As a journalist, I am always on the lookout for round dates. Dates with zeros on the end are a good excuse to write stories. Sometimes, I go on Wikipedia to see whether anything unusual happened 50 years ago today – or, even better, 100 years ago.
Imagine my happiness when I discovered that the first Canadian steamboat was launched right here in Montreal almost exactly 200 years ago, on Aug. 19, 1809.
The boat, named “Accommodation,” was financed by brewer John Molson (unfortunately, the Molson company isn’t doing anything to mark the anniversary) and its maiden voyage was from Montreal to Quebec City.
The trip aboard the 85-foot-long boat took three days, and one week on the way back. According to Frank Mackey, author of a book about early Canadian steamboats, the trip from Quebec to Montreal took longer because it was against the river’s current.
The first steamboat ride from Montreal to Quebec cost $9, reported the Quebec Mercury newspaper in 1809. The defunct newspaper, which is now digitized on Google Books, said:
“On Saturday morning, at 8 o’clock, arrived here from Montreal, being her first trip, the steamboat Accommodation with 10 passengers. This is the first vessel of the kind that ever appeared in this harbor.”
The newspaper said the Accommodation also had a sail, “to occasionally accelerate her headway” when the wind was favourable.
Accommodation was scrapped in 1811 because her engine (it was only a six horsepower) wasn’t quite suited for the size of the boat, Mackey said. Unfortunately, one Philadelphia traveller in 1810 described her as “a clumsy, ill-constructed thing.”
Still, the Accommodation started a new era.
Decades before the railroad, the steamboat represented a considerable improvement compared to travelling by coach or sailboat, which was at the mercy of the wind and currents, Mackey said.
That is why, when writing about the boat, the Quebec Mercury declared quite simply that, “No wind or tide can stop her.”
John Molson and his sons went on to build more steamboats, founded the St. Lawrence Steamboat Company, and even tried unsuccessfully to pass a law that would have given them a monopoly on steamboat navigation between Montreal and Quebec, Mackey said.
Soon, powerful steamboats were towing sailboats from Quebec to Montreal when the winds weren’t favourable.
None of the museums in Montreal is holding special events to remember the first Canadian steamboat – the third steamboat in the world, and some say the first steamboat built entirely in North America.
“These are things that tend to get forgotten,” Mackey said. “I’m sure nobody today remembers that steam transportation started 200 years ago, and not many people care about history.”
If you care, you can celebrate the boat’s birthday at the St. Maurice Forge in Trois Rivières, where Accomodation’s engine was built and which features an exhibition on early Canadian industry.
And if you have the time, you can mimic the early voyage by travelling to Quebec City by boat. Croisières AML (www.croisieresaml.com) runs passenger boats in the summer and fall. The trip takes 91/2 hours and costs $159, including food and a bus ticket back to Montreal.