Shipbuilding in St. Andrews

Recently, we have had four ships brought to Covenhoven (and two more on the way) that were a part of Sir Van Horne’s personal collection. These ships have undergone extensive conservation work, and are now on display through Covenhoven.

Ship models have been made since antiquity, and often been perceived as toys, hobbies or craft objects, however, they were made for a variety of purposes including decoration, commemoration of real ships, for the design and construction process of a ship, for education purposes and to show prospective customers and financiers. Models could either be made modestly, only using one or two materials, or they could be made lavishly with a variety of materials and intricate construction techniques.

Aside from being models that were a part of Sir William Van Horne’s personal collection, demonstrating his interest in collecting art and artefacts, the ship models represent an important part of St. Andrew’s history, shipbuilding.

Ship Model on display in the top left corner of the image. Photograph taken in Van Horne’s home in Montreal.

St. Andrew’s, like many coastal towns and cities in the Maritimes has an important connection to the shipbuilding industry from the late 18th century, well into the 19th century. Shipbuilding has always been an important part of New Brunswick history, even before the region was officially called New Brunswick. The first wooden ship built in the region was in 1770, a schooner titled Betsey, which was built by ship builder James Simmonds. What would become Atlantic Canada, saw the start to the shipbuilding industry take off during the Napoleonic War. Napoleon created a blockade with the Scandinavian countries, which meant England had to look elsewhere to access lumber, to build infrastructure and vessels. England chose to look to their new colonies in the Americas, as the colonies were nearly completely forested. With this, England began creating shipyards in their waterfront towns and cities, like Saint John, Halifax and St. Andrews. These towns and cities would then build the ships over a few month span, fill the ships up with lumber and other profitable goods and sail the ships over to England, where the material and the ships themselves would be sold. New Brunswick in particular was very efficient due to the river system in the province. The river system made it easier for the logs to be taken downstream from lumber camps, and reach the seaside communities.

Charlotte County Archives

According to material found in the Charlotte County Archives, between the years 1789 and 1882 there were eighteen major shipbuilders in St. Andrews, and 24 docks. The highest producing builders were John & Robert Townsend, Alexander Anderson and James Rait. In 1823, St. Andrews officially opened as the second Port of Registry for New Brunswick, following Saint John due to the increase in demand for ships by England. The original Ports of Registry that were designated by the British Crown in 1787 were Saint John, Saint John Island (Prince Edward Island), Shelburn, and Sydney.

Shipbuilding was not a leisure industry to be a part of, men had to work hard to build the boats, and each new project was a financial gamble for the shipyard owner. Shipyard owners often had their hand in other business deals aside from shipbuilding, and later into the 19th century many owners became involved with the rail industry. Typically, when a ship was being built all parts of the tree would be used, and shipbuilders would try to use the natural curves of the tree to utilize the natural strength of the wood. Keel blocks would be the first part laid, followed by the frame or ribs of the ship which were steamed and bent into shape, then the planking of the beams, and the decks were fitted into the heavy knees of the ships. Once all the wood was in place the seams would be caulked with oakum (a natural hemp fibre), and the entire ship would be coated with tar. The final step was adding all the metal pulleys and the canvas sails. Different combinations of sails would be put on the ship depending on the model of the vessel.

The Golden Age of Sail for St. Andrews was between the years 1846 and 1867, with the last peak year being in 1874, as New Brunswick built in total 104 vessels. Commonly, ships would be launched at areas including Brandy Cove, Indian Point, Chamcook Shipyard, and Starkey’s shipyard. On October 17th, 1860, a 242 ton schooner was launched from Indian Point by ship builder Charles Short called Laura!

One of St. Andrew’s biggest rivals for shipbuilding was not Saint John, but in fact Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, as both towns were of similar size and were able to produce similar quantities of ships in a year.

The shipbuilding industry however began to slowly decline in the late 19th century due to Americans beginning to produce their own ships so the demand was not there, combined with the use of the railway and the construction of larger metal ships. Despite the decline and later ending of the shipbuilding industry, it still remains an important part of St. Andrews history. Next time you are driving down Water Street try and imagine the street line with shipbuilding companies!

Published by Laura Oland

Laura Oland is an Art History PhD student at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. In 2018, Oland completed a Master’s degree at The University of Glasgow in Art History: Dress and Textile Histories, following her undergraduate studies in History at Acadia University. Oland also completed a year of Viking archaeology at Lund University in Sweden. Professionally, Oland has worked for the New Brunswick Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Hunterian Museum, and the Randall House Museum.

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