What a voyage this little piece of crockery has made to come to Schooner Days readers!
The least romantic probability is that some morning long before the Great War smashed the chinaware of the Victorian survival, the Argyle was rolling her way up the lake when an outsize greyback sent everything to the other side of the dining room with a crash.
When the mess of spilled coffee, marmalade, burnt toast, bacon in its gravy and cold fried eggs among fragments of broken dishes was swept up by the seasick steward it was dumped overboard in the chill grey dawn. (Steamers still have the habit of using the lake from which we get our drinking water as a garbage pail.)
Among the breakfast wreckage on this particular morning may have been this cracked cup. All would settle to the bottom of the lake at speeds varying with the specific gravity of the various items. The cup pieces would get there before the burnt toast. But not to find rest.
Kept on going
Even at the bottom of Lake Ontario, in the ooze a hundred fathoms down, there is motion, slight but perpetual. All the water of four Great Lakes and 40 lesser ones pours into Ontario from thundering Niagara and a thousand tiny imitators — rivers, creeks, springs, even raindrops and snowflakes, falling or melting in the sun. All the water runs out eventually at the great tap of the St. Lawrence.
All the water feels the push of the succeeding water, the thrust of the sun’s rays, the pull of the moon, the lash of the winds, the pressure of the atmosphere. These forces are exerted directly on the surface and indirectly to the very bottom, 780 feet down.
So there is motion of some sort, up and down, back and forth, all through Lake Ontario’s 200-mile length and 50-mile breadth. And currents are always running—not straightway to the St. Lawrence from Niagara, but round and round about, like the water in the basin when the tap is turned on.
But there are thousands of variants, eddies, ebbs and flows. Some of this is caused by subterranean rivers spouting into the lake bottom as springs. More is caused by winds, variation of atmospheric pressure, and some by the thrash of propellers and churning of paddle wheels.
Toronto after how long?
From some or all of these causes the broken cup continued to move along the lake bottom and around the corner of Gibraltar Point. Even the gradient of shoaling water and rising shore did not halt it. The wave motion on the bottom was stronger as the water shoaled, and at last the fragment came to permanent moorings, as surely as the Queen Elizabeth at the end of an Atlantic voyage.
This minuscule of the steamer Argyle docked in the sand of the Island shore near where the rays of the Point lighthouse have shone over the billows for a hundred and forty-eight years. It has found rest; only temporary.
If it had grated back and forth in the sand and gravel, if it had even been sand-polished by the wind for very long, it would have lost all the glaze of its enamel, and we would never have known its name, or where it came from. As it is, its enamel is perfect on the inside, somewhat worn on the outer. The raw edges of fracture have been tooled and ground to a smoothness very pleasant to the touch.
We can only guess at the extent, both in time and distance, of the submarine voyage this fragment has made. Certainly one mile, maybe 100. Since the Argyle left Lake Ontario about 40 years ago the piece may have been traveling that long or longer.
Built 75 years ago
The Argyle was born seventy-five years ago, but that was not her first name. William Jamieson built her at Mill Point on the Bay of Quinte, where now stands the town of Deseronto.
The year 1876 was an important one in history. The Bay of Quinte Yacht Club challenged for the blue ribbon of world yachting, the America’s Cup, with the schooner Countess of Dufferin, and Disraeli, prime minister of Britain, clenched England’s access to the East by acquiring half of the Suez Canal, and made his royal mistress, Queen Victoria, Empress of India.
Greatness was not at this date afflicted with any craven fears of being great, “British Empire” was not then something to disclaim or apologize for, but an entity upon which the sun never set, and whose reveille drumbeat rolled with sunrise round the world. Empress of India was a new phrase in a new world. There had never been an Empress of India, there would never be another. It was a diadem unique, for one brow only - Victoria’s.
Her first name
So the new wooden steamer 185 feet long, 700 tons gross, in the new Dominion, then not ten years in being, was christened Empress of India, with proud acclaim. [as built in 1876, she was in fact 170' in length, 335.85 tons net and 579.05 tons gross. Ed.]
She looked the name. Smart in black and white paint, the black predominating, above a gleaming red waterline, with tall red funnel, black-banded where the wood parks came out, and with paddle boxes painted like sunbursts of glory above the square and gilded letters of her long name, she made a gallant show. Her walking beam, shaped like a flattened diamond, seemed like the sovereign’s sceptre which made order and justice the driving force of the empire.
“Send Her victorious
Happy and glorious
Long to reign over us
God Save the Queen!”
– played the brass band at the launching, and everybody sang it and meant it and prayed it.
The Empress of India plied between Toronto, St. Catharines and Niagara, with side trips and excursions to Hamilton, Rochester and Kingston and prospered.
A. W. Hepburn rebuilt her at Picton in 1899, and on the strength of the rebuilding gave her a name which would indicate a new steamer while retaining the old association. The new name was simply Empress, period. [This "new" name does not appear to have been officially registered but was in fairly common use when writing or talking of her. Ed.] It was not well chosen. It still dated her, without the Imperial splendor.
The great Victoria died, and the Empress again changed her name. This time, in the new century, she became the Argyle, a name then popular from its regal and viceregal connections. The owners were the Ontario and Quebec Steamship Co., of Toronto. [Lake Ontario Steamship Co. of Picton, Prince Edward County in 1899 when she was re-registered. Ed.]
This was when she got the new tableware with the name in blue. By the time she was 38 years old she needed another name. She became the Frontier, and was sold to operate on the Detroit River by 1914.
. . . you can easily
Consult Rowley W. Murphy's subject index, or ...
Return to the regional search index.
Naval Marine Archive – The Canadian Collection
205 Main Street, Picton, Ontario, K0K2T0, Canada
Telephone: 1 613 476 1177
E-mail: for comments, queries and suggestions.
Copyright © 2023
Naval Marine Archive
The Canadian Collection™
Revised: 12 July 2022