario in 1864; 50 tons register, worth $800.

IMOGENE, another schooner, built at Henderson, N.Y., in 1863, for Brown and Ripson, Port Ontario, 49 tons register and worth $2,000 when new.

EXPRESS, one of the early lake propellers, scow, built from the Oswego canal boat Scott, in 1856, by A. Miller and owned by A. D. Harrington, Port Ontario, in 1864, when she was valued at $1,500.


The Malcolm was a large schooner for her time, as large as any then on Lake Ontario, but the other vessels mentioned were small fry, as was almost certain to be the case with a harbor with sandbars in front and islands and marshes behind. Other steamers than the propeller canal boat tried to use the harbor but the traffic did not warrant the extensive dredging required. Records are not available for the arrival and departure of the earliest lake steamers at Port Ontario but it is more than likely that the first Ontario and the Martha Ogden were early callers. These vessels were built at Sacketts Harbor, the first named in 1817 and the last in 1826. They were full rigged schooners, with topmasts, jibs, foresails and mainsails, and figureheads and high quarterdecks like old men of War. Paddle wheels, steam driven propelled them against the wind. One is shown entering port Ontario in the old map of 1836.

The site of the real Port Ontario by the lake is now called Selkirk Beach. Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, may have had something to do with the early development of the land. Perhaps it was another of the Selkirk settlements that nobleman projected early in the 19th century. Douglaston Manor, home of Colonel Hugh Barclay, also commemorates the earl and the reach of the Salmon River called Selkirk Lake on the map is now known as Selkirk Park.


The real estate boom following the Big Cheese episode evaporated without establishing Port Ontario as a serious rival for Oswego, as projected. The government did put in a lighthouse in 1838 and improved it in 1855, when, it is possible, the stone storehouse was built for customs purposes. Port Ontario probably went through the phase of being a smuggler port, as tariffs, embargoes and other governmental expedients blocked the free interchange of goods. Most little places have had that experience. It was probably too late for the excitement of the rum-running era of the 1920's, for its light had then been out for thirty years and its harbor choked. But it is still practicable for launches and small sail boats, and a lovely summer resort. And as in other American ports visited in this rubber keeled cruising, the surviving natives are most hospitable.


STEAMERS calling AT PORT ONTARIO USED AS MUCH WIND AS CORDWOOD—Above are are the paddlewheelers MARTHA OGDEN and ONTARIO as drawn by Capt. James VanCleve, who commanded one of them.

Snider, C. H. J.
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Date of Publication
15 Dec 1945
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  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.45535 Longitude: -76.5105
  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.56674 Longitude: -76.18798
Richard Palmer
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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"Grand Traffic" On a 30-Ft. Keel: Schooner Days DCCXXII (722)