The Reindeer

Those living along the St. John River in 1845 witnessed the first appearance of a gem of a steamboat, a vessel that was easily able to outclass every other craft on the river. For the whole of her fifteen-year career, she reigned supreme, breaking all speed records and, as new challengers were built bested them one by one as they appeared on the scene. This remarkable steamboat was Benjamin Tibbets' Reindeer. It was Tibbets' inventive genius, vision, and determination that made this boat possible and in building her he gave the world its first practical compound marine engine.

It was in a small farmhouse in Queen's County's Waterboro Parish that Benjamin Franklin Tibbets was born in 1813. When he was twelve, his parents became discouraged with farming and moved to Fredericton. There, Benjamin received about four more years of schooling. In 1834, he bowed to his father's wishes and became an apprentice of Benjamin Wolhaupter, a leading Fredericton silversmith and jeweler

He is described at this time as being a tall, slight youth, whose dark hair gave sharp contrast to a pale complexion. But his most arresting feature was his intense dark eyes that lent an air of unusual intelligence to the taciturn lad. And intelligent he was! He had a questioning mind, one of unusual imagination and creative capacity, blended with a strong and clear vision. During these years of apprenticeship, he made such things as miniature working steam engines, a key bugle, and a complete watch from the tiniest working part to the elaborate engraved case. He also learned to play several musical instruments and performed frequently in public. In the late 1830s, he completed his apprenticeship but turned to painting rather than watchmaking as a means of livelihood. He worked as a professional portrait artist in both Fredericton and Saint John in 1842. Surviving examples of his art indicate both taste and a highly skilled hand.

But despite these many successful interests, it was steam that continued to hold a special fascination for him. Family accounts relate that as a small lad he would stand and gaze at the steam issuing from pots and tea kettles on the stove, and that his mother would have to warn him to keep his hands off the covers for fear of being scalded. We know too, that during his formative years he made several trips to Saint John by steamer, standing in the engine room whenever he got permission, and watching with complete absorption the mechanism that caused the steam to turn the twelve-foot paddle wheels. There is no doubt that he was captivated by the engine and the latent possibilities of steam propulsion. Through the years, he read whatever was available on the subject in Fredericton and became noted there for his "wonderful knowledge of the Mechanical Arts".

He left New Brunswick in 1842 and spent a year or more working in several machine shops in New England to study the latest developments in steam engines, and to add to his knowledge of the practical application of the mechanical principals of steam propulsion. On his return, he went to work in the Morgan and Taylor machine shop in Fredericton. He now set about putting on paper the ideas that had gradually formed in his mind for improving the performance of the steam engine. It was to be a compound steam engine, one that held tremendous possibilities in that it would yield more power without increasing the supply of steam.

The engine would be installed in a hull, which he also designed, a style which he felt would offer a form of least resistance in passing through the water and be the size best suited to the available motive power. It is unfortunate that very little is known about the underwater lines of the steamer's hull, but he was influenced by the style of the Indian birch bark canoe. Tibbets obviously realized the advantage of going over, rather than through the water in obtaining speed. His design seems to have called for a long narrow hull, a moderately flat bottom, and a short turn of the bilge; features that would follow the same lines as a canoe. He also determined on a straight stem, reasoning that it would give easier entrance into the water and increase her speed.

A well-to-do merchant of Fredericton named Thomas Pickard examined the plans and specifications for the hull and engine with a keen interest and agreed to finance the building of the proposed steamer. The cost was estimated at 3000 pounds.

Late in September 1844, construction began on the hull in the Nelson Mill yard at the mouth of the Nashwaak, opposite Fredericton. At the same time, the Morgan foundry started making the engine. Tibbets himself supervised both operations and arranged for some of the engine parts to be cast at the Phoenix Foundry in Saint John. Work continued through the winter months and by April the hull was ready for launching.

On May 3, the new boat slid from her ways into the river, "amid the doubts of friends and the ridicule of enemies", as "a crowd of curious spectators" looked on. As she came to rest on the waters, however, cheers were heard from many of those on hand who spoke admiringly of her "elegance of symmetry, beautiful lines and graceful bearing". She proved to have a length of 135 feet and a beam of 16 feet, drawing but nine inches of water without her engine. The new craft was towed to a wharf in Fredericton for the installation of the fifty-horsepower engine and the completion of her superstructure. Her gross tonnage was 108.

During the summer, the work of fitting her out went on steadily and was completed early in September. The late David Mayes, a prominent engineer on the river but then only a little boy, told of going on board with Tibbets while he superintended turning on the steam. After the engine completed its first revolution, Tibbets went out on the wharf with the boy and there he stood raising and lowering his hand in time with the full upward and downward movement of the walking beam. As he watched it move steadily up and down and heard the steady beat of the floats on the water, he must have been filled with a feeling of triumph, for here was the successful realization of the cycle of operations he had dreamed of and worked many years to perfect. Yet, he turned without a word and went back into the machine shop.

The Loyalist in its September 25, 1845 issue gives an account of the trial run the Reindeer had made six days before.

About 5 pm the new steamer Reindeer cast loose, hoisted her flag and made her trial run in the presence of a large number of good citizens of Fredericton. Built on a novel and newly constructed principle, one which has baffled attempts hitherto made by others, some fears were reasonably entertained respecting the Reindeer answering the most sanguine expectations of those whose enterprise and skill molded her into being, but the eager spectators were highly gratified at witnessing the beautiful boat play her part most gallantly.

The Reindeer is neatly built, handsomely painted and moves through the water swiftly and with swan-like gracefulness. Surely the Frederictonians may well be elated at sending forth this prominent little steamer. Surely they should be thankful to that gracious Providence which continues to bless their laudable exertions"

The Reindeer left Fredericton on Monday morning September 29, on her maiden voyage and arrived at Saint John that afternoon after a fast trip. Two days later, she returned to Fredericton in record time. It was found that fuel consumption was very small, but that some alterations could be made to further increase her speed.

Comments were made in the press about her great speed and power, ease of handling and graceful appearance on the water. The enthusiastic Loyalist exclaimed: "This active deer of the water again and again lays our pen under contribution for her daring and unprecedented exploits". The Courier of Saint John in turn, concluded that: "There is now no longer a doubt that the new principle discovered by Mr. Tibbets has completely succeeded".

During that first fall, she made several trips to Saint John and then set out for Woodstock, Tobique, and Grand Falls. The October issue of the Loyalist tells of this exploit:

This admirable boat which has been so often noticed by her native press demands our continued praise, having returned (as before noticed) from a trip up the river. Her appearance was greeted by the thundering roar of cannon and at Tobique, 48 miles above Woodstock, a large bonfire blazed in honour of the first steamer which had ever appeared among the overjoyed inhabitants. A new era had dawned upon the Tobique and well we might expect that the Reindeer's appearance among them would have warmed their hearts with joyful anticipations of the future. The gallant little steamer does not use, it is said, one third as much fuel as a boat of her size, that is, on the old construction.

It was at Tobique that a pair of fine caribou antlers were presented, and they were nailed to the front of the wheelhouse, there to serve as a permanent distinguishing ornament. Thanks to her light draft and power, and the unusual autumn rise of water, the Reindeer reached Grand Falls. She was the toast of the river for this feat. So closed her short but triumphant 1845 season.

Next spring, she continued to Woodstock, maintaining a regular schedule during the freshet season. The run downriver from Woodstock to Fredericton was made generally in four and a half hours. After the water receded to summer level, the Reindeer was placed on the Fredericton-Saint John route, passengers alone being carried. Here, her best run upstream appears to have been six hours and twenty-one minutes, which included several stops. Fuel consumption on this trip was 12 shillings and 6 pence, or about three dollars. There seems to be little doubt that the cost of fuel per horsepower could not be equaled by any other steam vessel in the world at that date. The best recorded time for her run downriver is five hours and five minutes, one stop being made.

The following advertisement shows that the Reindeer burned local wood, the fuel used by all the river steamers since the advent of the General Smyth:

Tenders will be received by the Subscriber at his residence Fredericton until noon 24th December from parties willing to furnish in such yard or yards - as may be specified - 200 cords of Hard Wood all of which is to be split, and no stick when split to be any larger any way than 8 inches. The said wood to be delivered the 20th of March next for the use of the steamer "Reindeer". Cash will be paid when the contract is completed.

The Reindeer continued to give good service, and five years passed during which she retained the enviable reputation of being the fastest boat on the river. However, in 1848, a new rival, the Forest Queen, had appeared, and eventually the stage was set for a race between the two. About the middle of May 1850, they left Fredericton for Woodstock, a distance of sixty-two miles. The water was very high with the current running at a rate of seven miles an hour. The contest wasn't even close, the Reindeer arriving about forty-five minutes before her rival. It was found too, that the Reindeer consumed but four cords of wood, while nine had been required by the Forest Queen. It was claimed that the Forest Queen was delayed when adjustments had to be made to her machinery. Around the first of June, another race was run over the same route which the Forest Queen won by a small margin, but after that, the Reindeer appears to have established herself as the speedier boat.

By fair means or foul, there were operators who were determined to beat the Reindeer. In 1853, the new steamer, the Bonny Doon, was on her way upriver to Fredericton. On meeting the Reindeer, she suddenly ran across the other's bow and only the action of the Reindeer's Captain Currier in reversing her engines prevented a serious accident. Foiled in this attempt, the Bonnie Doon nonetheless a little later tried to ram the Reindeer amidships, but the captain's cool actions in shearing off the boat caused the Reindeer to receive but a glancing blow, although extensive damage was caused to the port stanchions, bulwarks, and paddle box.

Until 1860, when she was removed from service after a career of fifteen years and broken up, the Reindeer never lost her position as fastest boat on the river. Her famous engine was transferred to the new steamer Antelope and fifteen years later to the new tugboat, the Admiral, where it continued to give good service until 1918. This means that the old Reindeer engine was in use for seventy-three years, an indication of durability and of the fine skill of Benjamin Tibbets.

Benjamin Tibbets, at 40 years old, died November 19, 1853, of consumption. He is buried at Indian Point Cemetery at Scotchtown, Queens County. In 1937, a memorial cairn was erected in the cemetery inscribed as follows:

"In memory of Benjamin Franklin Tibbets, a native of this country, 1813-1853, inventor and builder of the compound steam engine, who by his great work revolutionized steamboat propulsion, a world benefactor."

A replica of the Reindeer can be found at the Fredericton Regional Museum.