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Niagara to the Sea


For over sixty years, “Niagara to the Sea” was one of the most famous travel slogans in North America. The phrase was originated about 1890 by the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company, whose fleet of passengers steamers dominated travel on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. When R&O started using the slogan, the company did not, in fact, have services from Niagara, which were provided by the Niagara Navigation Co., which was later absorbed by the R&O in 1907. And neither the R&O nor Canada Steamship Lines, its successor company, ever provided service beyond the Saguenay and to the sea. It was close enough for most travelers.

 By 1949, steamer services were much reduced and that year turned out to be the last season that Canada Steamship Lines would offer service “From Niagara to the Sea.”

Edward O. Clark made the trip that year, starting in the Niagara River and ending in the Saguenay. A steamboat scholar and photographer for his entire life, Clark served at various points as president of the Steamship Historical Society of America and editor of its journal, “Steamboat Bill.” Today, almost 38,000 of his color photographs are online in the Steamship Historical Society’s “Image Porthole,” accessed through the society’s website at www.sshsa.org. The images of his trip over Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence record a mode of travel and scenes that have disappeared forever.

He started out at Queenston in the Niagara River on August 8, 1949. If no stopover in Toronto was planned, the 11:05 am sailing would be the choice. After a brief pause at Niagara-on-the-Lake, the steamer Cayuga set a course for Toronto. Built in 1907, the sleek Cayuga was one of the fastest steamers on the Great Lakes. Arriving in Toronto at 1:40 pm, Clark would have simply walked to the next pier where the beautiful sidewheel steamer Kingston was loading for one of her thrice-weekly sailings to the St. Lawrence. At 2:30 pm, the steamer’s deep whistle would announce her departure for the south shore of Lake Ontario. After a 9:00 pm stop at Charlotte, New York, the Kingston would re-cross the lake to her namesake city at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, arriving at the early hour of 3:30 am.

Photos: © Steamship Historical Society. Today, almost 38,000 of Edward O. Clark's color photographs are online in the Steamship Historical Society’s “Image Porthole”.

Left:  Passengers enjoy cool breezes crossing Lake Ontario on the speedy S.S. Cayuga.  Right: Once in Toronto they transfer to the Kingston.  Here they leave the S.S. Cayuga at the dock to continue their voyage from Niagara to the Sea. [Note the skyline of Toronto, almost unrecognizable]

Clark would get some sleep in his little cabin with upper and lower bunks and not much else, but he would have been up with the dawn for the 5:20 a.m. call at Alexandria Bay. Here passengers planning to stay at Canada Steamship Lines’ Thousand Island Club would debark. Traditionally, the westernmost part of the St. Lawrence came later in the morning, but in this last season the schedule had been moved up, perhaps to try to garner more traffic from Charlotte/Rochester.

Kingston arrived at her eastern terminus, Prescott, Ontario, about 7:30 a.m. As she approached the dock, the passengers could watch the arrival of their next steamer, Rapids Prince, which had been coming up through the old canals from Montreal during the night, probably without passengers aboard.

 

This was one of the few places in the world where a steamer service carried almost all its passengers in one direction only, sailing empty in the other direction. While one could sail from “Niagara to the Sea,” sailing from “The Sea to Niagara” was shown even in the Canada Steamship Lines brochures as being via railroad from Montreal to Prescott! The reason was simple: the downbound trip took only eight or ten hours; the vessel’s return to Prescott from Montreal through the old canals with their many locks could take nineteen or twenty. 

Most of the Kingston’s passengers transferred to the Rapids Prince at Prescott and she left for Montreal a few minutes after Kingston’s arrival. If the shoreline scenery was not so lovely as in the Thousand Islands, the trip was certainly exciting, for the “rapids” in the steamer’s name reflected the fact that she “ran the rapids” on her way to Montreal. Generations of pilots learned the treacherous course of the channels in the rapids of the St. Lawrence; this appears to have been the only place in the world where passenger steamers “shot” such an extended series of rapids, for many years on a daily basis.

 

Photos: © Steamship Historical Society

Left: The "Rapids Prince" arriving at Prescott on the morning of August 9, 1949. Right: Passengers watch with fascination as the "Rapids Prince" shoots the rapids of the St. Lawrence.

The Lachine Rapids, the last before Montreal, had a drop of fifty-six feet in less than two miles. The scene even in calmer sections of the river was enlivened by a constant procession of “canallers,” the 250-foot long freighters built to fit in the locks of the old St. Lawrence canals. In late morning the Rapids Prince made a stop at Cornwall, Ontario; this would allow day-trippers to take the train from Montreal earlier in the morning and join the Rapids Prince for her trip from Cornwall to Montreal. At Cornwall Clark encountered the little steamer Island Queen, a Victorian survival if ever there was one.

When the rapids steamer arrived in Montreal at 6:30 p.m. Ed Clark had only a few minutes to board his steamer for the Saguenay, which left at 6:45. For many years, Canada Steamship Lines operated two big paddle steamers, Quebec and Montreal, on overnight service between the two Quebec cities. By the time of World War II, however, the inter-city service was handled on the Saguenay steamers, which could offer the overnight service as part of their daily service in each direction.

Clark boarded the steamer Tadoussac for his trip to the Saguenay, taking shots of the ships on the Montreal waterfront as she sailed. There was a call that evening at Sorel, another at Trois Rivieres just after midnight, and, in the morning, Quebec City. About noon the second day, the steamer called at Murray Bay (or La Malbaie) for passengers headed to the steamship companies magnificent Manoir Richelieu resort.

That afternoon, Clark left the Tadoussac at St. Simeon, PQ, and took a roundabout route back to Montreal, starting with the old ferry Riviere du Loup. We’ll leave him to his steamboat wandering and continue on the Saguenay steamer. Beyond Montreal traffic on the St. Lawrence was much different from that above. Little goélettes, the characteristic boat of the lower St. Lawrence, contrasted with ocean freighters and the occasional ocean liner.

At 4:30 that same afternoon, Tadoussac was reached, with another of the line’s resort hotels and located at the confluence of the St. Lawrence with the Saguenay River. Then up the Saguenay, said to be North America’s only true fjord, with its mountainous cliffs dropping straight into the water. Just after nine, the steamer reached Bagotville, where she spent the night at the dock, starting her return to Montreal early the next morning.

“Niagara to the Sea?” Well, not quite. But at the mouth of the Saguenay the St. Lawrence is so wide that one cannot see the other bank, so it seems much like the sea and lucky passengers on the steamer often saw whales breaking the surface. For many years, Canada Steamship Lines maintained relationships with other companies that did, indeed, go out the St. Lawrence to the sea so that the claim was fully accurate. Did it matter? In the space of four or five days, our intrepid traveler enjoyed the open lake, the Thousand Islands, the canals and rapids, the broad reaches of the eastern St. Lawrence, and the cliffs and capes of the Saguenay and did it on steamers of charm and character. It’s been sixty years since “Niagara to the Sea” passed from the vacation scene, and the canals and rapids of the St. Lawrence are gone. Only the memories and the faint echos of deep whistles remain.

by William M. Worden

William M. Worden is retired after thirty years as the director of the City of Detroit’s historic designation program. He is a life-long maritime historian whose first article on ships appeared in 1957 and whose work has been published in numerous journals in the US and abroad. He is currently serving a second time as a member of the Board of Directors of the Steamship Historical Society of America.

Editor's Note:  For those interested in the history of steamships, we recommend joining the Steamship Historical Society of America.  Their website provides valuable research information.  SSHSA has launched its new Passenger-Partner Program so that new members may show their membership card and receive special discounts onboard all types of excursion vessels. Organizations participating thus far include:  The Belle of Louisville & Spirit of Jefferson - Louisville, Kentucky; Diamond Jack's River Tours - Detroit, Michigan; Bay Queen, Narragansett Bay, Warren, Rhode Island; Boston Harbor Cruises, Boston, Massachusetts; Block Island Ferries, Nelseco Navigation, New London, Connecticut; Bar Harbor Whale Watch, Bar Harbor, Maine.

 

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Comments

Dick Sherwood
Comment by: Dick Sherwood ( )
Left at: 9:29 AM Monday, June 15, 2009
The name Worden is a bit unusual. My grandmother's maiden name was Worden and she came from a family of Wordens located in the Town of Tyre near Seneca Falls, NY. Could there be any connection?
Thank you.
William M. Worden
Comment by: William M. Worden ( )
Left at: 9:55 AM Monday, June 15, 2009
I live in Detroit; the progenitor of my family in the region was Clark Worden, who came from upstate New York to St. Clair, Michigan about 1840. So there could be some connection.
Bob Digel
Comment by: Bob Digel ( )
Left at: 7:54 AM Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Our family purchased an summer home on Round Island (off Clayton,NY) in the 1000 Islands, from a Mr Charles Worden and his wife, Mrs. Nellie St. John Worden. . As a youngster, I recall Mr. Worden rowing his St. Lawrence skiff upriver one mile to Clayton for supplies and Mrs. Worden's . many colorful parrots ( and possibly parakeets) which resided in the kitchan, pantry and on the back porch of their summer home, which was close by our family's cottage.

Could there be any connection to your family ?
Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson ( )
Left at: 12:37 PM Thursday, June 25, 2009
Mr. Worden, this certainly is a priceless piece of history! Thank you for your priceless photos and description of river travel, especially through the rapids!
This certainly helps me understand 'life before the seaway' as I continue meeting interesting people regarding stories conected with the 50th anniversary of the Seaway. THANK YOU!!
Dennis Sulewski
Comment by: Dennis Sulewski ( )
Left at: 3:54 PM Wednesday, August 19, 2009
I have an oil painting, my mother did in 1951, from a post card of the SS. Rapid Prince, running through rough waters. I have the original post card with the painting. This is the first I've been able to ID the history of this steamer. I have been to the Thousand Islands area and along the St. Lawrence to Montreal. The painting she did now has some additional value.
Thanks for the information.
Rick Holahan
Comment by: Rick Holahan ( )
Left at: 8:42 PM Monday, November 22, 2010
Stumbled on your fine site moments ago. Your photos of the Kingston brought back fantastic memories of my trip on the Kingston around '42 or '44, when I was 8 yrs. old. We embarked from the Genesee river at Charlotte, N.Y. The terminal buildings still stand, but renovated to tend to the ill fated fast ferry, which I made one quick trip, which was absolutely nothing compared to the Kingston. I good go on and on, but I'll stop here and settle back to recall that trip, which unfortuneatly was not recorded by any of my family. Good luck and keep up the fine work.
Anonymous User
Comment by: Anonymous User
Left at: 12:07 PM Saturday, July 28, 2012
http://torontoist.com/2012/07/historicist-summer-cruising-to-niagara/

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