In 1860 the Prince of Wales, future King of England, travelled along the Ottawa River aboard the steamship “Ann Sisson”. It was lost beneath the waves in 1871.
This is the search to find it…
THE LOST STEAMSHIP
The year was 1860 and Ottawa had recently been selected by Queen Victoria as the permanent capital of the Province of Canada, yet the Queen would never visit Canada as it was said she despised traveling on water due to seasickness. Instead, she sent her son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) in her place to make the first official royal visit to Canada in 1860.
The eighteen year old Prince would visit Newfoundland, the Maritimes and the Province of Canada (later Ontario and Québec) and open the Victoria Bridge between the Island of Montréal and the south shore of the St Lawrence River. Under full Masonic ceremony, the future Grand Master of the Freemasons United Grand Lodge of England, would also laid the cornerstone for our grand Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. (More on that event in a previous column here)
After a whirlwind tour of Ottawa with residents and businesses giving Edward the “Royal Treatment”, the future King boarded the 139 foot side-wheeler steamship Anne Sisson in Aylmer to tour the young prince up the Ottawa River. This steamship was outfitted for the royal journey, its usual lumber ship duties altered when passenger accommodations were added. Owned by Brewster & Mulholland, from Montreal, they outfitted the ship for the Prince and his entourage to venture north on the river.
The Prince left Aylmer and steamed away in the royally appointed ship and as evening approached, the royal party decided to stay overnight in Quyon, Quebec. The next day she docked in Pontiac and boarded a horse railway there to take Edward on the remainder of his Ottawa Valley Tour. (The remains of that railway were discovered in a previous column here) The royal steam ship then returned to its duties as a lumber steamer, later strengthened, then became a passenger steamer in 1863 transporting passengers between Aylmer/Ottawa and Pontiac under the Union Forwarding and Railway Company. Records show in 1871 the once regal ship was stripped and abandoned in the Ottawa River, its location unknown.
So where is the Royal Wreck? Having been lost for 147 years would there even be anything left of this river steamship? I became intrigued with finding this important piece of Ottawa history and began a quest to find this lost ship.
A quick Google search revealed I was not the only one who was interested in finding the old ship, a Britannia resident by the name of Mike Kaulbars wrote extensively about her on his blog “Britannia: A History”. His research deduced that the ship was abandoned somewhere in the vicinity of Britannia Beach. I contacted Mike and began to collect research materials that would hopefully lead us to our shipwreck.
Ottawa in 1857 was quite different than what we enjoy today, a backwoods encampment of lumber men, canal labourers and military personnel. The streets were dusty dirt paths, the majority of the land still being swamp and forest. The main mode of transportation was by boat, using steamships to carry both goods and passengers along the Ottawa River from Montreal, and then either south through the Rideau Canal system to Kingston, or northbound on the Ottawa River to Chats Falls where a portage railway would meet up with another steamship to carry goods and people further north on the river to Arnprior, Renfrew, and eventually on to Pembroke.
The steamship of choice for the Ottawa River journey were side-wheelers that had a somewhat flat bottom and shallower draught than other steamships of the era. Powered by low pressure, single cylinder steam engines fueled by the plentiful wood supply that grew along the banks of the Ottawa River.
Passengers in the mid 1800ʼs wanting to travel up the Ottawa River would board these steamships in Aylmer, usually departing the busy wharf in the morning and arriving at Chats Falls/Pontiac four hours later around 11am. the Aylmer wharf was also the site of a busy ship building industry that constructed many of the Ottawa River steamships. All that is left of this once busy port are some stone ruins around the Aylmer beach and its marina.
It was one of the steamships, our Ann Sisson, that was built in Aylmer and that plied the waters of the Ottawa River taking passengers and lumber back and forth between Pontiac and Aylmer. According to the book “A Foregone Fleet: A Pictorial History Of Steam-Driven Paddleboats on the Ottawa River” by Andrew E. Lamarinde and Gilles L. Seguin, the Anne Sisson was built in 1857. This ship had a wooden hull braced internally with a series of built-up longitudinal timbers, and the massive iron steam engine weighed 108 metric tons. The keel of the ship had to be strengthened to prevent the engine from breaking through the bottom of the hull. Iron fasteners would hold wooden planks running longitudinally.
When the Prince Of Wales arrived in Ottawa for his grand tour of North America, Ann Sisson was only three years old, so it would have been a fairly robust new ship to travel on. Preparations were made for the royal entourage, including cabin appointments for the four hour journey to Quyon, where the royal party made a surprise stay at the only inn in the village, with plates and cutlery being borrowed from residents to accommodate the unscheduled royal visit.
After the departure of Prince Edward Albert and the royal hoopla surrounding his visit, Ann Sisson was further strengthened and continued its work as a lumber vessel hauling timber back and forth until 1863 when it became a full time passenger steamer captained by Denis Murphy. Murphy would later form a partnership in the D. Murphy and Company, which mainly transported lumber and coal on the Ottawa River and Rideau Canal. In 1902 Murphy would represent the riding of Ottawa in the Legislative Assembly Of Ontario as a Conservative member until 1904.
Having fulfilled its duties on the Ottawa River, records show that Ann Sisson was then unceremoniously stripped of all its valuable hardware and components, abandoned, and burned, left to sink somewhere in the very waters that once carried the future King Of England. If anything remains at all of this 139 foot steamship, it likely would not be much, with both the ravages of a fire and time reducing its chances of survival in any recognizable form.
Mike Kaulbars and his research on the whereabouts of the Ann Sisson lead to a mention in “The Carleton Saga”, a book by Harry and Olive Walker, where it was said a lighthouse keeper at Britannia by the name of Robert Winthrop, navigated in a boat around what he said was the wreck of a “famous boat of the Ottawa Valley fleet, the Ann Sissons”.
The ship was apparently beached and burned near the lighthouse. Kaulbars also uncovered information that a wreck was found in Britannia waters during the summer of 1962, but it was misidentified as the steamship Albert, which was almost identical to the Ann Sisson in both construction and size. Yet that ship, Albert, was recorded to be dissembled in Quyon in 1917, so it could not be in Britannia Bay. Kaulbars later found out it was indeed identified as the Anne Sisson, but no further information on its location could be determined.
So it seems our search leads us to Britannia Bay, just west of downtown Ottawa. Could any evidence of a nearly two hundred year old wooden steamship that burned and sank into the waters off Britannia even remain? It was time to find out.
One of the greatest resources I use for my research in historical studies is the amazing “Geo Ottawa” map program provided online by the City Of Ottawa. Using aerial photographs from 1928 onwards, it can give an accurate representation of what the city looked like from the air over the years. Using this, I was able to find the earliest aerial photo for the Britannia region, which happened to be 1958. Scanning this old aerial photograph, I noticed a curious looking shape under the waves. Zooming in on the shadowy shape offshore, it looked remarkably like the outline of a ship.
Using the scale of the map and comparing the its size to the approximate 140 foot length of the Ann Sisson, it seemed to be a perfect match. Overlaying that 1958 position with a current 2018 aerial map did not show any evidence that the shipwreck was still there, so I decided that an exploration in person was necessary to see if anything remains today.
Locking in the GPS coordinates of where the wreck was supposed to be, I also downloaded an app on my cell phone that tracks the users GPS position and displays the coordinates so you can walk around to your desired position. Except this location was in the water, and could not be easily walked to.
In order to successfully locate and identify a shipwreck of this type it would require the assistance of experts in this field, people that could properly analyze and confirm what, if anything, was found lying in the river. Two such experts are Ben Mortimer and Nadine Kopp, both archeologists with the Paterson Group, an archaeological consulting service in the Ottawa area. Kopp’s specialty is “underwater archeology” so her knowledge about 19th century ships and marine construction would provide a welcome set of skills to hopefully identify any remains of the Ann Sisson.
With our search team assembled, we headed out to the old cottage village of Belltown that straddles Britannia Bay and headed to the shoreline. Knowing we’d be searching underwater we brought the appropriate equipment to try and locate the wreck and possibly record its remains.
What would be left, if anything? This ship was from the era of the American Civil War, and wrecks from that era are still being found intact, so I kept positive that something would be visible. Wading deeper and deeper into the river and farther from shore with cell phone GPS coordinates flashing before me, something caught our eye in the dark and murky waters: a sand covered square timber.
With much of the bottom of the Ottawa River being strewn with old lumber from its days as a conduit for timber rafts, I thought it was probably an old log. Yet following the squared timber it lead to other squared timbers, iron fasteners, hull planking, and the tell tale pieces of a ship.
Kopp quickly examined the wooden planks and hull pieces strewn about and assessed that these were indeed the remains of a ship. Further study showed the remains were that of a mid 1800’s ship, evidence being in the construction techniques visible in the wreck.
Lying underwater, out of view hidden for decades, the ship’s charred wood revealed its fate of being burned and left to sink into the sand. The old paddle wheeler lies concealed by the shifting sands of time and waves of the Great River. A sad end, for a once important steamship.
We documented the ship as best as we could, making sure not to disturb it in hopes that a proper archeological study will later be done. Kopp explained that without definitive proof, it is not possible to confirm that what we found was the Ann Sisson. Cross referencing the construction of the wreck with blueprints would verify it, but those blueprints may be impossible to find. In the meantime, it is a shipwreck of mid-1800s design and construction, lying at the bottom of Britannia Bay where it was reported the Ann Sisson was laid to rest. This sunken vessel remains hidden under the waves until a proper archeological assessment can be completed and its identity can finally be confirmed. In the meantime, what could be a very important piece of Ottawa history has remained underwater for so very long, and I would love to see the remnants of this 19th century steamship be recovered and put in a museum. Perhaps the City Of Ottawa, the Bytown Museum or even the federal government will now step in and preserve what’s left of this Royal Wreck, a reminder of time when the river was our original highway.
The Ann Sisson’s story and its remains should be displayed for all to enjoy, allowing others to experience a connection to such an important piece of our city’s, and our country’s history.
Symmes Inn Museum
Library and Archives Ottawa