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Shipping on the Rails

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The confluence of the Oswegatchie River and the St. Lawrence is attractive to all who sailed toward the Great Lakes or down to the Atlantic Ocean.

The sheltered harbor above the Gallop Rapids calls for boat-building enterprises.

In the early days of Fort de La Présentation, the French may have built small wooden boats here for journeys to the interior. Sailing vessels were constructed at Fort Frontenac (Kingston, ON) and late in the French and Indian War at Pointe-au-baril (Maitland. ON).

After La Présentation was christened Fort Oswegatchie by the British in 1760, two small warships were built: the Haldiman in 1771 and the Seneca in 1777.

When the northern frontier posts held by the British reverted to American sovereignty in 1796, settlers moved into what is now Ogdensburg and the Town of Oswegatchie. Joseph Rosseel is reported to have hired 40 Canadian boat builders in 1808.

For more than a century, others followed Rosseel’s lead, producing commercial vessels and private boats. Ogdensburg was on the cutting edge of design and technology. The pre-Seaway, boat-building history and the days as a river port deserve a well-researched book. I’ll reveal one piece of this fascinating heritage.

The St. Lawrence Marine Railway caught my attention when I found a 1911 color postcard of a wooden freighter braced in position, sitting high and dry.

In the 1850s, when $15,000 meant a significant investment, seven local businessmen founded the Ogdensburg Marine Railway capable of lifting the largest vessel of the time.

In association with an established shipyard at the southwest corner of the city limits, the railway was opened autumn in 1853 on the bank of the St. Lawrence, about half a mile above the mouth of the Oswegatchie River. The low shore gradually sloped into the water, which close to shore had depth enough to float a ship.

Image the engineering feat! Rails positioned on the river bottom. Did this require hardhat divers, a profession barely 20-years old?

Michael S. Raber, principal author of The Marine Railways of Southeast Connecticut wrote, “a

marine railway consists of an incline—typically with timber foundations—extending from a point on shore…parallel sets of metal rails on the incline supporting a roller-borne cradle or carriage on which a vessel can be supported with blocks, levers, or shores (braces), and a mechanical system for moving the carriage up and down the incline.”

Raber noted the advantage of marine railways over drydocks consists of drier, better-lit and better-ventilated working surfaces at the same elevation as the adjacent shipyard.

The Ogdensburg Marine Railway operated successfully until 1860; then a succession of owners followed.

E. B. Allen & Son continued building boats and propellers for two years, and then sold to H. C. Pearson, who transferred ownership to the Northern Transportation Company in 1870.

Northern Transportation built some of the large propellers for which the business was known and repaired vessels until the company’s bankruptcy in 1879. The boat yard limped by on repairs until an 1883 fire.

In 1884 the newly formed St. Lawrence Marine Railway Company bought the property and rebuilt the works.

An interesting example of the type of job undertaken on the marine railway occurred during the Spanish-American War.

When the Revenue Cutter Service commissioned the Gresham in 1897, the vessel sparked a minor international incident. The steel-hulled steamer was heavily armed for a cutter, including torpedo tubes. The Canadian government noted the armament violated the 1817 Rush-Bagot Convention, which limited the number of naval vessels and their armaments on the Great Lakes.

The Revenue Cutter Service decided to transfer the Gresham from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. The challenge was in the delivery because she was too large for the locks below Ogdensburg.

In Ogdensburg, where the facility for the job was the St. Lawrence Marine Railway Company, she was cut in half for transport.

The Spanish-American War ended before the Gresham was reassembled.

When rebuilt she enforced neutrality laws before the US entered World War I, served as a convoy escort when the US entered the war and after 1919 returned to cruising the Atlantic seaboard.

The George Hall Coal and Company established in 1883 had by the early 1900s expanded into the pulp trade and later purchased the marine railway. Hall located its office in the Parish building.

In 1922, six related businesses (George Hall Coal, Frontier Trading Company, St. Lawrence Marine Railway Company and the George Hall Coal Company, Black River Shipping Company and Black River Pulpwood Company of Montreal) amalgamated as the George Hall Coal and Shipping Corporation of Montreal and George Hall Corporation of Ogdensburg.

The corporations with their ship building, shipping business and associated ventures, which contributed significantly to the thriving Port of Ogdensburg, were purchased by Canada Steamship Lines in 1926.

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