Steam navigation was introduced on Lake Ontario in 1817.
Kingston was where many immigrants transferred to sailing vessels (above the rapids of the St. Lawrence). In 1894 a monument was erected there to the memory of some 400 Irish immigrants buried there in the plague year of 1847. In Toronto alone 863 Irish died during the summer & autumn of 1847. It is estimated that 7,000 were buried in Montreal, Prescott, Kingston, & other settlements on the route inland.
[As] the St. Lawrence canals were gradually completed in the 1840s the hardships of the assent of the river lessened. In 1843 a guide book for immigrants said, "The ordinary conveyances up country are the small steamboats & barges departing from the Lachine Canal, which commences at Montreal Harbor; & proceeding up the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, & through the Rideau Canal, reach Kingston, a distance by this route of about 250 mi., & which is usually accomplished in 3 days by the steamers if they have no barges in tow. The barges, & those steamers towing them, take about 6 days. The fare by steamboat is usually $3 steerage. The fare of the barges is 1 to 2 dollars. A second edition of this guidebook, in 1851 (by James B. Brown) omitted all reference to older type transport & said, "On arriving at Quebec emigrants may go directly from the ship's side on board commodious steam vessels without going ashore; & in those steam vessels they can be conveyed to their destination, to any of the main ports on the St. Lawrence or the Great Lakes without transshipment & [with?] great rapidity." In from 7 to 10 days the traveler might now proceed in one vessel from Quebec to Chicago at the cost of 35s, exclusive of meals.
No sooner was the St. Lawrence system opened than the RR era began. The Grand Trunk Line reached Toronto in 1856. The steamship felt the competition of the RR & the "emigrant train" became the usual means of travel to the interior of America.
- Guillet, The Great Migration, p. 167-78
"At Erie we changed cars & I saw numerous emigrants sitting on large blue boxes, looking disconsolately about them; the Irish physiognomy being the most prominent. They are generally so dirty that they travel by themselves in a partially-lighted van called the Emigrants' Car, for a trifling payment. I once got into one by mistake, & was almost sickened by the smell of tobacco, spirits, dirty fustian, & old leather which assailed my olfactory organs."
Bird, The Englishwoman in Am., p. 1111
Though we had a hot journey from Buffalo to N.Y., yet we had the advantage for a considerable part of the way, of going through charmingly shadowy forests. RRs in the U.S. are not like RRs in other countries, for they fly, plunging through the deep umbrageous recesses of these ____, wide-spreading woods, whose sweeping verdure-loaded boughs go circling & branching about [or above] the "cars" in all directions, shedding a deep, delicious intensely green light around, which bathes everything and everybody in a sea of molten emerald.
- Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley, Travels in the U.S. (1851), p. 332
Combe took the RR (Albany to Niagara, 1837), & the train broke down after a few miles. The passengers alighted & pushed the entire train to a station a third of a mile back. There one horse was obtained, which pulled the train toward Schenectady. Yet Marryat called this the best & speediest RR in America at that time (1837). The train improved rapidly, however, until it usurped most of the traffic that had formerly gone on the canals & stage-coaches. After 1848 only the poverty-stricken immigrants still used the canal transport because of its cheapness.
- Max Berger, The British Traveller in Am., 1836-1860, p. 393
Bunn (Alfred) in 1853 noted that there had been 40 RR accidents in the preceeding 4 months, resulting in 12 deaths & injuries to 200 others. ...What was the cause for this terrific toll? Prentice in 1848 claimed that RRs were poorly constructed, with short & frequent curves, without proper gradients & ballast, & with rails made of strips of iron nailed to horizontal sleepers.
- Ibid., p. 41
While Marryat had complained, in 1838, of the difficulty of receiving a bed to himself at the overnight stage-stops, two decades later sleeping cars were available on the better RRs. These cars accommodated 70 passengers on 3 tiers of padded shelves, at an additional charge of only 50¢ a night.
- Ibid., p. 51
Immigrants are said to have been brought to the western shore of Mich. by way of the Lakes as early as 1830.
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Lake Transportation (Great Lakes) -
The Straits opened:
1870 - April 17
1871 - April 3
1872 - April 28
1873 - April 29
1874 - April 29
1875 - April 30
1876 - April 28
1877 - April 18
1878 - March 15
1879 - April 22
1880 - April 4
1881 - May 3
Insurance on ships expired Nov. 30, considered the close of the season.
- from book for immigrants, 1881
"On Thursday, the 24th of Aug., 1848 we sailed in the Buffalo steamer packet for Detroit. The vessel...was constructed on the model of ocean steamers & was of similar strength. This was very necessary, since the navigation of these lakes is both difficult & dangerous. Besides the storms which occur on them are no less severe than those upon the Atlantic. The furniture, decorations, & general "fitting up" of this particular boat was superb... The company was large, & composed, not including two-hundred emigrants who were in steerage, of many fashionable tourists, en route for Mackinaw & Lake Superior, for the Beever Islands, Milwaukee, & Chicago...
From Sandusky we first sailed to Toledo, a rising town at the extremity of Lake Erie & the terminus of the canal connecting the waters of the Lake with those of the Ohio & Cincinnati. A delay of a few hours discharging freight & passengers, & on our gallant ship proceeded to Detroit... Detroit was an ill-built, rambling town of about 12,000 inhabitants...
An accident to the machinery of our boat caused a delay of 3 days.
- Payton, Over the Alleghenies & Across the Prairies (1870), p. 148, 152
The damage to our steamer having been repaired, we set sail from Detroit Aug. 30, 1848... We entered Lake Huron. The water was exceedingly clear and bright in this as it is in all of the lakes & rivers of this latitude; and the scenery on the shore, which is heavily wooded, very attractive... The shores of Lake Huron are almost uninhabited except by roving bands of savages, & the country, except an occasional log cabin in which some pioneer has established himself, in a wild state."
- Ibid., p. 167-68
In the month of May, 1833, ninety steamboats arrived at Detroit, each bringing hundreds of eager settlers to the west. In a single day 5,000 persons took passage out of Buffalo. During the navigation season of 1836, 200,000 land-seekers passed through Detroit. By wagon & ox-cart, on horseback & afoot, they pushed on to public lands.
By 1840 the immigrant trade moved past Detroit and steered up the long seaway of Lake Huron, through the Straits & down Lake Michigan. It was a long way from Buffalo to Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Milwaukee, & Chicago... Old-world peasants in homespun shawls counted their coins in secret & stared at the wide new country with its public land. Staring from the rails, these people had many memories - a grey fishing town in Ireland, the cobbled streets of a town in Germany, but they shared a common hope. Beyond the blue waters in a new country they would mark the corners of their land & bring the fields to harvest.
Some of them did not drive their corner stakes. On a windless summer night in 1841 the steamship Erie, bound from Buffalo to Chicago, exploded in the middle of Lake Erie... Fourteen years later a salvage tug brought up the sunken hull. From it came thousands of foreign coins: sovereigns & francs, marks & kroner, that had left the Old World to buy American land. There had been 200 immigrants onboard. There were many disasters - the Phoenix burned on a November night in Lake Michigan, with 250 Hollanders aboard; the big new Atlantic, with 500 passengers, rammed by the Ogdensburg on a foggy night in Lake Erie; the G. P. Griffith burned like a torch just before a June daybreak a few miles out of Cleveland.
- Walter Havighurst, Wilderness for Sale, p. 323-24
"The steamer Madison arrived with a crowd of emigrants for the West, one of whom had died on the passage from Detroit." He was a man from Groton, NH.
- from Schoolcraft's journal, Oct. 1, 1838
Mrs. Jameson, 1837 - "At the other end of the vessel we have about 100 emigrants (she was on the Thomas Jefferson) on their way to Illinois & the settlements to the west of Lake Michigan. Among them I find a large party of Germans & Norwegians, with their wives & families; a very respectable, orderly community, consisting of farmers & some artisans, having with them a large quantity of stock & utensils... Then we have 20 or 30 poor, ragged Irish emigrants, with good-natured faces, & strong arms & willing hearts. Men are smoking, women nursing, washing, sewing; children squalling & rolling about."
- E. O. Wood, Historic Mackinac, p. 274
Great Lakes steamers (1840)
"During our stay in Chicago we saw some of the largest & finest steamboats that exist in the U.S.. These are employed in the navigation of the Lakes from hence to Buffalo, a distance of nearly 1,000 miles, and a great portion of the way out of sight of land. They are accordingly built of large size, from 600 to 800 tons, of great solidity, equal to that of ships navigating the ocean, with their engines, some few of high, but the greater number of low pressure, of the best construction, & all interior arrangements of sleeping-berths, staterooms, cabins, & saloons excellent. The Illinois takes the first rank, perhaps, in her united attractions, being large, strong, safe, fast, & particularly elegant. She is built after the fashion of the eastern boats, such as go between N.Y. & Providence or Boston, but much more elegant than any of these. The Illinois, indeed, may be called a floating palace, the most costly decorations being lavish everywhere on her, as may be judged from the fact of her costing 130,000 dollars from the builders' hands. The Great Western is another splendid boat, still larger than the Illinois, & almost as richly ornamented, but built on the plan of the Mississippi boats, with a double deck of cabins, so as to accommodate about 500 passengers, with high-pressure engines, but combining also speed, safety, & comfort, in an unusual degree. The Buffalo, the Cleveland, & the Erie are all fine boats, in the same line, and all have their equipments in officers, servants, & table, on the most liberal scale."
- J. S. Buckingham, The Eastern & Western States of America, Vol. III (1841), p. 268
Later he writes of the Erie (on which he went from Chicago to Mackinac), burning a cord and a half of wood an hour. The Erie was 500 tons. Fuel cost $500 for 1000 miles.
"The Michigan, built in 1833, ran to & from Buffalo to Lake Erie ports, making three trips a year to the Upper Lakes" (p. 328).
"Once more on board of the Michigan, one of the best vessels on Lake Erie, as usual full of emigrants, chiefly Irish. It is impossible not to feel compassion for these poor people, wearied as they are with confinement & sufferings, & yet they do compose occasionally about as laughable a group as can be well conceived. In the first place they bring with them from Ireland articles which no other people would consider worth the carriage. I saw one Irish woman who had 5 old tin teapots; there was but one spout among the whole, & I believe not one bottom sound & good. And then their costumes, more particularly the fitting out of the children, who are not troubled with any extra supply of clothes at any time! I witnessed the seat of an old pair of corduroy trousers transformed into a sort of bonnet for a laughing fair-haired girl. But what amused me more was the very reverse of this arrangement: a boy's father had just put a patch upon the hinder end of his son's trousers, and, cloth not being at hand, he had, as an expedient for stopping the gap, inserted a piece of an old straw bonnet; in doing so he had not taken the precaution to put the smooth side of the plate inward, and in consequence young Teddy when he first sat down felt rather uncomfortable. "What's the matter wid ye, Teddy - what makes ye wriggle about in that way? Sit aisy, man; ____ enough, haven't ye a straw-bottomed chair to sit down upon the rest of your journey, which is more than your father ever had before you?" And then their turning in for the night! A single bed will contain one adult & 4 little ones at one end, & another adult & two half-grown ones at the other. But they are packed away so snug & close, & not one venturing to move, there appears to be room for all."
"They stopped half an hour at Mackinac to take in wood, & then started for Green Bay."
- Capt. Fredrick Marryat, Diary in America (trip 1837-38), p. 208-09
1 Isabella Lucy Bird, The Englishwoman in America. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966. ("First published in 1856 by John Murray, London, England.")
2 Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley, Travels in the United States, etc., During 1849 and 1850. Paris: A. & W. Galignani: Baudry's European Library, 1851 (Paris: E. Brière).
3 Max Berger, The British Traveller in America. Gloucester, MA: P. Smith, 1964 (originally published in 1943).