Queen of the Fleet

By Mike Filey, originally published June 8, 2010

The Trillium celebrates 100 years

On a bright, sunny Saturday in June 1910, shortly after noon, the fourth of the “flower” boats owned by the Toronto Ferry Company (TFC) was ceremoniously christened by little Phyllis Osler, granddaughter of the Company president. “Trillium” as she was to be named (which incidentally, was a fourth choice after “Arbutus”, “Golden Rod” and “Hawthorne”, each of which had already been registered) was modeled after “Blue Bell” a similar but older double-end side-paddle, steam ferry in the TFC fleet. Both were built by the Polson Iron Works Co. located at the water’s edge at the foot of Sherbourne St. just south of today’s Esplanade. “Trillium” was slightly larger than “Blue Bell”, having a length 150 feet, a beam of 45 feet and weighed in at 673 tons. Her engines were of the inclined compound type, with 17 inch and 34 inch cylinders and a 48-inch stroke giving her a top speed of 10 miles per hour. The boiler, which was installed after the launching, was of the “Scotch” marine type and operated at a working pressure of 160 lbs. of steam. A steam turbine electric generating plant was also fitted and generated sufficient power to illuminate the vessel’s 350 sixteen-candle power lights. A steam steering engine made her responsive to finger tip control from the wheelhouse.

For more than 45 years, “Trillium” carried millions to and from Toronto Island. During that time the vessel’s main destination was Hanlan’s Point where for many years the Maple Leaf baseball team of the International AAA League played against teams from Montreal, Rochester and Syracuse. To accommodate the thousands of enthusiastic ball fans who flocked to the park, “Trillium” was originally fitted with loading and unloading facilities on both the upper and lower decks. Soon, however, it became obvious that something would have to be done to restrain the crowds that would surge forward as the vessel approached the dock and in doing so caused the stern of the vessel to lift out of the water thereby making steering of the sidepaddle vessel impossible. To remedy this problem, “cattle-gates” that held the crowds back were installed. Eventually, the upper deck loading/unloading facilities were removed all together.

With the decrease in traffic to the Islands after the WW2 and the ability of the other ferry boats (“William Inglis”, “Sam McBride” and “Thomas Rennie”) to handle the dwindling crowds, both “Blue Bell” and “Trillium” were retired from service in 1957. Soon the ancient vessels found themselves moored in a lagoon near the Island filtration plant awaiting a degrading conversion into scows. “Blue Bell” actually suffered this indignity and for a short time carried garbage out into the lake for disposal. Fortunately, owing to operational problems with the ferry/scow “Blue Bell,” a similar plan for “Trillium” was abandoned. Instead the craft was left to languish in the lagoon where she was buffeted by wind, rain and snow. Frequently, uninvited guests would board the old boat and open the doors through which ash from the burning of coal was disposed of into Toronto Bay. This would result in “Trillium” settling into the mud only to have staff of the Works Dept. close the doors and pump out the water.

Several times over the ensuing years ideas were put forward to restore “Trillium”. In 1965, Canada’s leading marine engineering consultants issued a report that recommended the vessel be scrapped since “the only thing worth preserving (was) the anchor”. By the way, this firm was also in the business of designing new ferry boats. The following year Mr. Guy Landles, who wasn’t a designer of ferry boats, suggested that the old vessel could be restored using much of the original equipment.

In spite of this suggestion and perhaps because the time just wasn’t right nothing further happened and the vessel remained in the Island lagoon. Then in early 1973, at the instigation of the Toronto Historical Board, another feasibility study was requested by the Metro Toronto Parks Dept., a request that was subsequently approved by the full Metro Toronto Council. Gordon Champion was engaged and the first steps towards ultimate restoration began. Both Tommy Thompson, the Parks Commissioner, and Gordon Champion recognized the valuable assets of “Trillium” hidden behind her weather beaten exterior. These two men along with Alderman Art Eggleton, Alan Howard, curator of the Marine Museum and myself met on numerous occasions to discuss the future of the vessel. These meetings culminated in the release of Gordon Champion’s feasibility study that confirmed that restoration was indeed possible. Gordon’s presentation was subsequently approved by the Metro Parks Committee, the Metro Executive Committee and finally by the Metropolitan Toronto Council. The object was to restore “Trillium” as authentically as possible (with all due concern to today’s safety and operational requirements) to her original 1910 condition.

Work began almost immediately here in Toronto as well as in shipyards in both Whitby and Port Colborne. “Trillium” officially returned to service on June 18, 1976.

Photo by Philip Troyer/”Trillium and Toronto Island”(Dundurn Press)

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