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Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Ida Burton was a top Simcoe steamship

Before the coming of rail and road networks, water provided the quickest, most comfortable, and most efficient means of transportation in Upper Canada.

For the better part of the 19th century, therefore, Lake Simcoe played a major role in the development of what became Central Ontario.

Barrie, naturally enough, was a major port.


Originally, the boats plying the lake were canoes, bateaux (large, flat-bottomed row-boats measuring nearly 50, in length), and schooners.

Eventually, a veritable fleet of steamships replaced these earlier modes of travel, many of which were handsome vessels that enjoyed long and distinguished careers.

The Ida Burton was only one of many such vessels, but she was notable for many reasons, none the least of which is the distinction of being the first steamship built in Barrie, and the last side-wheeler built on either Lakes Simcoe or Couchiching.

A handsome vessel, capable of sustained steaming at high speed, the Ida Burton was launched on June 13, 1866, by George Burton and his partner Llewellyn Oliver.

Oliver was the county coroner, a distinguished doctor, and a dabbler in various business interests. Burton was the son of lumber magnate William Burton and, as chief stakeholder, it was his daughter's name that graced the ship.

The Ida Burton sailed daily with passengers who had disembarked from trains at Barrie bound for the luxury hotels on the Muskoka Lakes.

She would sail to Orillia, and hence across the length of Lake Couchiching, to connect with stage coaches at Washago on the Severn River.

Coaches would then carry the weary travellers to Gravenhurst, where they would embark upon yet another steamer to reach their final destination.

She was a success from the start, but George Burton didn't get to enjoy the accolades for long. He drowned in Lake Simcoe on June 10, 1869. He was only 33 years old.

After his death, the Ida Burton was taken over by his brothers, Martin and James Lindsay, a pair of ambitious businessmen.

Though she continued for a time in the passenger trade, the steamship's fortunes were undermined when the Northern railway extended all the way to Gravenhurst. Instead, she was increasingly utilized as part of the Burton Brothers' industrial aspirations by towing logs from timber limits around the lakes to their sawmill at Barrie.

In 1875, the Ida Burton was badly damaged in a collision with another vessel. With their timber fortunes now being made at Byng Inlet on Georgian Bay, there was no real reason for the Burtons to rebuild their little steamship, so she remained moored along the Barrie docks.

Her end came a year later when her machinery was removed for sale and she was sunk alongside the Orillia shore to serve as the foundation of a wharf.

Presumably she lies there still, forgotten somewhere under the waters of Lake Couchiching.

The Ida Burton passed with one final distinction: that of the last side-wheeler to ply its trade upon the waters of Lake Simcoe.

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