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  • Writer's pictureArt Duval

The Paddle Wheeler Penetanguishene

William Buck, Penetang after 1845 National gallery

Early in the history of Penetanguishene there arose a need for a ship. The only way to get to Penetang, (a short form used for an eternity) was to go along the new communication road the British had carved through the woods, or take the Nine Mile Portage. Both of those routes expended a lot of energy and it was anything but comfortable. The Penetang Road was still dotted with stumps and mud and the Portage was a lot of walking, it being barely passable on horseback.

Ship building in Penetang had been going on since the war of 1812, 5 large ships and 15 smaller ships were built in Penetang for the British Navy. But they had never built a steam powered side wheeler before. Ship building had not occurred since the war, but in 1834 a ship was commissioned and launched for the fur traders Andrew Mitchell and Alfred Thompson.

(So abrupt was the stoppage of production at Penetang that this anchor was cast off at Hollands landing, where it remains today, never having finished the journey to Penetang. Note the scale of ships being constructed. )

They ordered a paddlewheel steamship built. A Paddlewheel would be a fairly new technology on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. They had been plying Lake Simcoe for a few years and the advantage of it going to Orillia was apparent. Not the quickest of methods, and it would be limited to seasonal, but if any large pocket investors would come to Penetang, a need arose for their conveyance. The town had existed as a military base and a community of farmers and trademens to supply the base, but the war was in the ever distancing past and the military influence was more in the retired soldiers than in a battle ready base, so new blood, or specifically money, would need to be infused. So a steamship it was!

For this they would need a fearless man to captain her. This man they would find in the jovial War of 1812 veteran Andrew Borland. Andrew Borland was known to the fur traders, having made quite a fortune in the partnership of Roe and Borland. He was also familiar with the nine Mile Portage having posts along the way. He had a familiariarity with the native people trading into Coldwater and Penetang, that familiarity including marrying a Chippewa, named Mary. ( I will write more about him later.)

The ship would leave Penetang in the morning, stop briefly at the Military establishments before continuing on to Coldwater. There the travelers coming to Penetang would meet the steamer after having travelled to Coldwater from Orilia crossing Lake Simcoe on a similar steamship, the Peter Robinson or the Colborne, which Captain Borland had mastered before.

These sidewheelers were not built for speed, although we know little of the Penetanguishene's construction, contemporary steamships would travel between 5-10 knots, or miles an hour.

Far from an ordinary ferry, the Penetang would also venture to far off places like Sault St Marie and St Joseph island. At least one of those voyages had families who having been granted land, found they preferred to return to settle the are of St Joseph island.

Maritime history of the Great Lakes

The long voyages in a steamship was not all safe travels. In fact in 1835, while on a trip to St Joseph island the Penetanguishene sunk. I do not have the details of the salvage, but it would seem she was refloated and returned to service. It must have been in shallow water, as captain and crew all survived. These trips were added to her usual ferry duty to bring settlers to Sault St Marie, and St Joseph island. Some who had come the other way only just recently.

From Maritime history of the Great Lakes

At the time the settlers and military had been settling in to life in Penetang. It is noted Mr Jeffrey and Mr Mitchell had just finished nice homes and the first appearances of Hotels and visitor accommodations would spring up, and they would be in need of tourists. These tourist would need easy travel into town, and would pay the owners of the ship for conveyance.

So this was an important step in the evolution of the town of Penetang. Unbeknownst to them the war was not to return, and as the United States turned to internal conflict, the British would lose interest in the barracks at Penetang. Instead it would realize a new purpose. Penetang would be a place where retiring personnel could be given land grants, thereby settling some debts to veteran soldiers. Penetang was made a place where a pensioned soldier could receive their pension (no checks were sent) and settle on a lot.

With the new settlers on Penetang Road and in Penetang, the need for a Sidewheeler into Coldwater waned. Her Captain Andrew Borland, who was a sergeant under Peter Robinson in the war of 1812 was also recalled to active service in the 1837 Rebellion and so the Penetanguishene was retired. Unloved by some however that she was, it was stated she was "Wretched little boat, dirty and ill-contrived" the boat works in Penetang would learn from it's first attempt at a sidewheeler and would go on to build other more successful ships. And the Penetang, though ill contrived, would make her way to the Thames River, more the environment needed for a sidewheeler vessel. In 1840 a new vessel would be in it's place, the Gore sketched above.

But this would not end the days of steamships on the Great Lakes, many ships would leave Penetang over the years, and ply the Great Lakes. Eventually the steam would power screws, propellers to us ordinary folk, and would grow to carry many more passengers than the 15 or so in the early days.

In 1870 William Hall who owned the Waubashene mill sent the steam tug to Penetang and returned to Waubashene with 200 people to open a new church he had built there. Father Kennedy was the parish priest at the time in Waubashene.

Steamboats would ply the waters of Georgian Bay with stops in Penetang, Collingwood and Parry Sound. This would continue until the mid-1900's. It was a romantic time, when travel along the North Shore or into Collingwood was made aboard a steamship.

The name Penetang would live on in an early 19th century tug working for the Davidson mill and a Second World war ship called the HMCS Penetang.

Art Duval

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