“The Frontenac,” the First Steamship Built in Upper Canada
The first passenger steamship built in Upper Canada was constructed at the village of Bath, on the shore of Lake Ontario. The large ship was driven by two paddle wheels.
Travel in early Upper and Lower Canada was slow, difficult and, well… uncomfortable. There were no air-conditioned cars, no trains speeding along rails and certainly no jet-fuelled aircraft streaking across blue skies. Horses, wagons and feet took weary travellers across the wilderness; bateaux, canoes and sailing vessels carried people and goods throughout the natural waterways of the raw countryside.
Steam Engines Powered Large Paddlewheels
Initially, ships were constructed in Europe and sailed to Canada, ship components were constructed and imported overseas, or the vessels were built in the United States. Steam power was new in the early 1800s, the latest engines were operating paddlewheels to move boats through the water. But no steamboat had yet been built in Upper Canada. That changed on September 7, 1816 when the Frontenac was launched, the first steamship to navigate the Great Lakes.
A contract was tendered for bids by a company in Kingston, a town of influence in Upper Canada. Two shipwrights were interested in the job; a Scotsman by name of Bruce and Henry Teabout from Sacket’s Harbour. Teabout was awarded the contract. There was some issue with an American taking on the job, but the company was assured that though the War of 1812 was just over, there should be no prejudice against the bidder. Selecting Finkle’s Point a few miles west of Kingston in Ernesttown as the best place to build, Teabout and local businessman Henry Finkle got to work organizing the project in October 1815. (Henry Finkle was the proud owner of the popular and historic Finkle’s Tavern. Ernesttown is now the Village of Bath, Ontario.)
Shipbuilding Costs Rose Drastically
Mr. Teabout was not working alone. He had two American partners in business, James Chapman and William Smith, the three men experienced in shipbuilding. “Before building the steamboat,” said William Canniff in “Settlement of Upper Canada” (Dudley and Burns Printers, Toronto 1869), “they had built for themselves at Sacket’s Harbour, the Kingston, the only craft plying between Sacket’s and Kingston, and a fine schooner for the Lake, called the Woolsley.”
Returning to the United States, Teabout recruited a team of shipbuilding carpenters and purchased supplies. He returned to Ernesttown in late fall to begin cutting wood for the steamboat. “By mid-February, they had ‘timber sufficient to build a 74 gun ship’ gathered at Finkle’s Point, and the keel had been laid,” noted Walter Lewis in “The Frontenac: A Reappraisal” at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston. Expenses for the finished boat totalled much more than originally expected. With £7,000 allotted for the woodwork, there was little left for the engine, which cost another £7,000. “Before the vessel was completed, the cost reached nearly the princely sum of £20,000.
Captain McKenzie Piloted the Frontenac
Imported from England, the engine was installed and the ship was ready a few weeks later. Named “the Frontenac,” the first steamship built in Upper Canada was ceremonially launched from its berth in Ernesttown on September 7, 1816. The ship moved slowly, the two paddlewheels – the wheels approximately 40 feet in circumference – answered “slowly to the helm,” Canniff quoted the Kingston Gazette newspaper. A beautiful, sleek wood vessel, The Frontenac was 32 feet wide, with a deck 170 feet long. The three-mast vessel drew only 8 feet of water when loaded, and had a keel of 150 feet. The ship had a tonnage capacity of 700. It also had almost immediate competition with the steamship Ontario, built across the lake at nearly the same time.
“Designed to carry freight and passengers, [the Frontenac] was a boon to travellers, greatly reducing the difficulties and cost of travel between Kingston and York (now Toronto),” said “The First Steamship in Lake Ontario” of Ontario Historical Plaque at Finkle’s Shore Park in Bath, Ontario. “Passenger steamships plied the lake for many years until rail and road travel became more effective.” Under the command of Captain James McKenzie, the Frontenac made weekly trips from Prescott to York and back. An experienced sailor, Captain McKenzie was from England and came to Canada in the War of 1812 with the first division of the Royal Navy. The good Captain piloted the Frontenac until it was sold nine years after launching.
Steamship Sold at Auction in 1825
Moving citizens, military troops, goods and supplies on the Great Lakes, by late 1824 the Frontenac was wearing out, and was in the midst of competition by more modern ships. The company of owners put the ship up for auction the next year, and though it was valued at approximately £4,000 for the engine and equipment, stated Lewis, it sold at a drastic loss, bringing in only £1,500.
On September 15, 1827 the Frontenac was found adrift in the Niagara River, the vessel engulfed in fire. The remains were lost to the bottom of the waterway. The first steamship built in Upper Canada was gone forever.
- Canniff, William, Settlement of Upper Canada, Original by Dudley and Burns Printers, Toronto 1869, reprinted by: Swainson, Donald, Mika Silk Screening Limited, Belleville 1971
- Lewis, Walter, “The Frontenac: A Reappraisal,” Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston, Accessed June 3, 2011
- “The First Steamship in Lake Ontario,“ Ontario Historical Plaques, Accessed June 3, 2011
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in 2011. Copyright Susanna McLeod