A History of Peterborough’s Canoe Industry
View a detailed Inventory of the PCMA’s Canoe and Boat Collections, as well as related archival fonds.
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.
Only known image of the Ontario Canoe Company building.
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
Canoe factory employees at work.
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 management.
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 beautiful watercraft.
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 Company.
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 years.
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 materials.
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 early 1960s.
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
Herald & Hutchison.
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 Boats.
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.
Aerial view of Rice Lake Boat Works
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 Company
Lakefield Canoe Co. receipt
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.
Lakefield Canoe Manufacturing Company, circa 1909
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 1900.
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 E.R. Tate.
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.