The Early Years
At the confluence of the Oswegatchie and St. Lawrence Rivers, Ogdensburg was a major shipbuilding and repair center, covering a span of some 170 years. The Port of Ogdensburg traces its roots back to 1751, when Abbé François Picquet, founder of Fort de La Présentation, built a dam across the Oswegatchie River and a sawmill on the west shore. Ogdensburg at the time was at the eastern extremity of lake navigation, miles of dangerous rapids then lying to the east.
The fort, established in 1749, was strategically located at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Oswegatchie rivers. Here, the French built small wooden boats for journeys into the interior. Meanwhile, sailing vessels were constructed at Fort Frontenac at Kingston, and during the French and Indian War at Pointe-au-Baril, later Maitland, Ont.
The French evacuated Fort de La Présentation in 1759, moving their defenses to Fort Lévis, on Chimney Island. What remained of the original fort, the following year, was taken by the British during the final hours of the so-called Battle of the Thousand Islands, on August 25, 1760. The fortified shipyard at Pointe-au-Baril was burned, to avoid being captured by the British.
The British reconstructed the installation and named it Fort Oswegatchie, in 1760 and carried on commercial trade there for about the next 35 years. So what must be considered as the first serious shipbuilding effort here was, the construction of, two snow-rigged vessels employed as transports. In 1779 the Americans marched on the fort, only to be beaten back when they lost the element of surprise. The Fort continued to guard the British fur and lumber interests until it was vacated in 1796. The forests, a valuable natural resource for lumber and other materials, were denuded for miles around. But by 1780 the British decided it was more practical to build and repair ships at Fort Haldimand, at Carleton Island, due to its more strategic location. The two ships built at Fort Oswegatchie were snow-rigged, meaning the trysail mast was stepped immediately abaft (behind) the mainmast. They were the “Haldimand” 16 4-pounder, and the “Seneca” 10 4-pounders, each with 18 guns.
Waterborne commerce grew rapidly after 1800, after the British posts on the northern frontier reverted to American sovereignty. Settlers began to pour in to what is now Ogdensburg and the Town of Oswegatchie. One of the more affluent businessmen and land speculators in this regionwas David Parish. Wishing to engage in the lucrative forwarding business, in 1808 he decided to have two ships built to add to the large number of merchant vessels being built on Lake Ontario and along the St. Lawrence River, to compete with British vessels in the freight and passenger (packet) trade on the lake and river. These little schooners were primarily in the 50 ton range.
Joseph Rosseel, land agent for Parish, brought in 40 Canadian ship carpenters. In January, 1809, work commenced on two schooners after a shed was built to protect them from the harsh weather. Logs were felled in adjacent forests and then cut and shaped into ship timber.
In June, 1809, Captain Obed Mayo, an experienced navigator, arrived at the behest of Parish. He brought with him ship supplies including enough canvas to fit out the two vessels. Accompanying him were shipbuilders Jonathan Brown and Selick Howe, also of New York. The first schooner was called the “Experiment”, launched on the Fourth of July, 1809. The second sailing vessel was named the “Collector” and came off the ways later that summer.
The “Collector” made several trips to Lake Ontario ports that season under the command of Captain Mayo. The following year she was commanded by Rosseel. One record states that on November 15, 1809 she arrived in Ogdensburg with a cargo of salt and dry goods from Oswego.
During the summer of 1810, a third schooner, the Genesee Packet, was constructed at Ogdensburg, owned and commanded by Captain Mayo. All these boats were built on the same plan, having a capacity of 50 tons. They were purchased by the U.S. Navy, during the War of 1812, and renamed “Growler”, “Per”t and “Conquest”, respectively. Following the war they returned to commercial use.
On March 6, 1812, slightly more than three months after the War of 1812 broke out, a circular was issued by the local forwarding merchants stating that the captains of the “Collector”, “Experiment” and “Genesee Packet” (Captains Samuel Dixon, Christian Homes and Obed Mayo, respectively), were ready to do business and take on property “from all parts of Lake Ontario not prohibited by law.”
Rates were per barrel: $1 for ashes, 50 cents for beef and pork; 38 cents for flour and wheat. From Oswegatchie, property would be “transmitted to Montreal with all possible expedition” aboard scows. The rates from Oswegatchie per barrel were set at $1.30 for ashes 85 cents for beef and pork and 55 cents for wheat. In boats from Ogdensburg to Montreal, the rates per barrel set were $2 for ashes ; $1.25 for beef and pork; and 88 cents for flour and wheat.
Prior to construction of canals, the St. Lawrence River below Ogdensburgh required a dangerous voyage through many miles of rapids. The primary vessel was the flat-bottom boat, usually 40 feet in length and 6 to 8 feet wide, made of either pine or cedar. The great advantage it had over the bark canoe was, with a carrying capacity of five tons, it was nearly impossible for it to capsize in rapids. But it could be smashed to pieces on the rocks. In 1760, the same year the British took Fort de La Présentation, 46 boats carrying supplies and military stores through the rapids were wrecked and 84 men were lost.
The first effort to improve navigation down River was made in 1779, when a 900-foot long canal, seven feet wide with three locks was built at Coteau-du-Lac. Each lock was less than 40 feet long and two feet, five inches deep. It was just enough to allow a loaded bateaux to bypass the Cascades Rapids. In 1799 these locks were enlarged, to permit six bateaux to pass through at once. This canal was replaced in 1806, by another across the point, between the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers, a distance of 1,600 feet. It contained two locks, measuring 120 feet in length, 20 feet wide and 4 feet deep, having a total lift of 13 feet.
Ogdensburgh became an official U.S. Port of Entry, with the creation of the Customs District of Oswegatchie, by an Act of Congress, on March 2, 1811. The village Ogdensburgh was incorporated on April 5, 1817, named for Samuel Ogden, businessman, developer and land speculator. It grew rapidly, following the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the Welland Canal in 1833. Then it was “full steam ahead”, with the opening of the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain Railroad in 1850. Railroads and commercial shipping were important mainstays of Ogdensburg for generations. The city of Ogdensburg (without the h) was incorporated on April 27, 1868. Ogdensburg was long on the cutting edge of design and technology on many fronts.
Conflicting information exists regarding what appears to have been the first steamboat built in Ogdensburg. Enrollment records state the side-wheeler “Caroline” was built here in 1822. She was 71 feet long, 20 feet, 5 inches in width, 5 feet, 5 inches hold and registered at 45 tons. But the book Reminiscences of Ogdensburg presents an apocryphal story of how the “Caroline” was originally a sailing vessel, constructed by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, intended for use in the coasting trade in North Carolina. The book also states the vessel was rebuilt as a steamboat and brought up through the canals, to Lake Ontario, and used as a ferry at Ogdensburg. This would have been impossible as the Erie Canal was not completed until 1825. Secondly, a vessel of this size could not have fit through the locks of the Erie Canal, as they existed at the time, they being 90 feet long and 15 feet wide. They were designed for a canal boat 61 feet long, 7 feet wide, with a 3 1/2 foot draft - not a steamer the size of the “Caroline”.
The “Caroline” appears in the local shipping lists, in the 1830s, as transporting freight and passengers between Ogdensburgh and other St. Lawrence River ports, including Brockville and French Creek (Clayton, NY). Later, it was taken through the Welland Canal to be used as a ferry,between Schlosser (Niagara Falls) and Navy Island. Loyalists in Canada suspected the “Caroline” was carrying contraband. They succeeded in proving their suspicions were true. It was set afire, cast adrift and went over Niagara Falls, on December 13, 1837, creating an international incident.
The next two locally-built steamboats, the “United States” and the “Paul Pry”, gained almost as much notoriety for their participation in the Patriot War as did the “Caroline”. However, it is not within the scope of this article to discuss this in detail. The “United States” was launched in November, 1831 at Ogdensburgh and was built by William Capes. She was 143 feet, 2 inches long, 26 feet, 7 inches wide and had an 22 foot hold. She was registered at 386 tons, was owned by the Ontario & St. Lawrence Steamboat Company and was equipped with a 120-horsepower low pressure steam engine, with a 40-inch cylinder and eight foot stroke. She cost $56,000 and was the finest steamer of her day. The engine was built by William Avery & Co. of Syracuse.
The “Paul Pry” was built by Paul Boyton in Heuvelton in 1832. She was 75 feet long, 12 feet 4 inches wide, had a depth of 5 feet, 5 inches and was registered at 47 tons. The high pressure, 12-horsepower engine was built by Starbuck & Son. She was owned by George W. Shepard. The name “Paul Pry” is from a character in the 1825 play of the same name. She was built to run on Black Lake, between Heuvelton and Rossie, NY. About 1836 she was brought down the Oswegatchie River to Ogdensburgh, to be used a ferry between there and Prescott. When she arrived at the dam,it was hauled by a windlass cross lots during a heavy rain storm, the feat being accomplished about 8 p.m. one Saturday. The boat operated as a ferry for several years, before being taken to Sackets Harbor, where she sailed on Black River Bay.
The “Paul Pry” was replaced on Black Lake by the “Rossie”, built at Morristown in 1831, by Edward Beaupre. She was 68 feet 3 inches long, 13 feet, 3 inches wide and 5 feet, 6 inch depth of hold. She was registered at 45 tons and was owned by White & Hooker. She was powered by a 12-horsepower, high pressure engine, built by Starbuck & Son.
Ogdensburg Marine Railway and Shipyard
As waterborne commerce grew to immense proportions, between the 1830s and 1850s, so did the need for a ship repair yard, at some convenient point on the upper St. Lawrence River, between Kingston and Montreal. But no definite action was taken until September 19, 1852 when a group of local businessmen formed the Ogdensburg Marine Railway, with capital of $15,000 and shares at $50 each.
The company’s original Directors were: Henry Van Rensselaer as President, N. Fairchild, E.B. Allen, Edwin Clark, Allen Cheney and W.B. Allen,as secretary. In February, 1853 the company purchased three parcels of land, totaling 22 acres along the St. Lawrence River, one half mile west of the village, from the New York State Commissioners of the Land Office.
At that point the bank was low and gradually sloped into the water, where the St. Lawrence River was sufficiently deep to float, the then largest Great Lakes vessels. Initial planning progressed through the winter and actual construction work began the following spring. Connected with the railway was an extensive shipyard, with all the necessary shops and appurtenances for building and repairing all classes of craft.
Ogdensburgh Marine Railway
The Prescott Telegraph of December 17, 1853 published this news item:
In the course of the past Summer a new Marine Railway, furnished with a steam engine, &c., for drawing out vessels, has been erected about a mile and a half above Ogdensburgh, on the American side of the river. We notice four steamboats have taken up their Winter quarters at at the docks of this Railway, viz: the “Jenny Lind”, the “Niagara”, the “British Empire” and the “Queen”. We do not know whether the Ways are yet ready to receive vessels for repairing, but from the fact of the four steamers being there, we infer they are intended to be drawn out, overhauled, and repaired during the Winter. This Railway, when in operation, must be of essential advantage to the shipping on the river.
Commenting on the above article the “St. Lawrence Republican” of December 21, 1853 said:
Nearly all that is stated above by our Prescott contemporary is true. The only essential error being in distance. The Ogdensburg Marine Railway is about one mile from the center of this village. The work is almost completed, and is expected to be in readiness to haul out vessels in January. It is probably a better Railway than is to be found anywhere on the Lakes, having 30 feet of water at the end of the docks.
A 50 horsepower steam engine has been put up for the use of the Company, and everything connected with the Railway is of a substantial and enduring character. Some idea of the establishment may be fired when it is known that 200,000 feet of timber was used in constructing the piers and docks. This work, when in operation, will add materially to the business of our village, and from its favorable location and unsurpassed facilities, will be sought by our river and lake marine, by every description of vessels requiring repairs
The marine railway went into operation on April 17, 1854, when the steamer British Queen was hauled out of the water to be overhauled. The operation took about 20 minutes. The actual cost of the new yard was $75,000 and it joined the ranks of similar facilities at Kingston and Oswego. By an act of the New York State Legislature, passed on February 15, 1854, the company was allowed to issue $30,000 in bonds to complete the facility at seven percent interest, redeemable in 10 years.
Building and rebuilding vessels required masses of raw materials. This is shown in an advertisement in St. Lawrence Republican of May 6, 1856:
CASH PAID FOR OAK, ELM, PINE, TAMARACK and CEDAR TIMBER, also, for Oak and Tamarack Crooks, Masts, Spars, &c., &c., delivered at the Ogdensburgh Marine Railway Company’s Ship-Yard. For information as to quality and size, call on the Superintendent at the Ship-Yard, or at the office of E.B. ALLEN & Sons.
Walter B. Allen, Sec’y
Initially, most of the work performed at the yard was repairs, although two sailing ships were actually built here - the brig “Mariner” and schooner “Rio Grande” in 1856. For long periods business was sporadic and the yard was closed due to lack of work. For about a year the yard was leased to E.B. Allen & Son. Running into financial problems, the decision was made to lease the property in October, 1861, to Harrison C. Pearsons, an experienced shipbuilder, who infused it with new life. Pearsons was born in Allegany County, New York on January 25, 1819, and early in life became a skilled ship carpenter. His brother, Galen W. Pearsons, became superintendent of the yard. Both also became active in public service while they resided in Ogdensburgh.
Pearsons secured a contract with Fairchild & Co. of New York to build six propellers for use on the Erie Canal and Hudson River. In the records, four of them are shown as being built for the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh Railroad. Pearsons reportedly had the option to build four others if he so desired, being allowed 10 additional days to build each boat. Soon, about 100 ship carpenters and other craftsmen were busily at work at the yard, and it was a beehive of activity. In 1862 Pearsons was awarded a contract to build eight propellers for the Erie Canal, which had been lately enlarged for steam navigation. The vessels were to be 97 feet long (the locks of the canal being 100 feet in length), 17 foot beam and 7 foot hold. The vessels, for which there is a record, included the “S. C. Walker”, “S.F. Phelps”, “William C. Pierrepont” and “C. Comstock”. These were later sold to the Delaware & Raritan Canal Co.
The yard was very busy during the Civil War, building new vessels and rebuilding and repairing older ones. Contracts for this work continued to roll in at a steady pace since the Northern Transportation Company purchased the yard in 1865, there was plenty of work to be performed on their large fleet of propellers as well as other craft. This company was formed in 1851 as a subsidiary of the Northern Railroad which was leased to the Central Vermont Railroad in 1870. Eventually it became the Rutland. The Northern Transportation Co. operated a large fleet of propeller steamers between Ogdensburg and Chicago. It went bankrupt in 1875 and went into the hands of a receiver. The boats and property were sold to the newly-organized Northern Transit Company in 1876.
Work at the marine railway was not confined to N.T. Company’s propellers. A news item in the Ogdensburg Daily Journal on November 21, 1865 noted: “The Revenue Cutter S.P. Chase came down from the Marine Railway yesterday morning and took up quarters in the upper harbor where we understand she will remain during the winter. As this was the first time that she had had steam up since the repairing of her paddle box and wheel, a short turn was taken up the St. Lawrence, to see that everything was right. She is unquestionably the fastest craft on the Lakes.”
The role of the Chase was to prevent smuggling on the lakes and rivers. She had gone up on the marine railway on October 30, to have her paddles replaced, which had been removed to permit her to pass through the St. Lawrence canals. She then proceeded to her new assignment in Oswego.
But then there were the inevitable labor problems, largely caused when management decided to make sudden and unannounced wage cuts, which infuriated shipyard workers, who went on strike. Neither side at the time understood or appreciated the positions of their work place adversaries. Unionism was in its infancy. Ship carpenters and caulkers were particularly sensitive to their role as skilled workers.
All seemed to go well until the Northern Transportation Company “came on hard times” and went into bankruptcy. On March 15, 1876 a public auction was held at the shipyard and its assets were liquidated. Aside from the yard itself, six propellers were sold – the “Buckeye”, “Moira”, “Lowell”, “Oswegatchie”, “Granite State” and “Nashua”; as well as fixtures, furniture, hardware, ship timber, planking, forges and shipyard property. At another auction in Milwaukee, Wisc. on January 26, five other propellers were sold. The marine railway was sold for $14,000, while boat ownership went to the newly organized Northern Transit Company.
Work continued at the yard. A fire early in the morning of December 1, 1883 heavily damaged the blacksmith shop, engine and boiler room. The loss was about $6,000, of which $2,500 was covered by insurance. Following the fire, the St. Lawrence Marine Railway Company of Ogdensburg was organized as a subsidiary of the George Hall Company, a large shipping firm headquartered in Ogdensburg, with a capital stock of $25,000.
From steady use for many years and without needed repairs being made, the facility was worn out, so the yard was rebuilt, including the marine railway mechanism and blacksmith shop. This was completed in November, 1885.
To be continued in Part 2, September 2016.
Austin, John M. St. Lawrence County in the War of 1812. History Press, 2013
Cuthbertson, George A. Freshwater. The MacMillan Company of Canada, Ltd., 1931
Daughters of the American Revolution Reminiscences of Ogdensburg, 1749-1907
Hough, Franklin B., History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties. Albany, 1853
“Along the River in Early Days” - Ogdensburg News, March 8, 1904
Malcolmson, Robert, Warships of the Great Lakes, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2001
Scott, John M. “Burg Once Was Major Shipping Center”. Massena Observer August 8, 1955
History of St. Lawrence County, N.Y., L.H. Everts & Co., Philadelphia, Pa., 1878
St. Lawrence Seaway History on stlawrencepiks.com
U.S. Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, Record Group 41. Certificates of Enrollments Issued at Ogdensburgh, N.Y.
U.S. Treasury Department - Letter in Relation to Steam Engines in the United States, December 13, 1838. Document 21, 25th Congress, 3rd Session
Survey of the Northern and Northwestern Lakes, April, 1922
History of St. Lawrence County, New York. L.H. Everts & Co. ( Philadelphia, Pa., 1878)
Hough, Franklin B., History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties (Albany, N.Y.) 1853
Ogdensburg Advance News
Ogdensburg Daily Journal
By Richard F. Palmer
Richard F. Palmer is a retired newspaper editor and reporter and well known for his weekly historical columns for the “Oswego Palladium-Times”, called "On the Waterfront." His latest book is the biography of Captain Augustus Hinckley, famed Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River Mariner, as well as a review of the Maritime History of Clayton, NY. He is also a regular contributor to the www.MaritimeHistoryofTheGreatLakes.ca and is frequently consulted by people searching for shipwrecks on Lake Ontario.