Today one would not guess that the small town of Prescott, Ontario, on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, between Cornwall and Brockville, at one time had a thriving shipbuilding industry. All traces of it are gone, except for a few pictures and the homes that some of the early Prescott shipbuilders built for themselves, in Prescott. Prescott had been founded in 1810 and quickly grew in the early years of Upper Canada because of its favoured location, at the head of the rapids between Montreal and the Great Lakes, and its deep water harbour. This strategic location gave rise to the forwarding trade, which flourished in Prescott for the next forty years.
The endless rivers and lakes offered the first avenues of transportation to those who wished to move about the country that was to become Canada. The natives had fashioned canoes, to traverse these bodies of water, and when the Europeans arrived, they adopted the same means of transport. In the early days, they also constructed Bateaux and sailing ships to navigate between Quebec and what was then often called the “upper country”.
Steamboats came to Canada in 1809, when John Molson launched the first steamer in Montreal. This was only three years after the first steamboat was launched in New York City. By 1818, there was steamship service on the St. Lawrence, between Prescott and Kingston. The steamer “Charlotte” sailed from Prescott as far as the Bay of Quinte, twice weekly. The “Dalhousie” was built in Prescott in the winter of 1819/20. It was a mail and passenger boat and began service between Prescott and Kingston.
In 1816 a regular mail/passenger service had been initiated, from Montreal to Kingston, via Prescott by Horace and Barnabas Dickinson. This service used a combination of steamboats and stage coaches in the summer and sleighs in the winter. In summer, a stage coach would take passengers to Lachine, bypassing the Lachine Rapids, and from there passengers would embark on a steamboat. The steamboats initially could only sail on Lake St. Louis and Lake St. Francis. West of this point, a series of rapids confronted travelers so that they were either transferred to smaller Bateaux, which were pulled up the River from the shoreline, or to a stagecoach to continue the journey. From Prescott on to Kingston, steamers would be used in the summer.
Starting from this period, shipbuilding became a large concern, all along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, on both sides of the border. Prescott got into the act and was a shipbuilding centre of some note from the 1820s to the late 1840s. By 1829, there were three steamboats, all built in Prescott, that were plying the waters from Prescott to Kingston, the “Queenston,” the “Alcorpe” and the “Niagara.” The “S.S. Great Britain” (known as the Monarch of the Lakes) was built in Prescott in 1830. Its shipyard was located just west of the current Sophia Street in Prescott.
The “Iroquois,” a rear paddle wheeler, built in Gananoque and fitted out with engines in Prescott, ascended the Plat and Galop Rapids, from Dickinson’s Landing, just west of present day Cornwall, on September 24, 1832. It was the first steamboat to successfully navigate the rapids, in both directions, on this stretch of the St. Lawrence River between Cornwall and Prescott.
The Rideau Canal opened in 1832 and this enabled smaller steamboats to go up to Kingston from Montreal, via the Ottawa River. Larger boats could go back and forth from Prescott to Dickinson’s Landing. East of there, the Long Sault Rapids was thought to present a barrier to steamers from descending further. However, in 1840, the steamboat “Ontario”, built in Prescott in 1839, became the first steamer to successfully descend the rapids all the way from Prescott down to Montreal. There were no passengers aboard, however since the journey was deemed too risky. While the Ontario proved that a steamer could descend the entire series of rapids, from Prescott to Montreal, it would be some years before this became a routine trip.
Many steamers built in Prescott were intended for the forwarding trade. In the spring of 1840, a small steamer named the “Aid” was built for Ferguson and McGibbon, forwarders in Prescott. It operated as a towboat above the Long Sault Rapids. The “Pioneer” was launched in the spring of 1841. It was built by Thomas Dissett of Prescott, for Murray and Sanderson, forwarders. Captain Hilliard, who had made the first trip to Montreal in the “Ontario” in 1840, sailed the “Pioneer” to Montreal and back (via the Rideau Canal) five times that year.
George S. Weeks, from Clayton, New York, moved to Prescott in 1840 and set up a shipyard in the west end of the town. He built the 51-ton side-wheeler “Grenville”, for Hooker and Henderson, forwarders. He also built the “Oldfield”, a side-wheeler, in 1840 /41. The “Porcupine“ was built in Prescott, in 1840. The “Pilot” was built in 1841, for H. and S. Jones, forwarders. In 1843, the “Pilot,” “Pioneer” and “Grenville” were all sailing on the Ottawa River/Rideau Canal and St. Lawrence River. These were circuit steamers that went between Montreal and Kingston.
During the 1830s, the Montreal mercantile interests, which included Samuel Crane, a prominent forwarder with offices there and in Prescott and Kingston, favoured the Rideau link. Crane controlled the access to the Ottawa River, from Montreal, through a monopoly on the canal at the foot of the Ottawa, which bypassed the Ste. Anne Rapids. Because of the political situation and friction between Lower and Upper Canada, there was little political will to make the necessary improvements to the canal system on the St. Lawrence.
All that changed with the arrival of Lord Sydenham in 1839, with a mandate from the Imperial Government in London, to bring about the union of Lower and Upper Canada. Sydenham was successful and in 1841 the legislation was put into effect which reunited Lower and Upper Canada. The commercial interests in what was now called Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) demanded better access to the sea for their products and their imports. Canal building on the St. Lawrence became a priority for the new government. The series of canals needed were completed by 1848. Ships could now go all the way from Montreal to Toronto by the St. Lawrence, thus bypassing Prescott. This was the beginning of the end of the forwarding trade in Prescott. It had already been weakened by the Rideau Canal, but the St. Lawrence canals put the final nail in the coffin.
The end of the shipbuilding era in Prescott coincided with these changes. The technology of shipbuilding had changed and iron-sided ships replaced the wooden, just as steamships had replaced the sailing ships of an earlier era. The side-wheelers gave way to the propeller-driven boats so that by the 1850s Prescott could no longer compete with larger centres, in Quebec and Ontario, where shipbuilding became a much more capital intensive industry. While this closed a chapter in Prescott’s history, a new age was dawning with the arrival in Prescott of the railway in the mid-1850s. But that is another story for another time.
I would like to acknowledge the information contained in “Steamboat Connections”, by Frank MacKey which helped immensely in writing this article.
By Fraser Laschinger
Fraser Laschinger was born and raised in Montreal. He holds degrees from McGill and Osgoode Hall Law School. He was a federal government career civil servant and also served as a diplomat, both at home and abroad. After his retirement, he settled in Prescott, where his family goes back to the early days. In 2014, he was elected as a town councillor and serves as the council’s Chairman of Tourism and Heritage.