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Mill Point (Deseronto), Rathbun and the Deseronto Navigation Company

The steam barge RELIANCE of the Deseronto Navigation Co., the first ship built specifically for the company, in the early 1890s, at the Rathburn lumber wharfs at Mill Point. Click for enlargement. Photo: (detail only), NMA, early cellulose film, ref: SW-rathbun_43.

In 1848, Hugo Rathbun and two partners from Auburn, NY, came to Upper Canada, and the following year they established a sawmill on the Bay of Quinte at Mill Point (named Deseronto in 1881). His son Edward Rathbun (1842-1903) became manager of the family business in 1864, and by the late 19th century employed approximately 5,000 people in the lumber and shipping industry as well as offshoots into cement, railroads and other ventures.

Large timber rafts were brought in from the Trent, Moira and Napanee rivvers and debited into planks, boards, lath and shingles. The Rathbuns also manufactures "posts, picket headings, railway ties, telegraph poles, doors, sash, blinds and boxes of all descritions of wooden building materials. No raw material was wasted at this mill ... the residue was cut into kindling wood and faggotted; then by an ingenious cable railway, passed to the water's edge, and shipped to lake cities." [Willis Metcalfe, "Canvas and Steam on Quinte waters".]

Resolute, steamer

The steamer RESOLUTE, bulit 1883 at the Rathburn lumber wharfs at Mill Point. Click for enlargement. Photo: Naval Marine Archive, Metcalfe fonds.

The Deseronto Navigation Company was incorporated in 1880 to carry passengers and freight around Lake Ontario and as far down the St Lawrence River as Ogdensburg. A major part of the freight was to the Rathbun docks in Oswego, NY. Their ships, mostly steam powered with auxiliary sail, included the Reliance, Resolute, Armenia, Jessie Bain, Deseronto, Rocket, Varuna, the Rescue and the "Queen of the Fleet" the Steamer Quinte, replaced by the rather glamourous Ella Ross, under Captain Christie, after the Quinte was lost to fire.

Disastrous fires in 1896 and 1898, which destroyed docks, lumber, the flour-mill, and a terracotta factory started a decline in the Rathbun businesses, which was exacerbated by Edward Rathbun's death in 1903; ten years later, very little remained of the family empire.


The following article covers the Rathbun shipyards in Deseronto from their early days in 1865, when John Tait (1839-1920) was deeply involved, to the end of the "sail" era. It first appeared in the British Whig, Kingston, January 29, 1889 and was copied verbatim (with no credit given to the original source) in the Oswego Palladium, Friday, February 1, 1889.

Where ships are built – a review of the work at the Deseronto shipyards

A Great Many Lake Vessels Have Been Launched From the Ways There - The Men Who Have Filled the Office of Superintendent - Year Since a Schooner Was Launched.

DESERONTO, Jan. 28. - What a host of vessels have been owned or built here. The first vessel owned and engaged in the lumber trade by the Rathbun company was the Cincinnati, commanded by Captain Thomas Beggs. She was rebuilt and launched on April 18th, 1865, the first act in the history of the present shipyard, then under the supervision of John Tait.

Mr. Tait was a native of Amherst Island, where his father in the early days kept a shipyard and built a great many of the older craft. The schooner was called after the late H. B. Rathbun. In 1865 the schooner Champion was built. She was engaged in the lumber trade and commanded by Captain John Bartley until sold to Clarkson & Hagerty, Toronto. In 1866, the schooner Union Jack was built and sold to S. Phippen of Belleville, and the schooner Olivia was also rebuilt.

In 1867 W. Yeomans was engaged as master shipbuilder. He was from Quebec. His first works were the modeling and drafting of the schooner E. G. Benedict, the laying of a small set of marine ways, and the wrecking of the schooner Mary Ann which went ashore opposite Telegraph Island. In 1867 the frame of the schooner Benedict was got out at Scantlin’s shanty in Hichinbrooke and drawn to the shipyard by teams. In 1868, the keel was laid, but she was not launched until August, 1869.

Previous to this date the steamer Bay of Quinte ran into the steamer John Greenway, cutting her almost in two. She was raised and repaired at the shipyard. In 1868 the present marine railway was built with the intention of docking larger crafts, and the first taken on was the barge Valorous belonging to Page & Co., Oswego, which was rebuilt.

In 1869 the keel of the steamer Picton was laid and work proceeded through that winter and spring. In July, 1870, the barque George Thurston was taken off the beach at Nicholson’s Island by the Rathbuns and taken to Deseronto, repaired and started to sea in the timber trade from Saginaw. Previous to this the schooner Babineau & Gaudry was rebuilt. She had been wrecked on the Island of Anticosti and bought by the Provincial Insurance Company, who brought her to Deseronto where she was fitted up as a lake schooner and sold to Capt. W. Patterson, Wellington. She is yet afloat. In 1870 the schooner Caledonia, owned by Shaver & Bell, of Toronto, was rebuilt and launched, and the same fall also the steamer Picton.

In October, 1870, Mr. Yeomans died. In November, 1870, W. Jamieson entered upon the duties of master shipbuilder. Among his first deeds were the rebuilding of the schooner Wm. Elgin, launched August, 1871, and the wrecking of the schooner Caledonia off the False Ducks. In 1873 the barge John Bentley was built for W. Hall, of Toronto. During 1872 the schooner Star was started and launched in 1873. Next came the schooner North Star, now known as the Flora Carveth, started in June and launched in September, 1873. The tugs H. B. Sherwood, Bonar and vessels J. G. Worts, Blanche and L. D. Bullock along with three other vessels that were being repaired were launched on the one day.

During 1875 the schooners Ella Murton and Nellie Theresa were built. The keel of the steamer Empress of India was also laid for the late J. McCuaig and in June, 1876, the schooner Maggie Hunter was built to replace the schooner S. Clark. During 1877 the steamer Pilgrim was built, and also the schooner Katie Eccles. In 1878 the schooner W. Jamieson was built. She was the last schooner built along the lakes, a depression in the carrying trade having taken place which has not ceased up to this date.

In 1879 the steamer Deseronto was built. In May, 1880, Mr. Jamieson retired and Mr. W. Evans, the present energetic superintendent, took the position of ship-builder. He is a native of Kingston and had served his apprenticeship under the former foreman, W. Yeomans. Among his first labors was the building of the tug Cherokee for the Georgian Bay Lumbering Company. In 1881 the Reliance was built; in 1883 the steamer Resolute was built; in 1884. the Ida.

In 1885 the car works were added to the shipbuilding department, which necessitated more machinery and made a very material reduction in the cost of shipbuilding. From the above date various craft have been rebuilt and repaired, and up to the present time a gang of shipwrights has been constantly kept working.



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The Canadian Collection

Revised: 9 December 2021
Transcription: Richard Palmer.