Photo © Ian Coristine/
 You are here:  Back Issues      Archive

Two Recent Centuries


So, as we have seen during two earlier centuries, prior to the nineteenth century, the region already was widely known and oft described. Lake Ontario saw major naval action in the War of 1812.

The St. Lawrence River offered “tolerably good navigation” in 1810, but major shipping up the river stopped at Montreal, due to the rapids upstream. Portage around the turbulent shallows was nevertheless far easier than use of barely improved overland routes.

Canals around the rapids eventually facilitated river traffic. Opening in 1825 of the Erie Canal through New York State, giving access from the sea to the Great Lakes, greatly reduced the commercial importance of the St. Lawrence River. Britain's Royal Engineers completed of the Lachine Canal, the first to allow ships to pass the rapids, in 1824, the year before the Erie Canal opened.

Completion of the Rideau Canal 1832, linking Kingston and Bytown (Ottawa), provided an alternative around the rapids, by making a circuit via the Ottawa River. Some ships ran down over the rapids, then returned by the longer, alternative route.

The first stern wheeler, Iroquois, built at Prescott in 1831—could shoot rapids, returning via the Rideau canal.

To step backwards to the opening of the nineteenth century, Kingston at the time was the major shipbuilding and shipping center of the Great Lakes, while on the US side there were no vessels larger than bateaux. With the advent of steam, according to an 1814 account, below Quebec, "There are two steam-vessels on the River St. Lawrence, one forty-eight the other thirty-six horsepower, which go at seven miles an hour, measure about one hundred and seventy feet long and thirty feet wide! Another forty-eight horsepower vessel will be launched next year on that river. So that one may go by steam from Quebec to New York in eight days, with a short land carriage."

In 1815 movements in Sackets Harbor, New York, and Kingston, Ontario simultaneously launched plans for the first steamboat on Lake Ontario. The distinction of being the "first steamboat on the Great Lakes" can be awarded according to how "first" is defined. The Ontario, built as Sackets Harbor, was the first to be promoted and the first to move on the lakes under the power of steam. However, the Frontenac of Kingston was the first under construction and consequently, the first launched.

The first steamboat on the upper St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario, the Ontario, built at Sackett's Harbor in 1816, commenced running in the spring of 1817, making a ten-day trip between Ogdensburgh and Lewiston, New York (Niagara River) until 1831. J.P. Altaire of New York City made her engine. The Ontario is thought to be the first sea vessel of the kind ever built in this country. She was an ambitious experiment and a daring business enterprise .

William Avery of Cazenovia, New York, best known for invention of the rotary engine, for years believed to be the simplest and cheapest in the world, "built the machinery for the first steamboat on Lake Ontario"--but this was after 1822, whereas the Ontario dated from 1816. William Avery was reputed to be the first white man to navigate the St. Lawrence River from Kingston to the Sault Rapids.

The Canadians built next steamer on Lake Ontario, also in 1816, and was called the Frontenac--a vessel of 700 tons constructed on the Bay of Quinte, with an engine imported from England. She ran between Kingston and York (Toronto) and Niagara.

By 1831, boats were proliferating. The United States, launched that year at Ogdensburgh, was the largest and most important American vessel on lake and riverof the time, captured by the Patriots and employed for the 1838 invasion of Canada.

On Lake Ontario were a hundred “sail of English small vessels” and seven British steamboats, plus thirty or forty American small vessels and two American steamboats.

Also in 1831 Clayton was becoming a shipbuilding center, with organization of the Ontario & St. Lawrence Steamboat Company. Smith & Merick began ship building at Clayton in 1832, sometimes giving employment to as many as 100 men. Clayton produced from two or four vessels annually, making a total of from 75 to 100 by the end of the century, including most of the splendid steamers of the Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company lines.

In the same year a joint stock company at Gananoque built the William to provide service between Prescott and Burlington. The ship caused great interest as it was a large paddle wheeler using four smoke stacks set in a square.

Rapid growth of shipping and ship-building spurred development of river villages. Cord wood, initially, was supplied to passing boats, and soon decent landings for passengers and fuel supply supplanted crude piers and rock cribs. Brockville, Gananoque, Kingston, Alexandria Bay, Clayton, Cape Vincent and Prescott provided new landings safe in all weather conditions.



Ship building began at Clayton in 1832, by Smith & Merick, giving employment to as many as a hundred men. Clayton was the largest of the lake and river shipbuilding centers, followed by Ogdensburgh, Cape Vincent, Three Mile Bay, Sackett's Harbor, and Rochester. In time, Oswego, Ogdensburgh, Rochester and Chaumont became more active than Clayton.

In the early years, Clayton built two or four vessels annually, making a total of from seventy to one hundred by 1878, including most of the splendid steamers of the Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company’s lines.

In the next two decades, the 1830s and 1840s, shipyards produced larger vessels, such as the St. Lawrence and Cataract. The first propellor-driven boat came of the ways at Oswego in 1841--a momentous event. Wood construction had been fine for sailing vessels, but new propellor shafts "loosened wooden frames.” The British, short of wood in Britain, had built iron boats snce 1820.  The British sent iron parts to United States, encouraging iron ship building in 1840s.  Both propellor and sidewheel models were popular. The subsequent prevalence of side- and stern-wheel boats on the river no doubt reflected local preference for wood construction.

The Thousand Islands were not terra incognita when Charles Dickens sailed through, coming from Niagara during the summer of 1842.  He wrote:

“We left Kingston for Montreal on the 10th of May, at half-past nine in the morning, and proceeded in a Steamboat down the St. Lawrence River.   The beauty of this noble stream at almost any point, but especially in the commencement of this journey, when it winds its way among the Thousand islands, can hardly be imagined.  The number and constant succession of these Islands, all green and richly wooded; their fluctuating sizes, some so large, that for half an hour together, one among them will appear as the opposite bank of the river, and some so small that they are mere dimples on its bosom, —their infinite variety of shapes, --and the numberless combinations of beautiful forms with trees growing on them present, -- all form a picture fraught with uncommon interest and pleasure.”

At Kingston in the 1860s, "already the trade of shipbuilding has arrived at great proficiency." Brian Osborne and Donald Swainson tell us that there were five hundred or so vessels registered at the port of Kingston in the second half of the nineteenth century, and more the ninety percent of these were built there or nearby.

Coal began to supplant wood for steamboat fuel about 1860. Also about 1860 came the virtual end of timber rafting on the St. Lawrence. Another major change of the decade: steamboats began to be superceded by railroads. Then came the Civil War. In 1861 the U.S. government chartered all large steamboats for war service. The steamboat New York, for instance, was on the Patomac River in 1863.

Nevertheless, during the 1860s appeared seventeen wood-burning steamers of the Northern Transportation [or "Transit"] Company of Ogdensburgh, which ran fifteen propellers of about 350 tons burden, from Ogdensburgh and Oswego to Cleveland, Chicago,and other Great Lakes cities. Double daily service connected Ogdensburg, the eastern terminus of the line. One steamer left for Chicago, and one for Toledo, every day. "Most any time you looked up or down the river, you could see one of the N.-T. boats coming or going," said an old-time vessel man. "The steamers of the line were most of them built in the late '60s or early '70s, though some were constructed several years earlier. They were all about 134 feet long, so they could be accomodated in the Welland Canal." Old-timers used to say that disaster hovered around the N.-T. boats. "Sooner or later it 'got' them."

Also at Ogdensburgh, in the 1870s the Wishbone Fleet of the George Hall Corporation developed, with eventual participation of Frank A. Augsbury, Sr., whose Canada Shipping Company of Montreal moved pulpwood and paper mill products. "Halco" ceased operations in 1987.

Thousand Islands Excursions

The 1870s began quite a new chapter in steamboating on the river. The resort boomed in that decade, accompanied by introduction of many recreational excusion vessels and local steamboat lines. The large vessels served not merely transient tourists, but also gave access to many new island and mainland resort communities.

With the "Rush of Seventy Two" came the original Thousand Island tour, designed to provide new visitors with a comprehensive view of the region. Captain Bill Williams chartered the small steamer, Cayuga. He ran from Clayton, but the venture was not a great success, so was abandoned.

The first side-wheel steamboats appeared in 1872. Captain George Sweet built the James H. Kelly, first side-wheeler on Lake Ontario, to carry 300 passengers. About four years later she was lengthened and renamed the John Thorne.

The following year, 1873, saw many changes. The railroad arrived at Clayton. Captain Sweet put the James H. Kelly into service, connecting the Clayton trains with Cape Vincent and Alexandria Bay--the first of the regular steamers to connect the Clayton depot with river communities.

Also in 1873, John and Charles Walton, in partnership with Captain James Taylor, offered service aboard the Shoecraft, the "first pleasure yacht on the river," coming form Buffalo. Also, at the same time, D. C. Grenell, a mainland tavern keeper, offered the first daily scheduled excursions aboard the Cygnet, another yacht. Apparently these were precedents for the luxury yacht tours shortly and famously conducted by Captain Visger.

Again, in 1873, the Folger brothers of Kingston emerged as major players when they acquired the Kingston ferry.

The following year, 1874, Captain Elisha Visger persuaded Colonel Staples, proprietor of the Thousand Islands House at Alexandria Bay, to buy the Cygnet, previously operated for boat tours by Sam Grenell.  Visger operated the yacht for Colonel Staples' Northern Navigation Company. Captain Visger then, in 1876, introduced his “Island Ramble.” In the Watertown Daily Times years later Visger claimed to have offered the first scheduled island tours in 1875, but Sam Grenell had done so aboard the same boat two years earlier.

Captain Elisha Visger purportedly "built" the Cygnet in 1876--apparently misinformation. The Cygnet had been built in New York City for philantropist Peter Cooper. When the Cygnet proved too small, Captain Visger in 1878 built the 150-passenger Island Wanderer. Captain Elisha Visger retired in 1894 with a "comfortable fortune." Les and Verda Corbin's excellent book, The Visgers' World: Two generations of steamboats, people, and events associated with the early 1000 Island tours (1987), provides a rich account of the Visger innovations and business enterprises.

Clayton's Simon G. Johnson in 1874 built the T. S. Faxton, said to carry 500 or 800 passengers. She ran in 1875 between Cape Vincent, Alexandria Bay, Clayton, Fishers Landing, and the "TI Camp Meeting Ground" [Thousand Island Park].

Posted in: History
Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Sandy Johnson
Comment by: Sandy Johnson ( )
Left at: 2:25 PM Sunday, February 28, 2010
Great fun reading your articles, you have a wealth of information. I was wondering if you had more for a third installment? I am actually looking for information about a side-wheeler steamer called the Britannic. My grandmother and her sister worked on it when they were teenagers, in the 1930's. We have a very bad picture of the boat and one of my aunt on the boat. Would you know more about this era on the St. Lawrence river. Their particular run was from Montreal to Kingston.

Thank you in advance, Sandy Johnson
john michaud
Comment by: john michaud ( )
Left at: 5:40 PM Monday, November 4, 2013
I have in my possession an original photo of the T. S. faxton probably from the 1870's. what is it worth?? do you think anybody would be interested in buying it?? its quite small. the photo is quite similar to the drawing in this article.
Fraser Laschinger
Comment by: Fraser Laschinger
Left at: 3:52 PM Saturday, January 16, 2016
The statement that the first side wheeler steamboat was built in 1872 is an error. They were being built three decades earlier in Prescott and earlier than that elsewhere. The photo of the Kingston, which was a sidewheeler, shown in 1856 is an example. The SS Iroquois, a sternwheeler built in Gananoque and fitted out with engines in Prescott, was the first steamboat to both descend and ascend the St. Lawrence rapids between Dickenson's Landing (one of the lost villages) near Cornwall and Prescott, in 1834. The Ontario, a twin sided paddlewheeler, was built in Prescott in 1839 and was the first steamer to descend the rapids all the way from Prescott to Montreal in 1840.
Jonathan Ronk
Comment by: Jonathan Ronk
Left at: 5:50 PM Monday, October 9, 2017
Hello World,

I am searching for a photo of the schooner Northerner before she sank in Lake Michigan 1868 - built in Clayton, NY 1850. I am a descendent of the schooner's last owner Nicholas Ronk and having this photo would be a tremendous addition to my family history collection.

Any leads would be very much appreciated!

Jonathan Ronk
Robert  Papworth
Comment by: Robert Papworth
Left at: 1:06 PM Thursday, April 12, 2018
An ancestor built two steam powered canal boats, in the village of Geddes, between 1860 and 1888. He appears to have obtained steam engines in the area, but where? A company in Baldwinsville named "Morris" may have been the source. When were steam engines available for purchase and installation in Central New York?

And, a steamboat pier was established in the southwest corner of Onondaga Lake, adjacent to the mouth of Harbor Brook. When was that pier first constructed, by whom, and when removed?

And, a lock for steamboats was constructed in the Oneida River, at Caughdenoy, in 1841. This permitted steamboats to reach Oneida Lake. Where were steamboat piers located in Oneida Lake? One pier was on Frenchman's Island, but there must have been others.

Thankyou, 4/12/2018
Comment by: Pat
Left at: 9:53 AM Thursday, June 28, 2018
An ancestor, William Archibald Ferguson was a Captain on the (Molson) - St. Lawrence Line and I am trying to research the type of ship he would have captained. He was married and lived in Montreal from 1908 until 1942. Can anyone tell me about the type of ship he would have engineered, and or know where I could find a picture of this ship. Thanks so much,