The Alligator
or Steam Powered Amphibious Warping Tug
by Bryant Owen

There is a long history of logging throughout most of the north central and north east US and Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces in Canada dating back to colonization times. As demand increased and logging proceeded further and further into the interior and away from large shipping points, most logs were sent to market via waterway systems. Where there were good water levels and a good flow rate, it was relatively easy to guide logs or timbers through in large booms or rafts. However, problems arose when long runs of shallow and slow moving water were encountered. One of the most common answers was to use a Crib and Cage (see image at right). A Crib and Cage was a human or horse powered winch mounted on a raft. The raft was harnessed to a log boom, a large anchor attached to a long cable or rope in was rowed out as far as possible, dropped and then the men or horses began walking around the winch to draw this cable in. It was slow work at best, almost impossible in even slight winds and frequently resulted in large losses of logs.

In 1878, Joseph Jackson, a North Ontario country logging businessman approached the firm West & Peachey Company of Simcoe Ontario, manufacturers of boilers, engines and logging equipment, to help him solve a problem with hauling large log booms across quiet waters by Crib and Cage. Mr. West travelled north to see the Crib and Cage at work and began to sketch and develop a plan. West & Peachey presented their idea to Mr. Jackson who then commissioned the building of a prototype.

Thus West & Peachey invented the Alligator*; a steam powered amphibious warping tug. Alligators were scow-shaped, shallow draft boats, fitted with side mounted paddle wheels, powered by a 20 horsepower steam engine and provided with a cable winch and large anchor. By using the winch Alligators could pull themselves over land, around portages and up as much as a 20 degree incline at the rate of 1 to 2 1/2 miles per day. And they could haul a boom of some 60,000 logs across water against all but the strongest winds. They were heavily but simply built, making rebuilding and repair easy. A perfect and elegant answer to the logging industry's problem with moving log booms across still lakes and slow-flowing rivers.

Jackson's Alligator was the first of 230 built by West & Peachey between 1889 and 1932. Alligators of different sizes were eventually used all over Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, the Yukon and the northern United States from Maine to Wisconsin. One was even shipped in pieces to Columbia, South America and assembled there by West & Peachey engineers.

West & Peachey may have been the inventors of the Alligator, but they weren't the only people who built them. Many others were built by individuals and lumber companies. And Alligators weren't small boats. The "Mistango" built by Captain John A. Clark for service on Lake Nipissing and later to be shipped to northeast Ontario and "rebuilt", was 66.8 feet in length and had a registered tonnage of 39.37. She used a double crew of nine, not including the cook and captain!

On long hauls Alligators could be "under tow" constantly for several days warping log booms across the bigger lakes. Scows loaded with cordwood for fuel accompanied them. Even so, on long passages, when the wind came up from the wrong direction, they could be out longer than a few days. Sometimes fuel (and even food) would run out before the end of the tow and they would be stuck on the lake until relief came.

While Alligators were built to warp log booms, they did other duties too. As well as assisting in putting booms together for towing, they towed supply barges and some served double duty as supply boats in between big jobs. When roads in the North were still unheard of, these tugs would also provide some shipping and passenger services to remote areas. I interviewed a man who met his wife-to-be on an Alligator that was taking him to his new job as a teacher in a Northern Ontario town.

At first Alligators used side mounted paddle wheels. Later, Alligators used conventional screw-type propellers. As time went on many were built or converted over to diesel fuel. However their days were numbered. Continuing settlement, establishment of more remote mills, the growth of railways and increased use of trucks and logging roads after World War II soon made Alligators less necessary and, by the late Fifties, most were gone, often ingloriously, by simply being left on remote lakeshores or stripped for parts and then burned.

However, thanks to the efforts of a few people, Alligators have not entirely disappeared.

The Logging Museum in Algonquin Park has a full sized replica, the "William M." This "side wheeler" Alligator was reconstructed from one left up in the Park many years ago. Only the boiler, engine, winch and other metal fittings including the paddle wheels and rudders were salvageable. A new "boat" was built and these parts were installed. I use quotes around "boat" because this replica was never intended to float, much less go along under her own power. Nevertheless she is an excellent example of the smaller paddle wheel Alligators used in the Park at one time.

For a real working Alligator you have to travel a little further to the Town of Simcoe, the home of West & Peachey. There, in 1991, a "Great Alligator Hunt" was launched by the Norfolk Historical Society. After a long search, the remains of a surviving Alligator were found on Clearwater West Lake in Northern Ontario. A team of men went to retrieve the decaying hull and with great effort, the hull was returned to Simcoe.

As with the "William M." none of the original hull or superstructure of this Alligator was usable so a new boat was built. This would be a real boat and fully functional as an Alligator. Thanks to generous service clubs and private donations, lumber and tools were purchased. Many volunteers provided the manpower. Work in earnest, began in 1993 and after four years of effort, the newly rebuilt Alligator, now called the "W. D. Stalker" was launched in the Lynn River at Simcoe in July of 1997. In the spring of 1998, the Norfolk Historical Society turned the Alligator, now a fully licensed and inspected steam vessel, over to the town of Simcoe to serve as a tourist attraction.

NB - There is a third restored Alligator, the Fairy Blonde, located at Wakami Lake Provincial Park near Chapleau Ont.

Copyright, Bryant Owen 1999 Alligators
Steam Powered Amphibious Warping Tugs



Click images to enlarge


Archive Photos

Crib and Cage

Alligator Hamilton H

Alligator Hazlitt

Gator with boom

W D Stalker

W D Stalker Profile

W D Stalker Steaming

W D Stalker Engine

W D Stalker Boiler

Stalker Winch

William M

William M Front

William M Back

William M Inside