As a boy in the late 1940s, John Henry was thrilled by the paddlewheel passenger ships of the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Co. steaming past the family summer home on Lake Erie during the overnight run from Buffalo to Detroit.
He subsequently made the voyage several times himself – twice in the company of his grandfather, who shared his enthusiasm for the elegant vessels.
Those experiences inspired in Henry an enduring interest in the history of passenger travel on the Great Lakes, culminating in his new book, “Great White Fleet,” the richly illustrated story of Canada Steamship Lines, which once operated of the world’s largest freshwater fleet – 80 passenger ships and freighters of various descriptions – as well as shipyards, hotels and fuel and supply services.
Henry will discuss “Great White Fleet” during the annual dinner of the Lower Lakes Marine Historical Society at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Pearl Street Grill, 76 Pearl St.
The 146-page book, published by Dundurn of Toronto, naturally focuses on the passenger side of the Montreal-based shipping empire from 1913 to 1965, when its iconic but aged passenger vessels stopped running, eclipsed by faster highway and air travel.
A Nichols School graduate who was a New York City-based journalist for more than four decades, Henry invites the reader to imagine running the rapids of the St. Lawrence River above Montreal aboard one of three ships designed especially for the sometimes-dicey passage.
The author also delves into the “saddest chapter” in the company’s long history – a series of fires that destroyed three of the best passenger steamers within five years, including a 1949 nighttime blaze that killed 118 of 524 passengers aboard the Noronic at its berth in Toronto. That chapter foreshadowed the end of the fleet’s passenger business.