Ryan Taylor Passenger ships on the Great Lakes
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By Ryan Taylor

Would you like to go on a cruise? Winter's coming, and with it the idea of strolling on the deck in a balmy breeze, looking at the stars.

How about a cruise on Lake Huron? Most of us would find that less inviting, but there was a time when passenger ships plied the Great Lakes. People used them to go from one port to another, or simply to have that cruise experience.

It was easier to go from Owen Sound or Collingwood to Chicago by water than by rail. In 1893, the Columbian Exposition attracted visitors from all over North America. Steamers left Wiarton and Toronto on Wednesday and returned six days later. Passengers used the ship as a floating hotel while in Chicago and even took their meals on board. Cost was about $50, depending on location of the cabin.

Scott L. Cameron's The Frances Smith: Palace Steamer of the Upper Great Lakes, 1867-1896 tells about one boat from that era, based in Georgian Bay.

The boats were not only for pleasure trips. Emigrants to Manitoba and the west could sail from Collingwood to the Lakehead, then on by rail or the Red River steamers to their new lives. Before the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway through northern Ontario in the 1870s and 1880s, sailing was the way to go. Later, the railway became the usual conveyance for migrants, but the steamers still provided an alternative to the tedium of the long rail journey with its endless forest views.

The launch of the Frances Smith in Owen Sound in 1867 opened the door for a considerable shipbuilding industry on Georgian Bay. As well as travelling business people, migrants and pleasure seekers, the Frances Smith took lumberjacks, their equipment and horses to work in many camps in the bush. In those days, lumbering was an important industry around Georgian Bay.

Experienced Ontario lumberjacks had been vital in the early years of Michigan's history. As settlement around the Great Lakes moved north, lumbering offered adventurous boys the chance to leave the farm and earn good money. The lake steamers were important in keeping the lumber camps rolling.

In 1869 the Meaford Masonic lodge chartered the Frances Smith for a special outing. Unfortunately they oversubscribed the trip, with serious overcrowding being the result. An upper deck collapsed under the weight of the passengers. Only one person was seriously hurt, but the incident echoes the fate of the Mariposa Belle in Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. At least the Frances Smith did not sink.

The lake steamers were also used to deliver the mail. At this time, postal service was necessary for keeping families in touch and for the running of government and business. The Frances Smith was part of a principal mail route from Toronto to ports on Lake Superior, via Collingwood.

Life in the past was conducted using technology we have forgotten. It is fascinating to learn how early Ontarians lived and worked. No one contemplating a visit to Georgian Bay in 2005 would guess that, a century ago, there was a form of public transportation that took passengers from island to island. Only the rich can do that now. Living in Owen Sound in 1895 might have been more interesting than we thought.

Scott Cameron is a retired Grey County teacher and chair of the Owen Sound Marine and Rail Museum. His history of the Frances Smith ($28.95) is available from Natural Heritage Books or your local bookstore. As usual with Natural Heritage publications, it is extensively illustrated and has plenty of bibliographical references for those.

Posted October 16, 2005
Column copyright © 2005 Ryan Taylor

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