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The Steamer Ajax

April 19, 2022

The steam tug Ajax

One of the First Coal-Powered Screw-Propelled Ships

Throughout the nineteenth century, practically all local steamers were wood-powered paddle-wheelers. To power the ships, piles of cordwood were made along the waterway, which were the historic equivalent of a gas station—often made near a lock or wharf. In the lingo of the day, loading the wood on the boat was called “wooding up.” Wood was bulky, took up a lot of space, and took a while to load, but it was cheap and readily available—especially for communities that lacked the efficient long-range transportation networks that we take for granted today.

In 1902, the Trent Valley Navigation Company (owned by Bobcaygeon’s Boyd Family) commissioned the Ajax, which was one of the first coal-powered, screw-propelled boats on the upper lakes. The boat arrived just as their lumber business was winding down (unlike some competing firms, when standing first-rate pine timber became scarce and valuable, the Boyds moved their operations to British Columbia).

The Ajax was a small but powerful boat—only 54 feet long in an era when most were more than 70, and George Crandell’s Crandella was 120 feet long. But it was a much more efficient boat—it didn’t need so much space to store wood and the massive paddlewheels were not necessary.

The Boyds had figured that if they wouldn’t use the Ajax for towing logs, it would be valuable for towing passenger excursions or cargo. However, it was smoky travelling behind a coal powered steamer, and just as the Ajax was launched, the first motor boats started to appear. Before long, practically all of the beautiful white paddlewheelers would be gone, as gasoline launches became common.

Within 2 years of launching the Ajax, the Boyds realized they did not have enough work to keep it busy (the railway had at long last been completed to Bobcaygeon), and were looking to sell or lease the boat. Serving many businesses over the years, it proved to be a good and long-lasting tug, serving into mid 1940s.

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