on Georgian Bay

Mapmakers on Georgian Bay were also explorers. They mapped the Georgian Bay shoreline noting safe harbours, dangerous reefs, and other guides for sailors and pioneer settlers looking for a place to call home.

The history of the growth and development of this region is closely linked to maritime travel and commerce. I have often written about the men and vessels who challenged the often treacherous waters of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron carrying passengers and produce into and out of area ports. However, there is another group of men whose exploits are equally important to the development of this area. They are the explorers who mapped and detailed the shorelines, channels and islands of the region. 

When one thinks of explorers, the names Henry Hudson, John Cabot, and Christopher Columbus are more likely to come to mind than William Owen, Henry Bayfield and John Boulton. However, the exploits of these men are equally important in the annals of history. Although their adventures were on a smaller scale, the results of their work were extremely important, especially in the Georgian Bay region. 

During the War of 1812, the British navy maintained a base at Penetanguishene on the southern shore of Georgian Bay to protect the region from American forces. The task was made more difficult because the region was largely uncharted and unsettled. So, at the end of the war, the British Admiralty decided to rectify this situation. 

In 1815, Sir Edward W.C.R. Owen, the Commodore and Commander in Chief of the British Navy on the Great Lakes, appointed his brother, William Fitzwilliam Owen, as chief hydrographer for the Great Lakes. Part of his duties would be to provide better maps and information about the Georgian Bay region. 

William Owen received this appointment not just because he was the brother of the most senior British naval officer on the Great Lakes, but because he was also an experienced hydrographic surveyor. For nine years from 1804 to 1813, he had worked on hydrographic surveys in the Indian Ocean. 

Owen was more than an explorer. He was an innovator. His position as the Great Lakes chief hydrographer allowed him to test new methods which he had developed but had not yet put into practice. His efforts had a great impact on the science of naval surveying in the 19th century. One of his projects involved improving the means of measuring distances. This new procedure involved the use of synchronized chronometers and signal rockets fired from guns. 

In 1817, after only two years William Owen left this post and his assistant, Henry Bayfield assumed the position of admiralty surveyor. It was Bayfield who led the first detailed hydrographic survey of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. 

The efforts of Bayfield remained the guide for sailors on Georgian Bay until 1883, when John Boulton was loaned by the British Admiralty to the Canadian government to lead a new survey of Georgian Bay. He remained with this project until 1891. 

Owen, Bayfield, and later Boulton, performed challenging duties which were essential to the sailors who plied the waters of this region. However, with the exception of the names that they assigned to various waterways and land forms, such as Fitzwilliam Island and Owen Sound, their presence in the region and impact of their work has generally gone unrecognized by many of the citizens of this area. 

A version of this article originally appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times in April 1999.

Georgian Bay Shipping

List of Lighthouses on the Great Lakes: If you have names and/or pictures of Great Lakes Lighthouses please submit them along with details of their location.

Georgian Bay Ships: A List of all the ships that sailed on Georgian Bay until the 1960s. This list is not complete. If you know of a ship that sailed the waters of Georgian Bay please contact me with information about that vessel, and, if you have a picture that I could post with it, that would be much appreciated.

1885: A Memorable Summer Job for Owen Sound teenage boys on the Great Lakes would have historic importance, not mention a possible exciting career opportunity.

Hindman Transportation Company was a well-known Great Lakes shipping company for many years. Here you will find pictures of many of the Hindman ships

Owen Sound Harbour – A Photographic History, by Robert A. Cotton is a book that interests my historiographical curiosity.

Commercial Great Lakes Fishing  It is probably safe to suggest that the commercial fishing industry was an important part of the early growth of this region.

A Georgian Bay fishing vacation has long been a popular attraction in the Bruce Peninsula region. During fishing derbies, the regional waterways are dotted with fishing boats of all shapes and sizes. 

The Georgian Bay Mackinaw, designed by William Watts of Collingwood is an example of a Georgian Bay innovator creating a vessel to service the needs local mariners.

Great Lakes fishing is an asset that is protected and developed, not only for its economic potential but also for those who just enjoy spending a day by the side of a river or in small fishing boats trying to catch “the big one”!  

Great Lakes Fishing History is not without its controversy. The impact of the fishing industry was such that it played an important role in the development of communities along the Georgian Bay and Lake Huron shoreline.

Georgian Bay Travel Before the Winter Freeze-Up could be a dangerous time for mariners in the early years in this region.

A Harbinger of Spring on the Great Lakes in pioneer times, was the eagerly awaited news that a lighthouse had been lit and shipping traffic could begin sailing from port to port.

Lumber Hookers  Lumber hookers and tugs were an important innovation to improve the transportation of lumber on Georgian Bay. 

Mapmakers on Georgian Bay were also explorers. They mapped the Georgina Bay shoreline noting safe harbours, dangerous reefs and other guides for sailors and pioneer settlers looking for a place to call home.

Paddling Georgian Bay & Pondering: traversing parts of this great waterway in a canoe leads one to wonder about the ships of a bygone era battling the rough seas they encountered.

Parry Sound Shipping History: The Parry Sound area has always been connected to the southern regions of the Province of Ontario by a system of good roads. Or has it?

Parry Sound’s shipping history 2 is more than the tragic sinking of the Waubuno or the later catastrophe surrounding the sinking of the Asia. 

Sailing Season Closing: A Frantic Time on Peninsula as ships raced from port to port delivering and picking up passengers and produce before the waterways froze.

Ship Captain Andrew Port was not only a dynamic and brave Georgian Bay mariner, he was a personal favourite historical character of mine.

Ships Stuck in Ice: The Oak Glen was icebound in 1996 but this sailing hazard has been impacting vessels on Georgian Bay since the beginning of time.

Lake Huron shipwrecks, the Hibou often occurred in the Georgian Bay region of that Great Lake due to the often violent waters that could strike unsuspecting vessels like the Hibou.

Shipwrecks: The "Asia" wrecked off the eastern coast of Georgian Bay taking all but two of the more than 100 passengers to a watery grave.

Masters, Mates, and Pilots Association created its first Canadian chapter on Georgian Bay, providing maritime safety education, and other seafaring issues to better inform its membership.

Pioneer Travel Aboard the Fly  Tells the story of a sailing vessel as the tenuous link between survival and death in a pioneer settlement in the 1840's in Upper Canada.

Sailing Stories: the Captain Who Smelled his way into Port The Captain Who Smelled his Way into Port details how pioneer seamen on Georgian Bay safely sailed the rough waters without the aid of the modern technological tools so readily used by today's mariners.

Sailing Story: The Voyage of the Prince Alfred the incredible voyage of the Prince Alfred, fraught with danger for both vessel and the crew in the winter of 1880.

Shipbuilding As the southern Georgian Bay region became more populated shipping traffic increased to meet the needs of an expanding market place.

The Summer of 1844 was No Picnic for the early settlers in the pioneer area near what would become Owen Sound on Georgian Bay.

The CPR Grain Elevator Fire of 1911 spelled the end of Owen Sound's role as the eastern terminus of the CPR Great Lakes Fleet.

Georgian Bay shipping occurred long before the first Europeans paddled these waters. But the fur and timber trades opened Georgian Bay to shipping in a big way! 

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