The History of Shipbuilding In Collingwood

Boat building has been a part of Collingwood from the beginning. The earliest boat builder, William Watts arrived in Collingwood in about 1850. He soon began construction sailing skiffs for the local fishing industry. Sailors used Watts boats beyond the boundaries of Georgian Bay. Watts shipped his Collingwood skiffs throughout the Great Lakes and filled orders for customers from Chicago to Winnipeg. When Colonel Garnet Wolsel took troops to quell the first rebellion of Louis Riel in 1870, he used 9 of Watts boats to transport his troops to the Red River Settlement. The Watts company operated until 1943.

With the arrival of rail in 1855, more than any other factor, guaranteed Collingwood's importance as a centre for shipping and shipbuilding. Collingwood was the terminus of the Ontario Simcoe and Huron railway line from Toronto. This line opened trade on the Great Lakes. When the first train arrived on January 1, 1855, so did a wealth of opportunities for shipping. Collingwood became an important link in the transportation route west. By the time the railway was complete, organizers had constructed a dock, freight shed and grain elevator at the harbour. Railway owners charted a series of steamships and connected them with the American Ports of Chicago and Green Bay. In the early years of shipping in Collingwood, the port was a transfer point for many settlers emigrating to the United States.

The United States established a Consulate in Collingwood because of heavy freight and passenger traffic between the town and American ports. In 1880, Gustavus Goward, the U.S commercial agent in Collingwood, wrote to his employers in Washington stating that, "In many respects, (Collingwood) is the most important point in Ontario as regards to American Shipping." He went on to explain that "the total number of vessels plying between foreign ports and the port of Collingwood alone was 293,... with a crew of 3,951. The total amount of American grain brought into Collingwood was 3,895,856 bushels valued at $2,281,007, besides general merchandise amounting to 65,275 tons."

In 1882, J.D Silcox and S.D Andrews formed the Collingwood Dry Dock, Shipbuilding and Foundry Company. The dry dock opened on Queen Victoria's birthday, May 24, 1883 and took its name as the "Queen's Dry Dock." The dry dock was 325 feet long, 50 feet wide at the gates, 60 feet wide between the retaining wall's and 14 feet over the stills. Under a financing agreement with the town, the company could control the dry dock unless it sat idle for more than six months. In March of 1889, after a period of little construction, management reverted to the town for a short time. The land was leased to a new company established by local entrepreneurs. The Dry Dock and Wrecking Company of Collingwood was formed in September of 1889. Under their management, the Dry Dock and Wrecking Company built several steam ships, including the well-known wooden steamers, Magestic and Germanic.

On November 14, 1899, the Collingwood Shipbuilding Company formed. Captain Alexander McDougall joined the organization. The town granted a bonus of $50,000 to establish steel shipbuilding facilities and to expand the dry dock to 550 feet. In 1901, the Collingwood Shipbuilding Company launched it's first Hull, Huronic. A 321 foot passenger and freight. Between 1901 and 1904, the shipyard built six hulls.

During World War One, the shipyard picked up several new orders, including a series of five tankers for Imperial Oil. During the early stages of conflict in Europe, the workers were laid off frequently because of the fluctuations in labour demand. Because of the way ships were constructed, different trades were needed at different times in the building process. They were laid off when their jobs were complete. During WW1, the shipyard retooled some of its machinery and began constructing 18 pound shrapnel and 4.5 inch high explosive shells. During the war, the shipyard hired on women to fill in for the shortage of workers, as some men were serving in the war.

During the War, Roy M. Wolvin, bought the Shipyards at Collingwood, Midland, Kingston and Port Arthur. He formed the Canadian Shipbuilding and Engineering, from the four sites.

After WW1, the Shipyard became busy again, filling government orders for supply vessels. The shell manufacturing plants closed. The men returned from the war to find a steady order of trawlers and cargo vessels which were under construction.

Unionization came to the Shipyard during WW2. The wages began to climb steadily. The Shipyard employees were originally represented by the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of Canada, Local 20, and were affiliated with the Canadian Labour Congress. In 1962 the workers switched their representation to the United Steel Workers of America.

During World War 2, the Shipyard was busy building naval vessels. The Shipyard which had been operating with only a skeleton staff for several years, sprang to life with the demands of war. The shipyard began building a British designed all purpose auxiliary vessel called the Corvette. British Corvettes were named after flowers. Canadian naval staff named Canadian vessels after Towns. Town naming was a strategy to solicit support for the construction of Corvettes. One Corvette was named after the town, the H.M.C.S Collingwood.

Women were employed again at the shipyard, this time in the construction of the Corvettes. Women worked in the machine and pipe shops, and also outside as welders on the hull. The Women were considered temporary war workers, although many had received the same level of training as the men did. When the men returned home from the war, it was considered natural that they replace the women again.


In 1945, the shipyards were purchased by Canada Steamship Lines.

After the war, the shipyard built a variety of ships including tankers, ferries, barges and bulk carriers. The shipyard built vessels for many companies including Imperial Oil and N.M Patterson and Sons, for example.

The CSL, closed the shipyard at Midland in 1944, the one in Port Arthur in 1957, but it remained open for repairs, but closed finally in 1993. The shipyard in Kingston closed in 1965. Collingwood became the major Great Lakes outfitter of CSL's remaining shipyards.

In 1972, the shipyard underwent another change in ownership; Power Corporation. During the 1970's, ship construction at Collingwood proceeded with continued advances in technology. By building the best ships possible, the Collingwood team set out to enhance its reputation as a centre for innovative design. The Collingwood Shipyard pioneered the development of the reverse bow. This design incorporated some features of an icebreaker into the bow of a freighter. The base of the bow contained a bulge of steel designed to break light ice by lifting it up instead of crushing it. This design allowed ships to sail later into the season. The Collingwood Shipyard also developed a design of ships known as "sulkers" which incorporated features of a bulk carrier and a self loader. Sulkers were designed for companies that wanted a self-unloader, but could not finance it at the time. By building a sulker, the company could easily convert the ship at a later date and with less expense. Self loaders were becoming popular and Collingwood became a leader in advancing the technology of that style of ship.

In 1981, Paul Martins's Passage Holdings Company joined with Federal Commerce and Navigation (Fedcom) to purchase the transportation interest of Power Corporation. The new company was named CSL Group Inc.

In 1981, there was a serious decline in the Worldwide shipping industry. The Shipyard continued to make competitive bids on the few ships that were tendered, but concern was rising about the need for a shipyard which was so far from the main shipping channels. As well, Collingwood only had one large launching berth and the dry dock could not accommodate the largest ships on the locks. Unfortunately, the new company could not compete with a decrease in building requests.

Orders to the Collingwood Shipyard slowed to a trickle, as the Canadian fleet reached peak capacity in the early 1980's, and government contracts were going elsewhere. Only requests from Canada Steamship Lines and Algoma Central Marine were regular and soon they too had ships tied at the wall due to the drop-off in available cargoes. Between 1981 and 1986, the shipyard built nine more ships.

In 1986, CSL's Shipbuilding group merged with that of Upper Lakes Shipping (ULS) and created Canadian Shipbuilding and Engineering (1986) Limited. ULS had a shipyard at Port Weller and a smaller yard in Nova Scotia. The owners of the new company decided that the Collingwood Yard did not have sufficient strategic advantage to warrant its continued operation.

Five reasons for the closure of the shipyard were:

  1. A growing crisis in Worldwide Shipbuilding.
  2. A greater supply than demand hence a declining market.
  3. Canadian Shipping Industry had vessels idle and there had been no new orders since 1984.
  4. Collingwood lacked a large dry dock for ship repairs and their location was off the main shipping lanes.
  5. Costs for keeping the yard open while waiting for contracts amounted to over $4 million a year.

The employment was down to 50 workers when the decision was made to close the shipyard.

While the Collingwood Shipyard was open, there were 231 hulls on the record books at the modern Shipyard. Fifteen orders were cancelled and 8 other hull numbers were assigned to conversion projects. This left a total of 208 new ships. The biggest customer for the Collingwood Shipyards was the Canadian Government. Almost one third of the contracts were placed by the government. The last boat to be launched at the Collingwood Shipyard was Hull 230 Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

On September 12, 1986, The Collingwood Shipyard closed, after 103 years in operation. Although the shipyard is now silent, it is safe to predict that "The Ships of Collingwood" will sail the lakes and oceans of the world well into the Twenty-First Century.

Last Updated: Friday May 3, 1996