The Trip Of A Lifetime: Passenger Travel On The Great Lakes

Ian Mason

"It was quite a stormy night coming down [on the S. S. Noronic], and I was the only passenger at my table for breakfast, and the waiter was quite surprised. You could see a few people at breakfast, but most places were vacant" wrote my maternal grandmother (Evelyn Morris Waghorne) in her memoirs. What she did not record was the fact that she later enjoyed telling her family that she proceeded to enjoy a full breakfast somewhat to the disbelief of her waiter. This pitching passage on the ship in 1922 was not the type of promotion that the ship's company would have appreciated. The enjoyment with which my grandmother told us the story, however, indicated to me her sense of privilege in travelling upbound from Sarnia to Sault Ste. Marie on the S.S. Hamonic and downbound on the S.S. Noronic. For her, it would be her "trip of a lifetime" adventure aboard a couple of the Great Lakes' finest passenger steamers.

That is probably what a passage on the Great Lakes excursion steamers meant for many people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the St. Clair River and upper Great Lakes area. Throughout the 1800s, this area's economy gradually diversified from processing of natural resources and agricultural to industrial and commercial. With this diversification came a change in the working day. While onerous by today's standards, the 72-hour work week was a reduction from that of agricultural workers, allowing some time for leisure. Employment in the business community in the early 1900s often afforded workers another feature to which they had never before been accustomed – namely, disposable income. A trip such as my grandmother experienced in 1922 would have required some considerable amount of savings. Once on board, however, there may have been a little extra "fun money" to remember such an outstanding vacation with the purchase of an item of commemorative china.

Within the Moore Museum's collection are two fine examples of souvenir china. The one depicts the S.S. Saronic while the other commemorates the S.S. Huronic. These items were produced during the golden age of passenger steamship travel on the Great Lakes. People booked passage for business and for social reasons. This was the era in which churches, secret societies, schools and organizational events such as firemen's conventions would ferry hundreds of participants from one port to another. Social obligations were fulfilled by booking passage on the ships. Visiting relatives could meet one another at family reunions. Funeral parties were transported from one community to another – sometimes with the body accompanying them to its final resting place. However, a great proportion of passengers were the excursionists. The greatest number were the day excursionists who could travel to Stag Island or Tashmoo Park on Harsen's Island. There were also, however, a growing number in the 1880s and through the early 1920s who could afford several days aboard the steamships travelling from Sarnia into Lakes Huron and Superior and Georgian Bay.

Although Sarnia had long been known on the Lakes for its port facilities and ship-building yards, it was not until 1870 that it became the head office for one of the fleets that catered to passengers in addition to freight. In that year, William Beatty, along with his son, James Hughes and nephew Henry, moved his company, the J. & H. Beatty Company from Thorold, Ont. to Sarnia. (Wheeler) The Beatty's had first entered the steamship business in order to transport timber from their vast property, which included the town site of Parry Sound and the timber rights to the surrounding 284 square miles. The Beatty's answered the need for a vessel to transport passenger and supplies from the Northern Railway's terminus at Collingwood to Parry Sound and Port Arthur/Fort William (Thunder Bay). The Waubuno was built for the Beatty's at Port Robinson in 1865. It became the primary commercial vessel on the upper Great Lakes. (DCB, p. 69) Besides carrying settlers into the northern areas, the ships of the Beatty Line served excursionists. The packet freighters, which carried freight as well as passengers, were increasingly turning their attention to outfitting their ships to appeal to those who were travelling for pleasure rather than necessity.

Sarnia and its Board of Trade welcomed the boost to the economy that the Beatty Line provided. In response to the support provided by the Sarnia Board of Trade, Sarnia Council granted a bonus of $2,000 to Messrs. Beatty if they would start a steamship line from Sarnia to Fort William. In its issue of July 5, 1872, the Sarnia Observer reported that the Beatty Line was now running to Duluth, Minnesota with stops at Goderich, Kincardine, etc. The J. & H. Beatty Company's fleet grew quickly from its single ship, the Waubuno, to include: the Manitoba (built at Port Robinson in 1871); the Acadia (leased from 1871 to 1874); the Ontario (built at Chatham in 1873); and the Quebec (built in Chatham in 1874).

The comforts of ship travel in the 1870s were sparse. One comfort, however, was fresh linen, as the company provided enough for its passengers that it operated a laundry in Sarnia. Most of the ship's amenities were related to the safety of the ship. "When the Ontario and Quebec were launched, they had oil lamps in the main salon and cabins. These lamps were arranged like chandeliers and were like cups sitting in saucers. Each was firmly anchored with a chain but in heavy weather, they swung wildly, each on its own gimbal (a mechanism consisting of a combination of pivoted rings for suspending anything so that it remains level when its support is tipped). It was the job of the cabin watch to tend these lamps which was no easy chore in a storm." (Wheeler)

 For some passengers, such as Charlotte Vidal Nisbet, the voyage to the Lakehead was vacation in and of itself. In the 1870s, a trip from Sarnia on the Beatty boats took three weeks. Since the draught on the boats was not great, the Beatty boats were able to use many harbours which were too shallow for those that came later. Their routes included calls at Goderich, Kincardine, Southampton, St. Joseph Island, Sault Ste. Marie, Port Arthur, Fort William and Duluth. On the eastbound journey, they followed the north shore of Lake Superior to the Hudson Bay posts of Red Rock, Pie River, Michipicoten Island, Silver Inlet, Batchawana and Keewatin. Mrs. Nisbet recorded in her column for the Sarnia Observer that the trip she and six young lady friends, her father and an aunt experienced would not have been able to be enjoyed after the opening and operation of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. The company had bypassed railway connection with many of the smaller ports. Further, with the construction of larger ships with greater draught and the desire of the company to reduce travelling time, the later ships followed a direct route to Sault Ste. Marie, the Lakehead and Duluth. (Wheeler)


Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. XII. Toronto: University of Toronto Press and Les Presses de l'université Laval, 1990.

Wheeler, Mary. North-West Transportation Company, The Beatty Boats. (Sarnia, ON: Marcy Printing, [1995?])

Dixon, Michael M. Life at the Flats, The Golden Era of the St. Clair River Delta. (s.l.: Mervue Publications and St. Clair Delta Publishing, (1999).