A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

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Steamboat Inspection

One of the first Canadian regulations for the safety of persons connected with shipping was that passed by the Legislative Council of the Province of Lower Canada on April 17, 1793 in an Act:

"... to prevent the bringing of gunpowder in ships or other vessels into the harbour of Montreal, and to guard against the careless transporting of the same into the powder magazines."

Aimed less at the safety of seamen, for whose welfare society then cared little, than at the survival of ordinary citizens whose lives might be jeopardized by rough and carefree handling of explosives in built up areas, this reminder of the dangers of gunpowder was nevertheless the forerunner of the modern Dangerous Goods Regulations. These regulations, international in scope, today provide for the safe carriage of a wide variety of explosive, toxic, corrosive or otherwise objectionable substances which must be transported to sustain the needs of modern industry.

But a notable act for the safety of Canadians afloat, in this case those engaged in the Ottawa and St. Lawrence squared timber trade, was passed by the Parliament of Lower Canada in 1805. This act marks the introduction of vessel inspection, albeit in a limited and special application, with the appointment of persons to inspect scows and rafts. The preamble reads:

"Whereas many accidents and considerable loss of property have risen in the rapids of the St. Lawrence, above the city of Montreal, partly by the ignorance and negligence of persons undertaking to pilot and conduct scows loaded with flour, and other provisions, also oak timber, staves and other lumber, coming from Upper Canada... it is hereby enacted, ... that it shall... be lawful for the Governor... to nominate and appoint one discreet and intelligent person, Resident in the Parish of Châteaugay, to be inspector and two others, so residing, to the measurers of scows and rafts..."

It was the duty of the inspector and measurers to be informed as to the depth of water available over the rapids between Châteaugay and Montreal and to determine the allowable draft for rafts and scows which, under the act, were required to be measured and marked. Although this act was intended more to prevent rafts running aground and breaking and breaking up, than overloading as such, it is interesting to note that, in effect, it related a maximum draft to the safety of the vessel and thus anticipated the first compulsory draft marks on seagoing ships which were not introduced until 1871, when the influence of Samuel Plimsoll, an English member of Parliament, was successful in introducing this measure in the Merchant Shipping Act of that date.

This early law for the safety of rafts and scows was amended, with some refinements, in 1808 and again in 1836, but a more important step in marine safety was taken in 1837 when Upper Canada passed:

"An Act to compel Vessels to carry a Light during the Night, and to make sundry provisions to regulate the Navigation of the Waters of this Province."

This enactment is recognizable as a primitive form of the rules in force today, for it required that steamboats, schooners, vessels and rafts should carry a lantern at night, that they should keep to the starboard side of the channel, and that sailing vessels on the starboard tack should have right of way over those on the port tack when beating to windward. By way of bodily safeguard for passengers in those pioneer days, it also enacted that steamboats must be provided with a substantial gang-board with handrails. Penalties of fines or imprisonment were laid down for offenders who, in addition, were to be liable for damages in subsequent cases involving civil litigation.

Some of the navigational requirements were already well established by tradition and custom amongst seamen. For many centuries, for example, the starboard tack rule had been observed and doubtless the more prudent, or more affluent, ship owners had displayed lights at night; however, here in the Province of Upper Canada, a safety problem was early recognized and steps were taken which eventually, in a later stage of development, would lead to more efficient control of the complex shipping of the Great Lakes.

Although the Lower Canada act of 1805 had appointed an inspector and two measures to see that rafts were properly marked, the Upper Canada act of 1837 made no provision for inspectors and it could be invoked only by the public, on the oath of one credible witness before two justices of the peace, a procedure which, in those days, was difficult to pursue with much hope of success. It was left to the Province of New Brunswick, in 1843, to introduce a comprehensive Steam Boat Act requiring inspection of vessels, certificates of inspection and the appointment of commissioners empowered to make regulations under the Act. Here, for the first time in British North America, were provided the elements of a workable safeguard for the travelling public in steam navigation.

The New Brunswick Act of 1843 extended the field of legislation to include safety equipment. As stated in the preamble, it was realized that:

" cases of fire or others disasters on board steam vessels, the lives of Passengers are frequently endangered or sacrificed from the want of a sufficient number of boats and other precautionary measures...".

Under this enactment, no passenger steamer was allowed to leave any port in the Province unless fitted with lifeboats, fire buckets, lanterns and life preservers, and the commissioners, of whom there were originally three at Saint John and three more at Miramachi, were required to inspect the vessel and to issue appropriate certificates.

This act of 1843 was revised at intervals by the New Brunswick Government, each revision adding further safeguards. In the early acts no inspection was specifically required for machinery or boilers, it being laid down that injury to passengers caused by fire or explosion would be deemed to be prima facie evidence of carelessness and negligence on the part of the master or owner. This primitive but sweeping assumption remained in force until 1854 when machinery inspection was introduced. In the last of the New Brunswick steam boat acts which was passed in 1865, examiners were appointed to certify engineers who, by this time, were acknowledged to be persons carrying considerable responsibility. Indeed the 1865 act is unique in that matter of the vessel was required by law to come to an anchor, if, in the opinion of the engineer, the machinery had become unsafe. The act was framed with river boats in mind.

Meanwhile, after the Union of the Upper and Lower Provinces of Canada and green lights to port and starboard respectively and to require that steamers be distinguished from sailing ships by a wide light on the foremast. In the steering and sailing rules this ACT was unusual in that a steam vessel at night had some right of way over a sailing ship running free, the latter being directed to:

"... pass on the starboard side, but if to avoid jibing their mainsail, or for any other good reason, they shall wish to pass on the larboard side, then shall show their green light, indicating that they are on larboard tack, when the steamer will pass under the vessel' stern."

Also of interest is the use of the words "port" and "larboard", having the same meaning, in the same act. It was about this time that the ancient sea terms "larboard" and "starboard", confusing phonetically, were changed by direction of a select committee of the House of Lords to the modern words "port" and "starboard". Tradition has it that one of the noble lords, lulled into slumber by an endless discussion on a suitable substitute for "larboard", awoke suddenly from dreaming of his dinner and the pleasures of wine, yet to come, and shouted "port" in a commanding tone, whereupon the motion was promptly seconded and adopted.

Be that as it may, the steering and sailing rules of the 1851 Act applied only to Upper Canada, but the steamboat inspection part applied to the entire Province, and inspectors were appointed, both for hull and machinery, at Quebec, Montreal, Bytown, Kingston, Hamilton and Niagara. Under this Act machinery inspection was carried out every six months, with hull inspection annually.

In other respects, the 1851 Act was not unlike the New Brunswick act of 1843 in that it required that steamboats carry fire hoses and lifeboats; it further stipulated that a steam pressure gauge be fitted where it could be seen by passengers and, as boiler explosions were not only common in fact but also aroused fears giving rise to the most popular neurosis of the period, it was enacted that the safety valve had to be opened wherever the vessel stopped to embark or discharge passengers. This theory was reversed in the last days of passenger steam navigation because the roar of escaping steam from the safety valve was by then more likely to frighten the wits out of tourists than to reassure them that the boilers were not about to blow up. It certainly scared the ship owner who, looking up at the white cloud enveloping the funnel, saw dollar bills fluttering out of the waste steam pipe. In some more recent ships, as a precaution against frightening non-technical passengers, surplus steam could be diverted into the condenser instead of to the atmosphere. This was known to engineers as the "silent blow" but, if it salved their conscience, it caused even stranger internal rumblings and echoes which were inexplicable to the layman.

In 1859, the navigation laws of the Province of Canada were consolidated and amended in a comprehensive work of legislation which set a pattern for the regulation of steam vessels in Canada for many years to come. In the steering and sailing rules the arcs and ranges of navigation lights were defined in the way which has since become familiar to generations of candidates attempting to satisfy the seamanship examiner:

"The light...shall show an uniform and unbroken light over an arc of the horizon of the compass, and it shall be so fixed as to throw the light ten points on each side of the ship, viz., from right ahead to two points abaft the beam on either side."

But the greatest advance of the 1859 Act lay in the regulations for safety and inspection of steamboats. For the first time the steamboat inspectors were required to form a regulatory body called the Board of Steamboat Inspection, with a chairman appointed by the Governor in Council. The Board, which under the modern name of Board of Steamship Inspection, remains to this day the administrative authority for the safety of Canadian shipping, was required to meet at least once a year in Quebec and Toronto, and elsewhere as directed by the chairman. Its principal duty was to frame regulations for the safety of vessels and to examine and certify the engineers of steamboats. Certificates, awarded after examination into the:

"... Character, habits of life, knowledge and experience in the duties of an engineer..."

were valid for one year and were then subject to renewal,

"... provided always that the licence of any such Engineer may be revoked by the said Board upon proof of negligence, unskillfulness or drunkenness, or upon the findings of a Coroner's jury."

The fee for a first examination as engineer of a steamboat was five dollars, and for renewal one dollar. Despite the countless waves of financial inflation which have washed over Canada in the intervening period of more than a century, the fee for all but the most senior examinations remains at five dollars.

One further enactment among the pre-Confederation steamboat acts must be mentioned, an Act passed by the Governor, Council and Assembly of the Province of Nova Scotia in 1864. Under this Act, steamboat inspection was introduced to the Province in much the same way as in New Brunswick and Canada, the inspectors having powers to board any passenger steamboat and examine hull, boiler, machinery, boats and equipment and to require that the vessel be put through any reasonable tests. The form of certificate issued to the ship stated that the inspector found her "... suitable for the carriage of passengers without hazard to life...", that the boiler could be worked to a stated pressure, and that the vessel could be employed on a stated and limited route. The Nova Scotia act made no provision for the examination and certification of engineers.

The early steamboat inspectors were a remarkable body of men. Until Confederation, and indeed for many years thereafter, the inspectors had to rely on their own judgement to a much greater degree than is possible or desirable today. There were then no material specifications other than in limited and simple design sketches and, while the action of the steam engine was understood in a practical way, the principles of thermo-dynamics were only just unfolding. Under the name of "natural philosophy" scientific engineering was rapidly extending outside the realms of the day, works which tended to explain marine engineering in relativity simple formulae which, from a combination of mechanical principles and observed results, had given reasonable satisfaction in the past. To provide for a comfortable margin between theory and demonstrated safety, components were made generously heavy but, with the wide use of cast iron then in favour, these often failed without warning. Owing to the enormous expansion of steam navigation in the mid nineteenth century, and the relativity small number of great figures able to extend practical knowledge to the frontiers of experimental science, it was inevitable that the accepted standards tended to become engraved in the minds of operating engineers.

On the hull side, which fell within the responsibilities of the early engineering inspectors, construction of all but the largest vessels commenced with a model. Based on the last ship to be built, and modified by the wishes of the owner or master, a half model would be made which was then sawn up for the measurement of offsets. Calculations of displacement and draft, which had been understood by naval architects and master shipwrights since the seventeenth century, were almost unknown in the small Canadian yards; stability, although understood to some extend by a few mathematical and technical minds, was not subjected to intensive study by the principal naval architects of the world until well on in the second half of the nineteenth century. In most cases the early side wheelers and "propellers" of Canada were stable enough provided they were not overloaded, for most of them were more or less wide and flat bottomed, but the calculations of hydrostatic properties mandatory today were then undreamt of. Considerations such as freeboard, watertight subdivision, and all but the most elementary design features of fire protection, had to wait for a later day.

The emergency equipment of the early steamers was of the simplest. Steam and hand pumps with leather hoses and fire buckets, life preservers filled with cork or wood shavings, oil lanterns, axes and crowbars, were the fundamental tools of survival, often on an arbitrary and inadequate scale. However, "fireproof" metallic lifeboats were in use before Confederation, a requirement which ante-dated by more than half a century the widespread use of fire resistant materials in evidence today.

For all these matters, standards gradually evolved. In the earliest days of pre-Confederation marine inspection there were none, and the first duty of the inspectors was to formulate their own. With very few exceptions it was a duty nobly discharged.

On May 22, 1868, the Parliament of Canada passed its first Steamboat Act. Many other acts received assent that day in Ottawa including the constitution of the Department of Marine and Fisheries itself, a number of shipping laws and, by way of a charitable ending to a sensational tragedy which had shaken the new capital, a bill providing for the financial needs of the widow and children of the Hon. Thomas d'Arcy McGee who had lately been murdered on a doorstep in Sparks Street.

Resulting from the Steamboat Act, the Government was able to appoint Samuel Risley, whom we have previously met as steamboat inspector in Upper Canada, as chairman of the newly formed Board of Steamboat Inspection. He was at that time Inspector for West Ontario, Huron and Superior Division of the Provincial service of Canada, a regional responsibility which was transferred to his federal post.

Samuel Risley was born in New York City in 1821 and may have received his early training and education there. It is not known when he came to Canada but we do know that, by 1857, he enjoyed a recognized position of influence in the steamboat world. Certainly he must have been known to the government of the day, for all officials were then political appointees, and the probability is that he first became a steamboat inspector under the Act of 1851, at which time he would have been aged 30 with at least twelve years of practical experience behind him. In 1858, as a result of his own suggestion, the office of Chairman of the Board, which had hitherto been filled by election among the inspectors without additional salary, was made a statutory position under the Steamboat Act. There was some internal opposition from one inspector who may have resented Risley but, by February 1858, Samuel Risley had been appointed as Chairman of the Provincial Board at a salary of $1,200 per annum, the other inspectors receiving $800.

Photo: Sidewheel Steamboat Queen Victoria

Side wheel Steamboat Queen Victoria.

This wooden steamer was built at Hull, P.Q. in 1860 and ran between Ottawa and Greenville. Later, she was sold to the Upper Lakes and was destroyed by fire in the St. Clair River in 1885.

(Public Archives)

At the passing of the Steamboat Act of 1868, and in addition to the chairman, the inspectors comprising the new Board were:

Mr. William McAusland of East Ontario;
Mr. Fessenden of Montreal;
Mr. Befort of Sorel and Three Rivers;
Mr. Samson of Quebec, and
Mr. William M. Smith of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

William Morgan Smith was an excellent example of the early steamboat inspectors and was, like Risley, a man of judgment and integrity. Self educated apart from his early schooling at Fredericton, where his father had been a draughtsman in the Crown Land Office, he was spurred on by a lively and enquiring mind which thrived on practical problems. Apprenticed to Foulis of Saint John in 1833, young Smith followed this introduction to an outstanding engineer by a period in Boston at Alger's foundry, where a notable American by the name of Babbit had invented the bearing metal which still carries his name.

After more than ten years in the next phase of his development, as engineer and superintendent of the steam ferries at Saint John, he returned to the United States for a short spell as a marine engineering draughtsman with Cunningham and Bellnap of New York, a position which was comparable to that of a senior designer today. After branching out to operate his own steam ferries in Saint John, Mr. Smith entered the service of government when his Province introduced machinery inspection of steamboats in 1854. By this time, as with Risley himself, William Smith was in the van of Canadian marine engineers and, in 1862, he was invited to organize steamboat inspection in Prince Edward Island.

Following his appointment to the federal government in 1868, he became deputy chairman of the Board of Steamboat Inspection in 1872 and, when Prince Edward Island entered Confederation in 1873, divisional inspector for all the Maritime Provinces. Retiring in 1886, he never had an opportunity to reach the top position as Risley remained in office until 1889. These two, first rate professionals in a growing Canadian industry, jointly set the standards so evidently required.

The first and most necessary standard was to ensure that all steamboats were in fact inspected. To this end collectors of customs were empowered to levy a fee from owners or masters to cover the cost of inspection, and to seize steamers on which the duty had been unpaid. Despite these arrangements, some vessels escaped inspection in the early stages, for it was a period when many people were yet illiterate and business was conducted with an absence of records unknown today.

If some confusion was inevitable in the conditions of the times, it was duly noted by the Chairman of the Board whose reports contain such references as:

"This steamer has no register, dues have not been paid; will be paid next inspection."

"... they have turned her into a sawmill, therefore she was not inspected this year."

"There are some small tugs owned by captains who are very seldom to be seen if at all until the  close of navigation. They will be retained, when inspected until the fees are paid."

"This steamer was burnt, cause unknown, dues unpaid."

Photo: The sidewheeler David Weston after destruction by fire in the Saint John River in 1903

Fire in a steamboat. The side wheeler David Weston after destruction by fire in the Saint John River in 1903. The gaunt remains of the engine framing and walking beam were completely exposed when the wood superstructure and hull were burnt. Three lives were lost.

(James E. Covey, Saint John, N. B. and New Brunswick Museum)

Gradually, the net tightened and, although the Hon. Peter Mitchell expressed ministerial concern in 1871 that:

"... there is no branch of the Public Service with the administration of which this Department is charged, which is a subject of more anxiety to me, than the Inspection of Steamboats..."

he was able to record that:

"... no accident occurred during last year involving loss of life to any of the large crowds of passengers who travelled on our Canadian boats through any defect in the steamers, their boilers or machinery, and I think it bears high testimony to the carefulness, patience and vigour of our Steamboat Inspectors."

Despite this care and attention, accidents did happen and, if not all were due to "defects in the steamers" in the sense of the regulations then in force, a series of horrible tragedies plagued navigation in the seventies and eighties. To put this in perspective it must be remembered that calamities then happened in all walks of life, houses and buildings caught fire more than they do today, trains were derailed and, if the world had not yet accepted a scale of slaughter that would come with the automobile, neither had it become complacent in such matters.

On the 11th., October 1881, public concern was expressed by an editorial in the Globe newspaper:

"According to the detailed statement which is published in another column, disaster in the Canadian Lakes during the last three years has resulted in the loss of no fewer than 470 lives.

This is a larger number than were lost during the previous twenty years! The greater number of accidents have been preventable causes, as in the case of the Victoria when 181 souls perished from overcrowding, and the recent Asia catastrophe when the calamity was due to the vessel being utterly unfit for navigation. It is to be hoped that public opinion is now fairly aroused to the necessity of securing the safety of the travelling public, so far as it can be accomplished by legislation, and that something of a practical nature may at length be done to cope with these evils."

In the body of that issue of the Globe, surrounded by advertisements for patent medicines and situations requiring respectable clerks, the reporters had a two column spread with the heading:


The anxiety of the Minister was well founded. The Globe article stated that overcrowding of passengers in steamboats had repeatedly been brought to the attention of the Department of Marine and Fisheries, which indeed it had, for the Chairman of the Board of Steamboat Inspection had reported the state of affairs. The trouble was to find a rule which would be technically workable, readily enforceable and which, while protecting the safety of the travelling public as its prime purpose, would satisfy the steamboat industry at a time when restrictive legislation of almost any kind was viewed as a violation of individual rights. The newspaper disclosed that many steamboat owners felt no sense of responsibility towards the safety of their patrons as some steamers were in the habit of taking 1,500 on board while providing lifesaving appliances for about a fourth of that number.

Apart from the business of overcrowding, the Globe dealt with the dangers of fire which, in the days of wood fired boilers in cramped ill ventilated wooden vessels, was an every day risk. There were then few bulkheads in steamboats, which not only encouraged the spread of fire but weakened the whole structure of the hull which, with the movement of the ponderous engines, strained and twisted in a seaway. The Globe blamed this type of deficiency as a cause of the loss of the steamer Asia, an old "propeller" which, it will be recalled, had been lost in Georgian Bay in 1882.

As a reflection of the ideas of those days, it is interesting to note that the newspaper article condemning the lack of engine room bulkheads, which it stated were then made of one inch pine, recommended merely that these should henceforth be of "... heavy pine or oak, or better still of iron." Such was the state of the wooden steamboats of the eighteen eighties.

And the Globe disclosed other evils. Suspicious of malpractice haunted the inspection service in early years, and the newsman finished his work with a story from the seamy side, but without quoting names and places. The reporter narrated an interview with a second mate who had recently left his ship because of her unsound condition. He said that she had been inspected and that the government inspector had been hesitant about issuing a certificate, being well aware of the rotten timbers in the bottom. However, a certificate had been made out following a conversation between the owner and the inspector and a sly transfer of something from the pocket of one to the other.

The steamboat inspection service had expanded since Confederation and, in an age when the civil service was all but openly run on patronage, not all employees were of the rectitude of a Risley or a Smith. The evils of "pork barrel" politics, disappearing though they were, would linger for a while as Canada emerged from frontier territory; but a time would come when the Canadian civil service would be second to none in the world.

The press itself, outspoken in defence of public rights as it undoubtedly was, did not tell all the truth. Distressing as it must have been for conscientious officials to read the Globe on overcrowding of steamboats, it must have been exasperating to find, as is evident today, that some of the harshest criticism was taken, almost verbatim, from Risley's report to his Minister.

It was this capacity for technical reform, always difficult in the face of lethargy and vested interest, which distinguishes the work of Risley and Smith as they laboured to improve the steamboats of the day which, as they well knew, were often unsafe or were operated with a careless optimism which was virtually criminal.

We have already referred to the wreck of the Asia and how that sad event led to the undertaking of the Georgian Bay survey. The case of the Victoria, equally damning, was reported by Risley himself. Of only 27 tons, she had on board nearly 600 passengers when she capsized in the River Thames at London, Ont. Of this tragedy, the chairman reported:

"With 200 persons equally distributed on the main and upper decks the vessel was quite safe, with 400 she was dangerous, with 500 to 600... the wonder is that she did not upset immediately on leaving the wharf."

As a result of this tragedy, Risley pleaded for specialist inspectors of hulls, men who would relieve the hard-pressed engineer inspectors of some of their duties. They were desperately needed.

There being no provision in the steamboat acts, up till Victoria tragedy, to limit the number of passengers carried, an act was passed in 1882 creating inspectors of hulls and equipment. These inspectors were given powers to state the maximum number of passengers to be carried and, under the act, masters and owners were liable to heavy penalties for exceeding the authorized complement.

Photo: William Morgan Smith

William Morgan Smith.

Appointed Steamboat Inspector for New Brunswick in 1854, Mr. Smith became Deputy Chairman of the Board of Steamboat Inspection in 1868 and Divisional Inspector for all the Maritime Provinces when Prince Edward Island entered Confederation in 1873. He retired in 1886.