New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Navigation on the Saint John River

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From the blog at

The following paragraphs were written by William T. Baird, and are from his book Seventy Years of New Brunswick Life; Autobiographical Sketches, Saint John, N.B., 1890.

Baird’s remembrances of steamboats on the Saint John River are a pleasure to read. He records his memories with affection, but without being overly sentimental.


The Reindeer, Designed by Benjamin Tibbetts


Navigation on the Saint John River

An opinion is frequently expressed by tourists that the natural beauty of the St. John is not exceeded by any other river on the continent. The report made by its discoverer, DeMonts, to the King of France, was in these words: “The great extent of the river, the fish with which it is filled, the grapes growing upon its banks, and the beauty of its scenery, are all objects of wonder and admiration.”

The distance from St. John to Fredericton, 85 miles, is made regularly in the summer season by steamboats; thence to Grand Falls, 125 miles, has been made by steamers at a high pitch of water, or during the spring freshets.

For a few months in the year, a steamer runs to Woodstock, and it is a great accommodation to the people living on or near the banks of the river with whom there is no railway communication.

The erection of several bridges across the river and the daily passage of trains to Grand Falls and Edmundston has almost effectually closed the navigation, above Woodstock, to any water craft.

My earliest recollection of vessels on the St. John was the firing of a gun announcing the arrival at Fredericton of the “Governor’s Yacht,” used for the transportation of governors and their effects to and from Fredericton.

Before the introduction of steam as a propelling power on the river, a boat ran between St. John and Fredericton, driven by horse power. The first steamer was the “General Smith” in 1816. Following her was the “St. George” in 1825, commanded by Captain Segee, and later by Captain Wylie. The transport of freight and passengers was also done by “sloops.”

A veteran commander, Captain Currier, is still living in Fredericton. The others of my time were Captains Parsons, Vail and Fradsham, residents of the same place.

A regular visitor from Grand Manan was “Drake’s schooner,” a tight little vessel, and her cargo sometimes exhibited an acquaintance with Yankee ports.

The “John Ward” and “St. John,” substantial steam vessels, were followed by Whitney’s fleet of high pressure steamers, “Water Witch,” “Novelty,” etc. The latter reached the highest rate of speed attained by any vessel plying on the St. John. She made the passage from St. John to Fredericton and returned in less than a day. In the year 1838 she visited Woodstock, and left her mark on Becaguimac Island, 10 miles higher up, where she was for a short time stranded.

The “Novelty” was a long, narrow vessel, very difficult to steer. I have seen her aground opposite Fredericton, with hundreds of red coats trying to lift her off the bar.

Benjamin Tibbetts’ Steamer “Reindeer”

Among the young men of Fredericton with whom I was intimate, and whose life and conduct proved them benefactors to their country, was Benjamin Tibbetts. He was taciturn in manner, but possessed a rare genius. He was a musician; skilled as a portrait painter, and had acquired a wonderful knowledge of the mechanical arts.

He served his time to watch making with Benjamin Wolhaupter, Fredericton. When quite young, he made and finished a perfect key-bugle.

He was employed by Mrs. Shore and others of the elite to paint in oil their portraits; but his great work was the building of the steamer “Reindeer.”

He showed me in figures on a slate in “Morgan’s foundry” his first conception of that beautiful craft, his calculations of form, size and bearing, and they proved remarkably correct. She illustrated a discovery or invention entirely his own: the application of steam power under a high pressure and low pressure principle combined. The model of the “Reindeer” was beautiful. “She walked the waters like a thing of life,” was of light draft, and did excellent work on the river for many years.

I enjoyed, with a large number of excursionists, a trip to the Grand Falls on her. The Woodstock band was with the party and contributed much to a night’s amusement at the Falls. Horatio Nelson Drake commanded the steamer and as we returned received from the hand of Benjamin Beverages, Esquire, at Tobique, a pair of fine antlers, which with music and becoming ceremony were made to deck the prow of our gallant “Reindeer.” A ready speech was made in acknowledgement of the gift by the engineer, Thomas Pickard, Jr., whose father was the owner.

The ascent of this, the first steamer, made it a gala day on the St. John River banks, and our progress was greeted with shouts of welcome, firing of guns, etc., etc. As we returned to Woodstock a large number of persons were assembled at the landing. The band played and the party on board joined in singing, to a then popular air, some verses composed en route by one of the band. A single verse will suffice:

“Hurrah! for the Restook River, oh! / The Tobique stream that is not slow; / But the Saint John River is the stream, / That we have now traversed with steam.” / Then dance the boatman dance, etc.

Some years later, when standing with Tibbetts on a wharf at Fredericton to which the “Reindeer” was secured, he expressed a wish that I would go through the old boat with him. Evidence of abuse, neglect and decay was everywhere present. In the running gear, pieces of rope, chains or wire were doing unsightly service. After viewing the wreck of what was once the pride and admiration of Tibbetts as a machinist and inventor, he raised his hands and said, “Strange that an harp of a thousand strings should stay in tune so long.”

I have different versions of the following statement, therefore cannot vouch for its correctness. Several years having passed away, the “Reindeer” changed hands; she was plying on the Grand Lake. In a house on the shore of the lake poor Tibbetts was dying. It was his early home. A burning steamer, deserted by her crew, is seen drifting in the direction of that house; and simultaneously, the man and his work, things of life and beauty, become but as dust and ashes.

Mr. Tibbetts also built a steamer at Quebec on this principle, which as a ferryboat at that place worked successfully. He spent much valuable time in New York endeavoring to obtain a patent for his invention, but failed, as he told me, from want of money and a theft by some official to whom he had entrusted confidentially some knowledge of the secret.

A resident of the Grand Falls, in a letter to the Telegraph wrote as follows: “Sir, I will thank you to communicate to the public through your paper that the steam boat ‘Madawaska’ is now in full operation. I have had the pleasure of being on board of her on her trip to Little Falls and back, and I am happy to state that she went through well and was warmly greeted by the young and the old of the inhabitants of Madawaska as she proudly passed them on. I congratulate Mr. Tibbetts on the high natural and acquired abilities which rendered him master of planning and framing the complicated machinery of the ‘Madawaska’ and ‘Reindeer’ boats. As a native of New Brunswick you should all be proud of him, and I believe that there is no other person born in New Brunswick, Canada or Nova Scotia who could do the same. I would therefore suggest the justice and propriety of having some token of public approbation bestowed on him, whether medal or otherwise, to mark your esteem for a good man and a bright ornament to New Brunswick.”

A stern wheel steamer, “The Carleton,” was built by the Craigs of St. John for George Connell, Esquire, Barrister, of Woodstock, to ply on the river between Fredericton and Woodstock. She was well adapted for that service and for many years passed safely through intricate passages in falls or rapids. Her light draught of water (only fourteen inches) and an excellent engine rendered her admirably adapted to glide over the bars and shoals and through the rapid waters of the St. John. The arrival at Woodstock of the steamer — the first one owned in that place — caused much satisfaction to the people there, who evinced their joy by firing a regular salute from one of the artillery guns as she rounded the island. In 1849 and ’50 she proved herself a great accommodation to the community along the river and a success financially to her owner.

Mr. Connell also built the “John Warren,” a side-wheel steamer of greater draught and requiring more power to drive her than “The Carleton.”

Other stern-wheel steamers were placed upon the river about the same time, which from their lighter draught were enabled to make more regular trips and thus become the more popular boats, making the “John Warren” not as profitable to her owner as “The Carleton” had been.

The “Florenceville,” chiefly owned by Woodstock men, now plies regularly between Woodstock and Fredericton when the water serves, proving a great accommodation to residents along the river where distant from the railway. The “Andover,” “Richmond” and “Bonny Doon,” all stern-wheel boats, did good service on the upper St. John before the introduction of railways.

Many enterprises such as the building of steamboats, mills and factories of various kinds, engaged in by spirited Provincialists in advance of their time, have failed to prove remunerative to their owners, often from prejudice or want of appreciation on the part of their fellow countrymen. All honor to those men whose persistence, loyalty, and faith in the future of this country has led them to invest their time, talents and capital in enterprises that have aided in giving the country the commanding position it now occupies. In every city and town of this Province, the lofty chimney, the puffing engine or the hum of revolving wheels tells of the genius of our people and of the rapidly developing resources of our Dominion.


Written by johnwood1946

March 26, 2014 at 9:44 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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