Author Interview with John Henry

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Author Interview with John Henry

Posted on August 15 by John Henry
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Today I interviewed John Henry about his book Great White Fleet. John tells me all about his book, how he researched it and why he felt compelled to write it.

Caitlyn: Tell us about your book:

John: Great White Fleet tells the story of the incomparable fleet of passenger steamers once operated by Canada Steamship Lines on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. It was a fleet that dwarfed any other on North America’s inland waters in scope and scale: The company’s passenger steamers plied waters ranging all the way from Duluth, Minnesota, at the western end of Lake Superior, to the lower St. Lawrence River, well beyond Quebec City — a distance spanning 2,000 miles by C.S.L.’s calculation. At the company’s inception, in 1913, no fewer than fifty-one of its vessels were classified as pure passenger or combination passenger-freight ships — a staggering total.

As Canada Steamship Lines, which now carries only cargo on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence, enters its second century, Great White Fleet revisits the remarkable collection of passenger ships that the company operated for more than half its existence — until 1965. This book, the first devoted exclusively to C.S.L.’s passenger vessels, examines what made its Great White Fleet so great, describing the intriguing steamers that comprised it, showcasing the shrewd marketing efforts that promoted it, and sharing the vivid recollections of people who patronized it.

With words and more than a hundred illustrations, some in colour, Great White Fleet — the name C.S.L. used to describe its immaculately kept passenger steamers  —celebrates such bygone favourites in its fleet as the Cayuga, Kingston, Rapids Prince, and Richelieu, each of which represented a different link in the company’s superb “Niagara to the Sea” network of interconnecting services. And not forgotten are the Huronic, Hamonic and Noronic, each employed on the company’s lucrative upper Great Lakes service, where passengers were pampered with hair salons and even a daily newspaper printed onboard.

Besides recounting the pleasures of travelling with C.S.L., the book recalls the perils, most notably the fires that destroyed within the space of five years three of the company’s finest steamers, among them the Noronic, which burned at her dock in Toronto Harbour in 1949 while on a post-season cruise with a death toll of well over a hundred passengers.

While the fires dealt a serious blow to passenger service, it was probably the growing love affair of North Americans with their automobiles that above all else doomed the Great White Fleet. Nonetheless, Canada Steamship Lines remained in the passenger business longer than almost every other steamship company on inland waters and even for a while contemplated building new steamers after World War II.

It all adds up to book that should engage those who once sailed with the Great White Fleet and those who wish they had.

Caitlyn: How did you come up with the idea for this work?

John: During childhood summers spent on the shores of Lake Erie in the 1940s and 1950s, when trips aboard passenger steamers were still possible, I developed what would become a lifelong fascination with them and, especially, for the ships comprising the biggest passenger fleet of all — the one operated by Canada Steamship Lines of Montreal.

So even before I became a journalist in New York City, I longed to produce a book on C.S.L’s passenger ships. The opportunity to do so finally arose when I learned a few years ago that the parent company, CSL Group Inc., had donated thousands of historic photographs and hundreds of boxes of archival material relating to its Canada Steamship Lines subsidiary to the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston, Ontario. That was all the incentive I needed to write a book that fulfills the dream of a lifetime.

Caitlyn: Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

John: Yes, I wanted to appeal, of course, to hard-core ship lovers like myself who appreciate the romance of steamboat travel on North America’s inland waters. But I also wanted to write for a broader audience that includes people interested in Canadian transportation history, which Canada Steamship Lines — once described as one of the country’s industrial empires — has done so much to shape.

Caitlyn: How did you research your book?

John: I made a half- dozen trips to the Marine Museum in Kingston over two years to tap the trove of C.S.L. history there. To procure additional photographs of company passenger vessels, I also visited the renowned McCord Museum in Montreal, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec in Quebec City, the Musée de Charlevoix in LaMalbaie, QC, and the Sociéte Historique Pierre-de-Saurel in Sorel, QC, where C.S.L.’s Montreal-Saguenay passenger steamers used to winter. Still more photographs came from Library and Archives Canada and a very generous private collector, Jay Bascom, who provided not only superb pictures but also the meticulously researched histories on C.S.L. ships he has written for the Toronto Marine Historical Society’s publication, The Scanner. Besides consulting numerous ship books and maritime publications, I viewed long-ago newspaper articles on file at the Toronto Reference Library and Concordia University in Montreal.

Caitlyn: What inspired you to write your first book?

John: All my life I’ve been reading other author’s books about steamships. I finally decided it was my turn to contribute a ship book on a subject near and dear to my heart.

John Henry

Posted by Dundurn Guest on December 6, 2014
John Henry photo

John Henry

John Henry has been a journalist in New York for more than four decades. He covered business for the Associated Press, Newsday and the New York Daily News and has written numerous articles as a freelance for publications in Canada and the United States. He has also been published in the quarterly journals of the Steamship Historical Society of America and the Great Lakes Historical Society. He lives in New York City.