A recent evening trip on Brockville’s “Rockin River Revue” Party Cruise reminded me of how, one hundred years ago, travellers enjoyed touring through the Thousand Islands, especially by night.
“The finest inland water trip in the world”, according to Edwardian brochures, “one of the greatest and most popular of summer journeys…beautiful illuminations…coloured fires…twinkling lights…one feels that at last real Fairyland has been realized.”
In 1912, the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company’s palace steamer St. Lawrence promised the “World-Renowned Electric Searchlight Excursion” for 50 cents. “As one sails in the comfortable and spacious steamer, the night seems to drift away and in its place comes a wonderful new light, and all the beauties of river and island stand out in almost startling clearness.”
By day, one could spend 3 hours on the R. & O.’s Island Wanderer or the Thousand Islander taking in the sites of the “Fifty Mile Ramble”. The America offered an all-day trip to Kingston with a stop in Gananoque, and the Ramona, known as the fleet’s palace steel yacht, took passengers on “The Club Ramble”, navigating through channels the other ships couldn’t pass.
Hundreds of R. & O. travellers also visited the Islands every year during an 800-mile voyage known as “Niagara to the Sea”…although the journey actually went no further than the Saguenay River. The trip was offered in segments on several different steamers.
In 1912, passengers travelled from Niagara to Toronto on one of 4 steamers: Chicora, Corona, Chippewa, or Cayuga.
In Toronto (as part of the Toronto-Kingston-Montreal line), passengers boarded the Toronto or Kingston, and travelled through the Thousand Islands to Prescott where they transferred from their lake steamer to river boats like the Rapids Prince and the Rapids Queen (formerly known as the Brockville or the Columbian). These boats specialized in running the rapids on the way to Montreal. Between 1905-09, the Prescott (formerly called the Bohemian) was also part of this special fleet of rapid-running boats. The Prescott was destroyed by fire at Victoria Pier, in Montreal, on August 27, 1909.
John Ross Robertson describes the forerunners of the Prescott and sister ship Brockville in his famous Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto of 1896: “The Bohemian was built by Cantin, of Montreal, but was entirely rebuilt in 1892. She is a side-wheel steamer of three hundred and eighty tons. The Columbian, a vessel of which her proprietors are justly proud, is a twin screw steamer, built at Chester, Pa., U.S.A., in 1892. She is constructed of steel, her bottom being sheathed with wood, and her capacity is four hundred and eighty-eight tons.”
The Prescott-Montreal stretch was one of the few places where steamers carried their passengers in one direction only, sailing empty in the other direction. This was because the downriver trip took 8-10 hours, but the vessel’s return to Prescott from Montreal through the old canals took twice as long. If one chose to travel from “The Sea to Niagara”, one took the train between Montreal and Prescott.
The Montreal-Quebec leg of the trip took place on either the Montreal or the Quebec and below Quebec, passengers, in 1912, travelled on the Tadoussac, Murray Bay or the Ste-Irenée.
Many of the R. & O.’s overnight ships were luxuriously finished on the inside. They offered both lunch counters and regular dining rooms on the Toronto-Kingston-Montreal passage. Staterooms could be reserved in advance on most ships.
The Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company started in 1875 as a merger of the Canadian Navigation Company of Ontario and La Compagnie du Richelieu. The Company acquired the St. Lawrence River Steam Navigation Company in 1886, the Northern Navigation Company in 1911, and the Thousand Island Steamboat Company and Niagara Navigation in 1912. In 1913, the R. & O., along with others, merged with Canada Steamship Lines (CSL) to form what continues to be Canada’s largest marine company.