Steamers On The Upper St. John


Carolyn L Chase

Presented October 25th, 1966


In the June 6th, 1837 issue of the Carleton Sentinel, Editor James MacLauchlan wrote thus:

"Should this meet the eye of any who have not yet made up their minds that the River St. John is one of the finest country of any in America; or if any should read this who do not think that for beauty and grandeur of natural scenery, for fertility and spontaneity of soil, and for deliciousness of air, New Brunswick deserves a prominent position, — we would recommend that they satisfy themselves without loss of time on these points: to which end they need only take passage in one of the steamers at Indian Town, or elsewhere on the route as suits their convenience, for a trip to the Grand Falls. Before starting we promise them this: that they will find on the route the most comfortable of boats and most accommodating and communicative of captains. Fredericton will be your first resting place, where at the "Barker House" you can be made specially comfortable. Taking steamer the next morning at six, after a delightful sail of 12 hours or less, depending on circumstances, through a country still increasing in attractiveness as you advance, you will reach Woodstock; here in the care of some one of our excellent hosts, another night will be spent. Next morning, stirring betimes, you again [board] the steamer, and if the weather be fine, a day of delight awaits you. Every variety of pleasing scenery will meet your view, calculated to arouse and call into play every feeling and passion of the mind — the calm and peaceful, the stern and broken — the broad, blue waters flowing gently along between the green boundaries which gently undulate to meet its kiss; then suddenly the broken water foams, and boils over rocks and quick descents, madly chafing its narrow limits, restrained by the perpendicular boulders that bound its course; mountains rising gorgeously, clad with beauty; valleys smiling fair beneath their robe of green fertility, — all this and a hundred other charms which the eye can feast upon, but which requires the highest skill of the poet or painter to depict, will greet you, until at last you reach the Grand Falls which, with their attendant circumstances of grandeur, will, if you have not already been satisfied, amply repay you for all the time and money spent in reaching them. At Squire Hammond's you will meet a hearty welcome, an unexceptionable meal, and beds to be slept in. The next morning you can, by horse conveyance, prosecute your tour further up the river, where are some thriving settlements and a magnificent country, or taking the steamer, glide swiftly downstream, reassuring yourself that the senses of the last few days have been realities, not dreams. Just try it! Leave your close counting houses and dusty shops; leave the smoke and the fog of the city; leave care and business for a little while behind; — and our word for it, on your return you will feel better satisfied with yourself and New Brunswick."

It was impossible to resist the inclusion of this editorial in its entirety. I could have recreated a steamboat trip for you, but I'd have been accused of romanticism; whereas James MacLauchlan was a man of the time, and his word stands on the record.

As every schoolboy knows, James Watt is regarded as the discoverer of steam potential. His inventions covered the expansion of steam and at least six methods of applying the principle and of equalizing the expansive power. Still, it should be noted that the introduction of steam power for the propulsion of ships had been anticipated, and several notable attempts had been made at experimentation before the beginning of the 19th century. Substitution of paddlewheels for oars had been attempted as early as 1588, as shown in old woodcut illustrations, and in 1651, Edward Somerset, the 2nd Marquis of Worcester, referred to steam application as a driving force for the paddles of a boat. Denys Papin of France built the first steam powered boat for which he asked patent protection in 1707. But the boat was destroyed by his superstitious townspeople, and he barely escaped with his life.

Robert Fulton of Pennsylvania is generally credited with the invention of the steamship in America. The Clermont was launched in August, 1807. It must be understood that it was by no means the first steamship to be built, but it was outstanding among the early attempts in that it made 130 miles on its first trip and regularly repeated the performance. You will notice that I have called it a steamship. It was suitable for the Hudson's depths and the coastal waters around New York and Connecticut, as were Fulton's subsequent boats. But its design did not make it practical for general use on the more "difficult" rivers, or on those with low midsummer levels. Its hull design followed sailing ship practice, and the rudder was found to be too small to permit the ship to be handled quickly. Steamships were bulky and virtually helpless on many of the rivers or stretches thereof.

It was William Shreve of Wheeling, West Virginia, who, in 1817, launched the first truly successful river boat. I don't want [you] to become restless listening to technicalities, but Shreve's design was to become the prototype for a good many river steamers, and it is important to have at least a sketchy idea of it. He had discovered that keel boat hulls were best on rivers and the majority of successful river boats, even some of the large, luxurious ones, were actually steam-propelled keel boats. A keel boat hull is almost flat and very shallow. From a model bow and stern, a scarcely defined keel extends the full length of the craft, serving as a backbone from which to run out the boat's timbers. But except for the timbers that slope and curve under the forecastle and form the bow, the hull is squatty and broad, very slightly rounded. It sits almost flat on the water, but that gracefully sharp model bow is sufficiently keen to cleave the water like a knife and not offer the resistance to current that a flat boat scow would offer. Shreve's first boat had its hull floored over entirely; its engines were installed on deck. It had four boilers and two cylinders in a horizontal position, with double high pressure engines, unconnected, as against the single upright low pressure machinery of the eastern ships. He then added another deck.

According to bulletin #2 of the McGill University Economic Studies, the first Canadian steamer was the Frontenac, built on the shore of Lake Ontario near Kingston in 1816, and launched in September of that year, but according to Colonel Baird in his Seventy Years of New Brunswick Life, a steamer, the General Smith, was in use between Fredericton and Saint John in 1816. He does not mention the month it was launched.1 As I do not propose to discuss the boats which served the country along the lower reach of the river, I did not go into the matter in more detail.

It is my purpose to deal with the boats which plied the river between Woodstock, Fredericton and Grand Falls. Navigation on this stretch of water was slow getting started in comparison with that on the lower reaches of the river because owners feared, and quite justifiably, that their boats would come a cropper on the Meductic Rapids. The first gallant attempt to brave them was made by the steamer Woodstock in 1832. She failed to mount them. But five years later, on April 30th, 1837, the Novelty arrived in Woodstock. She had been cheered all along her course and Woodstock was feverish with excitement when she reached the wharf. Unfortunately she ran afoul of Becaguimac island on her way upstream, which somewhat dimmed her hour of glory. She was a long narrow vessel and difficult to steer.

Probably no boat got a heartier welcome until the appearance of the Carleton in 1847. She was built by the Craigs in Saint John for George Connell of Woodstock, and was the first of three to be owned by him. She was intended for use exclusively between Fredericton and Woodstock, and was eminently well suited to glide over bars, shoals and rapids. This first Woodstock-owned Steamer was greeted with the keenest of delight and pride. As she rounded the islands, she was honoured by a regular salute from one of the artillery guns. Until she was totally demolished by fire as she lay at the foot of the Connell wharf on July 2nd, 1853, she served the community well and was highly successful commercially.

Steamboats plied the upper river until 1908, but the peak years of steam navigation on this stretch of water were between 1840 and 1880. By the latter date, the railroad had pretty much taken over.

Not including the two mentioned above, the following is a list of the boats: the Reindeer, the John Waring, the Benjamin Beveridge, the Bonnie Doon, the Madawaska, the Forest Queen, the Union, the J. D. Pierce, the Richmond, the Antelope, the Gazelle, the Tobique, the Highlander, the Ida Whither, the Andover, the City of Fredericton, the Florenceville, the Northampton Packet, and the Aberdeen.

I think that the list is complete, but I should be very interested to hear about any omissions. The newspaper files in our library are by no means complete, and the dearth of local reference material has imposed limits on this essay. For example, a complete schedule of the steamboat stops en route was not available and it would be of great good value. It would also be interesting to have a listing of the officers and crews of the various boats. Some of the names of these men were available, but dates of their term of office were not given. For a time the Reindeer was commanded by a personage with the supremely romantic name of Captain Horatio Nelson Drake. Other captains of the same boat were Captain Currier and Captain Lewis Heustis. The Bonnie Doon was commanded by Captain Lewis Smith during her early period of service. He was followed by Captain Blanchard. The Novelty, for a time, was under the command of Captain Phillips. There was only random mention of any of these men in the newspapers at my disposal, and I'd appreciate any help my audience can give me.

In the case of the Florenceville, I had more luck. There is a photograph of this steamer hanging in the library, a gift of it's Captain's daughter, Mrs. H. MacKay, to Mr. Harry Noble. Beneath it is a list of its officers: Mr. T. S. Duncan, Captain; Mr. John Johnston, Engineer; Mr. Winslow, Pilot; Mr. Gibson. Purser.

Captain Duncan also commanded the Aberdeen. In his retirement, he was succeeded by Captain Lance Lockwood. Both of these gentlemen lived in Woodstock, Captain Duncan in the fine old home on Upper Main, now demolished, which served as a Nurses' Residence until the new hospital was built.

All the boats were small. Our stretch of the river permitted only light draught steamers. Until the mid 1850s, there were only two cabins, a large one for men, a smaller one for women, each with a general washroom. At the mid-century individual staterooms were added. I have eagerly tried to find descriptions of the interiors. What follows is an assemblage of fragments from newspapers, memoirs, and sections of other essays. It is accurate enough as a general description, but it is not to be considered a specific description of any one boat.

The cabins, railings, and cornices of the pilot house would usually have carved white gingerbread work. Gold leaf was plentiful. Knobs, gilt acorns, cherubs, and the similitude of blossoms broke out anywhere in the cabins where any such little doodad could be placed. Gaudy pictures depicting home and pastoral scenes decorated cabin ceilings and stateroom doors. All the decorations tended toward the hectic and primary colours. (Remember, this was the Victorian age.) Toward the last of the century, elegant wood paneling was introduced. The little staterooms lined the main cabin compactly. The cabin served alternately as a lounge and a dining room. It was known as the "saloon." At meal times tables were set from one end of the cabin to the other. They were removed and stored afterward. Economy of space was essential.

Probably they were not the most comfortable conveyances in the world, but they were very well patronized. The June 18th, 1853, Carleton Sentinel reported, "There are a great many people this year, there is no denying it; every boat that comes up is crowded: passengers are so plenty that they can bring little or no freight. Three boats arrived here Saturday last, the Reindeer, the Bonnie Doon, and the J. D. Pierce. The J. D. Pierce arrived with 180 passengers, left for Grand Falls with 75, returned to Woodstock with 40, and left for Fredericton with 50. Monday the Reindeer had 50 aboard." This was a goodly number in proportion to the population of Woodstock and Grand Falls.

One wonders how the passengers got along together on these trips. Generally they took between 9 and 12 hours from Fredericton; quarters were close; and there must have been a highly heterogeneous group of people. The lumberman, presumably a fairly rollicking group, returned upstream on the boats. If it were in the 1870s, there might even be a lumberwoman aboard -- the colourful Mag Kerrigan of Grand Falls. And there'd be farmers, business men, and perhaps a family of immigrants. While there was a good deal of gambling, I found no record of the swashbuckling professional gamblers or of the elegant members of the demimonde who loaned their notoriety to the Mississippi river boats. Nor do I find any record of alcohol being served, but in view of the monumental amounts of rum imported during the 1800s, it hardly seems possible there was no drinking. I daresay personality clashes were not infrequent.

The Carleton Sentinel carried two reports of happenings aboard which you may enjoy hearing. Editor MacLauchan wrote the following on July 7th, 1855:

"A gentleman who came up on the Bonnie Doon on Wednesday last described a scene which occurred on board as one of the most interesting he ever witnessed. The "Doon" had nearly 100 passengers, among whom were ministers, merchants, farmers, lumberman and mechanics. A number of clergymen of the order of the Free Christian Baptists were on their way to Jacksontown for their annual association meeting. Mr. Norton, an aged minister, without any previous intimation, commenced singing a hymn, which arrested conversation going on in different parts of the saloon, which was very crowded. Another followed, and another, which were listened to with the utmost attention. The quietness and decorum observed by every shade of character formed an agreeable contrast with that which is usually witnessed on steamboats. The minister, perceiving that he had secured the attention of the passengers, said, 'Let us pray,' when all as if moved by one common impulse, knelt down, thus reverently acknowledging the God of Jacob, and showing what a happy influence may be exercised by a judicious and faithful minister of God. The scene was peculiarly imposing in its appearance and deeply interesting in its character. There were to be seen the red shirt, the white shirt, the homespun, the broadcloth, all commingled in the attitude of prayer, while the fervent and eloquent pleading of the aged minister, invoking the blessing of Almighty God, could be distinctly heard throughout the length of the boat. Such a scene, says our informant, he had never before witnessed on board a steamboat; and he has no doubt that impressions made that day will not be forgotten very soon."

The next appeared on October of the same year; "If our stern-wheel captains don't like the following, they need not 'pitch in' to us, as one of their own tribe told the tale. A very old and somewhat pettish gentleman was coming up the river a few weeks ago and got particularly out of humour with the captain, and in his wrath he damned the captains of such boats generally. The following conversation was heard between him and his little boy as they approached the Cave in the Rock, about which the lad had heard 'monshus' stories.

'And is that the Cave?' asked the boy as the boat drew opposite. ' Yes. my son, that is the Cave.'

'And Papa, did bad robbers used to live there and kill people?'

'Yes, my boy, they stole everything and killed everybody they could. They were great scoundrels.'

"Well, Papa, what has become of them?'

'They were nearly all captured. Some were sent to jail. Some were hung. But some of the greatest rascals got away!'

'And what became of them, Papa?'

'Why,' said the old gentleman with a great scowl, 'they got away from the police officers and became captains of these d----d sternwheelers!'"

In 1861, a royal passenger steamed up the river, the young Prince Alfred. The name of the boat is not mentioned, but as he was accompanied by the Lieutenant Governor, it was probably the latter's private vessel. There had been a recent death in his family and Queen Victoria had requested that he accept no invitations to public functions; he was to be regarded as a midshipman traveling to observe. Colonel Baird has reported the stop in Woodstock. He was received at the wharf with a salute by the Colonel's rifle company and the Woodstock Band. People from miles around had assembled near English's landing for a glimpse of him. One little old lady, after a thorough scrutiny, piped up clearly and distinctly, "He don't look any better than some of our own boys."

The Prince was driven around town and then returned to the steamer. During the evening of his visit the Colonel reported that, "Woodstock was brilliantly illuminated, the effect heightened by transparencies and torch-light processions." The next morning the steamer moved on to Grand Falls.

The Colonel and his regiment were always at the wharf to meet visiting dignitaries with the right degree of pomp and circumstance. The Carleton Sentinel reports that he welcomed His Excellency, the Honourable John Henry Thomas Manners-Sutton, Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, when he arrived on September 1st, 1855. It was the Governor's wish to visit the York-Carleton mining concern at Upper Woodstock, the Ralph Ketchum orchard managed by Francis Peabody Sharp, and the Charles Perley farm at Richmond. On September 6th', 1856, His Excellency, Lieutenant General Sir William Eyre, Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty's forces in British North America, visited Woodstock. He had seen distinguished services in the Crimea, and was the first officer of the Crimea to visit the town and county since the close of the war. He was driven to the Mechanics Institute where he was received by Mayor L. P. Fisher, and Colonel Baird with a salute of the artillery.

The boats were important in that they enabled rural communities, for the first time, really, to enter the commercial race on any sort of competitive scale, and the resultant prosperity meant growth and expansion of the communities themselves. What did we export? Timber, of course. Much of this was floated down the river or rafted and taken down by crews of lumbermen. But finished lumber from the mills would go down via the boats. There were wharves at Upper and Lower Woodstock for the iron foundry and copper works, respectively, although the material from these concerns would be taken down by tugs. We exported baled hay, oats, apples and raw furs. An 1857 Carleton Sentinel enthusiastically reported, "Every morning one of the good steamers of the Union Line arrives laden with passengers; every morning one leaves freighted with cattle, potatoes, grain, butter and meal." I think I should say at this point that if I seem to put emphasis on the '50s and the '60s, it is because there was more available material covering these years.

We imported virtually all of our manufactured goods. It was interesting to read the advertisements during the years before the railroad brought year round freight. They remained almost completely static during the months the boats were not running. The season, you see, was brief. It began toward the end of April or early May, continued through June, ceased during the dry season to begin again with the fall rains for a month or so. I have been non-specific here because circumstances varied considerably from year to year. If any of you are particularly interested in the opening and closing dates of the river for any given year, they may be checked in the fine collection of almanacs in the library.

In addition to merchandise intended for the shops, members of the crew would often run all sorts of errands for their friends or relatives on the route. One of my informants, a charming nonagenaratian, Miss Esther Geraldine MacDougald, who remembered the white and gold May Queen when it plied the Salmon River to Chipman, recalled that the hostess in charge of the ladies' apartments once brought an entire mourning costume for a woman in whose family a death had occurred.

Printed material and newspapers from abroad and the rest of Canada came up on the steamers. Before the coming of the telegraph line, they were the fastest carriers of outside news. I think something must be said about the nefarious effect of one of our imports — rum. This was unloaded from the boats in such huge amounts that one wonders how any other freight could be carried with it. Rum-running made fortunes for some, which meant that restrictive legislation was unwelcome and slow in coming. Heavy consumption of this beverage occasionally created personnel problems at the iron foundry and in some of the lumber camps. One account which came to my attention reported the failure of an entire lumbering concern on the Tobique because everyone from the boss to the cook imbibed too heavily. That the problem received consideration is evidenced by the plenitude of temperance meeting announcements which appeared in our local 19th century newspapers. It was a cause of concern to Mayor L. P. Fisher of Woodstock. He warmly espoused the building of the Mechanics Institute in the hope that activities there would divert attention to more worthwhile pursuits.

The preponderance of imports over exports began worrying the superlatively civic-minded Mr. James Segee as early as 1853. At this time he was Editor of the Carleton Sentinel, and in the July 2nd issue, he thundered forth:

"We do not believe in going on our bended knees from year to year to the Americans praying to them for reciprocity in trade; rather let us help ourselves and do as they have done, manufacture instead of importing. We have little they require from us in the way of trade. They do not want our lumber; our fish they would steal; and our minerals are buried deep in the bowels of the earth. We have depended too long on the enterprise of other people, and have allowed our resources to lie dormant, but we hope the evil days are about at an end in this country at least, as we learn from good authority that efforts are being made to get up a company for the manufacture of axes, spades, shovels, pitchforks, rakes and various other articles which are used in this country in great abundance. There is no earthly reason why establishments of this kind, if properly conducted, should not be money-making affairs. The high price of labour is no argument against their introduction; had we any kind of work going on to induce labourers to come amongst us they would soon find their way here in numbers sufficient to reduce the present high wages to a fair standard. If for no other reason, farmers generally should interest themselves in work of this kind, because they will create a market for all kinds of country produce, and will save large sums of money yearly to the province. We hope all who are able will lend their aid to erect and support an establishment for the manufacture of those articles named above; others will soon follow, and in a short time both Town and Country will be benefited to an extent surpassing belief."

It is of interest to note that on the 9th of November, 1853, a public meeting was held in the Mechanics Institute to consider ways and means to be adopted in the erection of an Edge Tool Factory, and that 1,100 pounds of the required 2,500 was subscribed. In 1861, the Factory had been erected, was managed by Mr. D. Jones, and was advertising as follows: "Axes, Picks and Rings, Pick axes, Hinges and Hooks, Bridle Chains, Cant Dogs, Double and Single Marking Icons, Land Hoes, Mill Dogs. All kinds of mill work done at shortest notice and sent to any part of the country during the boating season free of expense." Mr. Jones also advertised for employees. Evidently Woodstock became a thriving town. An 1892 almanac states that we had four hotels, one hundred and twenty-five stores, two door and sash factories, three saw mills, a woolen mill, three tanneries, two printing offices issuing newspapers, and three carriage factories.

Among these fine, hard-working little boats are several which demand special attention. Probably the most beloved of them all was the handsome little Reindeer which "walked the waters like a thing of life." She was built at the Nashwaaksis for Thomas Pickard in the winter of 1845, and was a side-wheeler of light draught. New Brunswick's own mechanical genius, Benjamin Tibbetts, designed her and devised her engine which used steam at both high and low pressures, a completely new concept for this period. The Reindeer was assigned to regular service between Fredericton and Grand Falls. Colonel Baird recounts a trip with a group of excursionists to Grand Falls when the Woodstock Band was on board. On the way back, at Tobique, Mr. Benjamin Beveridge presented a pair of tine antlers which "with music becoming ceremony were made to deck the prow of our gallant Reindeer." So famous did she become that her name was even bandied about in political speeches. A report of Nomination Day in the May 16th, 1857, Carleton Sentinel reads in part, "The Election Law had been very much abused; still it contained that feature of which Mr. Tupper had said, 'the glorious ballot.' This gentleman had found fault with the machinery of the steamer Reindeer. He (Mr. F) would remind him that the Reindeer was the handsomest and fastest boat on the river." Indeed, her engine must have been superior. It was installed in her successor, the Antelope, in 1861, and eventually in a Glazier tugboat, the Admiral, which ran until 1918.

Her life afloat was, as indeed were the lives of all the steamers, filled with hazards. The June 5th, 1852, Carleton Sentinel reported, "The steamer Reindeer, Sunday morning last, leaving Fredericton, got entangled in timber and drifted on to the head of the island. The John Waring got up steam and went to her assistance but could not get close to her and broke several warps in attempting to get her off. The Carleton made several efforts but failed. About 2 o'clock the Waring tried again and succeeded. The Reindeer is damaged, the hull and engine much injured. There is no necessity for Sunday travelling! Her owners have no sympathy!"

In November, 1853, winter struck suddenly and fiercely with heavy snow and high winds. The Reindeer got grounded on the bar at the head of Bear Island and the John Waring on Smith's Bar. Said the Carleton Sentinel: "It is thought that the water will rise enough by the jamming in of the ice below to float the Waring into Smith's cove. The other boats, we believe, are all safely moored for the winter. The new boat, the Benjamin Beveridge, is in Bedell's Cove." In the next week's paper was a tiny notice, "Our readers will be happy to know that the Reindeer is off the bar and out of danger from the ice."

In the 1850's there were always three, sometimes five boats on the upper river run. Races amongst them were, as you might suppose, inevitable. The stakes were high, particularly amongst the redshirts on board. People lined up along the shores to cheer on their favourite. One such race took place between the Reindeer and the Forest Queen on May 28th, 1850. On this occasion the Queen won by two hours.

Steamboat racing was a dangerous sport because the riverbed could present some nasty surprises, and getting up a good head of steam could result in explosions. Even under ordinary circumstances, explosions were not precisely a rarity. Pressure within the boiler was great. Good solid plate could stand up to 34,000 pounds of pressure, but the joints were weaker than the solid parts, and unless an engineer kept a scrupulous eye on rivets and other fastenings, guarded against water deficiency and over-heating of the plates, the boat was in trouble. I found reports of two explosions in the Carleton Sentinels available to me. On June 27th, 1855, the Benjamin Beveridge left her Fredericton wharf bound up river, but just opposite Government House an explosion occurred, knocking the boat to pieces and scattering engine, boiler, crew and passengers in all directions. The fireman was killed along with four passengers, and the captain, pilot, and steward were all injured. Reports were circulated that the engineer swam ashore, ran to Spring Hill where he boarded the J. D. Pierce to Woodstock, then hot-footed it to Houlton, Maine. I thought there might be an exciting story here, but except for a notice that the Coroner's inquest was adjourned for want of evidence, found nothing else.

On May 17th, the following year, the J. D. Pierce was about to stop at Morehouse's landing on her way upstream when her boiler burst, making a complete wreck of her. Four men were killed and a number of passengers seriously injured. They were taken to hospital on the Richmond which went to the rescue. Among them was a Mrs. Johnson, daughter of Charles P. Wetmore. She died in hospital. This time a coroner's jury found the engineer guilty of manslaughter.




1.   The steamboat General Smyth made her trial run at Saint John on 10 May, 1816, as reported in the New Brunswick Courier the following day.