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The CPR Fleet
Curated by: Neil Garneau
July, 2012 to July, 2010
The Canadian Pacific Railway expanded into marine transportation in 1884 by adding three ships to those already sailing the Great Lakes. Owen Sound was the home port of the Canadian Pacific Railway fleet from 1885 to 1912. The ALGOMA, ATHABASCA and ALBERTA were the most modern vessels of their type ever constructed. They were built by Aiken, Mansell, Connell & Company, located on the Clyde at Glasgow, Scotland in 1883. The ships cost $300,000 apiece, an astronomical price in those days.
The three sister ships weathered severe trips on their maiden voyage across the Atlantic in the fall of 1883, but arrived unscathed. Upon their arrival at Montreal, the ships were each cut in two, making possible their transportation by tugboat through the St. Lawrence canals.
At Kingston, the ships stopped at Gunn's wharfs in the Earl Street slip. There, they were subjected to critical inspection by the self-appointed "waterfront experts". It was a time when the pros and cons of triple expansion and compound types of engines were strongly debated.
From Kingston, the three ships travelled to Buffalo and were put back together to travel to Port Colburne. Here, they were fitted out over the winter of 1883-84 in preparation for the following sailing season.
From Port Colborne, the three vessels travelled to Owen Sound, the Georgian Bay terminus of the Canadian Pacific Steamships. The ALGOMA was first to arrive on Saturday, May 10, 1884, followed by the ALBERTA on the following evening. On Tuesday, May 13, 1884, the ALBERTA left for the Head of the Lakes (Port Arthur and Fort William) with 400 passengers. Two days later, the ATHABASCA followed on her first trip to the Head of the Lakes.
Each ship was 270 feet long with a 38 foot beam and with the capacity to carry 2000 tons of freight. Equipped for 130 first class cabin passengers and steerage bunks for 200, provisions were made to increase the steerage capacity to 1000 passengers. This need for increased capacity was apparent on the ALGOMA's first trip from Owen Sound. On Sunday, May 11, 1884, she sailed with 1100 passengers on board, most of them immigrants from England, Scotland and Sweden.
These vessels were the first on the Great Lakes to carry the Plimsoll mark. This mark indicated the maximum depth to which ships could be loaded with safely. It had recently been adopted by the British Board of Trade and had been made compulsory by an Act of Parliament. The ALGOMA, ALBERTA and ATHABASCA were also the first ships on the Great Lakes to be equipped with electric lights.
Three weekly sailings were maintained by the fleet of three until November 7, 1885 when the ALGOMA was lost in a severe snowstorm near Isle Royale in Lake Superior in 40 fathoms of water. Under the command of Captain John Moore, the day of her loss was the same day the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven at Craigellachie, British Columbia. The ALGOMA's boilers and engines were salvaged and used in the MANITOBA, built by Polson's Iron Works in Owen Sound.
The MANITOBA replaced the ALGOMA in 1889 as part of the CPR's fleet on the Great Lakes. The first Canadian-built steel hulled passenger ship, she was a combination passenger and freight vessel. The ship was 320' long and named in honour of the Province of Manitoba. She maintained her 3 masts and 1 funnel throughout her 61 years of service, although her hull was originally black. In 1922, a return trip to Port McNichol on board the MANITOBA cost $12.00, berth and meals included. In 1924, the cost rose slightly to $12.50 and automobiles were also accommodated for an extra fee of $5.00.
Although the CPR no longer maintained its home base in Owen Sound, its fleet of ships were in and out of the Owen Sound harbour on a regular basis, carrying both passengers and freight.
Boat-train travel remained an important part of tourism for the area. On August 15, 1925, the MANITOBA arrived in the Owen Sound harbour with a boatload of passengers who immediately boarded a train headed for Toronto. Meetings were held by various interest groups in an attempt to encourage these travellers to stay longer in the city.
In 1908, the ASSINIBOIA and the KEEWATIN joined the CPR fleet. Built at Govan Scotland, they were the top-notchers of their day. For 28 years, they carried thousands of passengers between Owen Sound and Fort William. The ALBERTA and ATHABASCA continued to give service for over 60 years. They were withdrawn from passenger service in 1916, continuing as freight steamers until the end of their careers in 1947. The MANITOBA was retired in 1949 and sold for scrap in Hamilton in 1950.