The Madawaska

With the increase in success mounting the Meductic Rapids and boats reaching Woodstock and points farther upriver, there was soon a need for a steamboat service above Grand Falls. It was thought that with a few boulders cleared from the channel that steamboats could go to the head of Lake Temiscouata, which at one point is only 35 miles from the Saint Lawrence River and 300 miles from Saint John.

The side wheeler, the Madawaska, was built at West Flats above Grand Falls in 1846 for Captain James Drake. It was the second boat Benjamin Tibbets supervised the construction of and it included his revolutionary new compound steam engine. It was 109 feet long, had a beam of 12 feet, and a depth of hold only 2.7 feet. It had a a gross tonnage of 18. It was built for service between Grand Falls and Little Falls (Edmundston), some 36 miles.

Capt. Drake had intended that his two sons should sail with him, but unfortunately his elder son Capt. Horatio Nelson Drake died on the same day that the steam was first turned on in the engine and his brother lay seriously ill, but he eventually recovered.

On October 13, 1846, the Madawaska started up river and got as far as the residence of Colonel Coombs. The following day she went on to Little Falls.

During the summer of 1847, Benjamin Tibbets decided to make a steam whistle for the Madawaska. It was to be built from his own design and the first to be used on the river.

In November 1847, the Madawaska struck a rock when just below the mouth of the Fish River and broke several planks of her hull. By the quick efforts of the crew, she was kept from sinking.

Late next season in 1848, the owners decided the steamer should be taken below Grand Falls because the amount of freight and passengers being carried between that settlement and Edmundston did not provide revenue enough to cover expenses. While traffic could not support the steamboat on the upper reaches of the river, such was not the case below Grand Falls and the owners decided they must transfer the Madawaska. The boiler, engine and part of the superstructure were removed and the hull moved on a skid way by teams of horses and oxen to a point on the river below the Falls. She was launched again on October 1, and apparently suffered no ill effects from the drastic move. It was then that the Tibbets whistle was added. It was made of very thin material and had a broad, short cup. Under a good head of steam, it emitted a piercing, high pitched note which has been described as being similar to the screech of a wildcat, but of greater force.

When Madawaska started off for Fredericton the whistle was in perfect working order. As the steamer approached her destination, the whistle was blown several times. The result was electrifying, for this was the first time the good citizens of that place had heard a steam whistle. Some stopped transfixed while others rushed to find out what had happened. On her further push down to Saint John, with Tibbets himself on board, the whistle was sounded often. On shore, people could be seen rushing from house to house, while the livestock fled in all directions, breaking fences as they went.

The Madawaska operated for quite some time between Fredericton and Grand Falls but at times went to other parts of the lower St. John River. She was reported as the first steamboat to run up the Belleisle to Hatfield Point.

On one trip, while towing, the tow line became fouled in one of the paddle wheels so tightly that the paddle wheel could not turn, and it brought the engine to a full stop. Captain Akerley , wishing to free the paddle wheel as quickly as possible, opened the hatch in the paddle box and went in with an axe and cut the tow rope. Apparently, he had not signaled the engineer to shut off the steam. When the rope parted, the engine started immediately. The exhaust pipe from the engine led directly into the paddle box where the captain was standing. He was badly scalded and rushed to Saint John for medical treatment and eventually to his father's home where after a lengthy period of convalescence, he recovered sufficiently to return to the steamboats.

The Madawaska ended her workdays in 1854 when she was dismantled.