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Turbina ModelFor the great majority of readers of Sea Breezes, the name Turbinia brings to mind the picture of a diminutive craft threading its way at 34 knots through the ships at the June 1897 Naval Review.

But there was a second Turbinia which took to the water in 1904. She was the fourth commercial ship after King Edward (1901) and Queen Alexandra (1902) on the Clyde and The Queen (1903) on the English Channel to be fitted with Parsons Turbines and she was destined for passenger service on Lake Ontario. In fact, Turbinia was the first commercial ship driven by steam turbines to cross the Atlantic. This Turbinia had her brief moment of fame in North America but was soon eclipsed by Victorian and Virginian which in 1905 were placed on the Liverpool – Quebec/Montreal route by the Allan Line. Both incorporated steam turbine engines.

We have to guess what brought several businessmen in Hamilton, Ontario together in the summer of 1903 to form the Lake Ontario Steamship Company with the stated purpose of operating a passenger steamboat connecting their town with Toronto 40 miles north-east across Lake Ontario. The summer and autumn-only route was already well served by two screw steamships of the Hamilton Steamboat Company: Macassa (1888) and Modjeska (1889). While the current ships had passenger certificates for 616 and 861 passengers, respectively, the new ship was to accommodate 2,000. Also, the new ship was to provide three round trips each day compared to two by each of the Hamilton Steamboat Company. This required speed and so the adventurers intended to have their ship driven by steam turbines, a technology still in its infancy for maritime applications. In the summer of 1903, there were just two comparable ships in service: the pioneer King Edward and Queen Alexandra both built by William Denny & Co, Dumbarton, and fitted with Parsons Turbines.

Perhaps we get a clue concerning the motivation of the promoters when we consider the case of John Moodie, president of the new company. Born in Hamilton, he founded the Moodie Knitting Company and joined his father, also John, in floating the Hamilton Cataract Power Co (and so was familiar with turbine technology). Moodie brought the first automobile to Canada, and drove it along the beach at 25 miles per hour. He was an entrepreneur and also what the marketers would term an “early adopter.” So, these qualities combined to produce a leader able to convince others to join him in this adventure. The vice-president was Cyrus Albert Birge, born on a farm but rising to be a self-made man in heavy industry in Hamilton, becoming vice-president of the Steel Company of Canada. He held a number of major directorships including Bank of Hamilton and was described as “brusque and opinionated.” Also, the Hamilton Steamboat Company was very successful paying a nice dividend every year.

At the time of the planning by the new Lake Ontario Steamship Company, Hamilton was the sixth city in Canada with a population (1901) in excess of 52,000. The city was the centre of the fruit district and also contained light and heavy industry. A peculiarity of Hamilton was the natural harbour created by the five-mile sandspit, Burlington Beach, which ran in a north-west – south-east direction. A canal had been cut through the sandspit and was a calling place of the Hamilton – Toronto steamboats since the 1880’s when the Beach became a popular destination for day trippers.

In December 1903, an order was placed with R & W Hawthorne Leslie & Co, Hebbern-on-Tyne for a “full canal size” turbine steamship. “Full canal size” meant a ship of length not much more than 260’ and beam of 33’, that could transit the canal system between the St Lawrence River and Lake Ontario – the St Lawrence Seaway was many decades in the future. At that time larger ships would be sliced at Montreal and then reassembled at a yard on the Great Lakes. In 1903, very few firms had experience with building hulls to accommodate turbine machinery. Hawthorne Leslie had built two turbine-driven ships, HMS Viper (1898) and HMS Velox (1902). Viper achieved 37.1 knots on trials. Hawthorne Leslie was familiar with the Clyde turbines, King Edward and Queen Alexandra and was content to replicate that design and internal layout. Also, the Hawthorne Leslie yard was geographically close to the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where the turbine engines would be built.

The name Turbinia was bestowed on the vessel when launched on 30 Mar 1904 with Miss Agnes Henderson, cousin of John Moodie, doing the honours. The name of the company was now The Turbine Steamship Company. In May 1904 Turbinia underwent trials and was credited with achieving 19.3 knots.

Turbinia’s first master, Abner W Crawford, stood by the ship during construction and then took her away from the Tyne on the first day of June, round the north of Scotland. A call was made at Stornoway for coaling. There she unknowingly picked up two stowaways who hid inside coal sacks and lay for two days on top of a pile of coal before revealing themselves. Turbinia encountered some rough weather but we are assured she acquitted herself well.

Turbinia’s progress was watched with interest and reported widely in the press. On the morning of 10 June, Turbinia passed Cape Race, the south-east tip of Newfoundland. A call was made at Sydney NS on the 11th. It is interesting to note that early on the 14th at Father Point on the St Lawrence River, Turbinia picked up Joseph Dupil one of the Allan Line’s veteran pilots. Also, Andrew Allan, one of the Allan clan who owned and managed the Allan Line operating between the UK and Canada, joined the ship for the trip up to Quebec. The Allan Line was particularly interested in assessing the performance of Turbinia as they expected to take delivery in September of Victorian, their first turbine steamship. On arrival at Quebec on the 15th, Turbinia berthed at the Allan-Rae wharf. She took on provisions and continued on to Montreal, arriving the next day. Once through the canal system, she was dry-docked at Kingston, ON. Undocking on 19 June, Turbinia sailed over to her homeport, Hamilton. She showed the flag at Toronto on Wed 29 June and the following day started her Hamilton-Toronto service. Turbinia’s arrival on Lake Ontario was heralded by the Montreal Gazette as “a fresh epoch in the history of the mercantile marine.”

Turbina ModelTurbinia, with official number 112201, was issued with a passenger certificate for 2,000 when sailing “coastal” ie close to the shore, and 1,500 for the Hamilton-Toronto route.

In profile, Turbinia bears a strong resemblance to the pioneer Clyde turbine steamship King Edward. Both had the same length at 250’, though Turbinia had an extra 3’ in beam. The arrangement of the lower and main decks were almost identical for the two ships. Forward on the lower deck was accommodation for 12 seamen, eight firemen with separate mess rooms and an unspecified number of stewards. Next came individual cabins for officers. Then side bunkers and two single-ended Scotch boilers. Immediately aft of the boiler space were three turbines: the center high pressure turbine flanked by low pressure turbines and condensers. The lower deck aft contained the dining saloon accessed by a stairway from the main deck and served by a pantry (to starboard) and a galley (to port) Natural light reached the dining saloon through 10” diameter sidelights. The ship was lit throughout by electricity.

Right forward on the main deck we find washrooms for seamen and firemen. The space between the washrooms and the boiler casing was a steel deck used for freight with shell doors providing access. Aft of the engine space were the shell doors for access by passengers who entered an open area with the bar and tearoom (to starboard), toilets (to port) and a stairway down to the dining saloon and a stairway up to the “entrance hall.” The remainder of the main deck was given over to a saloon furnished in polished mahogany and laid out in classic Clyde fashion with settees forming ten bays and illuminated by large rectangular windows.

On the upper decks, the Canadian influence is more evident – though the structure was of steel rather than the more typical wood. The upper or promenade deck extended to the bow with its solid bulwark, a standard feature on the Great Lakes. Forward there was an inset deck shelter plus two cabins which presumably could be hired for the trip. Aft of the funnels was a second deck house grandly dubbed the “Entrance Hall” with purser’s office and a smoke room. Access to the entrance hall from the main deck was up a broad stairway with a landing dividing to port and starboard. (The hall must have been very congested on busy and/or inclement days). These deck houses place Turbinia ahead of her Clyde contemporaries.

The full-width hurricane deck extended from forward of the bridge, providing a prized viewing vantage point, right aft to the stern. While this provided shelter for the promenade deck below it also made her very tender since four 22’ steel lifeboats plus two workboats were placed on this deck. The hurricane deck contained a wheelhouse with curved front typical of the Great Lake steamships and which bore the ship’s name. The wheelhouse connected to a deckhouse with accommodation for the captain. Above the wheelhouse was placed a canvas-fronted curved bridge deck with a second wheel, a search light and engine room and docking telegraphs.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - February 2015 Issue
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