Over many centuries, Lake Nipissing and the French River have seen a progression of methods of waterway travel. Before roads criss-crossed North America, the vast network of lakes and rivers were the highways of the time, linking all of present-day Ontario to the rest of the continent . Travel by canoe by various First Nations peoples provided extensive hunting and trade opportunities before European contact.
In the 1600s, the French coureurs-de-bois and Jesuit priests arrived, followed later by the voyageurs and English fur traders, explorers, and surveyors, all of whom used the French River as a vital link in the east-west route across a vast expanse of wilderness. These early adventurers relied on the indigenous populations, not only as guides in an uncharted land, but also for the only means of transportation available: the birch bark canoe.
Canadian paddling icon the late Bill Mason, wrote in Path of the Paddle, “It was the canoe that made it possible for the Indian to move around before and for several hundred years after the arrival of the white man. As the white man took over their land, the native people would regret the generosity with which they shared their amazing mode of travel. The more I study the birchbark canoe and what it can do, the greater is my admiration for these people who were here long before we arrived. The birchbark canoe is made entirely from materials found in the forest: birch bark, cedar, spruce roots, ash, and pine gum. When it is damaged, it can be repaired easily from materials at hand. When it has served its purpose, it returns to the land, part of a never-ending cycle.”
The Canadian Canoe Museum, located in Peterborough, Ontario, is a testament to the enduring legacy of the canoe in Canadian history and culture.
There were untold numbers of canoes built in the local area. Canoe builders documented in Wayne LeBelle's book Dokis - Since Time Immemorial included Felix Lariviere, who lived at Sand Bay, and his father. An example of a canoe built in Dokis by Felix Lariviere can be viewed by clicking here.
French River 1910
Sturgeon River at Lake Nipissing circa 1907
Steam engines were first invented in the late 1700s, and the first steamboat used on Lake Nipissing was the Inter Ocean in 1881. Steam boats became essential tools in the quickly developing logging industry.
In the late 1800s, the well-known lumber baron, J.R. Booth, orchestrated the movement of pine timbers from the Restoule area down to Lake Nipissing and across to Callander, where the timber was taken by train to Lake Nosbonsing and down the Mattawa to the Ottawa River and the mills further downstream. There were also local mills such as at Franks Bay on Lake Nipissing.
Steamboats also provided the means for the first recreational use of the area, and the first camps and cottages began to appear in the late 1800s and early 1900s. For roughly half a century, steam boats were the major means of conveyance, though rowboats and canoes were widely used locally. Steam power essentially disappeared in the 1960s, and the area is now dominated by gasoline powered watercraft. The French River is now a Provincial Waterway Park, and the canoe remains the prime choice to explore the waterway.
The Booth ready for one of its passenger excursions on Lake Nipissing (late 1800s)
From Heritage Perspectives by Doug Mackey, North Bay Nugget, Nov. 24, 2000
J.R Booth used Lake Nipissing and its rivers to full advantage in his logging operation at Wisa Wasa, where the Wasi River enters Lake Nipissing. He used dams on all of the rivers entering the lake to build up heads of water, in order to flush the logs downstream in the spring.
Log slides were used down the side of waterfalls on places like the Duchesnay River and the Wasi River. The dams were sometimes shared with other lumbermen, and the logs were stamped to allow for later separation. Booth also used water to drive his jackladder at Wisa Wasa.
Booth's dams often caused flooding and brought Booth some criticism. The book Pioneer Days in the Township of Nipissing describes how Booth was confronted for the flooding his dam created on Beatty Creek, a tributary of the South River.
Booth also got in trouble in Chisholm Township where he dammed the Wasi River above Wasi Lake to get an overflow east to the Nosbonsing River and into his access to his mills in Ottawa. The government put a stop to it, but Booth continued to flood the Wasi River to float his logs easier, and to have water for his Wisa Wasa jackladder all year round.
The flooding in Chisholm split the township in two, but did have an impact on wildlife. A Chisholm history book notes that "this flooded area of thousands of acres was a paradise for bullfrogs, which sent up a thunderous roar around sunset.
If the land was useless, there was a harvest of yellow pickerel the year round, while the autumn skies were alive at dawn and dusk with black ducks."
With Booth's Nipissing and Nosbonsing Railway hauling thousands of logs a week, he needed a variety of steamboats on Lake Nipissing to support the operation. This article looks at boats connected to the Booth operation.
In 1884 Booth built a fifty-six foot long steam tug, the NOSBONSING, for the handling of his logs on Lake Nosbonsing at the end of his railway at Astorville. This steam tug was later replaced by the KING EDWARD.
The two original steamboats on Lake Nipissing were the INTER OCEAN and the SPARROW, and they were soon put up for sale when the anticipated railways through Nipissing Village did not materialize. The 103-foot INTER OCEAN carried passengers and freight, but was not a tug and drew too much water for where Booth wanted to go. The 50-foot SPARROW also drew too much water. When Booth turned down the purchase of these boats he asked the builders to build a large steam tug for him. He was not able to complete the deal, so he built his own boat, the 120-foot BOOTH, a light-draft paddle wheeler, at Wisa Wasa.
The BOOTH burned in 1898 and was replaced using the same power plant by a 140-foot tug, the BOOTH (II), which was the largest steam boat ever to run on Lake Nipissing. This second BOOTH sailed for nine years until 1908, when she burned while up for the winter at the dock at Wisa Wasa.
The 50-foot KING EDWARD, purchased a month later, took over the major towing work for Booth. Built in Trenton Ontario, it was a 16.28 ton tug, with a high pressure Polton engine. Pictured in the background, is the dredge, the Mattawa.
Booth also had "a swarm of small tugs" collecting logs for the BOOTH to bring to Wisa Wasa. Several of the tugs were owned, for some reason, by Thomas Darling, Booth's superintendent; the KING EDWARD was owned at one time by Mrs. Darling.
The 27-foot ZEPHYR was brought to Wisa Wasa around 1890 and was often captained by Tom Darling's son Victor, who made a living as a captain on the lake all his life. The ZEPHYR had an iron frame, which helped her last for fifty years in the hands of various owners.
The Darling's WASA LILY houseboat being towed by the tug ZEPHYR.
Booth also operated the 25-foot tug, the CALLANDER, again owned by Tom Darling. It had previously named the Hazel B. (More information below).
The 26-foot SPITFIRE was a completely open boat owned by the Darlings. It towed logs, took passengers and towed houseboats as required.
The 36-foot ANNIE LAURIE, was built in 1890 and did similar work.
In 1895 Booth added a 37-foot alligator tug, the LORNE HALL, which was probably used in Booth's operations north of Lake Nipissing. (According to author, Richard Tatley, it was built by West and Peachy, had a 20 h.p. engine, and weighed 8.86 tons.)
Booth later purchased a 60-foot, 45.62 ton, 75 h.p. alligator called the WISAWASA, built by Fred Clark at Sturgeon Falls in 1907. It had a Bertram engine that went 10 miles per hour. It was dismantled and sunk near Wasi Falls in 1920.
One last boat in the Booth/Darling story is the 25-foot
WASA LILY, a houseboat owned by the Darlings and usually towed by the ZEPHYR. It was used for hunting, fishing and family travel on the lake from 1890 into the 1920s. It could sleep a dozen people and had a well-equipped galley.
The Darlings owned an island in Callander Bay, where they often docked the boat for family get-togethers. The boat was eventually pulled up onto the island and used as a cottage for many years.
There were numerous other steamboats on Lake Nipissing, owned by various other operators. One such boat is the Miami Beach. Some of them changed hands and names, as well as being re-built on occasion. For further information, see B. VandenHazel's From Dugout to Diesel (1982) and R. Tatley's Northern Steamboats (1996).
See postcards of timber magnate J. R. Booth’s “Booth” steamboats on the North Bay page. It also served as a pleasure craft from time to time, especially on Dominion Day.
The John Fraser, a 102 foot steamboat was built in 1888 at Nipissing, Ontario. For the account of the fire and sinking of the steamship John B. Fraser, click here.
The John B. Fraser (Click on photo to enlarge.)
The Ladas, owned by Davidson and Hay, was a replacement for the ill-fated Fraser. It was a 37.04 ton, 73 foot, single deck, screw tug with a 20.93-hp steeple-compound engine. It eventually went to the Gordon Lumber Mill, probably hauling logs to Chaudière Falls. In 1905 it also sunk, but at the Sturgeon Falls warf, not out on the lake or on the French river.
Other shipwrecks found on Lake Nipissing are the Booth I, Sea Gull I, Ganton D., Screamer, Woodchuck, and Manitou Island.
Ships such as Sea Gull II, Modello, the Screamer and many more were were taken in for repairs at Burford Point in Callander Bay on Lake Nipissing. (Photos below).
The Nothern Belle, a 104 foot steamship was built in 1905 at Sturgeon Falls, Ontario by John Gridley. By the Fall of 1914, Captain Clark had quit the business for the most part, surrendering the company’s charter in 1923. Until 1930, he captained a few small steamers. Next, the Belle moved to North Bay. The Lake Nipissing Shipping and Transportation Co., headed up by Frank E. McDonald of Newcastle, ON, received its charter on 21 August 1914. The Belle looked more impressive than ever, with a pilot house on the third deck, a new lounge, a hurricane deck, and capacity for 50 more passengers. But the traditional problem of cruise ships — not enough customers — continued. Later Belle owners were the North Bay and French River Navigation Co. and the Northern Navigation Co. Neither was able to make a go of things; the North Bay and French River Navigation Company declared bankruptcy in 1923. Both 1923 and 1924 were unseasonably cold, which didn’t help the tourist situation. Northern Navigation, the last company to own the Belle, announced that she wouldn’t run in 1926; on 26 June 1926, she caught fire at the government wharf in North Bay and sank.
A collection of photos of boats new and old has been compiled by cottager Chris Fry. The collection may be viewed at Boats of the French River or in the UFRCA Photo Gallery.
Aletis, a Greek word for wanderer and voyager, is the name of one of the best known cruisers in the Georgian Bay area in the 1930s. According to a May 1931 Motor Boating publication, The Yachtsmen's Magazine, the Aletis was built for Dr. William P. Firth, who had a summer home at Go Home Bay. He wanted a large boat for his family and friends. It was built in 1930 by Gidley Boat Company of Penetang, Ontario and was powered by two 6 cylinder diesel engines.
In the photo above, The Aletis, white hull at bottom left at the Temagami dock, was owned by the Ontario Northland Railway (ONR) and spent time on Lake Temagami and then on Lake Nipissing, transporting miners to the mine on the Manitou Islands. The Vedette is pictured above it.
The Aletis, a 55 foot deisel boat, also transported many cottagers up and down the Upper French River until it met its demise in 1954, and again from 1955 to 1968.
On December 5, 1954 the Aletis was being towed to its winter storage place in Callander Bay. The lake froze quickly, making it hard for the barge to tow the Aletis any further. The ice crushed the sides of the Aletis and it sank, while the barge made it back to the North Bay shoreline.
For the original newspaper article regarding the sinking of the Aletis, go to: http://images.maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes.ca/63099/page/26
If the Aletis sank, it didn't stay sunk for long as cottager Jeff Hamilton writes: "I rode on her in the early 1960s. In the late '60s the ONR owned two boats, the Aletis and the Mary E. They sold them the same year to their captains who kept their boats down at the village over the winter (previously the ONR hauled them out in Callander) tied in an area that never froze near the dams."
The Aletis was re-floated and repaired after she sank. Wayne LeBelle writes in Dokis - Since Time Immemorial that from 1955 to 1968, Norm Dokis Sr. worked on this boat and even delivered mail from it. In 1967 Norm Dokis bought the Aletis, but only kept it for a year. It often wintered in Dokis Bay on the French River. See photo at left.
The following photos are from an April 1955 brochure of the Ontario Northland Railway (ONR) which owned boats used on the Upper French River and Lake Nipissing. Click on each photo to enlarge. The Aletis is in the middle row, left; The Manitou Island, right; and the Temagami, bottom.
II In the 1960s it operated as a barge, but it
Photo of Ontario Northland Barge at Lunge Lodge in1953. Photo by Chris Fry.
The following excerpts are from the vintage postcard website http://www.vintagepostcards.org/NipissingHistory.htm
Houseboats and other pleasure craft were abundant, given Callander’s proximity to Lake Nipissing. The Hazel B., a 65-foot steamboat was built in North Bay in 1905, sailed until 1938. The real photo postcard postmarked 1913 was published by Rumsey & Co. of Toronto. The caption reads "Boating at Callander, Ont." It was renamed the Callander.
The Hazel B. docking at Island 91 (the Marks' cottage) in 1927. Note the casual summer attire. Photo supplied by Bert Clarke.
By 1908, William (John) Kervin, a prominent early settler, was offering “board, boats, guides, tents [and] houseboats.” A scarce circa 1908 patriotic postcard with an attractive maple leaf surround advertises Kervin’s “Shamrock House Boat” for use on Lake Nipissing and on the French River, and boasts of the “Best Accommodation on the Northern Lakes.” The postcard was published by A. H. Cooper of Toronto as part of their “Land of the Maple” series. It clearly shows the steamboat, with a smaller tour boat with a sun roof on it in the foreground. A splendidly detailed 1924 real-photo postcard of the Shamrock and another houseboat, taken by photographer George Vachon of Sturgeon Falls, can be seen on the Sturgeon Falls page.
By the 1920s, Kervin’s three sons, George (Leo), Tom and Charles (Charley) were running the houseboat business, with Leo later serving as reeve of North Himsworth Township from 1955 to 1963. Kervin operated other houseboats on the West Arm of Lake Nipissing. The cruisers Julia S. and the Keas also operated on the West Arm, stopping at Kervin’s camps there. See more postcards on the Sturgeon Falls page.
The following is from www.northbayhistory.homestead.com
William Kervin was born in Simcoe, Ontario. He came to Callander in 1890. Kervin promoted the attractions of the French River with his "House Boats ", often referring to them as “Floating Hotels ". He was a member of the Ontario Fish & Game Protective Association and with the assistance of local members from Sturgeon Falls and Parry Sound, Mr. Kervin had the net fishing of Lake Nipissing stopped.
For more vintage postcards go to: http://users.efni.com/~johndlv/Callander%20and%20the%20Bay/Images%20of%20Callender,%20Postcard%20and%20Cover.htm
Moe’s Ark I and
Moe’s Ark II
(after 1965-note the
operated by M. Masson
were also popular.
Other houseboats found on Lake Nipissing and the French River were the Lady of the Lake and the Sunbeam, both built by Britton of Sturgeon Falls and the Vedette.
This 1950s postcard by Sterling Photos of Cornwall, Ontario, was taken by the Smith Lumber Company in Callander Bay, Lake Nipissing. Boats similar to this were manufactured in Gravenhurst, Ontario by the Ditchburn Boat Company. They were referred to as the “Gentleman’s Runabout”.
The Ditchburn Boat Company manufactured beautiful wooden boats through the early 1900s to 1938. They made wooden row boats, runabouts, and yachts up to 100 feet long. Many have been maintained and restored and are still being used today.
An example of one of their boats is the 34 foot Jingo. It was made in the 1920s. The Smith Lumber Company used it for work and for pleasure. Captain Mac Masson often took people out on tours. It had many owners after the Smith Lumber Company folded in 1967. They were: Harry Hughs of North Bay, who re-built it and used it on Trout Lake; Captain Kelly Mosley-Williams, who in 1985, enclosed the cabin and used it for tours on Lake Nipissing; Jeff Campbell of Callander; and Dutch Shultz of Callander. In 2002, Shultz refurbished the boat and launched it in Lake Nipissing as a tourist boat. (Heritage Perspectives October 2002)
Additionally, the S. S. Seagull an 82 foot tugboat, built in 1906 was often seen on Lake Nipissing. It was built in Callander, Ontario and sailed after 1922 by Captain Mac Mason. In 1930 it was dismantled and burned. The Sea Gull 11, a similar boat was built using the machinery that was removed from the original Sea Gull. It was used as a logging tug as well as a tourist boat captained by Mac Mason. His deckhand was Gilbert Turgeon. In 1960 it was dismantled and burned.
The Van Woodland, was rebuilt and enlarged to a 23 metre (75 foot) steamboat (1900- 1906) became the Highland Belle (1906-1909). It travelled Lake Nipissing under Captain Windsor, carrying passengers. (Photo used by permission of Dokis First Nation.)
Steam screw HIGHLAND BELLE. * Official Canadian No. 107708. Built at Orillia, Ont., in 1900 by J.H. Ross of Orillia, Ont. 75.0 x 11.8 x 5.2
* Former name VAN WOODLAND.
Port of Toronto Shipping Register
National Archives, Ottawa. R G. 12 A 1, Vol. 454
The following is an excerpt from the Memquisit Lodge history. http://www.memquisitlodge.net/history.html
Captain Charlie Britton of Sturgeon Falls operated two steam packets on Lake Nipissing: the Elgin L. Lewis on charter to all comers and the other, the "Medilla", on scheduled service to several points in the western half of the lake, terminating at the new Government Dock in West Bay at Monetville.These two boats also operated on the Upper French River, carrying passengers and cargo to and from cottages. The Elgin L. Lewis, a 42 foot steamer was built in 1904 in Orillia, Ontario. It was powered by a
6 h.p. steam engine.
The Elgin II was a similar boat run by Captain McKenny.
The Wabamik (White Beaver), also referred to as the Wabatong, was owned by Chief Frank Dokis and then by Ed Lawrence of Dokis. It was used on Lake Nipissing and the French River during the 1930s. (Photo used by permission of Dokis First Nation.)
The Lizette cabin cruiser, owned and operated by a man named “Bun” Bergeron, travelled Lake Nipissing and the French River as a general-purpose vessel, delivering to cottagers and lodges. It was leaving for the French River in this 1954 McNeill RPPC. Mr. Bergeron had two sons, Roland, a retired firefighter, and Raymond. Roland is the man standing in the stern.
For an interesting bochure - "North- The Vacation Guide" from 1953, click here It gives some information on the boating on Lake Nipissing and the Upper French River in 1953. (Note the phone numbers).
In the 1870s lumbermen needed a way to transport logs across the water. Before steam power they used a large horse-powered raft called a Cadge Crib. As the horses walked in a circle, the rope was wound around a spindle, thus moving the raft-like structure and the logs ahead.
Sketch by Christine Kerrigan in the "Algonquin Park Logging Book"
Steam Powered Alligators
In the early 1890s a logger from Hardy Township on the Upper French River, wanted a steam powered vessel that could move itself over portages and around rapids to transport logs from lake to lake – a “Steam warping tug”. John West and James Peachy of Simcoe, Ontario designed such a boat and brought it to North Bay by train in 1889. The first “Alligator”, was used on the Upper French River.
West and Peachy changed logging with their new boat. They had built a boat that could travel on the water and crawl onto the land much like an alligator. From 1889-1934 they built over 200 “Alligators” in three different sizes.
For the full article by Doug MacKay, on Cadge Cribs and Alligators click on Heritage Perspectives
The Woodchuck known as an alligator because of its ability to crawl onto the shore was built in 1926 by the West and Peachey Company in Simcoe for the Driving Log Boom Company, a consortium of seven logging companies on, around, and above the Sturgeon River.The marine registration for the Woodchuck indicates that it was fifty-three feet long, ten feet wide and weighed eighteen tons. The paddlewheels added an additional three feet to each side. She was powered by a twin, high-pressure, reciprocating steam engine. She travelled about 2-3 mph, depending on the wind and the current. It was rebuilt in 1944. Victor Darling was made Captain and ran the boat until he retired in 1953 when Michael "Mac" Masson, the second in command, became Captain.These two captains also ran the Seagull (II). Their deckhand was Gilbert Turgeon.
The "Woodchuck was the last alligator and last steamboat on the lake. It was dimantled and burned in 1955.
Other workboats not referred to elsewhere on this page
According to information from the Callander Museum, there were approximately 54 working boats on Lake Nipissing.
Whitney 1,2,3 from 1918 to 1963; owned by Gordon Lumber of cache Bay, Ontario
Veuve was 38 feet long and 14.11 tons. It was built by Fred Clark of Sturgeon Fall, Ontario in 1908 and used until 1918.
The largest steam alligator, the Mistango, built by Captain John A. Clark of Sturgeon Falls in 1907 for service on Lake Nipissing, was over 66 feet in length, 39.37 tons, powered by two engines and required a crew of eleven. Each paddle wheel had ten buckets. In 1915 it was sold to Abitibi Power and Paper Company where it worked on Lake Abitibi.
Miss Emily was built in 1946 by Gordon Lumber of Cache, Bay Ontario. The owner was Richard Lalonde. It was a 26 foot long steel alligator. (Wayne Lebelle photo)
Grasshopper was owned by Gordon Lumber of Cache Bay, Ontario
Nighthawk was owned by Gordon Lumber of Cache Bay, Ontario and was used during the 1930s.
Mollie (renamed the Goodling) was a 29 foot, 7.52 ton boat built in 1904 by Fred Clark for his own use.
Siskin was an 11 metre diesel warping steel tug built by West and Peachy in 1955. It ran until the mid 1960s. The Captain was Mac Mason and the dckhand was Gilbert Turgeon.
Temagami was owned by Gordon Lumber of Cache Bay, Ontario. At one time it was an ONR boat that was captained by Bill Rowe. (See photo above under ONR boats). It was built by West and Peachy.
More recently, The Keystone Barge (officially the Peche Island of Owen Sound) could be seen on the Upper French River and Lake Nipissing.
Some of the steamboats that sailed Lake Nipissing can be found on The Ship’s List which is a searchable archives database.
Other boats that sailed Lake Nipissing and the Upper French River are also listed below with their owners and dates obtained from various other sources - Vintage Postcard, the North Himsworth (Callander) Museum, and "Dokis: Since Time Immemorial" by Wayne Labelle
Inter-Ocean: (sketch above) Built by: in 1881 Charles Smiley of Port Dalhousie (Ship's List) or Nipissing Village (Callander Museum)
Length: 31 metres(103.4 feet), 22.5 foot beam; Engine Description: One high-pressure steam engine, made in Peterborough, . Screw propeller; 15 hp
Owners: The Muskoka and Nipissing Navigation Company of Gravenhurst
Known Captains: John Scott, Captain Windsor
John Burritt of Nipissing Village, Ontario
1896: dismantled and burned at Chaudiere Falls
Express: Built by: John Ashley Clark
Length: 20 metres Engine Description: One upright steam engine made in
1891 by the Butterfield Co. of Barrie. Screw propeller, 40 hp
Owners: Mary Esther Perkins, of Sturgeon Falls
Second Owner: J.A. Clark
Third Owner: French River & Nipissing Navigation Co.
Known Captains: John Ashley Clark
Turtle I: Built by: Charles L. Smith of Cache Bay
Length: 15 metres Engines Description: One upright steam engine made
in 1892 by the John Doty Co., Toronto 12hp
Owners: John Hay & Irvin Davidson, lumber merchants
Second Owner: Clarence A. Bogert, bank official, Toronto
Third Owner: George McFarland, Cache Bay merchant
Known Captains: Arthur Nessbitt
Turtle II: Length: 20 metres
Engine Description: One upright, one cylinder steam engine, made by John
Doty & Co., Toronto
Owner: 1892 George Gordon, lumber merchant, of Pembroke and Cache Bay
Known Captains: John Ebert, Arthur Nesbitt
Gamilla: Built by: J.C. Darke of Lake Simcoe
Length: 21 metres Engines Description: One compound condensing engine
made in 1890 by the Polson Iron Works of Toronto, 75 hp
Owners: J.P. Lacon, Toronto
Second Owner: Jenny Fraser Furguson, North Bay
Third Owner: W.Fraser, Little Current 1905
Known Captains: John Burritt
Screamer: Built in 1922 by J.B. Smith and Sons, Callander, Ontario
Length: 22 metres (71 feet) long. It could haul up to 10,000 logs. The boat was top heavy and a new hull was built overtop which rotted the inner hull. In 1940 the wheelhouse was removed and it was towed by the "Woodchuck" to Smith Island in Callander where it was burned.
Olive: built at North Bay, Ontario Length: 25 foot long passenger-freight
The outboard motor revolutionized water travel around the world. It was much easier and safer to run a boat. Large crews were not needed to keep either the wood or coal topped up on the steam powered boats. It also led to the use of smaller pleasure craft for touring, travelling, or fishing.
As early as 1896 various inventors had experimented with the outboard engine. It wasn’t until 1907 that Ole Evinrude was successful in producing a 1 1/2 h.p., 62 lb. iron motor. In August of 1911 Evinrude got a patent for his invention and was the first to produce an outboard motor commercially. By 1938 he had increased the capacity to 3 h.p and had reduced the weight to 48 lb. by making the motor out of aluminum. By 1932 Evinrude had invented the electric start, the folding shaft and the 40 h.p. motor.
The following is an excerpt from the Giesler Boat website, giving the history of the ever so popular fishing boat found on the French River today.
In the year 1920, with the increasing popularity of the automobile, “Barney” Giesler’s blacksmith business was slowing down and he had more time for his favorite past time, fishing. Unfortunately, he lacked a good boat. After one unforgettable fishing trip on Lake Nipissing, upon which he learned just how rough the lake could get, he decided to build himself a good seaworthy boat. Once built, he launched it on Lake Nipissing near a popular tourist resort. One of the tourists, impressed by the quality of work, offered to buy it and Barney went home to build another boat. However, before he was finished building it he had an order for another one and in 1921 B. Giesler and Sons Boat Builders was founded. By the 1950s, along with his four sons and a staff of experienced boat builders, Barney had two models ( the “18” and the “16”) and built over 400 boats per year. Today it is operated by Barney’s four sons, along with the same staff of experienced boat builders and two of Barney’s grandsons.
For over seventy years and three generations Giesler Boats have been known for their sound design and solid construction. What started as a desire to own a good fishing boat is now a proud tradition of providing others with a seaworthy boat very. All of them are built with western cedar planks, copper nails, and a pride in quality. “We don’t just build them pretty, we build them pretty good".
In the early 1930s, Aroline Boat Company of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was the first
company to produce riveted aluminum boats. Metal boats prior to this were made of steel. It wasn’t until after WW II that more small fishing boats were made of aluminum.
In 1975, Marlin Yacht Company of Gananoque, Ontario, built the Chief Commanda II.
It was the first all-aluminum, twin-hull passenger vessel in Canada.
Although there are a number of aluminum boats on the French River today, most small fishing boats are either wooden or fiberglass.
The Chief, 1952 The Chief, Docking on the French River
The “Chief Commanda”, named after Chief Raymond Commanda who drowned in the French River in 1944, ran from 1947 to 1974. It was a 99 foot steel-hulled boat – the first steel-hulled passenger vessel of its size on Lake Nipissing – built in 1946 in Toronto.
In 1946, the first captain was Victor Darling. In 1947, Captain William Rowe took over until his retirement in 1961, when his son, Lorne Rowe, became first captain and Captain Mac Mason became first mate. Lorne had been working with his father since 1948 as a deckhand and then as first mate.
Over the years there were several captains of “The Chief”. In 1957 Bob Rowe, at age 17, started working on the Chief with his father, Captain William Rowe and his brother Captain Lorne Rowe. Also in 1957, Bryden Lloyd, a relative of the Rowes, was a purser on the ship.
In 1961, Lawrence Dokis became first mate. In 1974, he became Captain and skippered for Captain Lorne Rowe.
By 1974, The Chief had made 3000 trips and carried 300,000 passengers on Lake Nipissing and the Upper French River.
After its retirement in 1974, it was given to Dokis First Nation and was docked at Dokis for a short time. It was eventually moved to North Bay where it now rests on land at the North Bay waterfront and functions as a restaurant during the summer season. The original plan was for the boat to be turned into a boat museum, but that never materialized.
In 1975, the newly launched “Chief Commanda II” (on right) towed its predecessor, “Chief Commanda I” (on left), from Dokis to Callander.
The "Chief Commanda II"
The new Chief was the first all-aluminum, twin-hulled passenger vessel in Canada. It was built at a cost of $500,000 by Marlin Yachts of Gananoque, Ontario in 1974 and put into service in 1975 on Lake Nipissing. It is powered by four 350 h.p. Volvo engines and has a cruising speed of 15 knots. The 100-foot long by 36-foot wide catamaran has a capacity of 320. This design and size allows for a more stable and safer ride on the sometimes rough waters of Lake Nipissing. According to one of the captains, it handles much better than the original Chief.
Captain Lawrence Dokis was in charge from 1975 to 1980. Captain Bob Rowe skippered with Captain Dokis until Captain Dokis retired in 1980. His son, Captain Gary Dokis, was his first mate from 1976 to 1979. After Captain Dokis retired, Captain Bob Rowe was in charge until his retirement in 1986. In 2001 Kelly Mosley-Williams took over as Captain. The City of North Bay owned the Chief for a few years, but recently it has been purchased by Captain Richard Stivrins and he has run tours since 2003.
In the early 1930s glass fibers were first developed by Russell Games Slayer of Owens Corning. In 1935 polyester resin was invented. The combination of the two inventions led to the first fiberglass “dingy” being made in 1942 by Ray Green of Toledo, Ohio.
After WW II fiberglass life boats were made commercially. In 1952 Bell Boy Boat Company of Bellingham, Washington started manufacturing pleasure craft and by 1954 they began producing fiberglass “cabin cruisers”.
Today most of the bigger pleasure boats found on the French River and Lake Nipissing are fiberglass, although there seems to be a resurgence of the metal (aluminum) work boat, the barge.