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Canadian Pacific Railway

Great Lakes Steamships

by R.L.Kennedy

Hand-coloured post card early 1900's

Travel brochure, 1929

at Owen Sound 1884. Ontario Archives S15998

at Owen Sound 1884. Canadian Pacific Archives A12287

Canadian Pacific Railway began its Steamship Service from Owen Sound on the Great Lakes in 1883 using second-hand vessels to move railway construction supplies to various Lake Superior shore points. Three new ships were ordered in Scotland, these were Alberta, Algoma and Athabaska all were 263 feet long and capable of carrying 2,000 tons of package freight and 374 passengers.

Regular service began with the Algoma, May 11, 1884, replacing the 1883 season service using Owen Sound Steamship Co. vessels from Owen Sound to Port Arthur in connection with CPR rail service to Winnipeg. The three ships provided service three times a week, originally leaving Owen Sound on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. This was changed to Monday, Wednesday and Friday; and later to Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, prior to 1900. Connecting train service departed from Toronto at 10.45 a.m. stopping only at Parkdale, West Toronto and Orangeville, arriving in Owen Sound at 3.05 p.m.

November 7th, 1885 was the most famous date in railway history. It was on that date that "The Last Spike" was driven, completing the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was also an infamous date, for on that day, the S.S. Algoma went on the rocks in Lake Superior, with the loss of 48 lives (35 crew and 13 passengers) and the ship itself. There were only 14 survivors including just 2 passengers.

Algoma shipwreck

Canada Lake Superior Transit Co. Ltd. had three ships on the lakes and CPR leased all three including Carmona, Cambria and Campana the latter to replace the lost Algoma while a new ship was being built.

Carmona served Windsor-Detroit and the Soo.
Owen Sound c. 1888

It was not until May 1889 that another ship replaced the one lost. On that date the Manitoba was launched in Owen Sound, after just 9 months of construction. It was the largest vessel on fresh water, at 2,616 tons. It used engines salvaged from the Algoma, and new boilers from Polson's in Toronto. These boilers were the largest shipment by rail in North America.

Canadian Pacific decided there was a market for better passenger service on the Great Lakes and ordered two new ships from Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in Govan, Scotland, (who had just finished building the Empress of Ireland and Empress of Britian). These ships, larger than the existing two, were outfitted entirely with 105 first class cabins accommodating 288 passengers; they were the S.S. Assiniboia at 3,880 tons, and the S.S.Keewatin at 3,856 tons and 350 feet in length. They went into service in October 1908 following final outfitting in Owen Sound and with five ships, the C.P.R. could provide service 5 days a week. They also carried a bigger freight cargo including thirty to forty automobiles belonging to passengers. The ships were equipped with four fire tube (Scotch) boilers operating on 220 pounds pressure, that were hand-fired coal burners supplying quadruple (compared to the more common triple) expansion steam engines rated at 3300 horsepower and burning about twenty tons per day. Cruising speed was 14 knots. Cost was £90,000 each.

Using the charter of the Georgian Bay & Seaboard, the CPR built a new line from its former Ontario & Quebec mainline near Peterborough through Orillia to Victoria Harbour (re-named Port Mc.Nicoll in 1912 for CPR Vice-president, David Mc.Nicoll) on Georgian Bay where a new port with bigger elevator facilities was built. The complete line was opened in May 1912. Sailing distance was 542 miles from Port to Fort William.

December 11, 1911, fire claimed the CPR grain elevator at Owen Sound; it was not to be rebuilt. This was further reason to relocate everything to a bigger harbour. In 1912, the steamship headquarters was moved to Port Mc.Nicoll. The Manitoba called at Owen Sound once a week.

By 1916, the Alberta and the Athabaska were relegated to freight service. They were eventually sold in August 1946.

The Assiniboia and Keewatin were the first boats (1946) on the Great Lakes to have radar, which was leased from Marconi. In addition, the wireless operators were employed by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of Canada.

Following the Noronic disaster in 1949 in Toronto harbour with the loss of many lives, stricter regulations began to take effect. This was to result in modifications to ships, the requirements of which eventually became too costly to justify in a declining market. An automatic sprinkler system was installed in 1951 along with three fire-resistant steel bulkheads, in the two ships.

In 1950, the Manitoba was sold and scrapped, no doubt in part due to the new regulations.

Over the winter of 1953-54 the Assiniboia was converted to burn oil in two Foster-Wheeler water-tube boilers.

The C.P.R. also operated a special train service known as the Steam Boat, to take passengers to and from its ships, first between Toronto and Owen Sound, and later between Toronto and Port Mc.Nicoll. This train operated on a fast schedule with few stops enroute. In 1955 it operated between June 11 and September 12 providing a direct connection from Toronto to Port Mc.Nicoll. The train left Toronto on Wednesday and Saturday at 12.01 p.m. (Noon) arriving in Port at 3.00 p.m. Eastward steamship service required a southbound train from Port on Mondays and Thursdays, leaving at 8.15 a.m. and arriving in Toronto at 11.15 a.m.

Freight service operated before and after the passenger season. This was a big break bulk freight operation requiring large sheds. Cheaper "Lake and Rail" freight rates attracted so much business in fact that it was often necessary to route the box cars all-rail to avoid backlog delays. Waybills were annotated, "Diverted all-rail RR convenience."

Passenger service ended in October 1965 after which only freight service was provided. The "Kee" being retired on November 29th 1966. The Assiniboia last sailed November 26, 1967 after which it was sold and towed to New Jersey to become floating restaurant however, it burned in November of 1969. The Keewatin was sold for scrap in November 1966 but resold in June 1967 and became a marine museum in the U.S.A.

Public Time Table 1925 cover ad for steamship service.

Keewatin at Port Mc.Nicoll dock. Circa 1920. Huronia Museum

S.S. Keewatin in a 1930's view. Ontario Archives.

S.S. Manitoba circa 1930. Ontario Archives

Boat train with G5 class steam engine and buffet-solarium cars Bermuda (hidden) and Antigua
Note the imaculate grounds. Canadian Pacific/James A. Brown Collection

Assiniboia and Keewatin were both similar size lake boats. Canadian Pacific photo.

Passengers walk short distance from Steamboat train (with one-of-a-kind buffet-observation-parlor car 6630) to the S.S. Assiniboia. Port Mc.Nicoll, August 15, 1964. Two views. Ted Wickson


#703 "Steamboat" engine 1271, northbound at Bolton on Saturday, June 15th, 1957. Dick George

By the late 1950's the last boat trains operated anywhere in North America were those of the C.P.R's service between Toronto and Port Mc.Nicoll, which had become a twice-weekly service that was still hauled by steam. The sight of G5 class Pacific 1271 hauling its spotless train of modern lightweight air-conditioned coaches with a heavyweight buffet-parlor on the end was something special! The train left Toronto Union Station on Wednesdays and Saturdays, at Noon and took just three hours for its run to Port. Because the ships arrived back in Port Mc.Nicoll at 8 AM on Mondays and Thursdays, the passenger equipment for the southbound boat train laid over at Port, but not the engine and crew. They returned to Lambton in extra freight service! Then, a northbound extra freight would be ordered at Lambton, with the passenger engine, to haul whatever few cars of freight there was to Port and then return in passenger service with the boat train!

An MLW FPA2 A unit replaced the steam engine and it too looked special.

Steam Boat at West Toronto Depot. 4094 with 305x combine, two 2200 coaches, buffet-parlour. Notice the people's reflections in the spotless paint. Box cars in background are on interchange track. R.L.Kennedy

Weeds, shortened train #303 hauled by a road switcher, RS10 8481, are all indications the end is near.
SS Assiniboia is at dockside this Saturday September 12, 1964, the last day of the season except for
Monday's southbound #304. Next season would be the last. John Freyseng

Old home movie in the 1950's on You Tube

S. S. Keewatin Homecoming



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