Chapter 3 – Travel on the Early Waterways: Bateaux, Durham Boats, Steam Boats.

Travel played such an important part in the migration of the pioneer McCutcheons that included here is a descriptive narrative of how the last jaunt of their long journey from old to new may have happened.  Since none of them left a written record of their journey, what follows is a description of a typical journey into the wilderness of Ontario, found in a letter written by an opinionated, albeit well-educated Scotsman who made the journey in 1818 and 1819.

This is an old map showing a small section of the St. Lawrence River from Brockville to St. Louis at the convergence of the Ottawa River.  The locations of the early canals are shown.

Circa 1810, irritations between the United States and Britain began  developing which so incensed President Madison that he convinced the US  Congress to declare war on Great Britain.  News had to travel across the Atlantic Ocean by sailing brigs.

War was declared on the 18th June 1812 and came to be called  the “War of 1812.”

This war involved serious fighting between the US and Britain taking  place along the shores of the Atlantic seaboard and on Lake Ontario.  Regular British troops assisted by Canadian  volunteers fought in both Lower and Upper Canada.  The fortress of Kingston had a naval dockyard  and was vital to the success of the British forces.

The Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, which officially  ended the war, but fighting continued for another 2 weeks until mid-January,  1815.  This again was attributed to the  slowness of communications, which had to travel across the Atlantic by sailing brigs.

For a long time after the signing of this treaty, tempers remained hot  on both sides of the Canada-US border, with the fear that there was a  possibility of fighting to resume.  With  that in mind, the authorities at Kingston strongly urged for an alternate route  between Montreal and Kingston.  Everything that was being supplied to the maintenance of the fortress at  Kingston was being brought up the St Lawrence River by small bateaux and canoes  with navigation difficult through the various rapids. What compounded this issue was that the Americans had no roads on their side and so therefore used  the waterways for their method of transportation also.

And so it was within 10 years of this volatile and dubious situation that the first participant in the chain migration of the McCutcheons from Donaghadee first arrived.

It was these continual hostilities that impressed upon the Government of  Canada the need to improve communications and transportation between Lower Canada  and Upper Canada that accelerated the upgrading of the canal system between  Montreal and Kingston and the building of a secondary route between the 2 cities, the Rideau Canal.

There was an alternate route that the aboriginals had used for thousands  of years and that was up the Ottawa River instead of the St Lawrence.  And so a decision by the Duke of Redmond was  made in August of 1818 to develop this route first.  There was an urgent need to develop a better  method of waterway travel to protect the interests of British North America.  The upgrading of the St Lawrence route became secondary after the building of the Rideau Canal.

It became apparent by 1800 that the “La  Faucille” and “Trou du Moulin” canals were being damaged  severely by ice every winter culminating in the spring thaw, and so with the  movement of cargo increasing drastically, the need for improvement became  urgent.  These two canals were abandoned,  replaced by a new one called the “Cascades”. At the same time, the old channel  at the Lachine Rapids was lengthened and enlarged, becoming continuous along  the full length of the rapids.  At this  same time, both the “Split Rock” and “Coteau” canals were enlarged with  construction done by 1805.

One of the only methods of travel and movement of cargo from Montreal to  Kingston was first by the “Bateaux”  and by 1810, the “Durham Boat”.

It was the introduction of the much larger Durham Boat that necessitated  the upgrading of the canal system from Montreal to Kingston between 1814 and  1832.

Beginning circa 1811, cargo and passenger traffic proceeded up river from Quebec to Montreal by steamer, then continued by Durham  Boat to Kingston.  Steamer traffic from Montreal  to Kingston didn’t fully begin until after 1830 once the canal system was  upgraded.

From a book called “Pioneers of Old Ontario” came  this description of a journey to Kingston in 1823:  “…from  Quebec to Montreal the journey was continued by steamer and from Montreal to  Prescott in a Durham boat.  Passengers  who had a few shillings to spare could obtain sleeping quarters forward or aft,  while those who could not slept in the open space in the center.  When the wind favoured and there was no  current, such boats were driven by sails; over shallows they were poled along  by the Voyageurs; and up the Long Sault they were hauled by thirteen yoke of
oxen and a team of horses walking on the bank.  From Prescott to Cobourg the journey was made by steamer.”

However, even with the dramatic improvement of  these older canals, transporting cargo and people was still a major  undertaking.  The Bateaux and later the  Durham boat were taken up-river in brigades of five so that if a boat ran into trouble,  there was assistance readily available.

To go up-stream to Prescott, the brigades usually mustered  at Lachine with the cargo being brought overland from Montreal by road.  Other times, either towed or rowed through  the problematic Lachine rapids.  Then at  Cascade point, all of the passengers and a large portion of the cargo were unloaded and carted by stage coach to the head of the Cedar Rapids, with the boat  locked through the Cascade and split Rock canals then dragged by horse or oxen  up the Cedar Rapids; then reloaded.  This  same process was then undertaken at the Long Sault Rapids past Cornwall upon  which the boat was reloaded and sailed to Kingston.

Going down-stream to Montreal, the boats shot the rapids.

After 1818 a steamboat “tug” came into use in this  section.  All in all, this undertaking  took about 12 days to go up-river from Montreal to Kingston and the cost was,  for its epoch, expensive.  The cost to  transport 800 tons of cargo upriver was about $120.00 USD in today’s currency.

A  letter written Montreal, May 1818, a traveller from Scotland states:  “…if a  traveller going down the St Lawrence River has a choice, let him by all means  prefer the “Batteau”;  it does not sail  so fast as a Durham Boat and he may be a day longer in making the passage, but  in ordinary cases he is safer.”

The Bateaux was an open 30-40 footer and about 10  feet wide, flat-bottomed boat that was propelled upriver by sail and oar.  The Durham boat was larger, between 60 and 90  feet long, wider, but still flat-bottomed and propelled much in the same  fashion as the Bateaux.  When not under  sail, these boats were propelled by both oar and pole by Voyageurs who sang in  a melodious rhythm to the pounding of the oars.  The boat songs of the French-Canadian Voyageurs combined with the  splashing of the oars in the water were very plaintive and haunting.

Frequent shallows on rivers required boats that drew very little  water.  The Durham boat displaced a draft  of 3.5 inches when light, 28 inches when fully loaded.

Sometimes as many as 100 people would be sandwiched  into the Bateaux, placed at the mercy of the outdoor elements for days on  end.  More yet were crowded into the  Durham Boat but those with a few extra pence could secure sleeping quarters to  shelter them from the weather.

Following is an example of an advertisement for the Upper Canada Line of  MAIL STAGES, 3 times a week:

Expeditious  Travelling 16th April 1825:

“By an arrangement lately made the distance between  this city and Prescott can be accomplished by Stages and Steam Boats in the following time and  manner.  The Stage takes its departure  from Montreal at noon and proceeds to Lachine, where the passengers enter the  Steam Boat that conveys them to the Cascades, a distance of 25 miles.  From the Cascades to Coteau-du-Lac 15 miles  they are carried in a Stage; thence to Cornwall, 40 miles by Steam Boat; and  from Cornwall to Prescott, 50 miles they are taken by the Stage, at which  latter place they arrive before sun set on the evening after the day they left  Montreal, the whole distance being computed 140 miles [sic].  The return from Prescott to this place is yet  more expeditious; and on Saturdays the Stage will depart at one o’clock A.M.  and arrive here the same evening, which will prevent travelling on the Sabbath.  To mercantile men this facility must afford particular gratification; and to  strangers the alternate jaunts by water, and land, will be a recreation which  will greatly enhance the pleasures of the journey both up and down the river.”

Although  this 1825 advertisement suggests that the entire journey was stage and steamer  that was not entirely true.  Durham Boats  were still used until about 1832 at certain stages of this journey from  Montreal to Kingston.

The French-Canadian Voyagerus  inter-married with the aboriginal women, creating the Metis.  It was these families that resided along the  banks of the river in log cabins hewed into the bush.  Neither type of boat travelled by night.  Quite often they docked in one of the small  villages along the way where passengers could obtain lodging for the night in  one of the many Tavern-Inns.  However, there  were many times when the boats never reached a village and instead simply  docked on the shore of the river.  And it  was these shy families who offered the weary traveller a home cooked meal and a  shared bed in their homes.

One traveller described his experience:  “About  8 o’clock, a twinkling light by the river’s side broke our view; we haled the cheering  spark and urged the conductor in to the bank in the hopes of obtaining  lodging.  It was  a farmers house; a crackling fire of pine  logs blazed on the ample hearth, festoons of sliced apples for winter pies hung  around it to dry.  The inmates made us  welcome to their fireside and although not much used to entertain strangers  very soon provided for us a most comfortable supper.  Hot steaks, fried bacon and potatoes, tea and  toast… When the time of retiring came, every bed in the house was surrendered  for our use; I could not participate in one unless I accepted a bed-fellow…I  preferred my box-coat on the floor…”

At least 2 groups of travelling McCutcheons would have made this treacherous journey between 1821 and 1824 by Durham Boat.  By the time Hugh and Mary travelled west  circa 1830 they may have had the luxury of the safer steam boat travel all of  the way.

While travelling up the river, it  must have been an interesting mix of conversationalists;  the Voyageurs mixed French-Aboriginal dialect  and the Celtic dialect of the Ulster-Scots.

NOTE:   Source 58 and 59.


2 thoughts on “Chapter 3 – Travel on the Early Waterways: Bateaux, Durham Boats, Steam Boats.

  1. Jon Pringle says:

    Beautifully written! My gg-grandfather made this journey in 1832. Somewhere along the route, I do not know where, he crossed into the USA and reported at Buffalo, NY. He had made the trip via Belfast from his home in Armagh, Ulster. He settled in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately I don’t have his parents names and finding information prior to his first appearance in the US Census of 1840, I am stuck at the wall for the time being. The history of McCutcheon as written on your website is extremely well written and very enjoyable to read. Thanks, Jon Pringle, Essex, Vermont.

  2. Mary E Cooper says:

    I came across this site while researching the route taken,and conditions experienced, by my great-great-grandparents who emigrated from Ireland in 1825. I really appreciate the details that are provided here
    as I have been attempting to get a clear understanding of what their trip
    may have been like. Thank you.

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