Historicist: Taking the Plunge
The palatial steamer named Toronto launched in June 1898.
On the afternoon of June 21, 1898, some of the city’s most prominent businessmen, civic leaders, and their wives crowded Geddes Wharf at the foot of Bay Street, waiting to board the steamer White Star. All were invited by the Bertram Engine Works Company to observe the official launch of the Toronto, a palatial lake steamer the shipbuilder had been commissioned to construct for the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company.
Promptly at three o’clock, the White Star set off to assume a prime vantage point of the red and white hull perched on the ways at the Bertram Company’s Portland Street shipyard. Thousands of Torontonians lined the lakeshore. For those aboard, the mood was festive. A band played jaunty tunes, and those gathered murmured amongst themselves that the Toronto was to be the largest vessel ever launched in the city.
The five hundred invited guests included the mayor, members of all the city’s leading families—the Oslers, Masseys, Eatons, Denisons, and Flavelles—the officers and directors of the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company, and even the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Oliver Mowat. Such was the not-to-be-missed social event that one latecomer, Nathaniel Clarke Wallace, whose public influence came less from his prominence in federal politics than his position as Grand Master of the Loyal Orange Association of British America, was seen being rowed out to the White Star in a launch.
In the late 19th century, the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company Ltd. (R & O), with its pre-eminent Great Lakes steamer fleet, held a virtual monopoly on the Toronto-Montreal route, the major passenger route on the Great Lakes. Holidayers wanting a pleasure cruise through the Thousand Islands and business travellers with engagements in Montreal or American ports alike booked passage on this route.
By the late 1890s, the ships operating the first stage of the Toronto-Montreal route—as far as Prescott, where passengers switched to smaller vessels that could navigate the rapids down to Montreal—were in need of replacement. So the R & O contracted Toronto’s Bertram Engine Works Company to design one, and later a second, overnight steamer.
Scottish-born John Bertram had immigrated to Canada, establishing himself in the hardware business and with extensive lumbering interests in the Georgian Bay district. After his younger brother George Hope Bertram followed him to Canada, the pair relocated to Toronto in the early 1880s. There, in September 1892, the Bertrams eventually purchased “the entire property and good-will” of the John Doty Engine Works, a financially distressed company that built boilers and engines in a plant at the southeast corner of Bathurst and Niagara, and operated a shipyard across the railroad tracks, at the foot of Portland Street.
(Right: Portrait of George H. Bertram, 1898. From Wikimedia Commons.)
“The works are thoroughly equipped for turning out first-class machinery with despatch at the lowest possible prices,” an early Bertram advertisement promised, “and no effort will be spared to give the utmost satisfaction all who will entrust the new firm with contracts.” George H. concentrated on running this company, while John, though a vice-president of the engine works, continued to focus on his duties as president of the Collins Inlet Lumber Company.
Shipbuilding in Toronto harbour was booming at the turn of the century, and the Bertram Engine Works Company earned a reputation as one of the country’s best, most cost-effective shipbuilders. George H. Bertram was well-connected in the business community and municipal and federal political circles, and made a success of the Bertram Engine Works, producing a total of 46 ships in the decade between 1895 and the company’s eventual sale to the Canadian Shipbuilding Company. In addition to building some of the largest steamers on the lakes at the time for the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company—each grander and more opulent than the last—the company built small tugs, grain-carriers, and took on repair work.
A committee in charge of constructing the Toronto was assigned, and included W.D. Matthews, a shrewd businessman and investor in navigation companies; J. Kerr Osborne, a Toronto-based director of the R & O Company; and William Mellis Christie, stockholder of the Bertram Engine Works. Michigan-based Frank E. Kirby, widely considered one of the greatest naval architects, was retained by the committee in charge of constructing the Toronto to act as consulting engineer.
The hands-on task of actually designing the vessel to fulfill the R & O contract was entrusted to Arendt Angstrom, who had gained extensive experience in naval engineering at the Cleveland Ship Building Company before joining the Bertram Engine Works as master of the works in autumn 1893. A “noted marine architect,” Angstrom ranked with one of his great influences, Frank E. Kirby, “as one of the leading designers of lake passenger vessels.” Angstrom had already designed the Corona and the Cayuga for the Niagara Navigation Company.
(Left: Invitation to the launch of the steamer Toronto, 1898, issued by the Bertram Bertram Engine Works Company, Limited.)
With riveters and other workers labouring at the Bertram shipyard, making $3.50 a week for 12-hour days, the steel hull was constructed according to Angstrom’s designs in the months leading up to the June 21, 1898 official launch. Painted red and white and decorated with bunting, the Toronto’s steel hull was hoisted upon the ways at the Portland Street shipyard, held from the water by block wedges and ropes.
Louis-Joseph Forget, president of the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company and a Conservative senator, arrived in Toronto from Montreal on June 20. Since he’d acquired the struggling company in 1894, Forget had turned the R & O into a successful, dividend-paying operation. Yet the passenger fleet was just one small portion of the stockbroker and financier’s portfolio. Labelled “one of the colossal figures” of Canadian finance by one newspaper, Forget was one of the wealthiest men in Montreal. The francophone was joined at the ceremony in Toronto by his wife and his nephew Rudolph, as well as the other directors of the the R & O from Quebec City, Montreal, Sorel, and Kingston.
Most of the R & O representatives joined the management of the Bertram Company on the decks of the White Star, along with their 500 invited guests. Thousands of additional spectators lined the shore, wharves, and boathouses. Although not fortunate enough to merit invitation aboard the steamer, those ashore were just as eager to witness the Toronto’s launch.
In the late afternoon, from atop an elevated platform near the hull, Madame Forget, wife of the steamship line president, was given the honour of officially christening the ship the Toronto and breaking a bottle of wine across her bow. At the signal, workmen standing at the ready swung axes to cut the ropes holding the steamer on the ways, and the vessel glided down well-greased timbers into the water. It was a side-on launch, the Toronto slipping into the water on its broadside—rather than bow first—to equalize any strain across the length of the hull.
“When she finally plunged into the bay a great wave was thrown up and then went rolling across to the other side of the slip,” the Globe (June 22, 1898) reported. The floating boathouses nearby were tossed about, forcing spectators to take quick action to avoid tumbling into the drink. “[T]here was a screaming of whistles from steamboats and tugs, the cheering and clapping of thousands of spectators and the fluttering of bunting,” the newspaper stated. “The new pride of the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Co. acted a little unsteady at first in what in the future must be her native element, then righted herself, and on top of the waves curtsied gracefully as if in reply to the acclaim that greeted her christening.” The Toronto hull was then tied to the wharf.
After the festivities, the White Star didn’t return to port until 5:30 p.m. At a luncheon aboard, Louis-Joseph Forget enthusiastically congratulated the Bertram brothers on the delivery of the ship; and George H. Bertram returned the favour, toasting the management of the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company.
Although cabin work was as yet incomplete, the Toronto’s designer Angstrom and a representative sent by consulting engineer Kirby conducted ship trials over two days in late November 1898 to ascertain the coal consumption and performance of the sidewheel steamer’s four boilers. “The performance of the steamer during this trial was most satisfactory the engines working perfectly and the boilers furnishing steam with the greatest ease,” the Marine Review (January 12, 1899) later reported. She ran smoothly, without vibration, and “handled exceedingly well.”
According to the contract, the Toronto was to have a regular service speed of 17 miles per hour on consumption of two pounds of coal per horse power per hour. Based on these and further trials, the finished vessel exceeded these specifications. She was capable of reaching 20 miles per hour when pressed and had, as the Marine Review (August 10, 1899) noted, “the lowest rate of fuel consumption on record.”
“As a ship marking the reconstruction of the Richelieu & Ontario Co.’s fleet,” the Marine Review (January 12, 1899) stated, “the Toronto is certainly a vessel to be proud of.”
The Toronto was among a new breed of lake steamer: the nightboat. While day excursion vessels remained utilitarian in nature, nightboats were designed for speed and the comfort of passengers on overnight voyages and featured fine architectural detailing and lavish interiors.
Architects Charles Herbert Acton Bond and Sandford Fleming Smith, who’d designed a number of banks, churches, row houses, and residences in Peterborough and Toronto to date, were retained to design all interior accommodations aboard the Toronto—and later the steamers Cayuga, Kingston, and Montreal.
In Construction (August 1911), a magazine writer called the Toronto “a particularly noteworthy example” of collaboration between naval engineer and architect. The spacious main entrance hall aboard the Toronto, decorated in Neo-Grec with modern Renaissance details, featured a frieze carved by an unnamed artist into Caen stone and depicting key scenes from Canadian history, drawing the traveller’s eye “as he rises between the stately columns and graceful balustrades of the broad, easy ascending stairs.” The staircase itself was Honduras mahogany.
(Left: Photo of the main entrance hall of the Toronto from Construction [August 1911].)
The main saloon and gallery were designed in the style of Francis I; the Louis XVI-style dining room, in an unusual location forward on the upper cabin deck, could seat over 100 guests; and the smoking room was “in Oriental Style with green stained chestnut woodwork and richly stenciled walls.” Bond and Smith handled all aspects of the interior treatment, from furniture and decorations to the fixtures and carpeting. So elaborate and luxurious were the Toronto’s upper decks that Construction likened them to a “well appointed hotel or club.”
Offering sleeping capacity for 430 passengers, the Toronto had 140 staterooms, four parlours, and a large Pullman sleeping cabin. A 700-light electric plant and “ornamental electroliers in the cabins” furnished light throughout the ship. According to the specs given in From Niagara to the Sea, Official Guide 1899 (Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company, 1898), the Toronto was 278 feet in overall length, with a width of beam of 62 feet, and a depth of 14 feet. By the time the machinery was installed and the wooden upper decks were completed, the Toronto was expected to cost the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company a quarter of a million dollars.
(Right: Photo of the Toronto’s dining room from Construction [August 1911].)
The finished Toronto entered service in June 1899. For nearly 40 summers, she carried vacationers and businessmen on the 16-hour journey between Toronto and Prescott—and through the Thousand Islands—with calls at Charlotte (the small town at the mouth of the Genesee River that served as Rochester’s port), Clayton (terminus of the New York Central Railroad), and Alexandria Bay on the New York side of the lake, as well as Brockville, Kingston, and Prescott.
From her maiden voyage, the Toronto was captained by E.A. Booth, who’d once been among the youngest captains to sail schooners on the Great Lakes, but was by then a well-seasoned veteran. In about 1910, Booth was transferred to command the Kingston—replaced by Captain Redfern—but would be transferred back aboard the Toronto by around 1920.
The Bertram yard’s success was rewarded with numerous subsequent contracts with the R & O for similar palatial passenger steamers, including the Kingston, the Ottawa, and culminating with the enormous and luxuriously appointed Montreal.
After George H. Bertram’s death in 1900, his older brother John carried on the business. Despite its success building passenger vessels, the Bertram Engine Works Company found it difficult to compete with British firms, and he unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government for greater support for Canadian shipbuilders. The death of John Bertram in late 1904 led to the Bertram engine works and shipyard being bought by the Canadian Shipbuilding Company in June 1905. Angstrom, who had previously joined Canadian Shipbuilding in February 1903, was now assigned to oversee the old Bertram works. But the new owners would encounter problems with labour, shutting down the Portland yard over the workers’ demands for higher wages. Eventually, in 1908, the Canadian Shipbuilding Company put its Toronto shipyard up for sale in order to concentrate its trade on the company’s other shipyard on the Niagara River.
After the R & O was subsumed by Canada Steamship Lines Limited in 1913, the Toronto continued in steady service through the 1920s and into the 1930s, a popular vessel on a popular route.
Although the economic difficulties of the Great Depression prompted a reduction in the frequency of the Toronto’s sailing, business conditions were not the ultimate cause of her removal from service at the close of the 1937 season. As a result of an earlier fire aboard a steamer, the U.S. government now instituted strict regulations that prohibited steamboats with a wooden main deck from operating in American waters. The Toronto, still in tip-top working order, was left without a route.
The Toronto was given a coat of grey paint to preserve her wooden upper decks and unceremoniously relegated to a berth in the Turning Basin at the foot of Carlaw Avenue, with the assumption that, once the company found a suitable route, she’d re-enter active service. But there she sat for nearly a decade, boarded up, and slowly stripped of parts, fixtures, and fittings for re-use on other vessels. Her only occupants were a watchman, his wife, and “Blackie,” their Welsh collie. With all but one of her staterooms unoccupied, the Toronto was briefly discussed in early 1946 as a possible solution to the looming housing shortage as soldiers returned from the Second World War.
With the Great Lakes passenger business beginning to decline by this time, the Toronto never left her “dead-end anchorage,” as the Globe and Mail (October 4, 1946) dubbed it, until June 14, 1947, when she was towed to Hamilton as scrap.
Sources consulted: Invitation to the Launch of the Steamer Toronto (Bertram Engine Works Company Limited (1898); John Henry, Great White Fleet: Celebrating Canada Steamship Lines Passenger Ships (Dundurn, 2013); Michael Moir, “Shipbuilding and the Waterfront Plan of 1912” (Presentation) [PDF]; and articles from the Toronto Globe (June 22, 1898; and May 27 & July 2, 1904); Globe and Mail (December 12, 1936; January 30 & October 4, 1946); and the Toronto Star (May 31 & June 8, 1899; July 5, 1924; February 4, 1952; and December 26, 1968).
This post originally stated that riveters and other labourers worked two-hour days at the Bertram shipyard, when in fact they worked 12-hour days. We regret the error.
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