An 1859 Perilous Event in the Life of the Steamer Ploughboy

By John C. Carter


Thomas, John and Theodore Park were the operators of Park Brothers and Park & Company.* They were ship owners, commission forwarders and wharfingers, and they also maintained a shipyard at Amherstburg with John McLeod. They owned vessels outright, in partnership with others, or acted as shipping agents and suppliers. Their direct involvement in maritime commerce through ownership of vessels began in 1835, with the purchase of the schooner Erie & Ontario. Over the next 35 years, the brothers owned or were associated with at least 35 other schooners, barques, propellers and steamboats. This article is about the last and possibly the best known member of the fleet owned by Park & Company, the steamer Ploughboy, and a perilous event that occurred in 1859.  

Portrait of a young John A. Macdonald (c.1842) by American artist Henry Inman. Macdonald was one of the passengers aboard the Ploughboy during the July 1859 mishap. Image courtesy of Albany Club, Toronto.

Early Years of the Ploughboy:

The Ploughboy started its life in Chatham. It was built there by J.M. McDermott for William and Walter Eberts. It was officially launched on June 24, 1851. This began its illustrious yet sometimes notorious career. The side wheeler was constructed of wood and measured 170’ long, 28’ wide, with a depth of 8’ and had a burthen of 450 tons. She was propelled by two paddle wheels measuring 24’ in diameter, and powered by an engine that had been salvaged from the steamer Transit. The Ploughboy was manned by a crew numbering between 16 to 20 members. By October 1, 1851 the Ploughboy was traversing the waters between Chatham and Amherstburg, with a stop at Detroit on each journey. She broke all previous speed records for this run, and afforded travellers welcome relief from the discomfort of stage coaches. She was captained by Walter Eberts. 

Advertisement for the Ploughboy in The Sarnia Observer, February 4, 1858.\

One of the earliest newspaper references to the Ploughboy was not complimentary. The November 4, 1852 issue of Henry Bibb’s [Windsor] Voice of the Fugitive, published a letter to the editor which said in part; “…The Ploughboy and the Brothers, plying between Windsor and Chatham invariably deny to black people, a cabin passage and sometimes the officers of those boats will even descend to the use of brute force, upon unresisting women to eject them from the cabin or the table.” This was one example showing that black people were discriminated against or excluded from travelling on such vessels at this period.  However, black American traveller, Samuel J. May, while on a trip from Detroit to Chatham aboard the Ploughboy in August of 1852, wrote a letter to the editor of the Anti-Slavery Standard. He made no mention of prejudice, described the voyage, and applauded the state of affairs in Chatham.**Subsequent information in the November 18 issue of the Voice of the Fugitive, noted that; “The steamer Ploughboy runs from Windsor to Chatham now only every other day, and will continue to do so until the close of navigation,” while the December 2 edition of the same paper recorded that; “…there is no ice in the Detroit River or signs of the close of navigation. Steamboats are running from Detroit to Buffalo every day, and the Ploughboy runs from here to Chatham every other day”. 

       William Armstrong painting of the Ploughboy, off Lonely Island, Georgian Bay, July 1, 1859. Image courtesy of Digital Archive: Toronto Public Library.

In a December 21, 1852 letter from Mr. Eberts in Chatham to Park & Co. in Amherstburg, there was discussion about procuring a new boiler for the Ploughboy. Suppliers had been written to “…asking them to make us their Lowest Bid for furnishing all the material & making the Boiler pipe.”  Graff & Kendrick and James Breny from Detroit, as well as Jacob Dermitt in Montreal were among the firms contacted. Dermitt had replied, offering to sell a boiler that had previously been in the Enquire for 200 pounds. It would appear from this correspondence that the Park Brothers at this time had some financial interest in the Ploughboy, even though the steamer was still owned by W. & W. Eberts.      

In 1853, advertisements in the Detroit Free Press noted that the “Fast Sailing Low Pressure Steamer Ploughboy” would commence with daily trips (except for Sundays) to Chatham. The vessel would leave Detroit at 7 a.m., returning leaving Chatham at 2 p.m. This service would be in conjunction with T.M. Taylor’s Line of Stages running east, and also make connections with the Michigan Central Railroad. Later that year, the Ploughboy no longer made daily stops in Detroit. Her schedule had been changed to enable the vessel to make fast trips between Chatham and Amherstburg.  The newly launched Canadian Lily took its place on the original route, as noted in the April 19 edition of the [Chatham] Western Planet and in the Detroit Free Press of April 22.  The Ploughboy then began chartering tourist excursions. The touted merits of the Ploughboy in this type of venture, were promoted in an advertisement published in the Detroit Free Press of June 25, 1853: “Fourth of July. PLEASURE EXCURSION TO CHATHAM. The fast Sailing, Low Pressure, steamer PLOUGHBOY will leave James Black’s wharf on Monday 4th of July, at 8 o’clock, A.M., for Chatham, arriving there at half past 12, and leaving on her return at 2 o’clock P.M. She will reach Detroit the same evening at 7 o’clock, in good time for all the public amusements etc.” What was described as a trip which “…cannot fail to be highly interesting and agreeable,” featured a brass band, meals and fine scenery all for a fare of $1.50. The Huron Signal of December 29, 1853, published a letter to Goderich resident Jasper K. Gooding that suggested a new route for the Ploughboy was being contemplated. It said in part that; “We learn that there is a prospect of this superior boat, on the opening of navigation, being put upon the route between Windsor and Goderich. The PLOUGHBOY being a British vessel would be gladly encouraged by our merchants and businessmen and would, we doubt not, find the route a profitable one – The Great Western Railway will be open by that time to Windsor, and until completion of our own line of Railway, the goods to this place [Goderich] would almost invariably come by that line, and if the steamer [Ploughboy] runs regularly, would reach Goderich from Hamilton or Toronto in two or three days.” This suggestion seemed to be reasonable, as with the completion of the Great Western Railroad to Windsor in January of 1854, the Ploughboy essentially was put out of business, and a new, profitable route had to be found. This would lead to the Ploughboy working routes on Lake Huron, Georgian Bay and Lake Superior.

The Perilous Event:

On July 3, 1859, the Ploughboy was up-bound in Georgian Bay headed to Sault Ste. Marie with an excursion party aboard. The Sheriff of Simcoe County, Benjamin Walker Smith, had invited John A. Macdonald and members of his cabinet on a planned five day outing. More than thirty members of the government of Canada West were aboard. While on course to Little Current in the North Channel, without explanation her cross-heads snapped in half just off Lonely Island in the middle of Georgian Bay. This was a major disaster that the Ploughboy’s engineer Mr. Davis could not repair. As a result the vessel was left drifting dangerously towards rocks on shore. Long accounts of the accident appeared in the July 4 [Toronto] Colonist , the July 6 [Barrie] Northern Advance,  the July 7 Detroit Free Press, and the July 8 [Kingston] Weekly Chronicle & News, [Kingston] Daily British Whig and the Sarnia Observer. The course of Canadian history could have been changed if the impending disaster had not been averted. One of the passengers was John A. Macdonald, then Premier of Ontario. Macdonald penned a July 7 letter to his sister Margaret Williamson. Macdonald wrote; “You will see by the papers what a narrow escape we had. None of the party will again be nearer their graves until they are placed in them. The people behaved well, the women heroically.” He closed by saying that he was “none the worse of the trip,” considering his harrowing experience! In reporting this accident, the Chicago Tribune of July 11 concluded its coverage by saying; “It was escape for all concerned, and our northern brethren feel grateful for this deliverance from a calamity.” The [Toronto] Leader of July 5, 1859 dramatically stated that; “Death seemed inevitable – in a few minutes not a soul would be left to tell the tale Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and all friends therefore took a last farewell, commended themselves to Providence, and prepared to meet their doom.” The article concluded by saying that this nearly tragic episode was a rescue from the “Very jaws of death.”

Photograph of  the steamer Ploughboy docked at Collingwood. Image courtesy of Collingwood Museum (X974_350_1)

Another passenger was the recently appointed Algoma Judge Colonel John Prince. He provided an amazing , first-hand account of the misadventure in his diary for July 2-3: “We reached ‘Owen Sound’ at 5 this morning, & Vankoughnet and most of us were up and admired the place much. Then at 7 (am) we proceeded on our voyage towards Killarney &c: as usual, en route for The Sault. The Sea a little rough, but  not too much so. But, at about 3 p.m. and  at a distance of about 15 miles from Cabot’s head, and not less than 100 miles from Collingwood, the Iron crossbeam of our Engine broke in two, and the fine Steamer was left at the Mercy of the Sea and Waves! Nobody Could hold the smallest Command over her rudder or any other part of her! And there we were drifting gradually towards The Shore, which is one of the Most dangerous and rocky in the World! At 4 pm we had manned a boat and Sent her off to Owen Sound for aid, hoping to find the ‘Canadian’ S.B. there. We kept on drifting all night Expecting to go ashore among the rocks & breakers Every hour. The Ladies behaved Cool and admirably, as indeed, did Every body Else on board. But nothing short of wreck & loss of life stared us in the face. We were miraculously saved by the following event. After drifting towards one of the most rocky, perpendicular and dangerous Shores on Lake Huron, and at 2 o’clock this morning, just as we discovered rocks 100 feet high and within 20 yards of our helpless vessel, the 2 Ankers(sic) which had been out for 12 hours, while we were drifting but which never got anchorage once because of the great depth of water, suddenly took hold of a Ledge of the rock, in about 30 fathoms, and close upon the shore, and they held the Boat firm! We remained swinging at anchor, not knowing but that she might part with her anchors Every minute, and then Shipwrecked & loss of, probably, Every Soul on board (for Swimming in such a place would be useless & the swell & surf were very high). We remained there ‘till 12, noon, when the swell and wind abated, and a boat was manned, and by degrees Every female and nearly all the passengers went ashore in a small bay about a Mile distant, intending to remain there ‘till relief came. I never left the unfortunate ‘Ploughboy’ once, as in Case of wreck I thought I co’d be useful, and no use on the Land where so many had gone. At 7 p.m. The Canadian hove insight, and by 11 pm, all got on board, & left the rocks &c.”

The description in the July 6 [Barrie] Northern Advance identified what was believed to be a mitigating factor to the disaster; “The Ploughboy being like most of all the steamers on Lake Huron, unprovided with masts, she was necessarily left to the mercy of the winds and waves, which drifted her at their pleasure.” This issue resulted in a suggestion printed in the August 1 issue of the [Kingston] Daily British Whig that all Canadian steamers should be provided with sails in case of emergencies as recently witnessed with the Ploughboy.  

Another first-hand account came from an unnamed passenger who also had been aboard the ill-fated vessel. This recollection was published in the July 4 edition of the Toronto Colonist. It provided additional details about the disaster, and concluded that; “Votes of thanks were of course, passed to those who had so nobly helped us, and these will, no doubt, take a more tangible shape at an early day.” An example of one to receive this acknowledgement was Angus Morrison, M.P.P. for Simcoe, who was instrumental in helping to save lives during this calamity. After the rescue, the Honorable John Rose (later Sir John Rose), gave Morrison a silver salver engraved with the following inscription; “Presented to Angus Morrison, Esq., M.P.P., Canada, in commemoration for his fearless behaviour and effective services, the admiration of all on board, in saving the steamer ‘Ploughboy’ from wreck on the dangerous shores of Lake Huron in the tempestuous night of Sunday, July 2, 1859.” John A. Macdonald also presented Morrison with a large silver cup.

   Photograph of the Ploughboy, docked at either Collingwood or Bruce Mines Image courtesy of Collingwood Museum (X974_436_1)

The Ploughboy’s July adventure was so newsworthy, that it was included in “Remarkable Occurences in 1859,” in the Canadian Almanac. The entry said; “The steamer Ploughboy with several members of the ministry and other Provincial celebrities on board, nearly wrecked on Lake Huron, on her way to Sault Ste. Marie; she drifted all night at the mercy of the waves and dragged her anchor until within 20 feet of land.”  The event even made news in New York City. The New York Herald, in its July 9 edition, noted the gravity of the situation in an article entitled “The Canadian Ministry in a Perilous Situation-Narrow Escape.” It concluded that; “The valuable lives of five Ministers of the Crown has thus been preserved a while longer for the benefit of their country.”  

Captain W.H. Smith had been alerted about the endangered Ploughboy. A yawl had been sent from the scene of the disaster, manned by Duncan McLean, John Wright, Sheriff B.W. Smith and two deckhands. After a dangerous journey, they arrived in Owen Sound and advised Captain Smith of the Ploughboy’s predicament. Smith gathered a skeleton crew and set out in his steamer the Canadian to offer assistance. This quickly assembled party arrived off Lonely Island around midnight on Sunday, July 5, and effected a rescue. A tow line was secured to the incapacitated vessel and the Canadian towed the Ploughboy back to the Collingwood harbour for repairs along with the distraught crew and passengers.  A new cross-head was procured from Buffalo, and installed at a cost of $850. In a July 6 letter to the Ploughboy’s purser Thomas Wright, Meaford resident Charles Carney wrote; “I herd (sic) from Mrs. Brigs that you would be starting again on Friday.” This prediction was correct, as by July 7, the Ploughboy was back in service. It then took ten cords of firewood and a load of sheep and steers from Meaford to Bruce Mines. 

The Ploughboy’s epic mishap was memorialized in a poem entitled “The Doleful Tale of the Dismal Shipwreck,” which was published in the July 13 [Kingston] Daily British Whig. In response to this accident, the [Kingston] Daily British Whig reported in its August 1 edition that all Canadian steamers should be provided with sails in case of future similar emergencies. The Racine (afterwards Algoma) was put on the Fort William route until the Ploughboy returned to regular service. The July 20 [Kingston] Daily British Whig noted that the Ploughboy made a quick trip from Collingwood to Fort William. At the end of the 1859 season, the Ploughboy returned to Essex County, and was subsequently put up for the winter in Detroit.

Photograph of Captain W.H. Smith. Smith helped to bring the disabled Ploughboy back to Collingwood. Image courtesy of P. Smith & Scott Cameron.


For 35 years, Thomas, John and Theodore Park were significant and influential players in the Great Lakes shipping circles. Park & Company amassed and maintained a sizeable fleet from 1835 until 1870. Thomas Park died in 1864. John Park retired in 1865, moved to Amherstburg and died on October 2, 1880. Theodore Park remained semi-active in the business until the late 1860s. After this, with no family members able to or interested in continuing on, Park & Company would soon cease to exist as a commercial entity. The sale of the Ploughboy (then T. F. Park) in 1870 signalled the last connection the Park Brothers had with shipping on the Great Lakes. This brought to an end an often overlooked, but still enormously important story in Canadian maritime history, one that the Ploughboy had played a pivotal part.***  


* See  John C. Carter, “Park & Company: Early Entrepreneurs in the Western District of Canada,” The Wayback Times (May/June, 2017), #130, for additional information about this early Ontario shipping family.

**  Jim Gilbert, “Perspective written by a Black tourist,” Chatham Daily News (February 15, 2013).

***  This article is a short excerpt from Dr. John Carter’s recently published The Perils and Pitfalls of the Steamer Ploughboy; A Story of Its Construction to Destruction (2019).  For more information about how to obtain a copy of this book, please contact Kristin Ives, curator of the John R. Park Homestead, at, or (519) 738-2029. 

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