The spring of 1868 was the conclusion of a tumultuous era in Chatham history.
In the previous two years there had been several threats of a Fenian invasion which resulted in the military occupation of the Barracks Ground (Tecumseh Park ).
There had been a terrible flood which had swept away Fifth Street Bridge and the infamous Pork Row Fire had destroyed the south side of King Street between Sixth Street and the Market Square.
The coming of spring brought a receding of the high water and a new season of shipping on the Thames River which, by this point, had considerably less in the manner of boat traffic than in previous years.
The culprit in the decline was the increased competition for freight and passengers from the Great Western (Via – CNR) Railway.
There was substantially less hardwood to ship and manufacturing had not yet become a major segment of the economy. The days when boatloads of black walnut would be shipped directly from Chatham to the English furniture market had come to an end.
Passenger boat traffic was also in decline with the Great Western, again, being the culprit.
One could get to Windsor on a train in an hour or so where a boat trip, to that location, would consume most of the day.
The previous steamers on the Chatham-Detroit run had departed leaving the field open for new entrants, and the first of these would be the Dominion, which had been constructed in Wallaceburg in 1867.
The builder was a man named John Bruce who, on completion of the hull and super structure, had the Dominion taken to Chatham where the firm of Hyslop and Ronald installed the steam engine and mechanical parts.
The Hyslop and Ronald plant was located on Adelaide Street where the Cinema Six facility was later built. The original Hyslop and Ronald building stood until the mid 1950s.
The Dominion was not huge, having a length of 117 feet, a width of 25 feet and drew eight feet of water.
She was a sidewheeler, 178 gross tons and mainly intended for river traffic.
The captain of the Dominion was James W. Steinhoff who has been featured in this column on several previous occasions.
Captain Steinhoff was about to revolutionize river travel on the Thames.
In addition to regular passenger traffic and freight service, between Chatham and Detroit, Steinhoff introduced moonlight excursions to the lighthouse, which would include music and dancing at a cost of 25 cents per person.
There would be, as well, special holiday excursions and regular 10 cent fares to the Chatham Mineral Springs horse racing park which was located at the northwest junction of the River Road and the Bear Line in Dover Township. This would be to the immediate west of the present day college campus.
These trips were special treats that few residents had ever experienced before as such outings were rare and expensive in previous times.
The Dominion played host to the first anniversary celebration of Confederation when, on July 1, 1868, 500 town residents eagerly boarded the ship for a special Dominion Day excursion to Lake St. Clair. For this special event Steinhoff hired the Detroit Light Guard Band to entertain the passengers.
I have always liked the term “Dominion Day” which was eliminated by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. I really wish he had not done that.
On July 29, 1875, Captain Steinhoff and the Dominion were returning to Chatham with 100 cords of fuel wood when a fire broke out in the hold. The Dominion was about five miles down river from Chatham.
In a matter of minutes the entire boat was on fire. The crew and passengers had all they could do just to escape the flames.
In a matter of minutes the ship had burned to the water line. She had been in service for less than 10 years.
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