photos
December 13th, 2017

Beaches Living Guide - Spring & Summer 2016

Canadian Sailing Vessels
in the 19th Century

The mighty St Lawrence (right) seen with her squadron on the last full day of sailing - HMS St Lawrence by Peter Rindlisbacher

During the mid 1800s, Canada was a major seafaring nation. Our ports were crowded with sailing vessels, shipbuilding yards were profitable, and Canadian ships sailed every major ocean and visited every major port doing the world's business.

Common sailing vessels at the time for cargo were barques, frigates and clippers. But clippers became the preferred method of transportation because they were so fast. They were used for carrying goods such as mail, tea, spices, etc.; as well as for carrying passengers long distances. Some clippers delivering tea from London, England to North America would actually compete in a contest to see which ship could get the cargo across the Atlantic the fastest! (and it still took about 100 days).

Canada was a major shipbuilding nation during this time – building thousands of various sailing vessels. We had lots of good timber from trees such as tamarack, spruce and pine, which were floated down rivers to secure harbours where our shipyards were located.

Many Canadian ships built could be classified as “tall ships” (the Bluenose is the most famous). Tall ships are not a specific kind of sailboat. Clippers (as well as any masted sailing boat) can be classified as “tall ships”, as if they are large and traditionally rigged.

The Tall Ships visiting Toronto Harbour

Toronto’s earliest commercial ship building activity were frigates (sailing ships used for war), built for the Royal Navy to be used in the War of 1812. For the next 150 years, shipbuilders in Toronto were mostly restricted to vessels that could sail the Great Lakes and local waterways (e.g. schooners, barques, smaller clippers and fishing boats). The building of ocean-going vessels took place from Montreal east, where the St. Lawrence River was navigable.

From sailboats to steamers to steamships

The challenge with sailing vessels in the 1800s was speed and reliability —everything depended on the wind. On average, it could take 2-3 months to cross the Atlantic (but you never could be sure).

Around 1830, steam engines began to appear on ships as additions to sails. At first the engine was connected to wooden paddle wheels on the side (paddle steamers); but within 15 years, propellers were used instead because they propelled the boat faster. Around the same time, iron and steel started to replaced wood in boat construction. This made boats stronger, leak proof and fire proof. (Steam ships burned coal, which had to be transported on board.)

Sailing vessels continued to be used into the 20th century because wind was cheaper than coal, for bulk cargo. But for rapid, reliable delivery of mail and passengers, steamships became the more “modern way” to cross the Atlantic, as early as the mid 1800s. Now the trip took 12 days, or even less.

Paddle steamers came first to the St Lawrence in 1809, to the Great Lakes in 1817, and to the Pacific coast in 1835. These boats were built in various shipyards including those in Toronto such as the Polson Iron Works.

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