Sailing Stories: Owen Sound Shipbuilding

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.

Sailing Stories: The Mystery of the “Ann Mackenzie”

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.

Sailing Stories: The "Belle McPhee"

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.

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.

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.

Sailing stories: Owen Sound Shipbuilding 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.

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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