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Small Harbors

Canadian ship struggled getting in and out of small harbors

Editor”s Note:  The TI Life Region (On the River, above the River or under the River!)

 "Thousand Islands Life,” strives to provide a comprehensive resource for information about the St. Lawrence River, from Cape Vincent and Kingston, on Lake Ontario, to Brockville and Morristown, fifty miles down the River.  Now and then, we go east (Prescott, Morrisburg and Cornwall, in Canada, or Ogdensburg and parts east, on the US shore) or west (Sackets Harbor, Oswego, in the US and locations in Prince Edward County in Canada). This month we go west to Oswego.  The article is interesting in itself, but it provides more history of shipping on the Great Lakes and the economic changes occurring up to this day.

By the late 1950s after the St. Lawrence Seaway was completed larger ships replaced the much smaller so-called “canallers” which dated back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ship watchers now noticed more modern vessels, transporting much larger cargoes of coal, which were economical to operate. One of these was the 582-foot self-unloader Stadacona, of the Canada Steamship Lines. Although such points of origin, as Oswego Harbor, were enlarged in the early 1930s, maneuvering in and out of them could pose a problem and took great skill of seasoned captains and helmsmen. The “west harbor”, in Oswego, was particularly difficult to accommodate the larger vessels, especially in heavy weather.

But even the older but larger ships, such as the Stadacona, were not equipped with the transversal propelling systems, called bow and stern thrusters, to maneuver into tight spots. At this point in its life, Canada Steamship Lines wasn’t about to retrofit its older ships, with this sophisticated navigation equipment, since the days of transporting coal would soon come to an end.


Stadacona Oswego

“Stadacona” taking on a load of coal at Oswego in 1958.
Photo courtesy Palmer Collection

Without a tug it proved really difficult for the crew of the Stadacona to snug up to the Oswego coal dock on Oct. 28, 1958 with strong north-northwest winds blowing. The dock wasn’t built to easily accommodate this huge 60-foot wide, 8,486-ton ship. Local boat watchers were astonished when they spotted it sailing into Oswego for the first time on Aug. 13, 1958 to pick up 7,200 tons of coal for use in the steel mills in Hamilton, Ont. When this facility was built in 1935, replacing an ancient wooden trestle, it had always been used by much smaller vessels. It was a bit easier for the Stadacona to navigate Sodus Point and Charlotte as they had larger turning basins.

Her skipper, Captain Ewald Gow of Kingston, used to bring in the old canaler Coalhaven which had been a regular patron of Oswego since at least the early 1930s. The Stadacona was always a “straight-decker” used to transport grain and iron ore. During the summer of 1958 she was converted in to a self-unloader.

The Stadacona had pulled into the dock, when the Coalfax, one of the few surviving canallers, came in behind, to load 2,800 tons of coal. Captain Ewald Gow of Kingston, skipper of the Stadacona, consented to allowing the Coalfax to go ahead and get its load of coal, destined for Cardinal, Ont., and get out of the way. This required some unique maneuvering; to allow the Coalfax to slip in, one end of a 600-foot steel cable was attached to the stern of the Stadacona and the other to a Coast Guard utility vessel. Then, the stern was swung out into the harbor,to allow the Coalfax to slip in and load.

When the Stadacona completed its loading the next evening the northwest wind was blowing at 25 to 30 miles per hour. The sea was running four-foot waves. With its self-unloading equipment the Stadacona stood high in the water, even with a full load of more than 12,000 tons of coal.

006766aBowling Green University

Photo Credit: Historical collections of the Great Lakes Bowling Green State University
Hamilton ON, Image ID 005191, HCGL/Main:  Brookes Collection

Up to that time the Stadacona was the largest ship ever to take on a cargo at the Lackawanna coal dock. So after loading it was tricky maneuvering out of the tight space, into the main harbor and out into the treacherous lake. Efforts were made to secure several tugs to assist in keeping the ship off the breakwall. The Oil Transfer Co. tug Sampson finally arrived and safely escorted the Stadacona out of the harbor.

Marine followers described this maneuvering as extremely difficult in high winds and praised Captain Gow. Arthur G. Mengel, Oswego Port Authority Director at the time, said “such cooperation leads to better service and efficiency in the harbor.”

The Stadacona occasionally visited Oswego over the next several years until the coal loading operation was closed permanently, at the end of the 1963 navigation season. By then, heavy industry such as steel mills and electrical generating plants had converted to oil or were now burning coal from Canadian fields.

The Stadacona was built at Midland, Ont. in 1929, and changed owners as well as names several times over the years. Canada Steamship Lines sold it in 1963. That was also the final year of operation of the coal loading facility in Oswego. Railroads had decided it was more economical to ship coal directly to its destination instead of maintaining costly and obsolete loading facilities. The Stadacona was scrapped in 1983; its last owner was Dale Transports Ltd. The vessel had been named in honor of Stadacona, an ancient Iroquoian village on the site of today’s Quebec City.

By Richard Palmer

Richard F. Palmer is a retired newspaper editor, and reporter, and was well known for his weekly historical columns for the “Oswego Palladium-Times” called "On the Waterfront." His first article for TI Life was written in January 2015 and since then, he has written a half-a-dozen others.  He is a voracious researcher and TI Life readers benefit from his interesting findings. Click here to see Richard Palmer’s TI Life Articles.

This article was also published in the Oswego Palladium-Times  on November 18, 2017. Each Saturday, maritime historian Richard Palmer’s column, “On the Waterfront,” highlights the rich history of Lake Ontario and Oswego.

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