Now that steamboat navigation is again fully opened for the season, it seems a suggestive time to give some facts about the early days of steam navigation on the Bay of Quinte and other Upper Canadian waters. It hardly seems now credible that at this period in the last century and within the lifetime of numbers of well-known residents of to-day, steamboats and steam navigation had not yet been heard of - not even dreamed of.
It was not until the year 1807 that the Cleremont, the first steamboat to navigate the waters of America, made its first memorable trip up the Hudson river, from New York to Albany and the name of Robert Fulton became historic therewith. That was the commencement of a new era in connection with navigation travel. Even then very few, if any, expected that steam navigation would become so extended - so as to cross lakes and rivers, and by such means navigate the world. Even Fulton did not live long enough to see the Atlantic ocean thus navigated.
Eight years after that time in 1815, the first steamer, the Accomodation, was built and navigated Canadian waters. John Molson, whose name became so prominently identified with the business enterprises of Montreal, was the proprietor and its route was established, between Montreal and Quebec. It is on record that when this strange vessel, without sails, and making its way against both wind and tide reached Quebec, nearly all the inhabitants of the town, to the number of thousands, were assembled to witness the strange sight. No doubt they were as much astonished as were many on the Hudson, when the Cleremont made its first trip. It is on record that many boatmen on the river pulled their vessels ashore, and took to the land with all possible speed to make their escape.
FIRST OCEAN VESSEL
It is to the credit of Canada that the first regular steamship to cross the Atlantic ocean was a native of Canada, built at Three Rivers below Montreal in 1833. Canada was thus in advance of the enterprise of both Great Britain and the United States in this respect. We have seen long accounts on that historic vessel and of its first memorable voyage, but have not space now to make further reference to it. The Royal William, however, depended largely on its sails as well as steam for its success. However that demonstrated the possibility of such a class of vessels and others soon began to follow.
So far as Upper Canada is concerned the steamer Frontenac was the first to be built and launched. It was commenced in the year 1815 and launched and completed the next year. it was built in this county, at Finkle’s Point, a mile or two west of Bath. At that point at least three of the early steamers were built, besides other vessels. In the matter of vessel building, as in several other thing, Bath then occupied a more important position than Kingston. Finkle, the proprietor of the tavern and farm there, appears to have been a man of much enterprise, considerable wealth and local influence, and had an interest in the building of all these vessels.
It was at his tavern the first courts of the Midland District were held, the Hon. Richard Cartwright presiding, as there was then no where else in the District that ample accommodation could be obtained. It was there, too, that the first legal hanging is said to have taken place, for the crime of watch stealing. And it is said that until a few years past a willow tree stood there to which convicts for stealing and other crimes were fastened and lashed with many sore stripes. It was there, too, that the first frame school house, with a teacher’s residence was built in Upper Canada.
The Frontenac regularly navigated Lake Ontario, from Toronto, and the River St. Lawrence, down to Prescott, for many years. We have never seen any record of its sailing on the Bay of Quinte.
FIRST BAY STEAMERS
The Queen Charlotte was the first steamer to navigate the waters of the Bay of Quinte. She too, was built at Finkle’s Point, and Finkle was one of its principal share-holders. It was built and commenced running in 1818; its trip being from “The Carrying Place at the head of the Bay, not far from the location of the present Murray Canal, to Prescott, which was then as far down the St. Lawrence as navigation extended, because of the Rapids. The writer has heard from some of the people of the past generation some marvellous and interesting incidents about the Charlotte’s early trips. The days when it was known she would pass up or down, wagon loads would drive to the Bay shore from miles distant to see her plough through the waters, against wind and storm at five to seven miles an hour. The natural exclamation then would be that, “wonders will never cease.” By running pretty steadily day and night, two found trips could be made in the week. The fare each was $5.00, meals included; and that was much cheaper and speedier travelling than the people had been accustomed to. There was no upper deck - just a rude gentlemen’s cabin in the main deck, and a small ladies’ cabin below, with the floor about six feet wide, and a few berths up the sides as the sides flared out. But it was all sumptuous travelling compared with the open sail or row boats before that time. It continued to run regularly for about twenty years, but did not pay even running expenses for years.
We have heard of one wealthy and intelligent old farmer who drove miles to Bath to see the boat and its mysteries. He got on board and went all through, seeing the engine, its boiler, furnaces and all, and how they worked, and became so interested in it that the boat had got some miles up the Bay before he even noticed it had left dock. He was given a free ride to Adolphustown, however, and came back afoot, to find his team all right yet. He felt he had been pretty well repaid for his day’s journey.
Some years later, in 1828, the Sir James Kemp, was built and launched also from Finkle’s Point. It was a large and more pretentious boat and ran for many years on the Bay, and many of the older people, now living, can well remember sailing on it. Our venerable, yet sprightly townsman, Peter Bristol, J.P., of Piety Hill, was present and saw it launched. A copy of the Kingston Gazette, of August 8th, 1828, now lying before us, has this new item:
“The Sir James Kemp - This new steamer, built at Bath, under the superintendence of Capt. Gildersleeve, was safely launched on Monday last, and towed into Kingston harbor on Wednesday morning by the Toronto. The Sir James Kemp is a beautiful boat, rather longer than the old Charlotte and her engine is forty-five horse power. She is destined to ply between Prescott and the head of Bay of Quinte.”
The boat was named in honor of Sir James Kemp, who had been for some time Lieut. Governor of Nova Scotia, but was in that year, 1828, appointed by the British Government, Governor General of British America.
Capt. Harry Gildersleeve, mentioned in the last paragraph, came to Bath in connection with the building of the Frontenac and Queen Charlotte, as a builder. He became Captain of the latter boat and continued sailing and interested in steamship building and running for the rest of his days. He was the head of the Gildersleeve family, of Kingston, who have been so prominently identified with steamboat navigation ever since. We have seen it stated that he married a Miss Finkle, of the Point. He became a wealthy and influential man.
It may as well be mentioned here of the Crysler family, some of whom were prominently identified with sailing of the Gildersleeve boats for many years. John Crysler was a prominent man in Dundas county and was elected its representative in the Upper Canada Legislature of years, retiring in 1828. During one of the winters when he drove with his horse and cutter to York, to attend the session, he reached Mrs. Finkle’s tavern one night and remained there. A young and handsome daughter of hers was anxious to go to York to see friends, and begged a passage also, as the M.P.P. was alone, There were few chances in those days, and he readily consented. During the trip of two or three days, he became quite smitten with her charms, and proposed marriage. They “made it up” and were married and it was not till some weeks later, on their return that the mother had any hint of it. News moved slow then. The match was quite satisfactory, however, and from that union originated quite a large and important family. One son, Captain Crysler, was a popular and important captain on one of the Gildersleeve steamers - the Prince of Wales - for many years.
OTHER BOATS AND CAPTAINS
The principal steamers until the past forty years on the Bay were those already mentioned and the Brockville, Fashion, Novelty, all commanded in their time by Captain Jacob Bonter, of Belleville; the Bay of Quinte, the finest boat in its day, built by Gildersleeve and commanded by Capt. J. McGill Chambers, of Smiths’ Fall; the Queen Victoria, owned and commanded by Capt. Henry Corby, of Belleville. These captains were all energetic and prominent men in their time. There were others but the writer scarcely remembers their names now. Until well in the fifties, when the Grand Trunk railway commenced operations, steamboats were the only public means of travelling and the boats and captains were of much public importance.
There were on the Lake and river sixty years ago a number of staunch steamers, popularly known as the Royal Mail Line, all painted black, making daily trips from Toronto to Kingston and on down, and carrying the Royal mail. Prominent among them were the Sovereign, City of Toronto, Princess Royal. About in the forties two Iron steamers, the Magnet and Passport, came on the Lake and with them were introduced a new and more popular class of vessels. They were painted white, - the first of the Lake steamers so painted that the writer remembers of. They were built in Scotland, and completed here. So staunch were they built that now, sixty years later, they are yet in active service. The Magnet has been renamed the Hamilton and was the pioneer of a now pretty well established line between Hamilton and Montreal, making weekly trips.
The Hon. Billa Flint, of Belleville, built two steam barges, fitted up for passengers, lumber and other freight, making regular trips from Belleville to Oswego. That was about fifty years ago. They were quite popular in their time. A few years later, in the sixties, the Downey Bros., of Napanee, established a line of two similar boats, the Oswego Belle and Kincardine, between here and Oswego. At that time very large quantities of barley, lumber and other freight were shipped from here. That business fell off and the steamers went elsewhere.
It is not necessary here, to make mention of the present line of steamer of the Deseronto Navigation Company, supplying the Bay in all directions, or of the other numerous steamers of to-day. Now that the Murray Canal has been opened and the fine lake steamers are passing up and down through Canadian waters every day, the passenger accommodation on our waters was never so varied and so good before and there was never so much passenger traffic of that kind.
The late Captain John Forte, who died in Trenton a few years ago, was the first to establish a regular steamer passenger route in and out of the Napanee river. The small and somewhat slow “John Greenway” brought here from the Mohawk river, N.Y., was the pioneer boat for that purpose. That was about forty years ago. That route has been well kept up ever since and is now well supplied with two boats each day. In fact the whole passenger steamer traffic on the Bay, the lake and the river, was never so well and luxuriously supplied as it now is. The wonder to many is how so many steamers can possibly find traffic to make their various routes possible.