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Great White Fleet… by John Henry

Everything about the book, Great White Fleet:  Celebrating Canada Steamship Lines Passenger Ships, (Dundurn, Toronto) is interesting.  The subject – those magnificent white hulls; the photographs – more than 100 of them; the foreword – written by a Canadian Prime Minister; and the author – John Henry,  all result in the production of what I consider an important research tool and great addition to our island library.

John Henry is a retired New York journalist, having written for the Associated Press, Newsday and the New York Daily News. A long-time maritime-history aficionado, he has been published in both the Steamship Historical Society of America and the Great Lakes Historical Society Journals; and this is a culmination of more than two years of research in Canadian historical institutions, much of it done at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in Kingston.

Canadians will recognize the author of the book’s foreword, The Right Honourable Paul Martin, PC, CC and twenty-first Prime Minister of Canada.  His introduction is highly complementary and well deserved.  “… the results of John Henry’s painstaking research and his love for the subject matter is his capturing the spirit of those times and its ships in a narrative and visual feast for the eyes, that will not only bring back memories for those who were there but will also educate and preserve for the historical record an important part of Canada’s past…”

The seven chapters include the “By Night Boat Through the Thousand Islands,” explaining why passengers had to “arise  early.  Very early.”  If they wanted to catch what John explained was the “choicest scenery on the next leg of the “Niagara to the Sea journey…”  It took two hours to transverse the Island waterway, and the ships were always on a schedule to arrive around 9 a.m. in Prescott.  From there, passengers would transfer to the Prescott-Montreal boat to experience the excitement of running the Rapids on their way to Montreal.  

Getting up early proved to be popular as passengers and crew agreed the journey was worthwhile, with these islands likened by Canada Steamship to “a marvelous array of jewels…some of them emerald with their trees and woods, others bare masses of rock cut into strange shapes, and others gay with house and lawn and garden.”  

Although this chapter is my favourite, as it covers the hey-days of passenger travel on the St. Lawrence, I was equally intrigued to learn the changing economics when the US and Canada developed roads and bridges to accommodate car travel and family camping;  yes, tourism brought significant change.

Much led to the demise of the passenger ships – safety regulations, the economic climate, and the future changes that would come with the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which no longer required “running the rapids”.  The Kingston was retired at the end of the 1949 season and sold for scrap the following year.  The Rapids Prince was scrapped in 1951.

And what of today?  Many of us subscribe to website, to keep abreast of the St. Lawrence Seaway news.  The Great White Fleet’s section “Keeping up Appearances” describes the importance the company put on the outer appearance of the hull and the “looks of the ships’ funnels.”  Today it is still important as we easily recognize their logo on the Canada Steamship Lines ships as they pass under the Thousand Islands Bridge.  In fact, my favorite Ian Coristine photograph, serves as a TI Life header.  I, for one, hope to see those funnels for many years to come.


Author John Henry recently posted a blog for The Nautical Blog, Toronto’s popular maritime bookshop, explaining how he learned to “love Canada Steamship Lines and its Passenger Steamers”:

“Growing up on the shores of Lake Erie in the 1940s and 1950s, I developed a passion for lake and river passenger steamers that has never left me. In the early postwar years, you could still take overnight trips every summer aboard the massive paddlewheel vessels that plied between my hometown, Buffalo, N.Y., and Detroit. And take them I did — no fewer than four times in five years.

As my interest in such travel deepened, I inevitably learned about the biggest inland-water steamboat operator of all: Canada Steamship Lines of Montreal, whose elegant passenger ships could be found in ports all the way from Duluth, Minnesota, in the continental heartland, at the western end of Lake Superior, to the lower St. Lawrence River, east of Quebec City. Unfortunately, I managed to take only one of these steamers, the beautiful Cayuga on the Toronto-Niagara run — and that was after C.S.L. had sold her. But I always wanted to know more about what I had missed before the company ended all passenger service in 1965.

The opportunity to do so came after reading that Canada Steamship Lines had donated thousands of historic photographs and hundreds of boxes of its archival material to the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston, Ont. So, during a two-year period, I repeatedly visited the museum to do research for what I envisioned would be a copiously illustrated hardcover book on C.S.L.’s dozens of passenger ships (known collectively as the “Great White Fleet” because of their spotless white paint jobs). And I gathered vintage pictures from other sources, including the esteemed Toronto marine historian Jay Bascom, whose C.S.L. collection has to be among the finest in Canada.

The result is Great White Fleet: Celebrating Canada Steamship Lines Passenger Ships, timed to coincide with the centennial of the company’s creation in June 1913. Flourishing still, C.S.L. operates bulk carriers on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence; other units of its parent, CSL Group Inc., operate similar ships around the globe. But I saw the centennial also as a fitting occasion to revisit the wonderful fleet of passenger ships that the company fielded for more than half its existence and that raised its profile in a very positive way.

It’s time to celebrate that delightful part of Canada’s transportation heritage as well!”

The Nautical Mind.  249 Queen’s Quay West, Toronto, ON, May 9, 2013

Great White Fleet: Celebrating Canada Steamship Lines Passenger Ships, published by Durdurn, Toronto, is available at the following bookstores:

  • Thousand Islands, Antique Boat Museum
  • Montreal, Paragraphe bookstore
  • Toronto, Nautical Mind bookstore
  • Kingston, ON, Marine Museum of the Great Lakes and Novel Idea bookstores
  • Buffalo, N.Y., The Lower Lakes Marine Historical Society Museum
  • Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON, The Old Niagara Bookshop, Niagara Historical Society
  • St. Catharines, ON, Welland Canals Centre, Lock 3
  • Great Britain, Mainmast Books and Ships in Focus
  • Amazon, Barnes and Noble

By Susan Weston Smith,

Editor, Thousand Islands Life

Posted in: Book Review
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.


Maurice  D Smith
Comment by: Maurice D Smith
Left at: 10:38 AM Saturday, March 15, 2014

We at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes are delighted that John made use of the CSL Collections in the museum archives.I have read the book and recommend it to others.
The CSL holdings (and other collections) are very large and can support the work of more authors and scholars in search of a good story.

Curator Emeritus
Jerry Marshall
Comment by: Jerry Marshall ( )
Left at: 12:25 PM Saturday, March 15, 2014
I remember watching the Toronto and Kingston passing in front of Clayton when I was a lad. They both made nice waves to swim in.
Also, the Canadiana to Crystal Beach from Buffalo made the trip many times for a day at Crystal.
Robert Graham
Comment by: Robert Graham ( )
Left at: 1:27 PM Saturday, March 15, 2014
I agree, Susan; this is a wonderful book. I requested, and received, a copy this past Christmas.

Growing up along the St. Lawrence I still remember the splendid sight of the KINGSTON passing Morristown on her way to and from Prescott, and of wondering how thrilling (maybe scary!) it would be to shoot the rapids on the RAPIDS PRINCE or one of her sisters.

In my teens I read about the beautiful CSL passenger steamers that sailed from Montreal down to Quebec City, Murray Bay, and the Saguenay, and longed to go on one of those trips -- a wish not shared by my parents. When I got older I was in fact able to make those journeys numerous times on more prosaic vessels, but it was the Great White Fleet that first awoke my passion.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. For all who love the river, it is "required reading!"