“Warning: Owners of large and medium sized craft, who navigate the St. Lawrence River between Cornwall and Prescott, are warned not to attempt to navigate the Long Sault Rapids. Passage through these rapids is definitely dangerous for craft of this type.” Published 1955, in the St. Lawrence River Pilot
Seated at his table for afternoon tea, an elderly gentleman continued staring out the window from the main salon of the cruise ship Canadian Empress. Watching the beautiful scenery passing by, Ogle Carrs remarked to his wife that it had been some time since he had travelled this part of the river, and many things had changed.
He recognized many areas of the river from Kingston through Brockville but it was down through the former International Rapids Section that things had really changed. None of the landmarks could be recognized. Then a strange but vaguely familiar sound rang in his ears as he watched the beautiful fall colours of the many trees lining the river bank through the panoramic windows. It sounded like a soft chime, but it had a certain rhythm. Like a church bell from a childhood town.
Just behind the ship, the afternoon sun was starting to set, fanning its rays over the tree tops of nearby Iroquois, Ontario. It was a late fall trip for the popular cruise ship last year and I was her captain for this leg from Kingston to Ottawa. We had just cleared the Iroquois Lock, down bound for Upper Canada Village which was about an hour away.
Getting up from the table, Mr. Carrs was telling the other couple of his last trip through the St. Lawrence River down bound from Toronto to Montreal. It was fascinating to eavesdrop on the conversation because Mr. Carrs was describing another era; the golden years of passenger transportation on the lake and the St. Lawrence River when he was seven years old. The year was 1929.
“My dad and I were on the dock at Prescott,” he began, sitting back down. “We were waiting to board the Rapids Prince for a trip to Montreal. I was looking forward to seeing the engine room of this ship. It didn’t have paddlewheels. My dad told me it was driven by propellers instead. He said we had to change ships because the river ahead was full of rapids and that this special boat was needed when sailing in such waters.”
There were three ships that handled the passenger trade between Prescott and Montreal back then. These were the Rapids King, the Rapids Queen and the Rapids Prince. The Rapids King was the first ship designed for the thrilling run through the rapids section of the St. Lawrence River. Built in 1907 by the Canadian Shipbuilding Company at Toronto, she carried passengers for the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company which later became the Canada Steamship Lines. The SS Rapids King, 245 feet long had a triple expansion engine and had two coal-fired scotch boilers. Drawing six feet and five inches of water, she was really too large for the dangerous rapids run and frequently ran aground. As a result, she was placed on a regular run at the western end of Lake Ontario and eventually between Chatham Ontario and Detroit Michigan. Following the Great Depression the Rapids King was laid up in Sorel, Quebec until 1949, when she was towed to Kingston and broken up for scrap.
A similar fate awaited the Rapids Queen and today, her hull rests on the bottom as a breakwater in Toronto harbour.
The SS Rapids Prince, built in 1910, was the last ship designed for the Long Sault Rapids run. At 210 feet long, the ship was powered by two triple expansion engines but only one scotch boiler. Drawing only five feet, the Rapids Prince was ideal for the down bound run and soon became a favourite. Especially for a small, excited boy and his father waiting to transfer at the passenger dock in Prescott.
“We had just landed at this dock from the SS Kingston,” said Mr. Carrs. “We had boarded the Kingston at Toronto the day before.” The Kingston provided regular passenger service on Lake Ontario between Toronto, Charlotte, Kingston, Alexandria Bay, the Thousand Islands and Prescott from 1910 to 1949. The 300 foot long sidewheel steamship could carry 365 overnight in staterooms and many passengers then connected with the “Rapids” ships for the exciting trip down the river to Montreal. “The streetcar took us right to the dock on the lakefront,” remembered Carrs. “Close by were the passenger ships SS Chippewa, a walking beam paddlewheeler, the SS Corona, a non walking beam paddlewheeler and the SS Cayuga a propeller driven ship that used to take off for trips to the Niagara River. We had many family picnics on these ships.” It was the height of the steamboat era and father and son were very much a part of it.
Former sailor Alan Rafuse lives in Cornwall Ontario today. A sailor for 17 years, Rafuse was born and raised in the river side village of Mille Roches. He began his career on the ‘canallers’ when he was still in high school. Canallers were small freighters designed to transit the canals and locks of the St. Lawrence River. They did not ‘run’ the rapids. No more than 250 feet long, they were around 38 feet wide, powered by a triple expansion engine, with a pair of coal fired scotch boilers. Former Lock 17 at Cornwall, was the controlling lock from which these ships took their dimensions.
“I did that from 1952 to 1956,” Rafuse recalled. “My buddies and I got in the habit of pocketing our wages for nine months then coming home – broke by New Years Eve,” he laughed. Returning to the St. Lawrence River after a stint on Canada’s west coast, Rafuse signed aboard the canaller SS Frank Wilkinson as a wheelsman. “We were unloading grain in Montreal then went down to the Gulf for a load of pulpwood for Thorold,” he said. It was during this time that the Long Sault Rapids were drained by cofferdam construction and silenced forever. Construction for the brand new St. Lawrence Seaway was well underway.
Passing through the canal, Rafuse had no idea it would be his last view of the old locks and villages. “Our first trip down, I just looked over from the canal towards the Long Sault Rapids. They weren’t there anymore. You know, I should have got off. I just felt sick. I was sitting out on deck coming down from Dickinson’s Landing. Nobody knew what was wrong with me. Then they left me alone. I guess the captain gave them orders.”
Later, on the return trip, Alan Rafuse and crew entered a different world. “When the flooding was about to happen, we were coming up Lake St. Francis and were radioed to go to anchor. We were there for six days until it was our turn to go up. Well, we didn’t know what all the arrangements were, and when we left the brand new Eisenhower Lock way over on the far shore, word came down to my cabin that the captain wanted me in the wheelhouse. I thought they were kidding around. I came up and took a quick look around. ’Hey young fella,’ the captain said to me, ‘you come from around here. Just stick around and tell us where to go!’” Rafuse falls silent for a full minute. “I was trying to place where our old house used to be. The thing was, when you looked out, you did not recognize a thing. Nothing. It was absolutely gone. It was a barren landscape on both sides of the river.”
Tea time over, Ogle Carrs is still reminiscing about his thrilling trip through the Long Sault Rapids so long ago aboard the Rapids Prince. “I didn’t take the time to visit her engine room as I found a wonderful lookout position right at her bow where I could see where the water swirled over the rocks that were always missed. It was a wonderful, bumpy ride!”
Getting up from his chair, Mr. Carrs walks toward the door leading toward the bow of the Canadian Empress. It is just then that the main salon clock chimes the half hour. Ogle Carrs turns to look and can’t believe his eyes. Mystery noise solved. Inscribed below the gleaming brass clock is a plaque which reads SS Rapids Prince, In service from 1911 – 1951. His fingers touch the clock’s face and brass side. It had been almost seventy years since the young boy of seven remembered those soft chimes.
The sun is dipping lower now as the Canadian Empress enters Lake St. Lawrence, the area that had to be flooded and the villages and hamlets evacuated back in 1958. We are also very close to the former Long Sault Rapids which now lay forever silent below several feet of water. Out on the bow, just below the wheelhouse is an older gentleman staring out at the river, his hands gripping the rail. Two couples make their way past. One of the ladies turns to look at the gentleman. For a split second she almost thought she could see him jumping up and down.
Brian Johnson, Captain, Wolfe Islander III, President, Wolfe Island Historical Society
Brian Johnson continues to present the story of the Lost Villages. In this article he describes the difference between the old “running the rapids” and the quite cruise that visitors now experience. We recommend several websites and material that commemorates the Lost villages. Toronto’s Globe and Mail, published on Friday, Jun. 26, 2009 “Canadians recall how their lives were uprooted by the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway”, The St Lawrence River Canals Vessels, by James Gilmour and the website for the Lost Villages Historical Society , presented in both in English and French.
Brian is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for 28 years, recently celebrating 20 years as captain. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also the founding and current president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society and former president of the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime mystery writer’s festival held on the island every August.
This story was first published by Captain Johnson as an assignment from the Kingston Whig Standard as a series in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the St. Lawrence Seaway which started on February 16, 2009. There were eleven stories. The story submitted here, first published on October 3, 2009, as "Days of steam on the river"