|The History of
Captain Large and The Empress of Ireland
From April 28, 1977 New Era, as written by Roy Brown
Hunt Johnston Rolston Large was born in Shelbourne, Ontario on June
17,1876 and died April 10,1947. According to information received from
his son William in Saulte Ste. Marie, Ontario, he came west at the turn
of the century. He probably came with the C.P.R. as it moved west along
the southern route through Waskada, Coulter, and Lyleton be¬tween 1900
and 1903. In any case he did start a business in the village of Coulter
under the name South Antler Steel Works. His business cards and
announcements indicate that he ran a general repair and machine works,
making many different types of farm implements and small items such as
whiffletrees, doubletrees and cement mixers.
According to people like Mr. Wesley Mallo, 82 year old pioneer of the
Coulter district, Rolston was very well liked. He apparently had a
winning person¬ality and even people with whom he had dealings and may
never have paid, all had a good word for him.
One thing for certain is that H. J. R. Large was extremely clever. He
was a first class steam engineer, a blacksmith and a master mechanic of
no mean ability.
When automobiles started making their ap¬pearance on the main roads,
Rolston, according to articles in the Melita newspaper accounts of that
era, was given credit for repairing cars left on the side of the roads
because the driver knew very little about the new means of
transportation. One article of 1909 states that an American visitor to
Coulter could have been left stranded had not Rolston come to his aid
and made repairs and adjustments to his car.
Although Rolston Large may not have been blessed with many worldly
possessions, he did have a big Irish heart. There are many stories of
how he tramped through the snow drifts in cold weather to take some of
the pioneers their weekly mail, receiv¬ing in return a sincere thanks
and a hot meal.
There was a time too, when Rolston saved the life of a man who had
become tangled in the wheel of a threshing machine. Rolston coolly took
a heavy ham¬mer and broke enough of the large wheel, which was
endangering the man's life, to free him. The victim, although badly
injured and somewhat marred by the accident, was forever grateful to
Rolston, who thought nothing at all of the incident, even though he
himself could have been injured. It was incidents like this that made
people like him and it is little wonder that he was able to get
financial backing for his boat building enterprises.
Many people have asked "Why would a man build a big boat in a small
village like Coulter?" The answer would probably be much the same as
the one given by the man when he was asked why he wanted to climb a
high mountain — it was the challenge.
After spending several weeks in the research of the boat building
activities of Captain Large, I have come to the conclusion that, while
the boat built in Coulter, with the help of Andy and William McKague,
was not a masterpiece, it was seaworthy. Large, having little money but
plenty of courage, wrecked an old C.RR. box car. The heavy plank
flooring was used in the boat and some lumber taken from the inside of
an old house, along with some new lumber, gave him sufficient material
to build the hull and the superstructure. The boat was propelled by a
large one-cylinder gasoline threshing engine at¬tached to the belt
drive-shaft of the two large side-wheel paddles. The paddle wheels were
about nine feet in diameter and were made of steel. It must be
remembered that electric arc and acetylene welding had not been
invented in 1908, when Large made his first boat, and all metal parts
were made in the forge in his little workshop. The workmanship in the
pad-die wheels and other parts used in giving the boat structural
strength, was the work of a man who was a master tradesman. While the
superstructure lacked the professional touch of the boats built in boat
build¬ing establishments, it was, nevertheless a good look¬ing craft.
It was painted white and green and her name was an indication that
Captain Large, being an Irishman, was not ashamed of his "Empress of
The boat was built not too far from the old church in Coulter and the
story goes that on the lovely Sunday mornings in spring, when the
minister was giving his sermon, Captain Large would start up his noisy
machines and disrupt the church service. The elder of the church
finally suggested to the minister that he have a little chat with
Captain Large and ask him to either come to church or not operate his
noisemakers during the service. The minister did call on Captain Large
and when asked by some of the elders next day as to how the meeting had
turned out, the minister replied, "It was the biggest mistake I have
ever made. He knows more about the Bible than I do". Large, however,
did not operate his machines during the service thereafter.
Then there is the story of how Captain Large kept one of his children
warm in the old house in which they lived. They had an old fashioned
cook stove with a high back. He fashioned a cradle out of wire and
hooked it over the back above the stove, to keep the baby warm on cold
The Large family lived in the village for some time and they also lived
on the high plateau overlook¬ing the Souris and South Antler rivers.
Rolston had a team of mules and used to tether them out at night. He
drove two iron pipes into the ground beside the house for the purposes
of tying up the mules. The two pipes are still there beside the
basement of his old home.
"The Empress of Ireland" was built in 1908-9 and was launched that year
on the Souris river, just below the town. There was considerable
difficulty in getting the big craft to the river, according to reports,
many people were present to see whether the "thing" would float or go
to the bottom. One skeptic was alleged to have said, "You don't expect
that thing to float, do you Rolston?" Captain Large painted a water
line along the hull and the skeptic was quite surprised when the boat
drew just enough water to come up to the line. He never doubted for one
minute that the "Empress" would be seaworthy, and he was right.
According to the passenger tickets for the year 1910, still in the
possession of Miss Margaret Elliott of Melita, the "Empress" was built
to ply the Souris between Napinka and Scotia, North Dakota. How many
trips were made is not known. One thing
however, still in the mind of Mr. Mallo, is that the boat was built
narrow in order to pass between the piling of the C.P.R. bridge. He
recalls too, that he often steered the boat while Captain Large would
sing lively songs and accompany himself on the banjo, to the delight of
the passengers, who had taken along their picnic baskets full of
goodies, to make a day of it. Large's charming personality did indeed
overshadow anything that may have been left to be desired, as far as
the workmanship of the boat was concerned.
The Melita Progress reported on October 17, 1907 and September 23,
1909, that Captain Large was the proud father of another girl, and that
his friends were looking for cigars.
"The Empress of Ireland" was beached in the fall of 1909. She was used
in the spring of 1910 for a short time, then Rolston decided to move
her to a more lucrative area. Consequently she was loaded on huge truck
wheels and transported to the C.P.R. track, where she was placed on two
flatcars and taken to Brandon in July. She was used as an excursion
boat on the Assiniboine river during the Brandon Fair. How she was
taken from the train to the river is not known, but Large's ingenuity
would soon overcome any problems he may have encountered.
"The Empress" plied the Assiniboine for the balance of 1910, between
Currie's Landing, east of Brandon, and Curran Park, west of the city .
The "Empress" was tied down for the winter in the fall of 1911, at the
mouth of the Syne river. She burned to the ice that winter, and all
that was left in the spring was her big boilers, the paddle wheels and
a portion of the hull . . .
Captain Large found a group of men in Brandon who listened to his story
about how money could be made by hauling coal down the river. The
charred hull of the "Empress" was taken up the Syne behind a gasoline
powerboat to Large's shop, where she was rebuilt and converted to carry
coal and other cargo.
Captain Large could not bear the thought of painting "Empress of
Ireland" on a coal barge, so she was renamed "Assiniboine Queen". She
was used for the summer and fall of 1912 to haul coal and materials
downstream to where the bridge was being built over the Assiniboine.
She was caught in the late fall in the ice, and was tied up with two
logging chains on the north shore, about 200' downstream from the north
abutment of the bridge. The spring of 1913 brought a very severe flood
and torrential rains. "The Queen" finally went to the bottom, and there
she remained until the Jaycees of Brandon moved about six feet of silt
and took her big paddle wheels, the engines and two logging chains
which were still good as new. The two boilers had been removed
during World War I to make war machines.
After losing the "Assiniboine Queen", Captain Large and Art Mansoff
opened a garage and repair shop in the Village of Waskada, where they
remained until the winter of 1914. When war broke out that fall, Large
went back east, where he worked in a munitions factory.