From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
The steamer known as the Francis Smith was built in 1867, with no expense spared. Her design included large paddle wheels, which added stability to the ship.
She had a distinctive whistle, which was easy to recognize on her regular routes between Collingwood and Thunder Bay. She was known as a “palace steamer,” lavish but also tough enough to handle what the upper Great Lakes threw at her.
And it was treacherous. In the late 1860s, there could easily be over 1,000 serious marine disasters on the Northern Great Lakes in a year. Pressure to deliver goods and travel faster than the competition only worsened things, with captains compromising safety in the name of speed. Few lighthouses, smoke from forest fires, and the moodiness of the lakes were only some of the issues ship captains had to contend with.
As a ship on the upper Great Lakes, the Frances Smith would regularly pass through the Soo Locks. However, she also had some more notable run-ins with the city during her time on the water.
In 1870, for example, Sault Ste. Marie was at the centre of what became known as the Chicora Incident. The American locks, acting under the directive of the United States government, prevented a Canadian steamship from passing through their locks on the way to quash the Red River Rebellion.
Ultimately, the two countries came to a compromise: Canadian ships could carry passengers and supplies through the locks – but only for commercial and civilian purposes. Anything military-related would have to portage through Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to another ship waiting on the other side.
The Frances Smith was one such ship carrying supplies for the military campaign against Louis Riel – and dealing with the new restrictions on passage through the American locks. She left Collingwood loaded with food, equipment, and livestock. She was also packed with soldiers along with civilian passengers and construction workers.
She arrived in Sault Ste. Marie two days late. And stories came to light of why: the captain had gotten lost in the North Channel and almost became shipwrecked. One of the oxen aboard the ship gored his driver, making for a gruesome distraction. The compasses were not working correctly. And the captain spent the whole voyage drunk.
As bad as that sounded, it could have been much worse: the ship had no life preservers aboard and only two non-functioning lifeboats, conditions that would have spelled disaster if she had actually wrecked.
Once in Sault Ste. Marie, the Frances Smith captain refused to go further. He was not willing to travel through the locks to Lake Superior – he claimed not to have been told that was part of his duties. He demanded that the Canadian government insure his vessel for $65,000 and provide him with a pilot familiar with Lake Superior – and then threatened to charge $500 per day for any delayed responses to his demands. The captain went so far as to say that he would turn the ship around, any unloaded freight and all, and go back to Collingwood.
Ultimately, the Frances Smith captain portaged all cargo and passengers to different ships waiting above the locks. The captain didn’t have to navigate the locks, nor the waters of Lake Superior. And he soon found himself back running his regular route in the Owen Sound and Georgian Bay area, where he would not become embroiled in any military action.
In 1872, the Frances Smith was back in the Sault Ste. Marie area, delivering mail along the “Turkey Trail,” the area from Georgian Bay to Sault Ste. Marie. The Norgoma would take this same route in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1880, the captain of the Frances Smith appeared in Sault Ste. Marie, brought up on charges under the Indian Act. While in Nipigon Bay, some of his passengers allegedly sold alcohol to Indigenous people, a serious offense under the laws of the time. The captain was fined $500 – presumably a relief, since he also had run the risk of jail time.
Then, in 1881, the Frances Smith provided passage for Canada’s Governor General, along with his entourage. They stopped in Garden River for a ceremony and to meet with Chief Augustin Shingwauk. From there, the Frances Smith continued to Sault Ste. Marie, where the Governor General toured the Shingwauk School before continuing north onto Lake Superior.
In 1885, in the midst of a terrible and bitterly cold summer storm, the Francis Smith had passed through Sault Ste. Marie and was heading past Cape Brule when the crew spotted a fishing boat with a man waving for help on board. Turning the ship around, the crew dragged the man to safety. He had been fishing when the weather turned dangerous. Dealing with an overturning boat, he opted to tie himself to the boat to keep from going overboard. He had survived, but his son and a 20-year-old friend from Sault Ste. Marie had both passed away from hypothermia.
In 1886, the Frances Smith became involved in the excursion industry – essentially, short cruises on the Great Lakes, including one that would go from Collingwood to the Sault and Mackinac Island for $12. Passengers would buy blueberries and crafts in Killarney, tour the Shingwauk School and Soo Locks, and experience the “tourist’s paradise” that was Mackinac Island. Unfortunately, this tour inherently involved crossing international waters into the USA. And the Frances Smith, more than 15 years after the Chicora Incident, found herself in trouble again.
The captain repeatedly violated American policies for crossing the border into the states. It culminated with American officials boarding the ship, taking apart the engine, and towing the ship. They held the ship on a $25,000 bond, which was eventually dropped to a $16,000 bond. The captain paid up and left with his ship . . . only to have the bond declared void. The Francis Smith was seized again, this time in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and dismantled again. The captain hired a lawyer and ultimately got his ship back with only a $500 fee. On all future excursions, the captain was more careful to check in with US customs officials.
In 1888, the Francis Smith, reeling from damage resulting from a bad storm, underwent extensive repairs. She was renamed the Baltic, and the rest of her career focused on excursions and moving goods between Collingwood and the Sault.
The Baltic had her last trip in 1893, taking passengers to the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1896, she was destroyed by a fire in Collingwood. She sunk, the area has been filled in, and what remains of her is now buried beneath a subdivision. It marked the sad end of a grand ship that left her mark on history and the Sault Ste. Marie area.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.