Sailing stories date from the earliest time of settlement in the Bruce Peninsula region. Busy shipyards dotted the Owen Sound bay where shipbuilding took place, sometimes at a feverish pace. They are interesting adventures often providing enlightening views of the nature of the human race.
In its earliest days, the harbour in Owen Sound was that community’s connection with the outside world. At that time the only viable transportation link was by water.
In the early 1840’s, the infant community was dependent upon the “Fly”, a schooner owned by W. C. Boyd, a local entrepreneur to bring supplies to the area and take produce to market. Other coastal traders also called at Sydenham. But their sailing visits seem to have been sporadic depending upon weather conditions and the whims of their captains.
However, as the Georgian Bay region became more populated, shipping traffic increased to service an expanding market place. To meet this need, shipbuilding became an important industry in the area.
In 1846 a small shipyard enterprise began in the community. To facilitate the new enterprise a carpenter named Henry Wood established a woodworking shop near the harbour.
The first sailing vessel to be built in Owen Sound was the “Ann Mackenzie”. This ship had a 100-foot keel with a twenty-four foot beam. The date of her launch is the subject of some debate. James Barry writes in his book, Georgian Bay, The Sixth Great Lake,that she was launched in 1848.
However, as it is with many sailing stories, there is some controversy about the launch date. In his History of Grey County, Davidson states that, the “Ann Mackenzie” first set sail in 1846.
The date of her launch is not the only mystery that surrounds the “Ann Mackenzie”. One of the interesting Georgian Bay sailing stories concerns what happened after the ship was launched.
Her owner did not pay one of the carpenters; perhaps it was Henry Wood, for work on her construction. Before the debt that was owed could be collected, the “Ann Mackenzie” left her home port in Owen Sound. The disgruntled carpenter hired a lawyer to trace the ship and hopefully recoup his losses.
It was known that the ship had gone to Toronto. But before the appropriate legal action could be taken, the “Ann Mackenzie” left for Quebec City carrying a load of lumber.
The agents working for the carpenter set out for Quebec. But before they arrived in that city she eluded them once more, and sailed for Britain. Attempts to locate the vessel in Britain were equally ineffective.
It seems the “Ann Mackenzie” never returned to Canada. It was, however, later located in Rio de Janeiro far from the jurisdiction of the Upper Canadian authorities.
The controversy surrounding the construction of the “Ann Mackenzie” did not stop the construction of other ships in Owen Sound. Soon after the “Ann Mackenzie” was completed the “Elizabeth Broder” was launched into service as a coastal trader on Georgian Bay.
A third vessel, a two-masted schooner, the “Belle McPhee”, was launched at a shipyard in Brooke about 1850. (Brooke was a community located on the west shore of the harbour north of the Potawatomi River. It would become part of Owen Sound).
The "Belle McPhee" plied the Great Lakes for nearly three years before being brought to Owen Sound for renovations. A third mast was erected and thirty feet was added to her length. This was probably achieved by cutting her in half and a new section, including another mast, added at that point.
Unfortunately, the “Belle McPhee’s” sailing days were numbered. About a year after she was launched a second time she hit a rock off the village of Thornbury and sank. Fortunately, her crew was saved by a nearby fishing tug.
Some might argue that Owen Sound’s initial shipbuilding projects were far from successful considering the controversy surrounding the “Ann Mackenzie” and the sinking of the “Belle McPhee”. However, the construction of these vessels marked the beginning of long connection between Owen Sound and the shipbuilding industry.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century many more vessels were built here. Perhaps the most notable being the ships built for the Canadian Pacific Railway at the Polson shipyards near the end of the century.
In the twentieth century Russell Brothers (located on Owen Sound’s east shore approximately at the location of the Lumley Bayshore Arena) continued the tradition of shipbuilding in Owen Sound and Kennedy’s contributed to that industry as major suppliers of propellers for vessels around the world.
The sailing stories of this area of Georgian Bay and the Bruce Peninsula are numerous, controversial and intriguing.
A version of this article first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.
For further information about this, and other topics about the history of Owen Sound, please check out my book, Owen Sound: The Port City.
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