Benjamin Tibbets, the son of Andrew Tibbets, was born in Queens County in 1813. His mother was a McFarlane. The Tibbets family moved from the Millcove-Cambridge area to Scotchtown (Grand Lake) after their home was destroyed by fire. Eight years later, in 1830, the Tibbets moved to Fredericton.
Benjamin Tibbets received a basic education in Fredericton, but his real talents lay in drafting and engineering. He worked with Benjamin Wolhaupter, a watchmaker, in Fredericton, and then with Mr. Robertson, also a watchmaker, in Woodstock. He later apprenticed in several foundries. For two years he worked in Tibbets Machine Shop in Montréal.
After being a watchmaker’s apprenticeship and a foundry manager, he eventually began studying the design and construction of steam engines. Tibbets devised and built a new type of engine, a “steam-saving apparatus,” in Fredericton, which combined the principle of low-pressure steam working in conjunction with high pressure steam to improve the performance and speed of riverboats. Tibbets’ invention was first used in the steamer “Reindeer”, which was built at Nashwaaksis by Thomas Pickard and finished at Fredericton. It was patented in Lower Canada in November 1845.
In the latter part of 1847, Benjamin Tibbets made the decision to relocate to Quebec, believing it offered a more promising market for his groundbreaking invention – the compound steam engine. This creation had been tested with remarkable success on the Reindeer on the St. John River. He became a stakeholder in a foundry run by a family member at Point Levis. Over the following years, he constructed several engines. One was integrated into a hull he had designed, pleasing the owners so much they christened the resultant steamer B.F.Tibbets. Another engine was fitted into the Novelty, a Quebec-Levis ferry celebrated for her rapid speed at that time. Tibbets spent the winter of 1851-52 actively involved in creating engines for three steamers being assembled in Quebec.
However, in early 1852, Tibbets’ machine workshop was tragically consumed by fire. Some of the patterns were rescued, but they too were later destroyed in another blaze. This dealt a considerable blow to Tibbets, who had passionately desired to own his foundry but was now on the verge of financial collapse. He stayed in Quebec until June 1853, by which time his health was severely compromised by tuberculosis. Hoping for recovery, he went back to New Brunswick to stay with his uncle, Henry MacFarlane, in Scotchtown. Unfortunately, there was no relief for his illness, and he passed away on November 19, aged just thirty-five.
A poignant tale surrounds Tibbets’ passing, repeatedly shared over the decades. The crux of the story is that on the very night of the inventor’s death, the B. F. Tibbets, a steamer he had built during his tenure in Quebec, went up in flames a few miles from his location. Despite the captivating narrative, this account holds no truth. Records clearly state that the B. F. Tibbets first appeared on the St. John in 1855, nearly two years post the inventor’s demise. While it’s true the steamer eventually burned, this didn’t occur until June 5, 1856. Here’s the accurate narrative:
On June 1 of that year, the B. F. Tibbets was tasked with towing a lumber raft to Saint John from Grand Lake. The journey had barely commenced when a fire broke out in the engine room. A strong wind fueled the flames, and Captain Crothers had just enough time to steer the doomed vessel towards Flowers Cove before being forced to abandon the wheelhouse. Two crew members, their only escape route being a raft boat, barely managed to disengage the towline before being compelled to leap into the boat by the encroaching flames. The raft boat was held fast by the towline, and the crew members had to hang onto the side until the towline eventually gave way to the fire, allowing them to break free.
Simultaneously, the rest of the crew had assembled on the bow deck of the burning ship, making desperate attempts to position another raft boat that was being towed alongside, ahead of the paddle wheel. With the paddle wheels still spinning, the boat was in imminent danger of being crushed, risking injury or even death to its occupants. At this point, Captain Crothers instructed everyone except the mate to board the boat. He and the mate used pike poles to hold the boat off, managing to keep it clear of the advancing great paddle. Seeing the boat was clear, both men took the plunge and swam with all their might to avoid being struck by the paddle wheel. They managed to reach the already overcrowded raft boat and clung onto it as it headed for the safety of the shore. This dramatic incident marked the tragic end of the steamer named in honour of Benjamin Tibbets.
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