The Story of the S.S. Canadiana

The Canadiana was launched at the Buffalo Dry-Dock in May of 1910. This great ship was the last passenger vessel to be built in Buffalo, and plied the waters of the Great Lakes until 1956.

The Canadiana featured stately Victorian architecture, salons appointed in rich mahogany, bevelled mirrors, brass railings and lighting fixtures, grand stairways with sweeping banisters and stately newels, stained and leaded glass windows with gilded plaster Neptune’s heads between each, accenting the walls.

Ceilings featured three-dimensional plaster forms of grape vines and rose clusters, enhancing ovals of mahogany moulding that in turn framed hand-painted scenes and still-lifes. To say that she was elegant is an understatement.

The ship was 215 feet long and 54 feet wide amidships. She weighed in at 974 tons, and was powered by a triple-expansion steam engine producing 1446 horsepower. The Canadiana was not a fast ship, taking about an hour each way for the trip.

There were three passenger decks with an original capacity of 3500 passengers and it had the largest dance floor of any passenger steamer ever placed on the Great Lakes. The US Coast Guard had decreed, however, that 3500 passengers was too great a load and that 1800 would be safer. This restriction led to the decision to build the dance floor. Many people met and many a romance began on that dance floor. In September, 2004 we had a display of our Canadiana memorabilia at the Antique Boat Show on Grand Island. About an hour apart we met two different women in their 50s, each of whose parents had met on the ship. In both cases, one parent was from Toronto and the other from Buffalo! The S.S. Canadiana was doing its bit for international harmony.

The ship was especially popular up until the building of the Peace Bridge in 1927. Even then, it would be a while yet before most of us were driving cars. When the Dionne quintuplets were born near North Bay, Ont. In 1934 everyone wanted to go see them. However, only one Ontario family in three had a car! The percentage in Western New York at that time was likely similar. By the fifties, though, many families had two cars and the writing was on the wall for the Canadiana in much the same way as the increasing popularity of rapid air travel gradually ended the era of the great ocean liners.

Crystal Beach was the most common run for the Canadiana, usually from Memorial Day weekend until Labour Day. Last summer we had a display set up for our memorabilia at Port Colborne’s Canal Days festival. One visitor informed us that the ship actually made runs to Port Colborne on Victoria Day weekends, docking along the east wall of the Welland Ship Canal. This was apparently a very popular jaunt.

Especially on the American side, the Canadiana was affectionately known as the “Crystal Beach Boat” and the mere mention of the ship brings back happy and romantic memories of dancing and sailing under the stars on a tranquil Lake Erie.

After the Canadiana ceased operation in Buffalo in 1956, she was leased to others. This began a string of disasters, including several close encounters with the scrapyard.

The “Friends of the Canadiana” formed in 1984. Through gruelling work and over many obstacles, they brought the Canadiana back some 120 miles from her deathbed in Ohio to Buffalo for restoration. After all its previous ordeals – from a collision with a bridge in Toledo, to its sinking in the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland – it had become an unbelievably ugly and unwanted hulk.

But it was the object of love and affection in Buffalo and across the lake in nearby Canada. The Friends were praised and supported by hundreds of businesses and thousands of ordinary people. As amateur groups sometimes do, the Friends wrestled with indecision and instability. Was the ship to be a static display, or to sail again? A rift in the group followed and a lull in activity was the result.

When the decision was finally made to refit the Canadiana for actual operation, a new flurry of activity ensued, with much public approval. Fund raising, publicity, work on the ship all went on with purpose. The Canadiana was readied for rebuilding under modern-day regulations. All the decorative wood was removed and she was towed to Port Colborne, Ont. to lie in a sheltered slip near a dry-dock, awaiting funds for hull and engine repair.

Here again, the effort faltered. The idea the ship was in another country and seemingly ineligible for some funding sources apparently stymied the group, leading to inaction and nearly dissolution. Unfortunately, funding never was raised and the hull was cut up for scrap during the spring of 2004.

Of course the ideal restoration would have been back to its original condition, but we have recently learned the US Coast Guard would never have approved the amount of wood as used in a 1910 ship.


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