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

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The Last Phase of Wooden Shipbuilding

Although iron or steel had become almost universal for the construction of seagoing steamers from the Napier period onwards, some wooden shipbuilding lingered on. In Europe, where long traditions of maritime achievement died hard, ships for Arctic exploration continued to be built of wood which, since time immemorial, had proved its ability to withstand the pressure of ice, and the new and lesser known materials were distrusted. "Hearts of Oak" like the Alert were therefore followed by wooden whalers and sealers, of which the Neptune was one of the most powerful and, in the final phase, by Bernier's Arctic which was specially designed and built for polar work as late as 1901.

Unlike most of our wooden ships, which had been built by traditional methods with little or no design work in the modern sense, the Arctic was constructed to a high specification based on extensive preliminary study. She was constructed by Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft of Kiel, Germany, for an Antarctic expedition which sailed under the leadership of Professor Erich von Drygalski on behalf of the German government. When Captain Bernier subsequently went to Germany to survey the vessel he had no difficulty in recommending her purchase; there is no doubt that the Arctic, ex Gauss, was almost unique.

The working drawings of this fine ship, copies of which were kindly presented to the Department in the preparation of this work, are very complete, and the vessel was built to a correspondingly high specification. Classed A1 at Germanischer Lloyds, and strengthened for ice, the Gauss was designed to be self sufficient for three years with a complement of 30 officers and crew and some 600-700 tons of fuel, food, stores and water. She was, of course, exceptionally strong to resist ice pressure, and the rudder and propeller were arranged to hoist inboard for inspection or repair of damages. Her sail plan was also given detailed attention and shows a scientific approach which was unusual in the design of sailing ships up till that period.

In Canada, large numbers of wooden steamers continued to be built for inland and coastal service for, using the materials which lay to hand, timber was still relatively cheap and the machinery for such vessels, which different but little from the engines used in mill or mine, could be built by general engineering firms who were not necessarily marine specialists. The early side wheelers Admiral and Advance, which Francois Baby had put to work in the days of the contract ships, belong to this category as do the later screw steamers Scout and Shamrock. A third category of wooden steamships, in which can be placed the Princess Louise and Lansdowne, belongs more properly to the Canadian period of wooden ships and iron men for these were heavily built deep sea hulls fitted with imported marine machinery.

When the schooner La Canadienne was wrecked on St. Paul's Island in 1874 she was replaced by a wooden steamer, rigged as a three masted schooner, which had been purchased by the Department later in the same year. This ship, the Glendon, had been built and engineered at Saint John, N.B. some two years previously, and experience had shown that she was too small and too slow for the arduous business of supplying coal for the Atlantic lights. It was therefore decided to acquire a seagoing steamer with powerful machinery and to have her built in the Maritimes where the wooden shipbuilding industry was already on the decline. This ship was the Princess Louise.

The contract for the hull was placed with Jotham O'Brien of Maccan, N.S. who undertook to build it for $29,900, a sum which works out at $60 per gross ton and which, even in 1882, can hardly have left much profit for Mr. O'Brien. But the work was well and truly accomplished and, the machinery having been completed by Rankin and Blackmore in Scotland, it was decided to send the new ship to Greenock under sail to receive her engine and boiler. This procedure, not unreasonable in the conditions of the day, must have been tempting to the administrators of the Department. Experienced seamen, well used to wooden sailing ships, could easily be obtained and as easily discharged and the expenses, modest as they were for crew, would be completed with a few bags of beef and biscuit, some canvas and cordage, and a bunker full of Scotch coal for the voyage out. The west to east Atlantic passage is basically a fair wind proposition which would likely take less than a month and, with luck, a few more weeks would see the Princess Louise safely back on station as a well found steamer.

Captain D. M. Browne, an experienced officer who had been master of La Canadienne when she drove ashore in the breakers of St. Paul's Island, and who was now superintendent of lights for the whole of Nova Scotia, was appointed to take charge of the new ship until she was ready to enter service and, with the Departmental steamer Newfield, he went to Maccan from whence his command was to be towed to Halifax for the ocean voyage.

On the November 2, 1882, the Princess Louise, riding high and light, was picked up by the Newfield at the entrance to the Cumberland Basin and the two headed down the Bay of Fundy in fine weather. Browne, with memories of the destruction of La Canadienne on a lee shore, had arranged with Captain Guilford of the Newfield that they should make for Digby in the event of bad weather and wait there for a favourable slant in which to nip round Cape Sable and up to Halifax. As the Newfield had originally been built as a collier of modest power, this was a seamanlike precaution in the circumstances.

On the first day out the glass began to fall and, with a threatening sky, tug and tow headed up for shelter as arranged. By the time that they arrived in the lee of a weather shore about a mile from Digby Gut the wind had died down, and in drizzling rain and poor visibility they stood off and on awaiting daylight. Suddenly, at 10 p.m. the wind started to back and blowing with increasing ferocity transformed their place of safety into a dangerous lee shore. By midnight the Newfield, handicapped by her tow, was punching into a vicious gale with blinding snowstorms, rolling her boats under as the attempted to get the Princess Louise in control. The towrope broke it was in fact a wire and Captain Guilford was unable to recover his charge before she drove ashore near Point Prim. Before morning the stranding turned into tragedy when Captain Browne and seven of his crew died in the breakers. In the words of a report on the accident,

"the Newfield . . . had as much as she could do to save herself."

The steamers of the day were but little better than sailing ships when it came to working off a lee shore.

With the loss of the Princess Louise, the Department found itself in possession of a compound engine and boiler worth about $20,000 in the values of the time. Another vessel was therefore ordered from the same builder, this time at a contract price of $34,300 for 680 gross tons, or $50 per gross ton. One can only hope that the repeat nature of the work ensured some economy in construction for the builder. The machinery was shipped to Canada for installation and the completed vessel, the Lansdowne, had a long and useful career in the Marine Service until she was laid up in 1917. The style of hull and the fittings were akin to the deep sea sailing ships of the great period of Maritime shipbuilding. Apart from the Arctic which was acquired in 1904, the Lansdowne was the last major vessel of the Department of Marine and Fisheries to be built of wood.

Photo: Lansdowne


Built at Maccan, N.S., in 1883 to replace the ill-fated Princess Louise. Note the heavily built wooden hull.