Full Steam Ahead

Move over Mark Twain… the storied steamboat life on our very own St. John River.

When my mother talks about steamboat trips up the St. John River for church picnics, her face lights up. I can almost picture her as an excited little girl in her Sunday best running up the boat's gangplank, giggling with her friends. Her older brothers recall evening cruises on the Kennebecasis River on these picturesque old riverboats. And my grandmother used to send packages of clothes and other necessities on their run from Saint John to her family in the farming community of Maugerville, just below Fredericton.

My mother and uncles had no idea they were experiencing the end of an important, colourful era in New Brunswick's history.

From the days of the Maliseet to the mid 1900s, the St. John River was New Brunswick's major highway. In the early days, birch bark and dugout canoes were the main modes of travel on the river; it became much busier with the arrival of the Loyalists, starting in 1783. Thousands arrived in the port of Saint John and carried on up the St. John River and its major tributary, the Kennebecasis River, to establish farms and homesteads on their fertile banks.

Immigrants needed transportation to their new homes, farmers needed to get their produce to the markets in Saint John and Fredericton, and settlers needed supplies delivered upriver. The St. John River became a busy highway filled with sailboats and rowboats, powered by sail and elbow grease.

This began to change on May 10, 1816, when New Brunswick's first steamboat did a trial run in Saint John Harbour. The crowds were large as Captain James Segee maneuvered the General Smyth around the harbour and out around Partridge Island. Only the fourth steamboat in use in British North America, the General Smyth was like nothing ever seen in Saint John. She was a seaworthy 105-foot boat with passenger cabins, and men's and ladies' sides: the men were forbidden from entering the ladies' cabins. An odd-looking stove pipe rose up from the boiler room, through the upper deck and about 20 feet straight up. This was the stack for the exhaust gases from the boiler. About midship was the paddle box, enclosing the paddle wheels that would propel the ship through the water-at a very respectable five-and-a-half miles per hour. The less progressive in the crowd were happy to see a mast rigged for sail at the forward end of the ship; however the General Smyth was to prove she could get along very well without it.

On the morning of May 20, 1816, Captain Segee, a few crew members and 62 passengers sailed from Indiantown, in what is now Saint John's lower north end, for Fredericton. That first day she made 71 miles up the river and spent the night at Maugerville. The next morning the General Smyth was tied up at the landing on Regent Street in Fredericton. There was a lot of celebrating in New Brunswick's capital as the steamboat era on the St. John River had officially begun.

The General Smyth-which did the Saint John to Fredericton run until 1824, when she was broken up for scrap-proved the worth of steamboats; farmers and travellers quickly began to rely on them for river transportation. The race was now on to build bigger, faster and more luxurious boats.

Probably the largest and most lavish of the old steamboats was the Victoria. Built in 1897 in West Saint John for the princely sum of $57,000, she was 191 feet long and could carry almost 1,000 passengers. The dining salon had solid mahogany furnishings, a colour scheme of gold and white, and mirrors hanging between all the windows. The Victoria sailed the St. John River for 18 years, eventually burning at the wharf in Indiantown.

As the number of boats on the river increased, the first boat to reach a wharf would get the passengers' and the farmers' business. Time really was money for the owners, and the engineers of the day worked hard to make improvements to a ship's speed. They would adjust the angle of the paddlewheel buckets or streamline the ship's lines-anything to get the boat to the wharf even a little earlier meant higher profits for the owner, and bragging rights for the captains. But all of these improvements were eclipsed by the steamboat Reindeer.

The Reindeer was built in 1842 to the exacting standards of New Brunswick native Benjamin Franklin Tibbets. He designed a compound steam engine: after the high pressure steam was used in the first stage, instead of being exhausted it was sent to a low pressure engine. This development vastly improved the engine's performance-the Reindeer's best time upriver from Saint John to Fredericton was an astounding six hours and 21 minutes. Fuel consumption also decreased, which in turn meant lower fuel costs but it also freed-up storage space, translating into more space for people and produce.

The improvement in river travel helped make trade along the river more efficient. Farmers no longer needed to personally take their produce to market; they would now simply send their goods to brokers in Saint John and Fredericton for sale. Commission merchants, such as Slocum and Ferris in the Saint John City Market, would receive the farmer's goods, log them in a journal and sell them in their stalls. They deducted any freight and administrative costs, and sent the remaining money back upriver to the farmers. (Slocum and Ferris continues to operate in the City Market, now as a deli.) From a 1914 journal, the page for farmer Fred McCready of Oromocto shows the following entries: "September 14, 1 box tomatoes and 1 barrel of corn (31 dozen), $3.70. September 22, 2 boxes tomatoes and 1 barrel of pumpkins, $2.00. October 20, 2 hinds moose (225 lbs) and 10 chickens, $27.56. October 29, 5 fowls, $5.44. Total $38.70." From this total $2.18 was deducted for river freight from Oromocto and cartage from Indiantown, and $2.96 for Slocum and Ferris's commission, leaving McCready with $33.56 in revenue.

Steamboats became quite elegant and undoubtedly offered a pleasant way to travel. However, safety and engineering standards were not very advanced in the 1800s; several met their end through fire or boiler explosions, resulting in injuries and death. Steamboats-and other riverboats, later powered by diesel--were eventually replaced by rail transportation.

From the time of the General Smyth in 1816 until the Majestic made the last steamboat trip in November 1942, a total of 65 steamboats worked the St. John River. You can still see the stack of the Springfield near Hatfield's Point on Belleisle Bay where she sank after catching fire. The wreck of the Majestic is still visible on Darlings Lake along the Kennebecasis River near Nauwigewauk. Other than these two remnants, some old memories and a few faded photographs, very little remains of this part of New Brunswick's history-important in developing the economic and social structure of the province in its early years, moving goods and people from the interior to the coast and back again.