The Ships of Old Quebec

In the ’6o’s Quebec was “the greatest shipbuilding port in British North America”


The Ships of Old Quebec

In the ’6o’s Quebec was “the greatest shipbuilding port in British North America”


The Ships of Old Quebec

In the ’6o’s Quebec was “the greatest shipbuilding port in British North America”



Were you ever in Old Quebec? Good-by, fare ye well. Good-by, fare ye well. Sliding square timber along the deck? Hooray, my boys, we’re homeward bound ! —Sailors’ Chantey.

QUEBEC in the late ’Sixties. Along the river front of the Rock City, along the Levis shore, as far as the eye can see from the heights above, the broad stream of the St. Lawrence is dotted with sailing ships, great booms of floating logs and rafts of timber. Looking down on the fleet, the hundreds of masts and yards appear as a forest rising in clustered clumps from the water. Some of the ships are at anchor in the stream; some, under sail, are dropping down the river bound seaward. At the ballast ground, several newly arrived vessels are dumping their ballast into the water prior to hauling up to the booms to load their cargo of wood. Others are berthed at the Lower Town wharves, discharging cargoes of coarse salt into the salt sheds. But the majority of the fleet—full-rigged ships, barques, brigs and brigantines, flying a dozen national ensigns—are moored at the timber booms loading squared logs and deals. And their number runs well up into the hundreds.

No such panorama of water activity has been seen in Quebec since those days of the great timber trade. Night and day during the season, the broad flood of the river and the shores thereof presented a scene of animation such as will probably never be viewed again. In addition to the crews of the ship«, a great population found their day’s work on the water. There were the raftsmen, the crews of the river schooners, barges and bateaux which brought deals, staves and laths from the mills to the ships, and the hundreds of hardy fellows who specialized in timber stowing. And among the river population one must include the busy solicitors of the stevedoring concerns who, in small boats, boarded incoming vessels and sought the job of discharging and loading the ship. Also, to them must be added the runners and touts for the sailors’ boarding-houses, men of sinister reputation, whose actions and business were distinctly unsavory in those good, yet bad, old days.

A City Ringed with Shipyards

COMING from the river, we scan the shores. Here wooden ships are being built in a dozen yards scattered along the river bank and in the coves. There are ship« in frame, ship« planked, ships ready for launching with their spars aloft and yards crossed. Some are bluff-bowed, wallsided timber droghers capable of stowing 2,500 tons dead

weight—large ships for those times; others are finely modelled and well finished, designed for the East Indian and Australian trades. The city is ringed with shipyards from beyond Wolfe’s Cove around to the Charles River, where many are located at St. Roch, Hare Point and Stadacona. The building and launching in a season of over a hundred vessels—ships, barques, brigs and schooners--provided work for thousands, winter and summer.

In most histories dealing with shipping, the work of Quebec shipwrights has been treated lightly. Yet Quebec was the greatest shipbuilding port in British North America at one period, and from 1797 to 1896 constructed a grand total of 2,542 vessels with an aggregate tonnage of 1,377,099 tons. The provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick may have exceeded Quebec in the total tonnage of wooden vessels constructed during the age of sailing ships, but in the latter provinces shipbuilding was carried on in numerous localities. In Quebec, practically all the shipbuilding was done within the limits and adjacent parishes of the Ancient Capital.

The timber trade, and the cheapness of timber suitable for ship construction, were responsible for Quebec’s entry into the building of vessels. Since the extensive shipping of timber began in the early years of the nineteenth century, shipbuilding at Quebec was an important allied industry. Compared with British-built craft, Quebec vessels were much cheaper, and firms engaged in the timber trade bought them in hundreds.

These timber ships were large vessels, ship and barque rigged, and equipped with ports in the bows and stern which could be opened to allow the stowing of squared logs into the hold. The logs were hoisted up from the water and shoved into the ship through the ports by gangs of men who specialized in that business. As the vessel sank deeper in the water, the lower ports were closed and caulked tight, and loading went' on through the upper ports. This was the only way in which long timber could be stowed, as it was impossible to get it into the vessel through the small deck hatches.

The majority of the ships built in Quebec were designed for this particular trade. When the St. I .a wren ce season closed, they carried timber from Saint John, N.B., or from Pensacola,

Florida. Sometimes they went farther afield and brought teak from Moulmein. These timber ships also found a lucrative freight in the carriage of cotton from New Orleans, Mobile and Savannah during the winter months.

Vessels of superior construction, though fitted with ports for timber carrying, were built at Quebec for use in general trades. These ships voyaged all over the world, carrying coal to India and jute back to England; coal to Rio, then around the Horn to Peru for a cargo of guano to be landed in the United Kingdom or on the continent. In fact, they were employed in every trade in which British shipowners were interested.

While Quebec built many ships, yet very few were oixirated by Quebec owners. Most of the vessels constructed were built to be sold in Great Britain, or built to the order of British shipowners. Shipbuilding was largely an export industry, but, during the time it flourished, it was an industry of great value and importance.

In the Liverpool Shipping Register of 1843. the largest shii>s hailing from that busy port were two built in Canada. One of them was the ship United Kingdom of 1.267 tons, built in Quebec by John Munn in 1839. Out of the fleet claiming Liverpool as its home port at that period, no less than seventy-five vessels were launched from Quebec shipyards.

It was in Quebec that steam navigation received its first real impetus, when the famous Royal William was launched from Black & Campbell’s shipyard at Cape Cove in 1831. Most of the shipbuilders in Quebec were shareholders in the steamer, and also a shareholder was Samuel Cunard, of Halifax. It is said that the Royal William’s successful steam passage of the Atlantic in 1833, inspired him w'ith the possibilities of steam navigation which ultimately led to the founding of the Cunard Line.

It was in Quebec that the most amazing shipbuilding feat of the early nineteenth century was accomplished, when two huge timber ships were constructed on the Island of Orleans at Patrick’s Hole in 1824 and 1825.

These were freak vessels, constructed of heavy square timber in such a way that would allow of their hulls being taken to pieces without damage to the wood. Into their vast holds was loaded a huge cargo, so that when they were launched and rigged they were practically solid ships of timber. The first vessel was the Columbus, which was 301 feet in length and fifty feet in beam and measured 3,690 tons.

The other was the Baron of Rettfretc, which was still larger and measured 5,294 tons.

Both vessels, rigged and sparred as fourmasted barques, successfully crossed the Atlantic. The

Baron of Renfrew, however, was lost in the English Channel while in charge of a tugboat. The Columbus delivered her load in London, but instead of her hull being broken up, she was sent out to Saint John, N.B., for another cargo. On this voyage she foundered, but the crew was saved.

The idea behind this ambitious undertaking was the evasion of the British timber tax, but the building of such huge craft constituted a record, as they were the largest ships ever built up to that time and it was not until thirty '•ears afterward that a wooden ship was launched that exceeded their dimensions.

It was in Quebec that a young Scotsman. Henry Eckford, learned the business of shipbuilding when he labored for five years in Black & Campbell’s yard at Cape Cove. In 1796 Eckford moved to New York. In 1802 he opened a shipyard there, and when he died in 1832 he was acclaimed as the "Father of American Shipbuilding.” Eckford’s designs and the vessels he built for the merchant service and the Navy of the United States influenced greatly the future of ship construction in the great republic.

It was Montrealand Quebec-built ships that formed the early fleet of the Allan Line in the ’Thirties and ’Forties. With these sailing craft they built up the passenger and cargo trade between Canada and Great Britain which ultimately developed into the great steamship services which they afterward maintained for so many years.

In the fall of 1849 a ship called the Maria, of 1,014 tons, was launched from the yard of Thomas Oliver at Quebec. She was a wooden vessel, three-masted, and built “on spec” to be sold in England. The builder’s brother, W. Edward Oliver, was a shipbroker in Liverpool, who specialized in

selling Quebec-built ships to British operators, and to him the Maria was consigned with a note from the builder: "She is the handsomest, the best built and the finest ship that has left here for some time . . . You may sell her to your best friends and thqy will not be disappointed in her.”

The Maria duly arrived in Liverjxxd, discharged her cargo of timber, and Mr. Oliver busied himself to sell her. A young and progressive shipowner, James Baines, looked her over and decided to buy her and use her in the Australian trade. Into Liverpool about the same time came another Oliverbuilt ship called the Wilson Kennedy, with a lading of timber from Canada. In command of the Kennedy was a daring Scots sailor, James Nicol Forbes. Baines appointed Forbes as master of the Maria and she was dispatched to Australia.

A few months later, gold was discovered in Victoria and New South Wales, and by the fall of 1851 the news had gone abroad to the world that fortunes were to be made by merely shovelling dirt into a rocker and washing out the yellow nuggets. This announcement, coming in the wake of the great California gold strike of 1849, had the effect of sending thousands of people to the new Golconda of the South. Prior to 1851 the colonizing of Australia was a slow business, but the magic cry of "Gold, gold in Bendigo!” was a tocsin which crowded the ports of Liverpool and London with an increasing horde anxious to take ship for the island continent.

British shipowners responded to the demand. Ships were taken off their regular trade ? tes, .itted up for the carriage of emigrants and gold seekers, and sent txx)ming around the cape to Australia. So great was the number clamoring for passage that suitable vessels were at a premium and the price of ship tonnage rose rapidly.

Canadian-Built Ships

JAMES BAINES and other Liverpool shipowners were quick to grasp their opportunity. They realized that the big timber carriers built in Quebec and Saint John would make ideal craft for the Australian emigrant trade. They were much larger than the average British-built ship; they had lofty ’tween decks, designed for stowing timber, which would provide excellent accommodations for passengers; they were beamy vessels able to make good weather of the long runs before strong westerly winds, and above all they were comparatively cheap in price when compared with ships built in British yards.

Canadian-built timber carriers of the largest size were bought up or chartered as soon as they arrived in Liverpool. Their cargoes were hastily discharged and they were rushed into dry dock to be sheathed with copper from keel to

water-line for voyaging in tropic seas. The roomy ’tween decks were fitted up with cabins and berths for passengers and emigrants, and they re-emerged to be extravagantly advertised as “splendid frigate-built ships,” or “magnificent clipper packets,” in the newspapers of that time.

A host of packet ship lines sprang into existence in the midst of the boom. Brokers who specialized in selling British North American ships in the Liverpool market became shipowners on their own account and established lines with regular sailings to the Antipodes. Obscure shipowners like James Baines, took advantage of the Continued on page 26

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situation and forged ahead, chartering and buying Canadian timber ships and sending them off packed with eager passengers. Baines established the Black Ball Line of Australian Packets, usurping the name of an old-established line of Atlantic packets in doing so. Within ten years the Black Ball Line fleet numbered over eighty vessels, employing 30() officers and 3,000 men. The White Star Line came into existence then, and one of their early ships was the Tudor, 1,786 tons, built by H. N. Jones, Quebec, in 1854. The Tudor is credited with a passage of seventy-seven days. Liverpool to Melbourne. Another White Star packet was (he Sardinian, 1,268 tons, built by Thos. Oliver, Quebec, in 1856. On her first voyage she landed the mails from Australia in England within seventy-four days. Other famous companies employing Quebec-built ships were the Red Cross, Fox, Golden. Mersey and Liverpool Lines.

The World’s Fastest Vessel

TN 1852, Baines bought a Saint John* built timber ship called the Marco Polo. She was a large craft for that day, registering 1,600 tons. Me had her overhauled and fitted for the Australian run, and dispatched her to Melbourne in command of Captain Forbes. Forbes had made a reputation for himself in the fast passages he made in the Maria, and Baines recognized this when he appointed him to take charge of the Marco Polo. When she left Liverpool with 930 emigrants and a crew of sixty men, the Marco Polo was the largest vessel to make the voyage from that port. Captain Forbes boasted that he would make the round trip to Melbourne and back a voyage around the world—in six months. He made good his boast, added to the fame of the Black Ball Line and himself, and acquired for the Marco Polo the title of being "the fastest ship in the world."

Orders for Canadian-built ships came in a torrent. Liverpool and Glasgow brokers, rapacious for commissions, urged the builders of Quebec and Saint John to construct vessels suitable for the Australian trade. Direct orders wert» placed by the established Liverpool lines for ships of superior model and construction. A period of frantic, unregulated shipbuilding, similar to what occurred during the war, swept New Brunswick and Quebec and aO ensued.

In 1852 Quebec possessed twenty-five shipyards and eight or more floating docks within the city limits or immediate vicinity. With higher prices obtainable for ship tonnage came a demand for quality, and Lloyd’s Registry sent Thomas Menzies out to Quebec to act as special surveyor. Mr. Menzies knew his business thoroughly and was a man of character and ability. Under his influence and advice, the model and construction of Quebec ships improved to such an extent that Lloyd’s would grant them a classification of "seven years. A.l." if built under the eyes and to the specifications of their surveyor.

The year 1853 saw tremendous activity in Quebec. Established shipyards doubled their capacity and a number of new builders went into the game, borrowing money at high interest to finance the construction of large ships. The Australian trade betrayed its influence in the names of the ships launched that year. Theophile St. Jean, at St. Roch, built the ship Boomerang of 1.823 tons, a very large craft. Pierre Valin launched the Carpentaria, 1,460 tons; G. T. Davie, the Daylesford, 680 tons; Edouard Trahan, the Nugget, 1,128 tons. Drolet & Leblond were building the Captain Cook.

The Boomerang was bought or chartered by James Baines and placed under the Black Ball flag. Writing from Melbourne in 1854. a former resident of Quebec wrote to friends in his native city:

“This splendid vessel, the Boomerang,

commanded by Capt. Flynn, has made

the quickest passage on record, beating the celebrated Marco Polo by four days. The Boomerang made the passage from port to port in seventy (?) days, frequently running eighteen knots an hour, and accomplished the extraordinary run of 4(X) miles a day for several days.

1 have been on board with a number of Quebeckers, and it is needless to say how proud we all felt to see one of our own vessels beating everything afloat.

“Capt. Flynn requests me to write to say to the builder, Mr. St. John (St. Jean) that a better sea boat dcxïs not float, and to express to him the great gratification he feels at commanding so splendid a vessel. The Boomerang is the whole talk of our city since she has eclipsed the renowned Marco Polo.”

Research into the records unfortunately fails to verify the patriotic Quebecker’s claim as the Marco Polo’s passage on this occasion was eighty-four days, therefore that of the Boomerang would be eighty days —a fast trip, but not a record as the Marco Polo’s previous passage of seventy-six days, port to port, was the fastest up to that date.

Clipper Ships

"K/TANY splendid ships, well deserving the name of “clipper,” were built in Quebec during this period. Several became famous in shipping annals for their fast passages, but to name them all would require a volume.

A noteworthy ship was the Ocean Monarch, built by Baldwin & Dinning in their yard at Cape Cove, Quebec. She was a large vessel of 1,831 tons, of fine model and superior construction, and her keel was laid down in the fall of 1853. While still on the stocks she was sold for $53 per ton to C. E. Levey, timber shipper of Quebec and Liverpool, and the builders made a profit of $20.000 on the sale.

The Ocean Monarch sailed for Liverpool and was sent to Peru. Commanded by a Captain Lawson, she left Liverpool at midnight. November 11, 1854. On December 5 she crossed the Equator in longitude thirtythree degrees West, twenty-four days out. having met many westerly gales in and near the Channel. Off the Horn she met severe westerly gales, but crossed the parallel of fifty degrees South in the Pacific on January 5, 1855. On January 20, the Ocean Monarch anchored off Callao, completing the passage from Liverpool Lightship in the fine time of 69 x/¿ days. This was acclaimed at the time as the quickest passage ever made between the ports named.

Loading guano at the near-by Peruvian deposits, the Ocean Monarch, with 2,500 tons aboard, left Callao at noon on April 5. 1855, bound for Cork. Two American clippers, the Black Warrior and the John Stuart, ships of 1,828 and 1,653 tons respectively, had sailed from Callao on March 29— seven days before the Quebecker. On the run to the Horn the Ocean Monarch overhauled and passed both the Americans, leading them around the stormy cape by twelve hours, and finally arriving in Cork after a passage of 80days.

Of this round voyage, the Illustrated London News declared:

“Captain Lawson has completed with the Ocean Monarch the fastest passage out and home on record; and, considering the many difficulties encountered on both passages, this voyage stands pre-eminent as the greatest achievement yet accomplished by any of the clipper ships, and surpasses the best of the Australian voyagers.”

Of the ship’s construction, a British journal comments:

“This noble ship presents another instance of the rapid strides now being

made in shipbuilding and more particularly in the British Colonies of North America. In her are united many of the great desiderata of merchant shipping of the modem SC1KK>1S, viz., great capacity for cargo, light draft of water, commodious deck space and good height between decks for passenger accommodation or troops; and the great point of all in these days of clipper ships—speed. The Ocean Monarch presents the happiest combination of all these essentials.”

Prices ranging from $50 to $70 per ton for Quebec ships were as profitable as digging gold in Australia in the minds of local shipbuilders. The Crimean War broke out in March, 1854, and there was a demand for transports to carry troops, horses and munitions to the Black Sea. Coupled with the Australian trade, this created boom times in Quebec shipyards. In the summer of 1854 forty builders went into the game, fifty large ships were launched from local yards, and the business gave employment to fully five thousand men, whose families represented nearly one-half the population of the Ancient City and Levis.

“Every one that could raise or borrow money rushed into shipbuilding,” declared Henry Fry, Lloyd’s agent in Quebec and a prominent shipowner. “The scene in Quebec yards on a fine winter’s day was then a very animated one. The songs of the French-Canadian shipwrights when raising frames or carrying planks, the whirr of the saws, the blows of the mallets, and the vim oi the men, all working with a will, were very pleasant to the eye or ear of the onlooker.”

Fine Quebec-Built Craft

NAUTICAL histories have given the impression that all Quebec craft were cheap tubs designed for the timber trade. Even in Canada, one will read much of the fine vessels of Nova Scotia and find Quebec’s shipping industry dismissed wâth but a casual reference. But the truth is that Quebec was building big ships when Nova Scotia was merely beginning her shipbuilding ventures. And while Quebec did build many "timber-men,” yet there were hundreds of vessels which in model, construction and general finish were as fine as would be found anywhere.

There was Thomas Conrad Lee, one of the prominent Quebec builders, who determined to construct large ships of clipper design along the lines and in the method practised in American shipyards. He brought William Power from New York to superintend his yard. Mr. Power had learned the art of shipbuilding and designing under the famous John Griffiths, the man who first designed a clipper ship and whose scientific theories radically altered previous notions of naval architecture. Under Power’s supervision, the ship Arthur the Great, 1,602 tons, was built in Lee’s yard in 1853. She was rated as a clipper and was purchased by Somes Brothers. London, a very aristocratic shipowning firm. In 1855 she was one of the transport fleet which took part in the Persian Gulf Expedition. Later, she was employed as a troopship during the Indian Mutiny, and is credited with a passage of eighty-three days from Bombay to Dindon.

Another of Lee’s ships was the Shooting Star, 1.518 tons, also built in 1853. When she arrived in Liverpool on her first voyage, her master wrote to Mr. Lee:

"On the day we docked in Liverpool, the Sovereign of the Seas, the great American clipper, (built by Donald McKay at East Boston), was lying in the Mersey, outward bound. We lay abreast of her, and every person who was a judge of a ship pronounced the Shooting Star to be the handsomest and finest ship of the two, and I must say

w'e looked splendid, having got the three skysail-yards across, etc.”

The Shooting Star is reported to have made the passage from Quebec to Liverpool in fourteen days. In 1854 she was credited with having made one of the fastest passages on record between Portsmouth and Malta, and another to Australia. In 1858 it was recorded that she carried 417 emigrants out to Melbourne.

Diligent search among old shipping records reveals many tributes to the product of Quebec shipyards. There was the Hibernia, built by J. E. Oliver in 1850 and one of the pioneer packets in the LiverpoolAustralia trade. A contemporary Liverpool paper refers to her as “one of the finest ships ever built in Canada.” George H. Parke built the ship Africa, of 1,306 tons, in 1851, and she ran to Australia under the Fox Line flag and was distinguished as the largest single-dock vessel in the British Merchant Marine at that time. Edouard Trahan, in 1854, built the ship UUonia, 1,405 tons. In 1855 she made the passage from Callao to Queenstown, guano-laden, in the fast time of seventy-seven days. She also was an Australian packet.

Trahan also built the ship Nugget in 1853. On her maiden passage from Quebec to Liverpool, she made the trip in 17 days. The ship Gananoque, 783 tons, built in 1857 by G. T. Davie, Levis, carried emigrants from London to Lyttleton, New Zealand, in eighty-five days. This was in 1860, and she made the run from the Downs to the Equator in twenty-one days. The ship British Lion, 1,370 tons, built at Quebec in 1853 by Pierre Valin, was one of the White Star fleet, and in 1857, is credited with a passage of ninety-one days from Calcutta to Havre, during which she frequently logged 16 miles per hour and made 362 miles in one day.

The ship White Rose, built in 1862 by T. C. Lee, Quebec, was a vessel of superior model and speed. She made her maiden passage from Quebec to London in nineteen days. In 1860 William Baldwin built the ship Indian Empire, 1,634 tons, at Quebec. She was employed in the New Zealand trade from Glasgow, carrying emigrants. In 1862 she sailed from the Lizard to Auckland in ninety-six days; in 1864 she went to Lyttleton in eighty-three days, land to land ; in 1865 she sailed from the Lizard to Lyttleton in eighty-five days. T. C. Lee, Quebec, built two fast ships for the Liverpool-Canada Packet Line in 1857. One was the Michigan, and she made the run between Cape Race, N.F., and Cape Clear, Ireland, in ten days; the other was the Minnesota, which in 1862 made the passage from Quebec to Liverpool in 17J days. A little barque called the Amicus, Captain Ludger Bolduc in command, in 1887 made the passage from Ste. Anne des Monts, Quebec, to Glasson Dock, Lancaster, England, in sixteen days, after losing her deck load, and with the hands at the pumps all the passage across. Another smart little craft of Power’s design, built in Lee’s yard in 1853, was the Rock City, of 597 tons. A contemporary writer states that:

“She outsailed the American clipper Fleetwing on a passage from Anjer to New York by fourteen days, and only last year (1856) beat another clipper ship on a voyage from Shanghai to New York by twenty days.”

William Power was a designer of skill, and the block models of his ships were exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of the ’Fifties, gaining a first-class medal. Another of his models was featured at the World’s Exhibition, New Orleans, in 1884, and may still be viewed in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. Mr. Power afterward went into shipbuilding for himself in Quebec.

To be Continued