Polson Iron Works: renowned 19th century shipbuilder leaves legacy
By Jenny Ono Suttaby
While little known today, Toronto-based Polson Iron Works was renowned for shipbuilding in its time, producing more than 150 vessels, including contracts from the Canadian government to construct minesweepers during the First World War.
The company was formed in Toronto in 1883 by engineer William Polson and his son Franklin Bates Polson, and incorporated in 1886.
In 1888, the company opened a second location, in Owen Sound, in order to build Canada’s first steel ship, the Manitoba, at 2,616 gross tons, on contract for Canadian Pacific Railway.
The Ontario, at 1,615 gross tons, a car ferry for CPR’s run from Windsor to Detroit, was next, followed by many other vessels. A downturn in the economy forced the closing of the Owen Sound yards in 1895 and the reorganization of the company in Toronto, which continued to build tugs, dredges, cargo vessels, fishery boats and lighters, and exhibited a flare for unusual projects such as the Knapp Roller Boat in 1897, and the manufacture of a biplane in 1916.
The company was instrumental in the development of the Canadian North and West. It devised a useful technique for building a ship (or ferry, dredge or the like) that involved taking it to pieces after construction in order to transport it by rail to destinations in the North and West.
During the First World War, the company built 10 minesweepers for the Canadian government, and eight for the British Imperial Munitions Board, which found the steel supply non-existent on its side of the Atlantic.
Unfortunately, the company had become overextended and was unable to recover from the loss of business at the end of the First World War, and bankruptcy followed. The legacy of the firm’s ships, however, didn’t disappear so quickly.
Today, several Polson Iron Works boats are still in use. The Trillium (1910) side-paddle ferry brings visitors to Toronto’s Centre Island, which offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. In addition, the Kwasind (1912) is used by the Royal Canadian Yacht Club; the little tug Batchawana (1912) is still in use; luxury yacht the Rambler (1903) is up for sale; and the Bigwin (1910), originally a yacht, now a ferry, is currently being restored.