By Brian Dunn

In the spring of 1845, river pilot Jacques Sincennes established La Compagnie du Richelieu with a single paddle steamer to help farmers get their goods up the Richelieu River and along the St. Lawrence River to market in Montreal. Similar inland shipping ventures multiplied over the next 68 years in a very fragmented way, with each service provider serving a particular route with little coordination of services.

In an effort to have a more effective shipping industry, Sincennes’ company eventually became part of Canada Steamship Lines through a merger of ten shipping companies in 1913, headed by Montreal financier James Carruthers, its first President. “The merging process actually began in 1910 by financier Grant Morden and shipowner James Playfair,” explained Maurice Smith, Curator Emeritus of the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in Kingston, Ontario. “When they began assembling the companies, they realized that if the Canadian shipping industry was going to survive against much larger American competition, they had to create a larger company through mergers. Morden learned to be a financier from Max Aitken who eventually became Lord Beaverbrook.”

Celebrating its centennial on June 17, CSL Group, through Canada Steamship Lines in Montreal, CSL International, CSL Asia, CSL Australia and CSL Europe, today manages the largest fleet of dry bulk self-unloading vessels in the world. The company owns or manages over 70 self-unloaders or bulk carriers worldwide that deliver more than 80 million tonnes of cargo annually for customers in the construction, steel, energy and agri-food sectors.

Back in 1874, La Compagnie du Richelieu merged with Canadian Inland Steam Navigation Co. to form Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Co. (R&O). When Louis Joseph Forget took over R&O in 1895, he saw the potential of a growing tourism industry and built cruise ships (Kingston, Toronto and Montreal) and acquired or constructed hotels in the Charlevoix region North of Quebec City where wealthy Americans flocked to spend their summer months (Hotel Tadoussac and Manoir Richelieu), also owned by CSL.

Over the years, R&O acquired other steamboat companies, including St. Lawrence Steamboat Company (a fierce competitor owned by the Molson family) in 1911. In 1913, R&O merged with a number of other steamboat companies, as referred to above.

During the First World War, a number of CSL’s growing fleet of 81 ships headed overseas loaded with grain, soldiers and munitions among its cargo. Twelve of the ships were lost during the great conflict. After the war, growing debt, unpaid dividends and declining grain prices threatened to sink the company until Canadian consultant William Coverdale was appointed President in 1922 and turned the company around.

“He was based in New York and was very well-known. It is no exaggeration that he saved the company, which he ran until his death in 1949,” Mr. Smith pointed out. “By the end of the 1920s, the company had become very successful, and Coverdale even managed to keep the company afloat during the Depression.”

The first self-unloader to join the Canada Steamship Lines fleet was the Collier in 1924 to move bulk cargo, particularly coal. A second self-unloader, the SS Gleneig, was added in 1926, using the more advanced gravity flow system. The Coalhaven, introduced in 1928, was recognized as the prototype of all later self-unloaders that CSL owns, noted Mr. Smith.

It wasn’t until the 1960s and the introduction of new technology that a large fleet of self-unloaders was established. In 1947, CSL acquired four Ontario shipyards, joining the Davie Shipyard across from Quebec City which CSL had acquired in 1925. Only one of those four Great Lakes shipyards is still in business, in Thunder Bay, although it is no longer owned by CSL.

The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 set the stage for CSL’s re-entry into ocean shipping, allowing ocean-going ships to sail from Thunder Bay to the Atlantic and overseas. CSL’s “SS Simcoe” was the first ship to pass through the locks of the Seaway. Shortly after, the company exited passenger service to focus on the more lucrative cargo transport business.

In 1963 Montreal-based Power Corporation, a conglomerate with interests including pulp and paper production, and electricity generation, acquired a minority interest in CSL stock and in 1969 acquired full ownership of the company. In 1973, in the midst of operating losses, Paul Martin Jr. was appointed President and CEO. Canada’s future Prime Minister had ambitions of his own and convinced Power Corporation to sell CSL to him. In 1981, Mr. Martin and Lawrence Pathy, owner of Fednav, became joint owners (until 1988 when Mr. Martin became sole owner) of CSL which at that time consisted of the shipping company, shipyards, engineering firms, as well as a trucking company and a bus service. In 1988, President and CEO Paul Martin was elected as a Member of Parliament and stepped aside from directing the day-to-day affairs of the company.

Seeing the potential to expand beyond the Great Lakes, CSL began to build ocean-capable, self-unloading “Handysize” vessels in the early 1980s. Its first international customers were National Gypsum and Portline of Lisbon. Portline, also a shipping company, hired CSL to transport coal to a new Portuguese thermal power station in Sines, the country’s leading port South of Lisbon.

The 1990’s saw CSL expand its empire further with the creation of CSL International in 1992, based in Beverley, Mass. to manage the international shipping interests of the firm. Sensing opportunities in Southeast Asia, CSL decided to open CSL Asia in Singapore in 1994. CSL Australia of Sydney was founded in 1999, with the acquisition of two self-unloading bulk carriers from Australian National Lines. Since then, the operation has grown steadily and it now operates 12 vessels and is the largest bulk operator in Australia.

During the same year, CSL purchased 50 per cent of Marbulk Shipping which owned seven self-unloaders. The other half of the company is owned by Algoma Central Corporation of St. Catharines, Ont. Marbulk then decided to put its ships in the CSL international pool, followed by Klaveness Shipping of Norway which added its four self-unloaders in 2002. By 2009, the pool had grown to a total of 28 Panamax and Handysize self-unloaders. The last subsidiary to open, CSL Europe, was established in 2011 in Windsor, England, and manages the company’s European business. Operating a fleet of conveyor belt self- unloading vessels, the CSL Europe fleet engages in a variety of trades in the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the Mediterranean.

Last fall, Canada Steamship Lines welcomed the first of four new Trillium Class self-unloading Lakers and the first of three Trillium Class self-unloading ships as part of its newbuild program announced in 2010. The new vessels will feature state-of-the-art technology that will significantly enhance the environmental and operational performance of its Great Lakes and ocean fleets.

As for the next century, Mr. Smith commented that the company will require a different set of skills to prosper. “But they have the right people in place, and with its international experience, is well-placed to enter the next one hundred years.