The Niagara Navigation Company and the golden age of steam on Lake Ontario
From the busy Geddes Wharf at the foot of Yonge Street, the adjacent Milloy’s Dock, and other city piers during the golden age of steam, between 1890 and the First World War, Torontonians could catch passenger steamers to all corners of the Great Lakes. Overnight voyages carried passengers to Olcott Beach (near Rochester), the resorts of the Thousand Islands, or the upper Great Lakes. But the steamer route residents flocked to carried them to ports of call on the Niagara River.
The Niagara Navigation Company’s swift fleet made the two-hour voyage between Toronto, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Lewiston, New York, six times daily. The fleet included the Chicora, Cibola, Corona, but the most popular and enduring of the company’s vessels—and its grandest—were the Chippewa and the Cayuga.
Sitting in the open breeze on one of the benches on the Chippewa‘s hurricane deck—the topmost of her three passenger decks—playing cards with fellow passengers, or watching the scenery, proved a pleasing alternative to the scorching summer heat in Toronto. The Niagara Navigation Company, an advertisement in an 1893 guidebook claimed, was “the only line giving views of Falls, Rapids, Brock’s Monument and all the romantic scenery of the Lower Niagara.” At Niagara-on-the-Lake and Lewiston, passengers could connect by railway for excursions to the Falls, Buffalo, or further afield.
At the peak of the summer season, as many 26,000 passengers travelled the route each day. For generations of Torontonians, such Saturday steamer excursions were a cherished summer tradition.
The Niagara Navigation Company was formed in April 1877 by a group of Toronto businessmen, including Frank Smith and Barlow Cumberland, who felt existing steamer service between Toronto and the Niagara region was unsatisfactory. They recognized that if they could take better advantage of existing railway connections on both sides of the river, the Toronto-Niagara route could be extremely profitable and attract both day excursionists and travellers seeking to reach Toronto.
The company’s first vessel was the Chicora, meant to mean Pretty Flower. Built at Liverpool in 1864 to be a blockade runner during the Civil War, the Chicora ran in the West Indies and on Lake Superior before being put into daily service on Lake Ontario for the Niagara Navigation Company in 1878.
The steel side-wheel steamer, which measured 230 feet long and 52 feet wide, made the journeys by herself for a decade as Niagara Navigation built up the route’s popularity with Torontonians through persistent advertising and a reputation for conscientious service. In 1888, the company’s passenger capacity was doubled when the Chicora was joined by a slightly larger side-wheeler built by the Rathbun Company at Deseronto in 1887, the Cibola.
The Cibola, which was said to mean Land of Buffalo, was the first ship purpose-built for the Niagara Navigation Company and was an impressive vessel. “The saloon is finished in solid mahogany and with the ladies’ cabin presents a handsome appearance,” historian John Ross Robertson wrote. Electric lights were present throughout, embellished in the dining room and main saloon “with cut glass and opalescent globes.” From the main stairway, there hung “a chandelier of pierced brass with jewelled openings and containing clusters of lights.”
Patronage of the Niagara route continued to grow, necessitating the addition of another vessel, one larger and more impressive than either the Chicora or Cibola.
For that purpose, Frank E. Kirby, the famed marine architect, was retained in 1892. His design resulted in a 308-foot-long and 67-foot-wide steamship which could accommodate 2,000 passengers, built by William Hendrie at the Hamilton Bridge and Shipbuilding Company. The finished product featured detailed ornamentation, including intricate gold trailboards on the deck rail and elaborately carved Chippewa Chieftain heads in the centre of each paddlebox, which disappeared over the course of several renovations in the coming decades. The Chippewa entered service with her maiden voyage from Hamilton to Toronto in May 1894.
“Of the Chippewa,” Robertson praised of the side-wheeler, “it is all but impossible to speak too highly. She, like the Cibola, is little less than a floating palace, her appointments, machinery and general finish as nearly as possible approaching perfection.”
“Chippewa, despite her size,” according to the Scanner (February 1978), “was one of the most graceful steamers ever to sail the waters of Lake Ontario.”
With six daily sailings from Toronto, by 1895 the Niagara Navigation Company helped make Niagara-on-the-Lake the busiest Canadian port for steamer traffic on Lake Ontario. For the crowds of passengers, the journey aboard ship was as enjoyable as the attractions they’d see on the lake’s southern shore.
Author and artist J. Clarence Duff, writing of later in the golden age of passenger steamers, recalled a typical excursion:
Like hundreds of other young couples, my wife and I, in our courting days, made the Saturday afternoon trip on the Chippewa a regular journey in the summer. My wife’s mother would pack a fine lunch and we would eat our meal on the top deck while at the docks at Lewiston or Niagara-on-the-Lake. There we would watch peaches being loaded before the trip back to Toronto in the evening.
Passengers headed in the other direction from Lewiston and Niagara could connect at Toronto for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and Grand Trunk Railway, or transfer to a Richelieu & Ontario steamer for that company’s famous “From Niagara to the Sea” tour. While Niagara Navigation fulfilled the Niagara extension of that tour, the Richelieu & Ontario carried tourists aboard the Toronto or Kingston to the Thousand Islands and other Lake Ontario ports. At Prescott, tour passengers transferred to the Rapids King or Rapids Queen for a thrilling ride through the Lachine Rapids near Montreal, where the tourists boarded another steamer to arrive their ultimate destination, Tadoussac, on the Saguenay River.
Passenger steamers made for pleasant excursions, but in an era of lax safety regulations, they were not without their dangers. The Cibola burned in the harbour at Lewiston in July 1895. Luckily, no passengers were caught aboard; there was one fatality, however, a member of the crew. The Cibola was soon replaced by the Corona, which was hyped in company literature as “one of the finest day-steamers in the world!”
The final addition to the Niagara Navigation Company fleet arrived in 1907 when Captain John McGiffin left the Chippewa to assume command of the fleet’s new flagship, the Cayuga. Passenger demand on the Niagara route was still increasing.
Designed by Arendt Angstrom at the Bertram Engine and Machine Works Company at the foot of Bathurst Street, the 305-foot-long vessel was the Niagara Navigation Company’s first propeller-driven steamer. With an interior inspired by the great houses of Europe, one reporter on her maiden voyage described the Cayuga as “exceedingly comfortable to sail in.” And the new vessel was so fast that the company was able to shave a half hour off the usual travel time to Niagara.
In 1912, the Niagara Navigation Company was bought by the rapidly expanding Richelieu & Ontario, the company that operated the “From Niagara to the Sea” tour. The following year, Richelieu & Ontario, along with its Niagara interests, were instrumental in the formation of the Canada Steamship Lines (CSL).
CSL continued to operate the Toronto-Niagara route for another forty years, and over time realized that the greatest profits in shipping came through concentrating on cargo: transporting coal, grain, and other commercial goods. With the widespread rise of the automobile for personal transportation after the First World War, would-be passengers were freed from the strict schedules of railways and steamers. Passenger traffic between Toronto and Niagara declined steadily.
The Chicora was sold in 1921 to be converted into a coal barge; the Corona was pulled out of service in the 1920s and scrapped in 1937. The Chippewa ceased sailing on the Great Lakes in 1936 and was dismantled and scrapped in 1939.
The Cayuga remained the last operating steamer, with daily service between Toronto and Niagara through the Second World War. In the late 1940s, CSL refitted the steamer with an oil-fired power plant and upgraded its fire-safety systems. But, in the http://torontoist.com/2011/09/historicist-queen-of-the-great-lakes-aflame/>fallout from the Noronic tragedy in September 1949, when another CSL passenger ship burned in Toronto harbour with nearly two hundred fatalities, CSL hastened to get out of the passenger trade altogether.
Not wanting to see the long Toronto tradition of day excursions across the lake end, a group of civic-minded steamboat enthusiasts raised enough funds to purchase the Cayuga from CSL in 1953 and put her back into regular service. Within three years, the under-capitalized venture was struggling with debt and the ship was retired again in September 1957, eventually reduced to scrap in 1961. With her went the last vestiges of regularly scheduled steamer excursions between Toronto and Niagara, once a tradition to escape the summer heat for countless Torontonians.
This post originally referred to Rathbun Company as Rathburn company. We regret the error.
Additional sources consulted: Dana Ashdown, Railway Steamships of Ontario (Boston Mills Press, 1988); Barlow Cumberland, A Century of Sail and Steam on the Niagara River (1911); J. Clarence Duff, Pen Sketches of Historic Toronto (Consolidated Graphics Limited, 1967); Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches (Dundurn Press, 1992); Filey, Toronto Sketches 4 (Dundurn Press, 1995); Filey, Toronto Sketches 6 (Dundurn Press, 2000); Walter Lewis & Rick Neilson, The River Palace (Dundurn Press, 2008); Maurice D. Smith, Steamboats on the Lakes (James Lorimer & Company Ltd., 2005)