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What’s A Side Launch?

Work, Leisure, and Commemorating the Collingwood Shipyards

By: Philip Rich

Philip Rich

Historical Contributor

Philip Rich is a researcher, writer, and educator based in Guelph, Ontario. He has a master’s in teaching and learning from McGill University and a master’s in history from the University of Guelph, where his graduate research focused on Ontario worker heritage, tourism, and community education. He has previously written for Explore magazine, Our Times magazine, Active History, and the People’s Archive of Rural Ontario.

In the late 1800s, one of Ontario’s most influential shipbuilding companies laid roots in Collingwood. For more than 100 years, Collingwood Shipbuilding built a variety of ships, including Great Lakes freighters, ferries, and naval and Coast Guard ships, and employed thousands of workers. The town became known for side launching – a distinctive process that launches newly built ships into the water sideways due to harbour limitations. Business for the shipyards slowly declined in the late 20th century before the shipyard closed in 1986.

Now a major tourist centre, the shipyard has played a prominent role in the revitalization of Collingwood, transitioning the town’s past to its present. A festival, waterfront real estate developments, and a popular brewery have all sought to incorporate the town’s shipbuilding heritage into their public narratives.

In his book The Ships of Collingwood, Skip Gillham explains that while shipbuilding is how the town built its reputation, Collingwood is now largely conceived of as a resort town where “winter sports and summer recreation have become synonymous with the pretty Georgian Bay community.”[i]

Ontarians flock to Collingwood for skiing, mountain biking, food, shopping, and more, and shipbuilding anchors the town’s past to its present – a historical connection between work and leisure for the region.

“Shipbuilding and associated industry were the key to the development of Collingwood, and it was the shipyard that made the town known around North America and throughout the world,” Gillham writes. “But like the railways that have left many cities, towns, and villages behind, so the shipyard has left Collingwood.”[ii]

Ships of the Canadian Steam Lines. Image courtesy of the Collingwood Library.

The Collingwood shipyard opened May 24, 1883 – Queen Victoria’s 64th birthday. Ships had been built locally dating back to 1858, beginning with the wooden schooner The Brothers, but with the opening of a new dry dock, Collingwood now had the ability to scale its ship construction exponentially.[iii] Collingwood Shipbuilding’s first steel ship, SS Huronic, was built in 1902, and the company’s operations expanded significantly during the First World War – growing from 200 workers in 1905 to about 1,200 in 1917.[iv]

The shipyard produced a wide variety of boats. Freighters built in Collingwood ferried resources and materials throughout the Great Lakes, while others ventured through the Great Lakes as a path to the sea, their final destination. The shipyard produced a large number of corvettes and anti-submarine trawlers and other vessels for the British and Canadian navies during the Second World War, and ferries that continue to operate in Canada came out of Collingwood. The Chi-cheemaun ferry that still runs between Tobermory and Manitoulin Island was built in the shipyards and launched in 1974.

Besides the array of ships launched out of Collingwood, one aspect of Collingwood’s industrial history remains unique: side launching.

Preparation for a side launch began three months before a ship’s launch date and is estimated to have involved more than 16,000 hours of labour, including the building of an elaborate wood and chain system to release ships broadside into the water.[v] The launch itself lasted only about 10 seconds but was an event for the whole town and became deeply ingrained in Collingwood’s industrial identity.[vi] As the only way to get the hulking ships into the water, it was both a necessity and spectacle.

John B. Aird, a former lieutenant governor of Ontario and chairman of the Algoma Central Railway, described side launching as a “lost art” that takes “particular skills, sensitivity, and great attention to detail” while maintaining an element of risk to workers’ safety if a launch were to go wrong. If all went well, it was to be celebrated. “There is a spontaneous reaction of cheering, smiling and flag waving,” Aird wrote in 1983. “It is a time of celebration because, in reality, a new life has been created, one which will sail the Great Lakes and will be credited to those who have created her.”[vii]

Accidents did occur: on May 29, 1969, two workers died and 40 more were injured when Hull #192, soon to be christened the Tadoussac, “slid prematurely in the launch basin,” breaking heavy timber and chains and crushing workers. Fellow shipyard workers came to the rescue, pulling injured workers out of the debris.[viii]

Side launching may serve as a metaphor for Collingwood’s rebirth as a major tourism centre – launching a new voyage as a community while using public history to stay close to its industrial roots.

Side Launch: The Collingwood Shipyard Spectacle. Image courtesy of the Collingwood Library.

The Collingwood shipyards closed up shop in 1986 – a difficult decision that Jim Elder, the president of Canada Steamship Lines (which had bought the shipyard in 1945), attributed to instability in the shipbuilding industry globally; greater supply than demand, which led to a declining market, including no new vessel orders since 1984; and Collingwood’s lack of a large dry dock to properly complete modern ship repairs, among other reasons.[ix] The final ships built were the Sir Wilfrid Laurier icebreaker – eventually stationed in Quebec and then moved out west – and the Paterson, a Great Lakes freighter that won records for the amount of grain it was able to transport relative to other freighters.[x] While the company engaged an average of 800 workers annually throughout the preceding decade, the yard employed only about 50 workers by 1986.

Following the closure of the shipyards, a significant remediation effort to clean up the shoreline was undertaken to turn it over for redevelopment. A large cleanup of the waterfront in the late 1980s and early 1990s paved the way to develop the former shipyard site for a more modern use. It was eventually purchased by a developer in 2004 and now hosts residential and commercial real estate on Collingwood’s waterfront where the shipyards once stood.[xi]

When visiting Collingwood, it’s hard to escape public references to side launching. You can walk along Side Launch Way, stop at the Shipyards Amphitheatre and Greenspace, or visit the Side Launch Brewing Company. Industrial heritage has become a marketable asset for the town’s tourism industry. A coaster from the brewery explains that “people always gathered in Collingwood to celebrate a side launch … Ships that launched sideways were a symbol of Ontario at its best: a hard-working place of grain, grit, rocky trails, rich soil, forest and big water. Where people appreciate well-crafted beer made for them.”

Most importantly, Collingwood’s integration of its industrial history raises questions for other influential tourism regions in Ontario. Niagara, for example, prides itself on its agricultural and military past and welcomes thousands of tourists every year to its wineries, cideries, and the Falls but doesn’t integrate other vital parts of its labour heritage – notably the importance of migrant and foreign labour to its local industries – into its public history projects, and this raises important questions. Could Niagara use the Collingwood blueprint to publicly recognize or commemorate the contributions of migrant farmworkers to its labour past by incorporating them into current recognition of work and leisure in the region? Which pasts should it be commemorating?

Some might level the same criticism at Collingwood’s approach to labour commemoration given its glorification of its shipbuilding past rather than the hazards of the work, but this approach still provides a useful roadmap for what is possible when publicly commemorating histories of labour.

We don’t mention the risks that migrant farmworkers deal with daily, and we are selective with worker histories that we commemorate. There is no migrant worker winery in Niagara, or a festival commemorating their contributions to Ontario’s labour history. Maybe there should be, or maybe there shouldn’t be.

But a key question remains: how much of our labour history are Ontarians intent on integrating into heritage and tourism projects? After all, public history becomes what we want it to be.

Aerial view of Collingwood harbour & terminal elevator, 2005.

Recommended Reading List

Woodcock, Robert. Side Launch: The Collingwood Shipyard Spectacle (Summerhill Press TLD, 1983).

Gillham, Skip. The Ships of Collingwood: Over One Hundred Years of Shipbuilding Excellence. (Riverbank Traders, 1992).

Krantzberg, Gail and Nancy Farrer. Case Study 4: The Collingwood Harbour Story: From Shipbuilding Center to Great Lakes Pollution Hot Spot to Waterfront Revitalization

International Association for Great Lake Research on International Association for Great Lakes Research website (2018). https://iaglr.org/aocdocs/CS4-CollingwoodHarbour.pdf

Canadian Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited. History of Collingwood Shipyards (Collingwood).

Thomson, Mark L. Queen of the Lakes (Wayne State University Press, 2017).

Boles, Frank. Sailing into History: Great Lakes Bulk Carriers of the Twentieth Century and the Crews Who Sailed Them (Michigan State University Press, 2017).

Pritchard, James. A Bridge of Ships: Canadian Shipbuilding during the Second World War (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011).

Sources

Boles, Frank. Sailing into History: Great Lakes Bulk Carriers of the Twentieth Century and the Crews Who Sailed Them (Michigan State University Press, 2017).

Canadian Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited. History of Collingwood Shipyards (Collingwood).

Canadian Shipping and Marine Engineering, Collingwood Centenary Issue (May 1983, pp. 17–32).

Gillham, Skip. The Ships of Collingwood: Over One Hundred Years of Shipbuilding Excellence

(Riverbank Traders, 1992).

Krantzberg, Gail and Nancy Farrer. Case Study 4: The Collingwood Harbour Story: From Shipbuilding Center to Great Lakes Pollution Hot Spot to Waterfront Revitalization

International Association for Great Lake Research on International Association for Great Lakes Research website (2018). https://iaglr.org/aocdocs/CS4-CollingwoodHarbour.pdf.

Northern Navigation Company. The Building of a Ship (1909; reprinted 1993).

Potts, Jeffrey and Susan Rentner Potts. Hull #192 Side Launch Accident, Collingwood Shipyard May 29, 1969 (Rose Printing, 2015).

Pritchard, James. A Bridge of Ships: Canadian Shipbuilding during the Second World War (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011).

Thomson, Mark L. Queen of the Lakes (Wayne State University Press, 2017).

Woodcock, Robert. Side Launch: The Collingwood Shipyard Spectacle (Summerhill Press TLD, 1983).

[i] Gillham.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Canadian Shipping and Marine Engineering.

[iv] Canadian Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Woodcock.

[vii] Woodcock.

[viii] Potts and Potts.

[ix] Gillham.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Krantzberg and Farrer.