Lake Ontario Grain Trade-bread and beer and business
In honor of November being national novel writing month, our Lake Ontario Log Blogger has been finishing up a fictional tale set on Lake Ontario in 1880. A big part of the story centers around sailing a grain carrying schooner during the “barley days” of Prince Edward county, hence some research into the grain trade then and now.
The very first cargo carried on Lake Ontario under sail was a load of parched corn. It happened back in 1678 when a tiny two master transported corn obtained from the Senecas living along the Humber River by modern day Toronto across the lake’s west end. The corn was needed to supply an encampment of Frenchmen who would spend the winter just above Niagara Falls. Their mission was to build the ill fated "Griffon", a ship that was to take LaSalle and his men westward the following spring in a quest for the rich trade with Cathay.
Since that long ago November day, countless bushels of grain have been transported by schooners, bulkers, and barges upon Lake Ontario’s waters. Today corn still moves across the lake at least sporadically, to supply the ethanol plant at Volney while each year millions of bushels of wheat from the western prairies still move by water to Montreal and points east via the St. Lawrence Seaway. (The photo above shows vessels alongside Oswego's elevator row).
Barley and wheat have been cultivated for 10,000 years and according to Wikipedia the world trade in wheat today is larger than that of all other crops combined. In 1980 26 million tons of grain, much of it wheat, moved through Lake Ontario. The volume of grain cargoes shipped down the St. Lawrence has dropped greatly since then, however. One reason for the drop has been Europe’s increased production of homegrown grain along with the increased output of the Ukraine and Russia after the Soviet Union unraveled. Grain ships still move through Lake Ontario though. Thanks to the bumper crop of 2017 in Canada, Hamilton saw a significant increase in corn exports in part due to crop failures from bad weather in Europe.
Oswego was once one of the largest flour milling centers in the Northeast in the 1850s thanks to wheat brought from the western plains by schooners, abundant hydro power to run the mills, and the canal connection to New York city and east coast markets. The largest flour mill in the country was built in Oswego in 1860. That year the grain harvest was especially bountiful and all the city’s elevators were crammed full, leaving two dozen schooners to winter over with holds filled with wheat.
Eventually toll reductions on the Erie Canal made it more economical to transfer grain from schooners to canal boats at Buffalo and that city surpassed Oswego becoming for a time the largest grain handling port in the world. Buffalo was home to the very first steam powered grain elevator in the world, and to this day dozens of now empty and unused concrete elevator silos loom over the Buffalo waterfront, among them the huge Labatt’s “six pack”, a group painted to look like beer cans.
After the flour milling trade moved away from Oswego barley became a major cargo for the port. Barley for beer making ironically, became a major money maker for the lake’s schooner fleet because of a strong temperance movement after the civil war and a tax on whiskey implemented to help pay for the War. After the tax went into effect beer consumption jumped more than ten fold according to a Prince Edward County history website. ( Early temperance advocates also encouraged beer drinking. The theory was that good ale was less harmful to society than hard liquor.)
By 1870 the ‘barley boom’ was on and over 13 million bushes of grain, mostly wheat and barley, were shipped into Oswego. At one point the city boasted 13 malthouses.
During the barley boom from about 1860 to 1890 a third of all the County’s cultivated farmland was planted in the grain. Approximately 500 000 – 800 000 bushels of barley were exported each year, transported by a veritable fleet of schooners and schooner scows. Farmers could receive 12 cents for every bushel (roughly fifty pounds of grain ) during a good year. Profits were so high that some farmers built their own vessels to sail across Lake Ontario.
Lake Ontario historian Robert Townsend wrote of the Bay of Quinte trade:
"Every reach had its wharves and warehouses, and the farmers teamed in their barley crops and shot them into the schooners' holds, sometimes by the shovelful, sometimes by wheelbarrow, sometime through square chutes built out from the warehouse, as at Rednersville - sometimes by troughs formed of the vessel's own sails, stripped for the purpose and stretched up the high bank.
"It was a grand place in barley days, that is before the U.S. government passed the McKinley Act which put a stop to the import of barley from Canada, when ploughshares and centreboard were twin sovereigns, and the County of Prince Edward waxed rich on the appetite of Oswego breweries for the best waterborne barley in the world. There was a brisk, homely, local trade within the Bay, little scows and schooners loading wherever they could, from the bay ports or often from the very farm where the grain was grown, and carrying it down the smooth bay reaches to Kingston, for transhipment in larger schooners to Oswego, across the lake, or in barges to Montreal.
"Bay ports meant anywhere along the shore, for a tiny cargo of a thousand bushels might represent calls at half a dozen farms. Stella, Emerald (both on Amherst Island) Millhaven Picton, Rednersville or Northport might be mentioned, for 'bay ports' meant them all."
Today the little bay ports live on mostly in memory but the fair summer winds still blow over soybean and wheat fields and newly built mini mansions on the shores of the Bay of Quinte.