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Allan Line's Long and Notable Career (1919)


Had the Allan Line not been amalgamated with the Canadian Pacific Ocean Services two years ago, it would today have been in a position to celebrate its one-hundredth anniversary as a shipping enterprise. The name of Allan has been closely connected with Canadian shipping ever since 1819.

On June 5 of that year, the brig Jean, commanded by Captain Alexander Allan, sailed from Glasgow with a considerable cargo and many passengers for Quebec. From that time on, Captain Allan, together with his brother James, engaged in the sailing ship trade between Canadian and Scottish ports.

The business thus started was continued by his descendants, who in 1850 owned a fleet of magnificent fast sailing ships built on the Clyde. They were only 350 to 450 tons register but were fully rigged ships with ice blocks around their bows.

Following the completion of the railway between Montreal and Portland, Maine, in 1852, Hugh Allan of the Canadian branch of the family, who was a man of high energy and force of character, decided that the time had come for the replacement of the sailing vessels hitherto employed by a fleet of iron screw steamers. Accordingly, he induced his relatives and friends to form the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company.

As soon as its organization was completed, a contract was entered Into with William Denny, of Dumbarton, to build an engine for the steamers Canadian and Indian. These vessels were about 1,700 tons gross, and 1,170 net were equipped with engines of 350 H.P. and cost approximately $250,000 each.

They were bark-rigged and had a maximum speed of 11 knots, while their dimensions were 270 ft. by 34. Accommodations for 80 first-class passengers were provided, but the boats were designed chiefly to carry large cargoes. The saloons were very narrow and situated below deck. As the Crimean War was raging when these vessels were completed, they were chartered in 1854-55 by the British Government.

Company's First Mall Contract

In 1854, the Canadian Government, realizing that the growth and development of British North America warranted the establishment of a first-class steamer service between Canada and Great Britain, contracted with a Liverpool firm for fortnightly mail service between Liverpool and Canada.

The service proved so unsatisfactory, however, that the contract was canceled and a new one made in 1855 with Mr. Hugh Allan's firm, which then bore the name of Edmonstone, Allan & Company. According to its terms, a fortnightly service was to be established, touching at Liverpool and Quebec in the summer and at Portland in the winter.

The government granted an annual subsidy of $120,000 for this service, which enabled the company to order two new boats from Mr. Denny, of the same size and power as its first steamer unit, the Canadian. In the case of these vessels, however, the saloons were situated on deck like the early Cunard boats.

The two new additions to the Allan fleet were named the North American and the Anglo-Saxon, respectively. They were admirably suited for the trade and carried large cargoes both on the outward and homeward voyages.

The regular service was opened in April 1856, by the North American. Later on, the vessels which had been chartered to convey troops and stores to the Crimea were added. These ships were well patronized by passengers, the fare for the first cabin being 18 guineas outward and $80 homewards — a rate much lower than that charged by the Cunard Line.

The Anglo-Saxon proved herself an exceptionally fast steamer, once making the run from Quebec to the Rockllght, Liverpool, in 9 days 5 hours, while sailing ships often took from 30 to 40 days to traverse the same distance.

A weekly mail line was determined upon in 1858, and the next year it was in full operation. Later on, six other additional services were also established from Glasgow, London, and Liverpool, to various North and South American ports.

Four new boats were ordered from the Denny yard—the North Briton, the Nova Scotian, the Bohemian and the Hungarian, to meet the Increased demand on the company's available tonnage. These were all alike, of 2,200 tons gross, and fitted with engines of 400 H.P. After some opposition on the part of the government, a more substantial subsidy was granted, amounting to $416,000 a year.

Severe penalties were imposed, however, for any delay in the delivery of the malls. In 1860, by the retirement of Mr. Edmonstone, the company came under the sole management of Hugh and Andrew Allan and was after that known commonly as the Allan Line.

In 1861, the Norwegian and Hibernian were launched, each of these being 2,400 tons register and of 450 H.P. They were the first built with spar decks fore and aft, without bulwarks. Two years afterward, In 1863, the organization turned to Robert Steele of Greenock, then the first naval architect on the Clyde, who built for them the Peruvian and Moravian, of 2,600 tons and 500 H.P.

Allan Line's Early Misfortunes

The first ten years of the company's existence were remarkably unfortunate, disaster after disaster following at close intervals. In eight years alone, eight ships were lost, and several others met with more or less severe accidents.

On June 1, 1857, the first Canadian was wrecked on a famous rock 50 miles below Quebec on a clear night, solely through the stupidity of an Incompetent pilot, the captain having just left the bridge after being on duty there for 48 hours in a fog.

On November 21, 1859, the Indian was wrecked near Halifax in thick weather. During a heavy gale on February 20, 1860, the Hungarian mistook a light near Barrington, Nova Scotia, for the Cape Sable light, ran ashore, and every soul on board perished.

A second Canadian was crushed by ice at the entrance to the Straits of Belle Isle on June 4, 1861, and sank immediately afterward. On November 5 of the same year, the North Briton was wrecked on the Mingan Islands in a severe snowstorm, and on April 27, 1863, the Anglo-Saxon went to pieces near Cape Race in a fog.

Less than two months later the Norwegian was lost on St. Paul's Island while running at full speed through a dense fog. Finally, on February 22, 1864, the Bohemian struck on the Alden Rock, near Portland, Me., while waiting for a pilot.

The main reason for such heavy losses being met with at this time was the imposition of substantial penalties by the Dominion Government in case the delivery of the mails was delayed by fog.

Steamers with mails aboard were therefore tempted to sacrifice safety for speed — a dangerous course to pursue on the treacherous St. Lawrence route.

When the contract with the government was renewed sometime later, this clause was abandoned, although the subsidy was correspondingly reduced.

New Units Procured

Steps were at once taken to make good this partial destruction of the line's fleet, and since then the company has experienced comparatively few losses. Several new vessels were built, and several second-hand boats were purchased, which on the whole, gave satisfactory service.

In 1871 the Sarmatian was constructed and was chartered as a transport by the Imperial Government for the Ashantee expedition of 1874. This vessel was of 3,647 tons, 650 H.P., and her dimensions were 370 x 42 x 35.

She was also selected to carry General Wolseley's telegram announcing the capture of Coomassie to Gibraltar. Other vessels subsequently constructed for the Allans were the Polynesian, later renamed the Laurentian, a third Canadian, the Circassian, and the Sardinian. The last boat, which dates from 1875, is still in active service.

The year 1881 witnessed the incorporation of the Parisian in the Allan Company's fleet, which was long known as the concern's crack liner. She was built by Robert Napier and Sons. Her tonnage was 5,365, and her dimensions were as follows: length 440 ft., beam 46 ft., and depth 36 ft. The Parisian was then the best boat seen on the St. Lawrence and was equipped with every modern improvement such as bilge keels to prevent rolling, midship saloon, electric lights, etc.

Other steamers were added from time to time after that, and it was about this period that the Montreal trade being unable to afford employment for all of them, a weekly line was established between Glasgow and Boston, and a fortnightly one between Glasgow and Philadelphia.

A considerable trade was soon developed in cargoes of many varieties, but chiefly in grain and cattle. A Glasgow firm, Donaldson Bros., engaged In the River Plate trade, having started an opposition line of boats between Glasgow and Montreal, the Allan’s immediately retaliated by establishing a rival line between Glasgow and the River Plate, sending out a couple of their smaller boats, and building in 1887, the Montevidean and Rosarian for this service.

Diablo's Successful Trial Trip

The cargo steamer Diablo, first of the fleet being built by the Pacific Coast Shipbuilding Company at its yard on Suisun Bay, near San Francisco, made an exceptional showing on her trial trip when she attained a speed of 11 knots. The Diablo, which is of 6,103 tons, began her maiden voyage early in June, bound from San Francisco for the Orient under the flag of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.

Period of Greatest Expansion

Between 1899 and 1901, the Allan Line underwent its most significant expansion. During this period no less than nine steamers, with a total gross register tonnage of 70,000 tons were added. These included three vessels built purely for cargo purposes, three of good speed and good passenger accommodation, i.e., the Pretorian, Corinthian, and Silician, and three for mail service and high-class passenger carrying.

The RMS Pretorian of the Allan Line (1898)

The RMS Pretorian of the Allan Line (1898). Photo Courtesy of the National Archives.

These last, in order of their size, were the Tunisian, Bavarian, and Ionian. The Tunisian was a twin-screw steamer of 10,576 tons, designed by Messrs. Stephen, while the Bavarian was constructed by Denny. These two were almost alike in point of size and accommodation, being 520 ft. long, 60 ft. in beam and 43 ft .deep. They were noted for their large beam ratio,—1 to 8.6. or in other words, their length was eight and two-thirds times their width. This, of course, was conducive to steadiness in rough weather.

The RMS Tunisian of the Allan Line -- a Twin Screw Steamer

The RMS Tunisian of the Allan Line -- a Twin Screw Steamer

Towards the end of 1904, two of the Company's newest liners were delivered. These were the Virginian and Victorian, of 12,000 tons, or 1,500 tons larger than the Tunisian and Bavarian. The Virginian, which was the first turbine propelled Atlantic steamer, beat all records in August 1905, between Moville and Rimouski, the actual steaming time between the two ports being 5 days 21 hours. The vessel was out of sight of land only 3 days 21 hours.

The Allan Line Turbine Steamship RMS Virginian and Victorian

Just previous to the outbreak of the war, two magnificent quadruple screw turbine liners of 18,500 tons, were added to the company's fleet, namely, the Alsatian and the Calgarian. The latter was unfortunately torpedoed while serving as an auxiliary British cruiser.

In 1909, the Canadian Pacific Railway acquired a controlling interest in the line, and at a meeting held on July 16, 1917, the fusion of its interests with those of the Canadian Pacific Ocean Services formally took place. Thus, the oldest of the navigation companies in Canadian trade was absorbed by the youngest of its competitors.

Allan Line Management Always Progressive

During its long and honorable career, the Allan Line was noted for being at the forefront of steamship enterprises to adopt improvements. Besides being the pioneer company to install turbines on an Atlantic Ocean vessel, it was also the first to implement flush or covered decks, an innovation which afforded a maximum of safety in rough weather and which speedily commended itself to other lines engaged in the transatlantic trade.

Again, the first Atlantic liner to be built of steel was its unit the Buenos Ayrean. The company was also the first to fit bilge keels to their passenger ships, which are now regarded as an absolutely essential part of the equipment of every ocean-going passenger steamer. Also, it was the first to employ in the Atlantic trade wireless telegraphy for the sending of long distance messages.

Henry Serrano Villard, “Allan Line’s Long and Notable Career,” in The Nautical Gazette, New York, Volume 96, Number 2, Whole Number 2500, July 12, 1919, p 26. Edited for grammar and spelling by P. K. Gjenvick, 2019.

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