20th century ships on the Great Lakes

You get a ship! You get a ship! Everyone gets a ship!

20th Century Ships on the Great Lakes
26 July 2021


The introduction of the 20th Century brought shipbuilding into a new era. With the invention of steam and diesel-driven ships, these boats had a variety of uses. In Canada, Kingston would lead the charge in shipbuilding, developing her manufacturing capabilities that the country would come to depend on.






Pre-WWI: An International Arms Race

The Polana

With the advent of the second industrial revolution, nations were racing to build, build, and build. And Kingston was no exception. Between 1911 and 1913, the city constructed ships that helped grow Kingston’s infrastructure. Shipbuilders assembled dump scows, icebreakers, quarantine cutters, and tugs, improving practical issues that the citizens worried about. However, as tensions mounted across the Atlantic, all hands were soon to be needed on deck.

Pictured below left is an example of Marryat’s Code in practice. This is one of the many coded phrases from The Universal Code of Signals for the Mercantile Marine of All Nations and reads “have you the Code of Signals?”, referring to Marryat’s code. Coded phrases were to be raised on whichever mast they could be viewed best by passing ships and without any distinguishing flags. Pictured below right is an example of signaling to meet at a specific lighthouse. The ‘rendezvous’ flag is flown above the number code for a specific lighthouse, in this example it’s the Gibraltar Point lighthouse in Toronto.

Pictured right: Polana, a Quarantine Cutter. Completed in June 1911. Originally owned by the Canadian Department of Agriculture To CCG 1927 as Jalobert, sold 1955 as Macassa, Queen City 1965, now a houseboat.

The ThiepvalKingston’s Shipyard Call to Duty

With the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and declarations of war, making waves, the British Royal Navy desperately needed combat ships to win. Kingston obliged by building 8 minesweepers by 1918-1919. Minesweepers were two ships that steamed across a minefield towing a wire rope between them. The mooring lines that the mines were attached to, were cut by saw-like projects by the rope. These ships were proved to be vital during and after the war, as many mines leftover still had to be cleared. 

Pictured left: Thiepval. A minesweeper originally owned by the Royal Canadian Navy. Gross Tonnage: 440D. Completed on July 24, 1918. Disposition: Sub from Vickers, scrapped 1950.




The Roaring Boom!

As WWI came to its conclusion, the “Golden Age Twenties” experienced a roaring economy. As modernity moored itself into society, an emerging global trade market appeared. Thus, cargo ships were needed to supply cross-continental trade. Kingston built two cargo ships, respectively named Canadian Beaver and Canadian Coaster during that period.

Canadian BeaverCanadian Coaster










Pictured above left: Canadian Beaver. Gross Tonnage: 2410. Original Owner: Canadian Govt. Completed May 1920. Disposition: Later Shinai 1934, sunk 1941 North Borneo, raised and operated as Shinai Maru, sunk by US 1944

Pictured above right: Canadian Coaster. Gross Tonnage: 2422. Original Owner: Canadian Govt. Completed May 1921. Disposition: Later Kingsley 1929, Silvestre 1943, Santa Lucia 1950, scrapped 1966


Answering the Second Call

RockdoeHowever, good times did not last and WWII began following Germany’s invasion of Poland. Between 1941 and 1943, Kingston built 12 corvette-class ships and 2 minesweepers for the Royal Canadian Navy. Corvettes are considered the smallest warships and were ideal for patrolling and escorting ships, although ineffective against u-boats. As the war reached its zenith, The British Ministry of War Transport needed Kingston’s aid, commissioning 7 tugboats between May 1945 - October 1946. At the time, the Royal Navy was the largest in the world and many tugboats were needed to ‘tug’ ships, damaged or not. 

Pictured below: HMCS Napanee (K 118), a Corvette Class. Gross Tonnage: 940D. originally owned by the Royal Canadian Navy. Completed May 1941. Disposition: Sold 1946, scrapped. 

Pictured right: Rockdoe, completed in September 1945. Gross Tonnage: 233. Originally owned by the British MoTW. Disposition: Later Hoedic 1947, Atlantico 1967, scrapped 1977.

The Rockdoe


Rebuilding and Relaxing

The Windmill Point ferry

After the war, there was less of a need for combat-related ships. From the 1950s onwards, most ships were built for infrastructure. Kingston built canallers, dump scows, sweep scows, landing crafts, landing barges, patrol cutters, and survey vessels, contributing to another post-war economic boom. Tourism also started to pick up. To accommodate newfound leisure boats, Kingston built passenger ferries, tour boats, and yachts.

Picture above right: The Windmill Point ferry, completed in July 1954.  Gross Tonnage: 118. Originally owned by the Toronto Port Auth. Disposition: Still active.


Ships have always been an integral part of Kingston. What would the city do without them and would have Kingston been able to develop into an important city without them?




Alexander StoringBy Ethan Chan

Research Intern, Autumn 2020


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