Canada’s navy before the Canadian Navy: the steam cruiser Acadia

The official establishment of the Canadian Navy dates from 1910 but the Dominion had a longer history of protecting its marine resources which went back to the confederation period. Chief among these marine resources was the fishery on Canada’s east and west coast as well as on the Great Lakes. The main threat to Canada’s sovereignty came not from one of the growing European powers, but from the south where the Americans were the chief aggressors. 

American vessels had long infringed upon Canada’s waters and there were several incidents arising from disputes concerning the fishery which threatened the generally peaceful relations between the two countries. Up until the time of confederation Canada had depended almost entirely upon the Royal Navy and patrols of the of the fishing grounds along the coast of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were long a regular and necessary part of the duties of the Royal Navy’s North Atlantic fleet based in Halifax. 

That gradually changed and after 1873 it was clear that Canada would have to take more responsibility for its coast and the fisheries protection service came into being. At first it consisted on a motley collection of government vessels which had multiple nautical responsibilities but in 1886 a step was taken to add to the efficiency of the service’s activities.  At the time many of the vessels were sail powered and sometimes could not keep up with faster American fishing schooners in Canadian waters.   

The remedy was a new vessel  — albeit one that was used, and in an ironic turn the vessel acquired to protect the fishery from the Americans was a former American private yacht.   

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The John Roach designed iron steam yacht Yosemite ca. 1880

The steam yacht Yosemite had been launched in 1880 from a shipyard in Pennsylvania. Designed by noted yacht builder John Roach, the expensive yacht was to be the property of New York banker William Belden for a few years. However Belden’s bankruptcy meant that the yacht was returned to the builder and in 1886 it had been on the market for some time. The Canadian government reportedly paid only $40,000 for a little-used ship that cost over $140,000 a few years earlier.

The iron and wood vessel was impressive. At 186 feet the 486 ton vessel was long and narrow and could steam at 20 knots. As can be seen in the illustrations she was turtle-backed and her narrow hurricane deck served to increase at least the the perception of speed. Brass and copper abounded in her deck fittings and the interior was all that a millionaire’s plaything promised to be with maple inlay throughout. The vessel had large and conveniently fitted staterooms. The engines were triple cylinder compound and built of steel. As an early steamer she was hardly economical. At a comfortable cruising speed of 12 knots she consumed eight tons of coal every 24 hours. (Her bunkers held 175 tons).

She was not, however, acquired to continue to serve as a gentleman’s yacht. She was clearly a vessel that had a naval-like role. As a newspaper reported she possessed a very sharp bow and “would cut through an ordinary Yankee fisherman as neatly and as cleanly as it would be possible to do.” The crew of 22 was well armed with revolvers, Winchester rifles, and cutlasses and as the Halifax Herald noted “carries enough ammunition to deal out death to 500 Yankee fishermen.” The newspaper did, however point out that her 12 pound brass cannon was over a century old and had been used in the revolutionary war.

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Fisheries Protection Service Steamer Acadia

With the name Yosemite sounding perhaps a little too American for a vessel used to confront the Americans on the high seas, the name was changed to the Acadia.* In 1886 the Acadia visited Souris which was a port frequented by the American fleet. She continued to be a visitor to P.E.I. waters until the end of her service. Her commander was referred to at the time of her visit to Souris as “Admiral Scott” and this seems to have been the title used for the head of the Fisheries Protection Service although it was certainly an unofficial rank.

The Acadia was not alone in her duties and a list published in the Charlottetown Examiner in 1887 provided the names of all of the vessels engaged in fishery protection on the east coast.  Besides the Acadia there were two other steamers, the La Canadienne and the Lansdowne (which the Acadia replaced) , The steamers all carried three officers and from 18 to 24 men and carries three guns. Several of the officers were ex- or current Royal Navy. However the bulk of the fleet consisted of schooners, most of which appear to have been hired by the season.  These were all smaller vessels from 65 to 90 tons and carried a complement of three officers and a dozen crew. These vessels were armed with one gun.   

Within a few years the dependence on schooners had been reduced and more of the vessels of the Fisheries patrol fleet were steamers. At the turn of the century the flagship of the service’s commander was the Acadia but other vessels included the steamers Curlew, Petrel, Dolphin, Stanley, La Canadienne, and Constance Still, two schooners the Kingfisher and the Vigilant were also part of the fleet.

The Acadia continued in the Fisheries Protection Service until 1909 when the steamer was scrapped. There are no reports that her 18th century gun was ever fired in anger.

Although the Fishery Protection Service did the job assigned, there were forces at work that called for a larger role for Canada on the international stage and also to take up responsibilities for the defence of the greater Empire. Within a year of the scrapping of the Acadia the Canadian navy had been created.  The protection of the fishery had ceased to be the primary maritime concern of the nation. 

  • * The steam yacht Acadia should not be confused with the later C.G.S. Acadia which is preserved at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.   

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