200th Anniversary of the launch of steam on the Great Lakes

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 4.19.48 PMBecause of an article I had written for FreshWater[1] twenty-five years ago I was approached by the Royal Canadian Mint for feedback on the design of a coin they were going to issue on the 175th anniversary of the launch of the Frontenac.  There is a fisherman in the foreground who might have been on a rocky islet in the Thousand Islands.  Except as I explained to the Mint, she only went into the Thousand Islands once, when she got hung up on what graces the charts today as the Frontenac Shoal.  There is a lighthouse in the background.  It might be Gibraltar Point light on an island off what is now Toronto. In that case our fishermen are on a floating rock in Lake Ontario.  Clearly, my observations wasn’t heeded.  Such is the respect of artists (and Mints) for historians (with some notable exceptions, not the least of whom is Peter Rindlisbacher).

On September 7, 2016 it will be 200 years since the Frontenac was launched into Lake Ontario from Finkle’s Point at modern Bath, Ontario.  The accounts often referred to it as Ernesttown, that being the name of the township in which the community was located.  (For the record Bath was not, and still is not in Frontenac County.  The money that paid for her, on the other hand, largely was.)  We have a contemporary account of that launch courtesy of the next issue of the Kingston Gazette.


On Saturday the 7th of September, the Steam Boat Frontenac was launched at the village of Ernest Town. A numerous concourse of people assembled on the occasion. But in consequence of some accidental delay, and the appearance of an approaching shower, a part of the spectators withdrew before the launch actually took place. The Boat moved slowly from her place, and descended with majestic sweep into her proper element. The length of her keel is 150 feet; her Deck, 170 feet. Her proportions strike the eye very agreeably; and good judges have pronounced this to be the best piece of naval architecture of the kind yet produced in America. It reflects honor upon Messrs. Tiebout & Chapman, the contractors, and their workmen, and also upon the proprietors, the greatest part of whom are among the most respectable merchants and other inhabitants of the County of Frontenac, from which the name is derived. The machinery for this valuable boat was imported from England, and is said to be of an excellent structure. The Frontenac is designed for both freight and passengers. It is expected she will be finished and ready for use in a few weeks. Steam navigation having succeeded to admiration on various rivers, the application of it to the waters of the lakes is an interesting experiment. Every friend to public improvements must wish it all the success, which is due to a spirit of useful enterprise.

A Steam Boat was lately launched at Sacket’s Harbor. The opposite sides of this Lake, which not long ago vied with each other in the building of ships of war, seem now to be equally emulous of Commercial superiority.[2]

A week later, the same paper reported that she had arrived in Kingston on September 16 where she tied up at the King’s wharf “waiting for her Machinery.”[3]  There were no other operating steamboats in the region. At 700 tons (a measure of her size not her deadweight) she was roughly the size of all the sloops and schooners on the Upper Canadian side of Lake Ontario.  Consequently, there is little doubt that the nine days between her launch and her arrival in Kingston had been spent rigging her and then waiting for the right wind to make the passage under sail.  There was no rush, as the engine had not yet arrived from the Boulton and Watt factory in Birmingham, England.

Frontenac  by Captain James Van Cleve

Frontenac by Captain James Van Cleve

But what about that passing reference to a steamboat “lately launched at Sacket’s Harbour”? Most historians of the Lakes have concluded that some time before the Frontenac was launched, her American counterpart, the Ontario, had entered the waters of Black River Bay.  A variety of newspapers across the United States had been repeating the story told the Buffalo Gazette & Niagara Intelligencer on 6 August 1816:


We learn with pleasure, that Charles Smyth, of Albany, and his associates, have completed a Steam Boat on Lake Ontario, of rising 200 burthen. We earnestly desire that the enterprise of these gentlemen may be rewarded, in the attention which the public will pay to their establishment. The arrangement of running the boat we have not learnt.

The Kingston Gazette in paraphrasing the story in its 31 August 1816[4] edition, failed to take the opportunity to mention that Charles Smyth had lived in Kingston for a few years, prior to the War of 1812; his brothers and sisters still lived in Kingston.  The family name is still imprinted on the region’s maps as his cousins owned the mill rights at what became known as Smiths Falls on the Rideau Canal. It is one of the intriguing twists of this story that the first American steamboat was financed, in part, by the son of a United Empire Loyalist.

Smyth lived in Albany, where in mid-August the Daily Advertiser “was requested to state for the information of the public” that they hoped the Sackets Harbor steamboat to be in operation by September.[5]

There is an alternative version of the Ontario story, probably best articulated by Barlow Cumberland in A Century of Sail and Steam on the Niagara River (1913).[6]  His evidence included a passage in Hough’s A History of Jefferson County, which chronicled the changes in control of the right to operate a steamboat within the boundaries of New York State that Smyth and his partners had negotiated with the Fulton and Livingston heirs.  “On the 16th of August, of the same year [1816], Erie Lusher, and Charles Smyth, became, by assignment of de Graff and Boyd, partners in the enterprise, and a boat was commenced at Sackets Harbor, the same summer …”[7] In Captain James Van Cleve’s manuscript history of the Great Lakes, this statement is repeated.  The final piece of evidence that Cumberland brings forward comes via an extensive quote from Hough of a petition drawn up in December 1816 to the New York legislature for incorporation.  In it the petitioners state both that they had “lately constructed a steam boat at Sackett’s Harbor” and that “the cost so far exceeds the means which mercantile men can generally command that they are unable to build any further”.  From this Cumberland concluded that Ontario was still under construction, and further that it had not been launched.  From this, he argues that the original story (which he failed to trace to the Buffalo newspaper) confused “completed” with “commenced.”  To this array of evidence Cumberland declares as a fact that Frontenac was launched with her engines.  The evidence from Kingston a week after the report of the launch directly contradicts this.

So what really happened?  The Buffalo report clearly erred when it wrote “completed.” What it should have said was not “commenced” but simply launched. What the editor at Buffalo had failed to grasp, as had many others, the range of activities that had to go one with a steamboat after launch.  A schooner or sloop may have required the mast to be stepped, and the rigging and sails put in place.  The steamboat had a large open cavity amidships waiting for the heavy pieces of engine to be lowered into place, assembled and the deck to be completed over them.

The enrolments of the Ontario show two distinct sets of owners.[8]  Charles Smyth of Albany and Eri Lusher of Schenectady were the remaining players in a set of people who had been involved in the negotiations with the Fulton and Livingston heirs and an earlier attempt to create a corporation to own the boat.  The balance of the owners lived in and around Jefferson County, and in particular, Sackets Harbor.  What Hough reported was the consolidation of those interests.  (Indeed in another year, Smyth would back out as well). It had nothing to do with the start of construction and lots to do with who would pay the bills that were mounting up.

The December petitions clearly state that a) the boat had been launched and b) they were not finished with her.

Both steamboats were launched in the summer of 1816, Frontenac on 7 September, and Ontario some weeks early, either in late July or early August.  Both were launched without their engines on board.  To date I have been unable to locate any evidence of the arrival of the Frontenac’s engine from England.  It was shipped from Liverpool about 10 June 1816.  In mid-December the Frontenac’s owners petitioned for a remittance of the customs fees they had been charged at Quebec. The delay until late May of the Frontenac’s trial trips would suggest that the engine did not complete its journey to Kingston until the spring.  Ontario’s engine, by contrast was delivered over the course of the winter of 1816-17, which allowed her to get out on her first trip in April, a voyage which unfortunately ended as she limped back to Sackets on one paddlewheel assisted by her sails.[9]  About the point that she was making her first paying trip up the lake to Niagara, Frontenac was enduring her own engine problems, not even clearing Kingston harbour.[10]  By early June 1817 both steamboats were making regular runs up and down Lake Ontario.

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[1]  Walter Lewis, “The Frontenac: A Reappraisal,” FreshWater,vol. 2, no. 1 (Summer 1987): 28-39 (online)

[2] Kingston Gazette (Kingston, ON), Sept. 14, 1816, p. 3 (online)

[3] Kingston Gazette (Kingston, ON), Sept. 21, 1816, p. 3 (online)

[4] http://images.maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes.ca/33167/data

[5] Albany Daily Advertiser, 15 Aug 1816, p. 2 (online)

[6] http://www.maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes.ca/Documents/Cumberland/default.asp?ID=c008.  This account is quoted by Joel Stone, Floating Palaces of the Great Lakes (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2015), pp. 17-18. (https://www.amazon.com/Floating-Palaces-Great-Lakes-Steamships/dp/047205175X)

[7] https://archive.org/stream/historyofjeffers00houg#page/349/mode/1up

[8] http://www.maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes.ca/enrolment/ShipDetails.asp?ShipID=1739

[9] Ontario Repository (Canandaigua, NY), Tues., May 6, 1817 (online)

[10] http://images.maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes.ca/33152/data

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