1885: A Memorable
Summer Job

1885: A Memorable Summer Job for Owen Sound teenage boys on the Great Lakes would have historic importance, not mention a possible exciting career opportunity.

Every summer, high school and college students work hard to find a summer job that not only pays well but is also interesting. 

Even the most exciting summer job being performed this year pales when it is compared to the summer job that 20 Owen Sound-area schoolboys landed in the summer of 1885. 

In the 1880s Owen Sound was a busy Great Lakes port. Ships sailed in and out of the harbour at all hours of the day during sailing season. On most days a visitor to the harbour would see several ships being loaded and unloaded. Among those individuals who came to the docks, I am sure, there were many young boys who dreamed of sailing to far off ports and experiencing the life of a sailor. For 20 young schoolboys that dream became a reality with their 1885 summer job. 

These schoolboys were hired to serve meals aboard the CPR vessels, Alberta, Athabasca and Algoma. The passengers they were serving were a special group with stories to tell that would exceed the wildest dreams of the young men from Grey County seeking sea-going adventure. 

The Alberta made its first voyage with the teenage waiters on board in July 1885. The trip from Owen Sound to Prince Arthur's Landing (now Thunder Bay) at the head of Lake Superior was an uneventful trip with the usual passenger list of prospective settlers, businessmen and tourists. 

But on the return trip the Alberta, their 1885 summer job was to prove to be anything but normal. For years the Canadian government had been fighting a rebellion in western Canada. The uprising led by the Metis leader Louis Riel had proved difficult to quell. 

Just when the government forces thought that they had made Some headway in stopping the insurrection, fighting broke out elsewhere in the territories. In the summer of 1885, the Alberta and her sister ships, the Athabasca and the Algoma, were bringing home the volunteers who had fought against Riel in the Saskatchewan campaign.

There were so many men aboard the ships that they could only be served two meals a day. The crowded ships could not provide normal accommodations for the soldiers. Instead, cots were placed on the freight deck of the ships to provide sleeping quarters for the hundreds of men who were returning home. 

During the times when they were not required to work, the young boys eagerly listened to the soldiers' tales about fighting the wily Riel and other adventures that they had faced during their time on Canada's western frontier. 

When the ships arrived in Owen Sound, the soldiers received a hero's welcome. The town leaders declared the day a civic holiday and the ladies of the town served the soldiers a banquet in their honour. 

I wonder how many of these young summer employees aboard the CPR vessels went on to become sailors after they completed school?

A version of this article,"1885: A Memorable Summer Job," originally appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times on July 13, 2001.