Canoe history and information links
quote I recently came across in a book depicting First
Nation's life before the ridiculous European onslaught of
|"When the foolish attempt
to disparage the Native American, wiser heads often
remind them that the Indian invented the canoe and the
But the Indian did much more: He invented a way of life.
He discovered that he could live in harmony with his
environment, something other numerically superior peoples
have failed to do. He has spent ages in tune with Nature,
and has left the wilderness as unchanged as he found it.
When do we hope to emulate this extraordinary
|- Calvin Rutstrum,
"Chips from a Wilderness Log"
article on canoes
Peterborough Canoe History:
History of Canoe Building in Peterborough*
The local canoe building industry began in the late 1850s and early
1860s, when small canoe building operations opened in Peterborough,
Lakefield and Gore's Landing. There was sustained growth during the
1870s, and then the industry expanded considerably in the late 1800s.
Canoes continued to be a major industry in the Peterborough area right
up into the 1960s.
The “Peterborough” canoe building industry was actually made up of
several different businesses over time. In Peterborough, the principle
canoe establishments were the Ontario Canoe Company, the Canadian Canoe
Company, the Peterborough Canoe Company, and the English Canoe Company.
In Lakefield, the Gordon Canoe Co. joined with the Strickland operations
to form the Lakefield Canoe Company. Meanwhile, at Gore's Landing, the
Herald Canoe Co. eventually developed into the Rice Lake Canoe Company.
Origins of the Industry
John Stephenson began to build and sell canoes by the late 1850s as a
sideline to his main business with the Stephenson and Craigie planing
mill (located at the present site of the Quaker Oats tennis courts).
Gradually, he began to spend more time constructing canoes in order to
meet the growing demand, first with a small factory at the foot of Lake
St. on Little Lake, and later on another, located on Elizabeth Street
(now Hunter St.) in Ashburnham.
In 1880, Col. J. Z. Rogers acquired the rights to build the basswood
board canoes that had been designed and built by John Stephenson. On
August 10, 1883, the Ontario Canoe Company was incorporated. The new
company offered six sizes of canoes in three types of construction (the
basswood board, cedar strip, and the longitudinal cedar strip) for a
total of 18 models in all. Besides these smaller hunting canoes, the
company was also producing 30-foot long war (or club) canoes, which
required 16 paddlers and a steers-person.
The photograph (above right) is the only known photograph of the first
Ontario Canoe Company factory (white frame, three story building) in
Ashburnham. It dates to the late 1880s or very early 1890s. The photo
was discovered in the recently acquired Balsillie Collection of Roy
Studio Images (Roy Studio fonds).
Birth of the Peterborough Canoe Company
A fire on May 9,1892 completely destroyed the factory and all the lumber
and models of the Ontario Canoe Co. The loss was estimated at $25,000
and there was no insurance. Mr. John Burnham and J. S. Rogers decided to
rebuild, however, and on October 5, 1892 work began on a new factory at
the corner of Water and King Streets in Peterborough, on the site of the
original Adam Scott mill. It opened on February 15, 1893 under the name
of the Peterborough Canoe Company, and employed 50 skilled workers.
Across the street (southside of King Street at the bank of the Otonabee
River) was a large boathouse built by the Peterborough Boating Club. In
the 1870s and 1880s this club produced several champion rowers. The club
became dormant after 1891 when the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) built
a spur line along the shore of the Otonabee, effectively cutting off the
boathouse from the river.
By 1892, the company offered 5 variations of the style of canoes for a
total of 120 different models. Besides the popular basswood and cedar
rib canoes that Rogers had bought the rights to from Stephenson, the
company also build cedar rib longitudinal strip canoes, duck boats,
smooth-skin and lap-streak skiffs, as well as 20 to 50 foot steam
launches and even sailing canoes. The company also manufactured camping
goods, furniture and office fittings and gradually diversified their
product line to include rocking verandah chairs, hand painted decoys,
and sun stop shades. (The sun shades became so successful that it
eventually developed into the Ventilating Shade Company). In later
years, the company also produced water skis and surfboards.
Birth of the Canadian Canoe Company
Meanwhile, on April 25, 1893, the Canadian Canoe Company (see interior
photo, left) also began to manufacture canoes and skiffs at its factory
at the corner of Brock and Water streets. It later moved to George and
Dalhousie streets, and then, in 1911, it moved to a new three story
building on Rink Street where the company employed about 30 workers.
By 1902, the three canoe factories in Peterborough employed a total of
60 workers. The growth of the industry during the first decade of the
century was reflected by the expansion of the operations so that by
1908, there were 90 people employed in the canoe factories of
Peterborough. The workers also sought to organize themselves and there
was a brief strike at the Canadian Canoe Co. in May 1919, but the union
failed to secure higher wages or recognition of the union from
The 1920s marked a turning point in the history of canoe building in
Peterborough. Declining supplies of suitable wood in the local area,
combined with the growing popularity of outboard motors, led to leaner
times and considerable restructuring.
The William English Canoe Company
The English Canoe Co. began operations in 1861 using a design by John
Stephenson. Originally established by William English, it was later
carried on by his brothers Samuel and James. The factory was located at
182 Charlotte Street, in Peterborough, and it employed six people.
The company was noted for its basswood, cedar and butternut wide board
and cedar strip designs, as well as cedar rib canoes. White cedar was
later combined and used alternately with butternut and walnut to produce
The English Canoe Co. ceased operations in the early 1920s; their moulds
and patterns were bought by the Peterborough Canoe Co.
The Peterborough Canoe Co. bought out the William English Canoe Company.
In 1923, both the Peterborough Canoe Co. and the Canadian Canoe Co.
joined the Chestnut Canoe Company of New Brunswick to form the Canadian
Watercraft Company, a holding company with shares split evenly between
Peterborough and Fredericton shareholders. Will and Harry Chestnut had
set up the Chestnut Co. in 1897, after they had developed the first
canvas-covered canoes in Canada. These canoes were rugged and economical
and had become stiff competition for the cheapest and most popular
models of the Peterborough Canoe Co.
Under the new arrangement, the Chestnut Co. would concentrate on the
canvas canoe market while the Canadian Canoe Co. would build both canvas
and wood canoes and specialize in those designed for use with an
outboard motor. The Peterborough Canoe Co. continued to offer its wide
range of spin-off products.
A fire in 1927 destroyed the Rink St. factory of the Canadian Canoe Co.
Rather than rebuild the factory, and continue operations as a separate
enterprise, it was decided in 1928 to sell out to the Peterborough Canoe
Meanwhile, to adjust to the new market conditions, the Peterborough
Canoe Co. secured the dealership rights to the Johnson Motor Company for
all of Canada (excepting British Columbia). They had difficulty getting
the spare parts required to service the motors that they sold, however,
so they approached the Johnson Motor Co. with the suggestion that a
manufacturing facility be opened in Peterborough to provide parts. In
1928, the Johnson Motor Co. opened a 30,000 square foot factory on
Monaghan Road that employed 17 people. By 1936, the merger of the
Johnson Co. with Outboard Motors led to the creation of the Outboard
Marine and Manufacturing Company; they produced Johnson, Evinrude and
Elto outboard motors, along with a wide range of other products over the
Peterborough: Canada’s Boat Building Capital
By 1930, 25% of all employees in the boat building industry of Canada
worked in the Peterborough area. These companies included the Brown Boat
Company and the Lakefield Canoe and Boat Company, along with the
Peterborough Canoe Co., the Canadian Canoe Co., J.B. O'Dette and Son,
the Otonabee Boat Works, and the Canadian Johnson Motor Co. (Boat
division). It was estimated that approximately 12% of the products were
exported to markets in the United States and Europe. Although the canoe
companies continued to be profitable ventures throughout the 1930s and
1940s, the employees were forced to accept significant cuts. According
to one former employee, just prior to the World War II, the company had
cut single mens’ wages in half and married mens’ wages by a third.
Factory workers were now getting paid 12 cents an hour with no time and
a half for overtime.
During World War Two, the Peterborough Canoe Co. produced a number of
products for the war effort, including pontoons for building bridges,
assault boats, RCAF crash boats, naval tenders, bomb loading dinghies
and shell boxes. In early 1940, the entire production of new snow skis
was shipped via Northern Quebec to Finland to help them resist an
invasion by the Soviet Union.
Decline of the Industry
As Canada entered the 1950s, the local canoe industry continued to play
a prominent role in the local economy. As of 1949, the Peterborough
Canoe Co. was employing 150 people and exports accounted for 10% of
production. By the mid-1950s, 75 % of all canoes made in Canada were
manufactured by four companies, and three of the four were located in
and around Peterborough - the Peterborough Canoe Co., the Canadian Canoe
Co., and the Lakefield Canoe Co. The Chestnut Canoe Co. was the other
main manufacturer of canoes.
The diversification of the product line of the original canoe companies
helped them to profit from the economic boom in the early 1950s. In
1953, the Manager of the Peterborough Canoe Co., Jack Richardson, stated
that sales were "a way above the total for any recent year" and "the
demand for paddles is so great...(we) can't keep up with production." As
a result, the company began to invest in new facilities. It now employed
approximately 200 people. By 1956, the Peterborough Canoe Co. was the
largest single boat manufacturer in Canada, selling over 8,000 boats
annually for sales of over $1.5 million.
Buoyed by this prosperity, the Peterborough Canoe Co. undertook plans
for expansion. In 1947, fourteen acres of land had been purchased on
Monaghan Road for the construction of a new finishing mill. The larger
facilities were expected to increase production by 25%. The Peterborough
Canoe Co. moved into its new facilities in the mid-1950s. Meanwhile, in
1958 the Canadian Canoe Co. moved into the old Peterborough Canoe Co.
factory on Water St.
By the late 1950s however, the canoe companies were experiencing serious
financial difficulties. The $1 million cost of moving into the new
facilities was twice the anticipated cost.
In 1957, it was estimated that approximately 4,000 canoes were sold in
Canada. However, compared with the increase in population, there were
fewer canoes being sold per capita despite the greater number of people
spending their holidays involving some sort of water recreation. There
was much greater interest in motorboats and sales began to reflect this
change in the market. The 1950s also witnessed the introduction of new
aluminum and fiberglass canoe models that also began to undermine the
market for the wooden canoes. The latter were more expensive, as they
required more skill and time to produce, and were made of more costly of
The canoe companies of Peterborough tried to accommodate the
introduction of other boat building technologies, but met with limited
success. The Peterborough Canoe Co. began to produce aluminum canoes in
1957 and started to produce fibreglass boats around 1956, but they did
not go into full production until 1961. Though the craftsmen were
skilled with wood, they had difficulty mastering the new skills
necessary for working with resins and producing fiberglass canoes. As a
result, they had to learn through trial and error as they went along,
and the company began producing a large number of “seconds”, reflecting
poorly on the reputation of the company.
The unionization of the employees in 1955 brought increased labour costs
along with the elimination of piecework overtime. Overall, the
combination of an expensive relocation, higher labour costs,
questionable management practices, and the difficulties encountered in
trying to adapt to the new canoe technologies, along with a more
competitive market place, forced the canoe factories to close in the
In 1960, the Canadian Canoe Co. ceased manufacturing and filed for
bankruptcy with debts of over $ 2 million. With the collapse of the
Canadian Canoe Co. operations, it was decided to split up the Canadian
Watercraft Co. that had acted as a holding company since 1924. As a
result, the Peterborough Canoe Co. and the Chestnut Canoe Co. carried on
independently of each other.
The Peterborough Canoe Co. lasted another couple of years, but it to
ended up filing for bankruptcy in 1962. The Chestnut Canoe Co. obtained
the moulds, patterns and patents of the Peterborough Canoe Co. and
continued to build canoes at its factory in Oromocto, New Brunswick
until 1978; yet it too had to fold following a major expansion in 1974.
Additional Canoe Companies in the Peterborough Region
The Herald Canoe Company
Based in the Rice Lake area, the Herald Canoe Co. was started by Daniel
Herald of Gore’s Landing in 1862. He later went into business with his
brother-in-law, John Hutchison to form the Herald and Hutchison Boat Co.
In 1870, Herald went into partnership with William McBride to form the
Herald and McBride Canoe Co.
In 1871, Herald obtained a patent for his double-layered cedar board
canoe. It consisted of a two layered hull, the external planking running
lengthwise and the internal planking crosswise. A sheet of cotton with
white lead was placed between the layers and secured with copper tacks.
Since there were no ribs or battens in this model of canoe, it made the
inside of the canoe smooth, but also slippery when wet. The double hull
also made them heavier, but it gave them extra strength. Some of the
freight canoes were 20 feet long, 5 feet wide and 2 1/2 feet deep and
could carry 2 1/2 to 3 tons of cargo. The Herald canoes won a number of
international awards for the strength and beauty of their design.
Following the death of Daniel Herald in 1890, the business was continued
by his brothers under the name Herald Brothers – Builders of Rice Lake
In 1919, H.R. Langslow of Rochester, New York bought out the Herald
Brothers operations and moved the Rice Lake Canoe Co. to Cobourg,
Ontario. The following year, a long time employee of the Herald Co.,
Fred Pratt, sold the Herald moulds to Langslow. Back in the late 1890s,
Pratt had bought the Herald Brothers moulds.
In 1925, Langslow was facing financial difficulties and moved the
operations of the Rice Lake Canoe Co. to Montreal, where it continued to
operate until 1929.
Meanwhile, Fred Pratt received the former Rice Lake Herald Co. property
in lieu of payment of the mortgage and in 1926 he moved back to Gore’s
Landing and set up his own business under the name of the Rice Lake Boat
Works (pictured at left). By the 1930s, he was producing about 80 skiffs
and cedar strip canoes a year, most of which were bought up by the
Robert Simpson Co. Following the death of Fred Pratt in 1936, the
business was continued by his son, Wally, who eventually sold the
business and moulds in 1972 to Peter Harvey of Gore's Landing.
In 1969, Glen Fallis formed the Voyageur Canoe Co. in Millbrook along
with a partner, Greg Cowan. Fallis acquired the moulds from Harvey and
also bought the designs, machines and inventory of the Rice Lake Canoe
Co.. The Voyageur Canoe Co. produces a woven fibreglass canoe reinforced
plastic canoe with a premoulded epoxy-rib structure. In 1978, Fallis
bought out the Pinetree Canoe Co. of Orillia and acquired the
specialized Kevlar Epoxy process that produces canoes that are 25%
lighter than comparable fibreglass models.
Thomas Gordon Canoe Company – Strickland Canoe Company - Lakefield Canoe
Thomas Gordon was building canoes for sale in Lakefield since the late
1850s under the name of the Thomas Gordon Canoe Co., while in 1860 the
Strickland Canoe Co. was established.
In 1892, Robert Strickland founded Strickland and Co. to produce board
canoes. The name of the firm was changed to the Lakefield Canoe Works in
In 1904, Gordon and Strickland combined and reorganized the business as
the Lakefield Canoe Co. This firm was eventually absorbed into the
Lakefield Canoe and Manufacturing Co., which was established in 1918 by
In 1937, it was reorganized again and became the Lakefield Canoe and
Boat Co. under the direction of George Cook. It changed to Lakefield
Boats Ltd. in 1942, and was then bought out by Rilco Industries in 1962,
which continued to operate until 1970.
Since 1960, Peel Marine has continued to build and repair canoes in
Lakefield. In 1909, Gilbert Gordon, son of Thomas Gordon, began to build
canoes in Bobcaygeon. Some canoes had been built there for a number of
years in a boathouse operated by Dr. Thorne. In 1926, Charles Gordon
began operating the business under the name of the Gordon Boatworks Co.
James G. Brown started up the Brown Boat Co. of Lakefield in 1887. He
had worked with Thomas Gordon for a while before starting up his own
business. Brown manufactured canvas freight canoes and cedar strip
canoes. The business continued until 1938.
* From the Wooden Boat web site forum archive (http://forum.woodenboat.com/archive/index.php/t-14702.html)