Two years before the Grand Trunk Railway came to Goderich in June 1858, the Age of Steam arrived with the advent of the steamer Ploughboy. She was not the first steamer in Goderich but, starting in 1856, she was the first to make the port a regular stop on her route between Detroit and Southampton. The Ploughboy was one of the most storied steamers to ever ply Lake Huron’s water.
The Ploughboy was built in Chatham, Ontario by J. M McDermott in 1851. At 170 feet long and 28 feet abeam, she was a substantial vessel with room for up to 60 passengers and cargo compartments. The Ploughboy was a sidewheel boat powered by a Montreal-built steam engine. She was launched on June 24, 1851 and initially made the Chatham to Detroit route.
In 1853, the Ploughboy made runs from Detroit to Toledo and Buffalo. She was overhauled in 1854 in Detroit and had her boiler replaced for trips from Detroit to Port Stanley. In 1855, the first of several mechanical failures that plagued her throughout her time on the lakes occurred. She was laid up in Detroit for the remainder of the season until her $1,000 repair could be made.
In 1856, she was put back in service, steaming from Detroit to ports on Lake Huron’s Canadian shores. One of those ports of call was Goderich where she made regular trips picking up and dropping off passengers and cargo on her runs. An advertisement in the Huron Signal, Mr. James Orr was appointed as the Ploughboy’s forwarding agent and claimed “all orders will be punctually attended to.”
The Ploughboy was feared lost on one of her first voyages on Lake Huron in May 1856. She had only been grounded on the Saugeen shore and was taken off with only slight damage although she was laid up in Goderich for repairs to a broken cylinder. In June, the Detroit Free Press announced that the Ploughboy was “thoroughly repaired and has resumed her trips between [Detroit], Goderich and Southampton.”
The advent of steam shipping on Lake Huron wrought ominous changes to the sailing schooners that were such a familiar sight in Goderich. In 1900, a Captain McLeod, Kincardine’s first shipbuilder, recalled that when the Ploughboy “came on the scene our passenger business was done.”
Mechanical breakdowns aside, no longer were vessels dependent upon wind, wave and weather. The steamer Ploughboy could navigate the lake more reliably and on a fixed schedule. Indeed, an 1858 advertisement in the Sarnia Observer posted the timetable for the Ploughboy on her regular run from Detroit, making stops at Windsor, Sarnia and Bayfield as well as Goderich. She ran downbound from Goderich every Monday and Thursday at 8 a.m. and left for the upbound trip to the Saugeen every Saturday at 7 a.m. No sailing vessel could make that precise schedule.
The advantages of steam were made abundantly clear when on Nov. 20, 1857, during a heavy winter gale that had raged for several days on Lake Huron, the Ploughboy rescued the crew of the schooner Gamecock six miles south of Goderich.
No sooner did the Ploughboy bring the Gamecock and her crew to Goderich when word was received of another distressed vessel north of Goderich. Captain Rowan of the Ploughboy steamed towards the schooner D. B. Sexton “in a helpless condition” on a shoal off of Clark’s Point. In a daring rescue, Captain Rowan’s crew, according to the Kingston News, carried the steamer’s longboat nine miles overland on a sleigh in blizzard conditions to the scene of the wreck and rowed out to the stranded vessel and carried all of the schooner’s men off. All were saved, but one crewman suffered frostbite to his hands.
More adventures lay ahead for the Ploughboy. In 1858, she was put in service on the run between Collingwood, and Sault Ste Marie. In addition to cargo, she was a sight-seeing vessel for excursionists. The Collingwood Journal thought that “Torontonians would take advantage of this beautiful route” to enjoy the “purest air” and most spectacular scenery to be seen anywhere.
One group of prominent citizens, among them MPs, set out from Collingwood on July 1, 1859. All was well until nearing the northern end of Georgian Bay, when the Ploughboy’s the engine’s machinery snapped nearly putting a hole in the hull. Steam was turned off and the Ploughboy drifted helplessly at the mercy of the high winds and heavy waves that began to overwhelm her.
One account in a Kingston newspaper said that despite the frantic exertions of the Ploughboy’s crew to save the ship, she appeared doomed as the vessel headed straight for a rock cliff on Lonely Island in Georgian Bay. According to the Kingston paper’s correspondent, “each succeeding wave struck with the roar of a cannon, and appeared to have engulfed the vessel.”
Yet, despite their terrifying predicament, there was no panic as “no one murmured” or “screamed”. By a miracle, the anchors that the Ploughboy’s captain ordered run out to stabilize the boat caught an underwater rock ledge just 200 feet from shore which formed a firm anchorage halting the imminent collision with the cliffs and, undoubtedly, the loss of all on board.
When the storm subsided, a lifeboat was sent for help. Nearly a week after the Ploughboy set out, all aboard were safely returned to Collingwood. Foremost among the survivors was the Hon. John A. Macdonald who was destined to be Canada’s first Prime Minister.
In July 1863, the Ploughboy was involved in one of the Great Lakes’ greatest murder mysteries.
William Gibbard, the fisheries inspector for the northern Great Lakes, had made many enemies among local fishermen, booze runners and natives. On July 27, when the Ploughboy neared Killarney, Gibbard, who was on board the vessel, was reported missing. A search later found his body floating in the water.
Speculation as to whether he had fallen overboard or was thrown was rife. An inquest determined he had drowned but had been struck on the head with a heavy object before dying. His death was ruled a murder. There were a number of suspects aboard who had reason to want Gibbard dead but no one was ever arrested for his murder.
One month after the Gibbard murder, another mechanical mishap ended in tragedy for the Ploughboy. While taking about 30 passengers to the Sault, the strap connecting the side wheel’s walking beam snapped causing it to cease moving. The Ploughboy dropped anchor. A boat was sent with five crewmen to the Sault to get help. However, a storm brewed up and heavy seas capsized the small boat, drowning four of the five crewmen. Exhausted, the surviving crewman was able to get help for the stranded Ploughboy.
Perhaps because of her bad luck, the Ploughboy was renamed the T. F. Park. She went back into service around Amherstburg in 1864. She was reported “smashed up” on Lake St Clair in 1868 but was repaired and put back into service.
On June 3, 1870, while being refitted in Detroit, the Ploughboy was destroyed by fire. It was a sad end to one of the most celebrated lake vessels. One unknown local poet astutely noted that “the Ploughboy’s whistle” had “ceased for ever” an earlier way of life on the Maitland River.