Life

Simcoe County history

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

The Chicora was a sleek-looking passenger steamer that served on all of the Great Lakes at some point in its long history.

That’s not to mention its war service on the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, that’s why it was built.

The Chicora was launched into the River Mersey in Birkenhead, England, in February 1864, a special design for the Chicora Import and Export Company of Charleston, S.C. The Union government of the north was using a blockade to try to choke the southern Confederacy into submission during the American Civil War by preventing them selling their cotton and denying access to supplies they needed to fight the war. The Chicora was designed to dodge that blockade.

Henry Lafone, a Confederate agent, oversaw the construction of a fleet of sidewheel steamer racers at the shipyard. The Chicora was 221 feet long with a beam of 26 feet, a depth of 10.9 feet and a tonnage of 740. Six watertight compartments divided the hull and the vessel was powered by a 180-horsepower oscillating two-cylinder steam engine built by Faucett and Prescott of Liverpool. All this drove the slender craft at over 19 knots an hour.

The original design had very little above decks. No superstructure was on deck except the paddleboxes and two smokestacks that were heavily raked and in tandem and two masts for auxiliary sail. This offered little in the way of a target for the blockade to shoot at. Two 12-pounder guns on deck offered a bit of defence if she was attacked by the blockade vessels.

In order to throw off Union spies, the Chicora was given an unofficial name, Let Her B. She loaded for Nassau, Bahamas, with the owner listed as the Confederate agent, Lafone, to hide the identity of the real owner, the company based in the Confederacy.

When the ship finally left, she was bound for Hamilton, Bermuda, April 12, 1864, and arrived April 20 – a testament to her speed.

There, she switched to her original name and loaded for Wilmington, N.C., running the blockade without incident. On her second trip to Charleston, she was attacked by Union gunboats, only just escaping her demise, losing her mainmast and suffering five dead. She made many through 1864 and into 1865 and most were successful.

In late January 1865, the Chicora headed into the harbour of Charleston only to find the inhabitants fleeing ahead of Sherman’s Union column burning its way across the south. The ship’s captain fled, dodging the blockade and returning to Nassau – the last blockade runner to escape Charleston before it fell on Feb. 7.

Next Chicora was taken north to Halifax, N.S., where she spent a year in the docks and was finally sold in early February 1866. For the rest of her service, the ship listed Halifax as her registered port.

As Canada became a country in 1867, Chicora was purchased by a group of Great Lakes businessmen, led by the Toronto shipping family of Donald Milloy. The steamer was taken up the St. Lawrence as far as Quebec City later that year and put in dry dock, where she was cut in half in order to transport her through the small locks. The halves spent the winter in Sorel, Que., and in the spring were barged up to Lake Ontario and floated to Buffalo, where they were assembled and she was given higher deck guardrails, a new pilothouse of a “birdcage” design and cabins on the main deck, in preparation for passenger service.

Then she was ready for travelling under her own power to Collingwood, arriving Sept. 7, 1868.

The Collingwood shipyard put its joiners to work, outfitting the cabins and turning the Spartan war freighter into a passenger-friendly vessel. The roughed-in cabins were given their finished look, the pilot house was refined and the overall appearance of the vessel looked more professional and finished, compared to its stripped-down military look, and then its chopped-up and reassembled look. Before the joiners were finished, the Chicora made a trip up to Lake Superior, making its way up the North Channel and stopping at ports along the way. The Collingwood shipyard adapted by sending the craftsmen along to finish the work while the ship was in transit. The joiners finished each passenger accommodation just before the customer occupied it.

A year later and Chicora was finished. The main deck cabin area ran the full length of the deck, and above it was a shorter cabin. The foremast was still there, but the second mast had been cut away. Both of the original stacks stood in tandem.

The federal government hired Chicora for delivering mail, carrying it from Collingwood to Fort William on Lake Superior and ports between.

The Métis uprising of 1870 required Chicora to haul men (many from Simcoe County towns like Midland, Barrie, Orillia, Bradford, Stayner and Collingwood) and equipment from Collingwood to Fort William. At the Soo, there was only a canal on the American side. A diplomatic furor saw the steamer unloaded, the men and supplies marched up the Canadian side and the vessel seized before they were all finally released to finish the journey. (This incident prompted the construction of a Canadian-side canal.)

The Chicora was further modified over the early 1870s to deal with increased passenger demand. The upper deck was extended and a third deck built on top of this larger second tier. The pilot house was raised as well. Then Chicora was sold to the Hon. Frank Smith.

The summer of 1874 saw the Chicora singled out to become the official yacht of the governor general of Canada during his western tour. Chicora took Lord Dufferin from Collingwood, across Lake Huron, down to Chicago and up to Lake Superior. But she came off this high point with no work and was left idle in Collingwood. She was sent down the lakes to work the Niagara-to-Toronto run. In anticipation of its trip through the Welland Canal, the upper additions of the steamer were removed in Collingwood. The pilot house was removed, which meant Chicora left Collingwood under tow by a large tug, W.T. Robb. The steamer had to be cut apart again because she was 221 feet long – 21 feet longer than the locks. She was partially reassembled and then towed to Toronto for her final work.

In the 1870s, it was even harder to get from Toronto to the Falls than it is today. The only reasonable way was to take the boat. The Milloy family ran two ships on that route but needed more. One, the Southern Belle, was a blockade runner, built on the Clyde River in 1864. It was smaller than Chicora and quite rustic compared to the fine carpentry and several additions Chicora had benefited from at the Collingwood yards.

As the Milloy family struggled to meet demand on the popular Toronto-Niagara run, Smith brought down Chicora and formed the Niagara Navigation Company (NNC). Chicora’s first run was made in 1878 on Queen Victoria’s birthday. She was a hit. In 1879, when Ned Hanlan won a world rowing championship, Chicora was chosen to bring him home to Toronto.

She was a huge thorn in the side of the Milloy family, the people who had brought the blockade runner to the Great Lakes in the first place. Demand for the NNC increased, so they added ships. Eventually, the new additions out-shadowed the Chicora, which had literally been through the wars.

Before the end of the 19th century, she was sent to Kingston and refurbished, adding a few years to her service life. Through a series of mergers, the NNC eventually became Canada Steamship Lines and Chicora worked under that banner for a time.

In 1913, she was put on a run from Toronto to Olcott Beach, N.Y., but it flopped. She was tied up at her berth at the end of that season and forgotten about – so forgotten about, she eventually sank in 24 feet of water.

That was 1919. She was re-floated and stripped and gutted. Her husk of a hull was sold to Warren Transportation and converted to a barge called Warrenko, carrying coal when she did go out. She spent much of her time tied to dock at Princess Slip in Toronto. She swapped owners a few times through the 1920s and wound up in Kingston, where, in 1938, while in tow across Kingston Harbour, she was rammed by Sprucebay, a freighter, and she sank. She was raised to get her out of the way and taken to Howe Island.

Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs historylab.ca, podcasts and can be reached at tom@historylab.ca.