Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Smoke on the water

According to today's Kingston Whig-Standard, 2007 marks a very special anniversary. Yes, Vimy Ridge is an obvious guess, but it's not what we're getting at here.

Yep, you guessed it, the 190th anniversary of the first Great Lakes steamboats. Oh, you're good.

In 1817 there were two passenger steamers operating largely in Lake Ontario -- the Canadian-built Frontenac and the Ontario, flying American colours. There is a debate over exactly which boat was the first to operate on the lakes, but it's clear that the Ontario was the most active of the two.

What's significant is that these two ships marked the beginning of the end of the Age of Sail on the Great Lakes, though the wooden schooners that had dominated the lake trade would continue to do so for much of the rest of the century, until the last one was finally decommissioned in the early 1900s.

It's hard to believe such delicate-looking craft, with their giant wooden paddlewheels, ever managed on the treacherous Great Lakes.

But they did better than that -- they went on to form the economic backbone of two nations, carrying everyone, from prime ministers to new immigrants, across the inland seas.

And with no GPS, to boot.

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