Naval Marine Archive - The Canadian Collection
Library Catalogue Ships database Research Collections Bibliography About us Donate

Hepburn shipping in Prince Edward County

A.W. Hepburn, his ships and his shipping companies

A.W. Hepburn

A.W. Hepburn
(Belden Atlas, 1878.)

Picton shipping and harbour development was led by the Hepburn family. In "The County" 1 Lunn records that the County’s thriving wheat and shipping industries drew the Hepburn family to the County. Here they would develop business and family connections with the McCuaig (variously McQuaig) family, beginning with the marriage of Arthur William Hepburn (1857-1922) of Quebec City, Quebec to Katherine Maria McCuaig (1855-1936) on December 15, 1875. She was the daughter of James Simeon McCuaig (1819-1888) who was a Prince Edward County steamboat operator, and who owned and controlled the wharfs and freight sheds in Picton Harbour in the third quarter of the century. He served as the Prince Edward M.P. from 1878 to 1882, and had briefly held the post of Inspector of Provincial Canals.

A.W. Hepburn's first major success was the Empress of India which entered service in 1876, just months after his marriage, under the corporate name of the Toronto Navigation Co. The Empress was built at Mill Point (now better known as Deseronto) in the Rathbun shipyard, and at 180 feet in length and 580 tons was a substantial investment underwritten, at least in part, by his father-in-law. Over the winter of 1877-78 she was given the first of many rebuilds, being "extensively repaired" at Picton. In 1878 she was back at Toronto and this time Hepburn operated her under the Imperial Navigation Co., a corporate name apparently invented to match the name of the steamer.

hepburn ways

An early photo of the Hepburn "Ways" or shipyard (Metcalfe fonds.)

In the early 1880s, A.W. Hepburn purchased the Bay of Quinte and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company from his father-in-law James McCuaig. [Note 3.] Mika in "The settlement of Prince Edward County" states that " . . . A.W. Hepburn bought out the local shipping lines of McQuaig, and the St. Lawrence Steamboat Co., and the Hepburns became one of the richest shipping families on the Lake, with a fleet of 12 ships. These were laid up in Picton Harbour during the winter to be repaired and refitted." They owned and lived in the Rickarton House (also known as Castle) on the Ssouth-east shore just outside Picton harbour which they purchased in 1877. In 1878, Hepburn served as Councillor for the town of Picton. In 1883, A.W. Hepburn purchased property from McCuaig at the head of the harbour (Bridge Street), and continued his land acquisitions resulting in his family owning the quasi-totality of the western part of the harbour.

In 1883, very specifically for the trade between Toronto and Port Dalhousie (St. Catherines) and for the Empress of India, Hepburn founded the Niagara Falls Line. However, in 1888 the Toronto-based Lakeside Navigation Company entered into direct competition with A. W. Hepburn's Niagara Falls Line when they placed the Lakeside on the Toronto-Port Dalhousie run, but the rival companies continued with a pooled service. Hepburn withdrew his Empress of India, after fifteen years of continuous service, at the close of the 1898 season, at which point the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Navigation Company Ltd. inherited a very prominent position for local sailings at the head of Lake Ontario. The chronology of the Toronto and Port Dalhousie service can be summarised as:

1883: A. W. Hepburn's Niagara Falls Line Empresss of India started the service.
1888: Lakeside Navigation Company Lakeside in service late 1888.
1892: St. Catharines, Grimsby and Toronto Navigation Company (founded 1892) put Garden City in service, also charterd/managed Lakeside
1893: all three vessels "pooled" and managed by A.W. Hepburn and Captain Wigle of the Lakeside Navigation Company
1898?: (certainly after 1893) ownership of Lakeside and Garden City transferred to Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Navigation Company Ltd., a subsidiary of McKenzie and Mann's Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway Company.
1898: A. W. Hepburn's Niagara Falls Line Empresss of India withdrawn from the service.

The Empress of India. Click for enlargement.

For details concerning the Empress of india, see the more detailed history containing a fuller, conteporary description of the competition on the Toronto to Port Dalhousie service. See also [Note 4.]

The ships

Bay of Quinte and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company served the Bay of Quinte with schedules to Trenton, Kingston, Montreal and Rochester, transporting freight and providing passenger service on their steamboats. According to Picton 100 Years, "In its heyday the fleet comprised twelve boats..." These were:

Some of the Hepburn fleet in Picton harbour. From l. to r, the steamers
Water Lily, Varuna and Alexandria. Click image to enlarge. (Metcalfe fonds.).

Referring to the Blue Book of American Shipping - 1904, in that year Hepburn interests also included the L.W. Drake (sail, 397 tons, 155', 1881, 1887, Arthur W Hepburn Picton); the Argyle (paddle stmr, 700 tons, 185 ft, 1899, AW Hepburn Picton); Niagara (steamer, 396 tons, 159 ft, 1856, 1901, AW Hepburn Picton), the Lloyd S. Porter (489 tons, 159 ft, 1893, Arthur W Hepburn Picton); Isabel Reed (sail, 480 tons, 186 ft, 1881, Arthur W Hepburn Picton); Rob Roy (sail, 341 tons, 144 ft, 1897, AW Hepburn Picton); Varuna (steamer, 134 tons, 94 ft, 1880, W.B. Cooper Picton); Water Lily (steamer, 95 tons, 100 ft, 1891, AW Hepburn Picton).

Hepburn's shipyard, often working with John Tait, not only worked on ships owned by various Hepburn interests but also for other businessmen. A well-know example is the Robert McDonald (Schooner-barge of 52 tons, Picton Registry), re-built for the local McDonald and Hyatt interests from the wreck of the Parthenon, in Picton and re-registerd in 1890.

The companies and shipping lines

Often referred to as the "Hepburn Company" and their ships as the "Hepburn Fleet", later as the "Hepburn Brothers", it should be noted that some "shipping line" names were well used for advertising, but were not formally incorporated. Research is ongoing, but known corporate names include (alphabetically):

Metcalfe, in "Canvas and Steam", reports that on the maiden voyage of the Geronia, 18 July 1911 (beset by extremely bad weather) passengers included Mr and Mrs B.R. Hepburn, Mr and Mrs J. de C. Hepburn and family, Mr and Mrs R.G.K Hepburn, Miss Gena Hepburn and Miss Tottie Hepburn.

Hepburn ways

Another early view of the Hepburn ways (Metcalfe fonds.).

Before the year 1913 was out, the entire operation, including what was left of the Ontario and Quebec Navigation Company, was absorbed into the newly-formed Canada Transportation Company Ltd. This was part of a long series of amalgamations amongst Canadian vessel operators. Hepburn's Ontario and Quebec Navigation Company Ltd. was one of the eight companies which on June 11, 1913 were merged with the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company Ltd., the Inland Navigation Company, Northern Navigation Company, Niagara Navigation Comapny, the St Lawrence River Steamboat Company, the Canadian Interlake Line, the Quebec and Gulf Ports Steamship Company, the Thousand Islands Steamboat Company and the Lake Ontario and Bay of Quinte Steamship Comapny; from this merger appeared the giant Canada Steamship Lines Ltd., Montreal.

In addition to the transportation business, the Hepburns also operated a planing and saw mill, a lumber yard, a ship yard, and a coal yard in the harbour. [Note 5] The ship yard was run by master ship builder John Tait. Metcalfe (op. cit) praises Tait as an accomplished ship builder:

Most of the vessels built in Prince Edward County were built by John Tait... From the number of repeat orders for ships, he must have been one of Upper Canada’s best shipwrights. It is his record for building ships that has never been equalled. Much of John Tait’s building was done in Prince Edward County, but he was greatly in demand and moved about.

A.W. Hepburn and William Wright purchased the A.C. Miller & Co. canning plants in Picton and Brighton in 1887. These goods were shipped by the Hepburn steamships. (History of Canadian Canners.)

The Hepburn shipping interests declined after the death of A.W. Hepburn, but remained locally active at least through the 1930s. Other business interests, particularly their coal wharf at the "Tip of the Bay", continued into the 1960s.


Viewing the Argyle, a young Miss Hilda Hepburn, later Mrs Charles
Ackerman, mother of Ben Ackerman. (Metcalfe fonds.).

The people

James Simeon McCuaig (September 29, 1819 – August 4, 1888.) He was elected to the provincial assembly in a by-election in 1872; later he was elected to the House of Commons in 1878 supporting temperance in Prince Edward County. J.S. McCuaig was married twice: first to Julia Isabella Glass and then to Maria Augusta Pope. He died at the age of 68.

Arthur and Katherine Hepburn were the parents of four sons and five daughters. The two eldest sons, Bernard and James, were much involved in the family business. The third son, Robert, known as "Buffer" was later involved. Note that in, say 1905, their respective ages were twenty-nine, twenty-seven and twenty-three years old.

Press cuttings and notes

Railway and Marine World, April, 1910 ; Masters and Engineers; Railway and Marine World, April, 1910 : Captains and Engineers : ONTARIO AND QUEBEC NAVIGATION CO., LTD., PICTON, ONT.
Aberdeen W. Dulmage; C. McWilliams
Alexandria J. Rinfeet; T. Milne
Lloyd S. Porter M. Heffernan; L. Smith
Water Lily N. Palmatier; F. Robins

British Whig (Kingston, ON), 23 Aug 1910 : NEW COMPANY FORMED : Steamers Go Into Ontario & Quebec Navigation Co. For some time negotiations have been going on between the company owning the steamers Brockville, Aletha and Varuna, with a view of amalgamating with the Hepburn fleet of Picton, says the Belleville Intelligencer. That the new company has been formed there is now no longer any doubt, and the charter will likely be out in a few days.The new company will comprise all the Hepburn fleet, store houses, wharfs, dry docks, etc., in addition to the three steamers above mentioned and properties held by that company. It is the intention of the new company to build, as soon as possible, a new steamer at a cost of $130,000 or more, and run in conjunction with the Alexandria on the Montreal route, the new boat leaving the eastern end of the route the same hour the Alexandria leaves the western end. The new company will endeavor to own all its own wharfs and landings along the route.

British Whig (Kingston, ON), 3 Sep 1910 : PICTON BOAT DEAL. The Hepburns Will Have A Big Fleet. A special from Picton to the Whig says: The Ontario and Quebec Navigation Company, Picton, whose chief steamer is the Alexandria, on the Charlotte-Quebec route, has absorbed the Bay of Quinte Navigation company with a fleet of three bay steamers and will increase its present fleet of ten steamers and freighters, by a new $140,000 Clyde-built steel boat. A.W. Hepburn, father of Hepburn Bros., who are heads of the new company, sailed for England, yesterday, to superintend the building of the new steamer during the coming winter. The new boat will be brought to Canada in the early spring and in June will be put on the Toronto-Charlotte, Montreal and Quebec route, running in conjunction with the steamer Alexandria. It will have a 450-ton capacity for freight, and accommodation for 250 passengers. It will be modernly equipped in every detail.

Railway and Marine World, October, 1910 : The Ontario and Quebec Navigation Co., Ltd., has been incorporated under the Dominion Companies Act with a capi­tal of $1,000,000, and office at Picton, Ont., to carry on a forwarding, passen­ger and transportation business, and to own and operate steam and other ves­sels and other transportation facilities. The provisional directors are, B. R., J. de C., and R. G. K. Hepburn, A. Leslie, Picton; J. F. Chapman, Deseronto, and H. Dempsey, Trenton. The company, which has been re-incorporated, owns the steamboats Aberdeen, Alexandria, Lloyd S. Porter, and Water Lily, and is reported to have absorbed the Quinte Navigation Co., Picton, which owns the steamboats Aletha, Brockville and Var­una. Press reports from Picton, state that A. W. Hepburn has sailed for Great Britain to superintend the construction of a steel vessel, to be built on the Clyde, at a cost of about $140,000, which, it is said, will reach Canada in time for the re-opening of navigation, and be placed on the Toronto, Charlotte, Montreal and Quebec route. The new vessel, will it is said have capacity for 250 passengers and about 450 tons of freight.

The Railway and Marine World, July, 1911 : The Ontario and Quebec Navigation Company has been licensed to carry on its business in Ontario, with B.H. Hepburn as its attorney.


Note 1: [^] Richard and Janet Lunn, The County, Picton Gazette Publishing, 1967.

Note 2: [^] From the Daily News (Kingston, ON), 19 June 1879: NOTICE: All persons having claims against the Ontario and Quebec Navigation Company are requested to send them at once to the undersigned at Bellevile. And all persons indebted to the said company are hereby notified to pay at once. The Company's affairs are now in liquidation, and claims not presented within ten days will not be recognized.
Thos. Kelso, President.
Dated Belleville, 17th June, 1879.

Note 3: [^] From British Whig (Kingston, ON), 3 Feb 1911: The New Company - The directors of the Ontario and Quebec Navigation company, limited, has taken over the steamers, wharves and other properties owned and controlled by the Ontario and Quebec Navigation Company limited, as also the property and steamers of the Quinte Navigation company, limited. The head offices are at Picton. The officers are: President, B.R. Hepburn; vice-president, J.F. Chapman; secretary, R.G.K. Hepburn; chairman of the board, A. Leslie; general passenger and freight agent, J.D.C. Hepburn. The crafts the company control are: steamers Alexandria, Brockville, Aletha, Varuna, Where Now, Madge, Lloyd S. Porter, Aberdeen, Waterlily, barges Isabel Reid and Rob Roy.

Note 4: [^] W. Metcalfe ("Notes after 1st ed.") somewaht confusingly writes: "The first organized passenger service between Toronto and Port Dalhousie was established about 1884, by the St. Catherines, Grimsby and Toronto Navigation Co., one of the numerous shipping enterprises of A.W. Hepburn. Two steamers were used, the first S.S. Empress of India and later S.S. Garden City, built 1892." See also The Scanner, v4, no. 5.

Note 5: [^] The Hepburn drydock, or marine railway, in Picton, however, is recorded in 1915 as being owned by Canadian Transport Lines, (formerly owned by A.W. Hepburn). -- from A Directory of Names, Pennant Numbers ... Ship Masters' Association of the Great Lakes ... April, 1915 at page 135.


Hepburn shipping

Top of this page
The ships
The companies and lines
The people involved
Notes and more ...


Naval Marine ArchiveThe Canadian Collection
205 Main Street, Picton, Ontario, K0K2T0, Canada
Telephone: 1 613 476 1177
E-mail: for comments, queries and suggestions.

Copyright © 2024
Naval Marine Archive
The Canadian Collection

Revised: 15 October 2022