New Brunswick

When steamboats were the best way to get around New Brunswick

It's been more than 70 years since riverboat travel was a way of life on the St. John River — the last voyage was on Sept. 30, 1946. Historian Eric McCumber of Long Reach is doing his best to make sure the era is not forgotten.

Long Reach author and musician keeps the history of his ancestors afloat

The D. J. Purdy I was the last riverboat to operate on the St. John River. Its final voyage was on Sept. 30, 1946. It was used as a dance hall for the next two years in Gondola Point, until it was destroyed by fire. (Kingston Peninsula Heritage)

It's been more than 70 years since riverboat travel was a way of life on the St. John River — the last voyage was on Sept. 30, 1946. Historian Eric McCumber of Long Reach is doing his best to make sure the era is not forgotten.

"We have one of the most beautiful rivers in the world here," said McCumber. "And it was a significant part of that river's history."

McCumber said New Brunswick was basically "opened up" by steamboats.

At the beginning of the 19th century, you couldn't find "10 miles of road fit for any kind of wheeled carriage," said McCumber, quoting former chief New Brunswick surveyer Douglas Campbell.

"People got around on the rivers."

Eric McCumber and his daughter Emily recorded a song about the St. John River steamboat era called Steamboat Trek. (Submitted by Eric McCumber)

The 150-kilometre trip from Saint John to Fredericton by sailboat sometimes took five days, depending on the weather.

With the advent of the steamboat, this changed dramatically. The first steamboat to arrive on the St. John River was the General Smyth, in 1816. It cut the trip down to about 12 hours and ran on a fairly regular schedule.

"It was a vast improvement," said McCumber.

It changed the game for passenger travel, trade and commerce.

"That's when things really began to move in New Brunswick," he said.

"Produce came down from the farms, and people and materials moved on the river to supply New Brunswick and to supply the cities."

A tourist publicity shot of the D.J.Purdy I at Westfield wharf in about 1936. (Kingston Peninsula Heritage)

For the next 130 years, steamboats were one of the main modes of transportation through the southern part of the province.

In the 1850s, there were seven or eight boats running, serving all the communities in the watershed, he said.

They ran from the foot of Main Street in Saint John's old north end to Hampton on the Kennebecasis River, to Hatfield Point on Belleisle Bay, on Washademoak Lake as far as Coles Island, on Grand Lake to Minto, and on the St. John River to Fredericton.

"And you could actually get a transfer in Fredericton … and get on a smaller, more shallow draft boat and get all the way up to Grand Falls, at one point." 

New Brunswickers relied on riverboats as a connection to the rest of the world, said McCumber.

The D.J.Purdy I docked in Fredericton, with the train bridge, now the Bill Thorpe Walking Bridge, in the background. The boat was named after a man dominant in the steamboat trade. (Kingston Peninsula Heritage)

"People would wait for the steamboat whistle to blow and often went down for their mail - to pick up the mail at the wharves."

McCumber has a family connection to New Brunswick's riverboat past. Both his grandfather and his great grandfather were captains.

"The captains were quite amazing because they had to know the river pretty much inside out. … Imagine if it was foggy or or even at night, they really had to know the river and its troubles."

Steamboat traffic began to decline in the 1860s, as rail travel expanded.

The Majestic was the last steam-driven steamboat to operate on the St. John River. It had a steel hull and ran until 1942. Its wreck can still be seen in Darlings Lake. (Kingston Peninsula Heritage)

"Boss Gibson bought them and shut them down," McCumber said, referring to the industrialist Alexander Gibson, who was active in the railway business among other enterprises. "He wanted everyone to use trains."

There was a resurgence in popularity around the turn of the 20th century, thanks to a "massive influx" of tourists, mainly from New England.

Steamers became more luxurious, with velour couches, mirrors on the walls and chandeliers, and names like the Victoria and the May Queen.

"Those types of boats were really built for tourists," said McCumber, noting that baseball great Babe Ruth was said to visit the area some summers.

"The riverboats really did provide quite a bit of energy for New Brunswick over the years."

With the rise of automobiles, the steamboat's slow demise continued. The last riverboat, D.J. Purdy I, actually had a diesel engine.

McCumber and his relatives have tried to keep the New Brunswick riverboat story alive.

In 2016, when the 200th anniversary of the first riverboat voyage was being marked, McCumber and his daughter wrote a song about steamboat lore.

On the Kingston Peninsula Heritage website, McCumber has documented extensive accounts of the 74 riverboats that plied the waters of the St. John River watershed.

He's written three novellas based on riverboat history. Steamboat Chronicles: Crank was self-published in May 2017. McCumber followed that up with a second book in the series, Rogue, in 2018, and a third in March of this year, called Prince.

His grandfather D.F. Taylor wrote three books on steamboats and commissioned a painter to depict some of the first boats. Those paintings are now at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, McCumber said.

His great grandfather C.C. Taylor was also a steamboat historian, who collected stories, and parts. 

With files from Information Morning Saint John