The iron canoe

Credit for this story goes to James P. Barry, author of Georgian Bay, The Sixth Great Lake (Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1968).

The settlement at Penetanguishene developed after the British military moved their bases there from the mouth of the Nottawasaga River and later, after the War of 1812, from Drummond Island. Along with them came French Canadian voyageurs, or canoe men, and their families, the ancestors of many of today’s townspeople with French backgrounds. These civilians provided the labour for a multitude of tasks required by the military establishment and government representatives.

For example, when Indian agents or other officials needed water transportation they relied on the voyageurs for the large canoes and the manpower to move them. Canoe building became one of their trades.

One of them, Toussant Boucher, also had learned blacksmithing. A local priest commissioned him to build a large canoe from iron sheets, almost certainly the first metal watercraft on Georgian Bay. It was about 24 feet long and paddled by eight or nine men.

James Barry writes: “The iron canoe achieved mild fame; it was used for trips to Manitoulin and on one occasion was part of a fleet that carried a visiting Englishman, Lord Morpeth, on a tour of Lake Huron and delivered him at Detroit.

“The canoes then coasted the Canadian shore of Lake Erie, were portaged by wagon to Lake Ontario, and finallly came to Toronto, where the canoemen were given a rousing welcome.

“The next year the iron canoe was brought back to Penetanguishene; it was pulled on rollers by teams of horses as far as Lake Simcoe, then followed the water route the rest of the way. Its weight on an portage and its tendency to cut through heavy waves rather than ride over them limited its usefulness.”

Father Proulx, who commissioned the iron canoe, later presented it to the Penetanguishene garrison.

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