For Grace and Style

The Boatbuilders of Hamilton Harbour and Their Craft

For Grace and Style

The Boatbuilders of Hamilton Harbour and Their Craft

Andrew Laliberte

Hamilton - 2022

Hamilton Harbour has always been a centre of boating, merchant, and naval activity with its vast protected waters providing a secure source of refuge for a wide range of waterborne activities. By the turn of the 19th century, Hamilton Harbour was home to maritime entrepreneurs who recognized the potential of the bay to develop the pleasure craft industry at home and abroad. Unlike mass-produced commodities of today, these vessels were manufactured by skilled craftsmen who either learned the trade as they began their business or from past apprenticeships in marine engineering and other similar industries. The general concept for constructing a wooden vessel is fairly uniform, yet with slight variations depending on what class of vessel is being built. Builders would choose from cedar, mahogany, or oak depending on the intended purpose, and build up from a hardwood frame of a keel and ribs, laying planking across that frame. Using planers and other tools, the planks would be smoothed and shaped to certain specifications. Layers of varnish and caulk in the seams could be used to help seal the hull and depending on the type of boat a mast or engine could be fitted. The boatbuilders of Hamilton came to recognize the opportunities the bay provided for their business, which allowed for a wide market of various boat types to be built in the area.

This essay will discuss how Hamilton boatbuilders at the turn of the 20th century transformed the harbour into a centre of pleasure craft development that would create a new market for Hamilton and encouraged innovation and an international reputation. To further understand this concept, this essay with discuss three major boat builders of the time, their unique backgrounds, and a comparative look at two maps of the Hamilton waterfront in 1893 and 1898 respectively. Thomas Jutten sparked the creation of a boating industry focused on building gasoline-powered launches for customers all over the country, while also being a pioneer of new boating technologies. Henry Bastien was also an important craftsman on the harbourfront, where he expanded the pleasure craft industry and built a club to accommodate the vessels. The Robertson Brothers were also a large contributor to the industry, specializing in large motor-driven craft. Both maps of Hamilton Harbour reveal the expansion of the industry over the course of five years. All these industrious men were key players in the development of Hamilton Harbour at the turn of the 19th century and able to represent the general technological advancements and expansion of the industry, not only being experienced by themselves but the other boat manufacturers in the area.

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Figure 1: Hamilton Harbour, 1893.

In a map of Hamilton Harbour in 1893 (see Figure 1), it can be observed near the middle-bottom of the image how the harbour had become very developed by 1893, both as a location for shipping and lake steamers but also for many boat-building companies and recreation facilities.1 Most of the companies were situated alongside each other near Bay Street and Burlington Street.2 Early companies, such as the Mackay and Browne boatbuilders, are listed on the map of 1893.3 One can observe the presence of steamship activity happening around both establishments as other docks and warehouses were established along the waterfront at this time, possibly noting the presence of a growing industry.4 This information displays how different entrepreneurs realized the potential of the small boat building industry, but how they were also able to develop a centre for the industry within an isolated section of the Hamilton waterfront.

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Figure 2: Fire Insurance Plan Hamilton, 1898

This layout could be for a few reasons. It is possible that this was the only available or protected real estate (as the companies were all located on a northern inlet of the bay, protected from winds coming across the harbour), in close proximity to the Grand Trunk Railway, or even to the shipping centre of the city itself.5 However, when comparing this map with the Fire Insurance map of 1898 (see Figure 2), one can see triple the amount of boat building companies labelled in the area near Brock and Picton Street West.6 Not only does this map show the immense growth of the industry just within five years, but it also reveals how many saw the growth opportunity that the harbour provided. Within the map, there are also depictions of additional piers constructed which were most likely to facilitate the expanding industry on the waterfront.7 These maps are a crucial part in understanding how rapidly the industry developed in the late 1800s, and how entrepreneurs built up both their own companies but also increased the trading opportunities which allowed Hamilton to quickly become a centre for commercial boatbuilding by the turn of the century.

Thomas Jutten, one of the most successful boatbuilders in Hamilton, first purchased property along the water at Burlington Street and Wellington Street to open a boat rental facility, as he noticed that there were only two other boat liveries in the entire harbour.8 At this stage in the development of the Hamilton waterfront, there were not many other boat builders or industries taking advantage of the natural benefits the bay provided. The success of the boating industries in the early years were displayed in many customer accounts of the various builders in the area, including Juttens own first products. A Montreal buyer requested that Jutten construct an 18ft launch with the traditional steam engine replaced by a 4-cycle gasoline engine to reduce emissions and save time by not having to wait for boiler pressure buildup.9 The buyer was so pleased with the result of Juttens’ craftsmanship that he ordered three more for him.10 This contract displays how innovation and good quality craftsmanship came out of places in Hamilton Harbour like Juttens building yard, while also allowing him to become established as a skilled boatbuilder.

As his business grew, Jutten developed his building yard to accommodate the growing demand for his boats. This expansion resulted in shops for construction and painting, along with a wide range of state-of-the-art electric equipment to improve the speed and quality of construction.11 This characteristic of innovation that Jutten had become accustomed to expanded even further after working with Hamilton inventor, Job Dudley, to create the first jet powered boat ever produced.12 Alhough the waterjet boat was powered by a 40-horsepower engine, the test run failed as the boat only reached a top speed of three miles per hour.13 This innovation led to Hamilton Harbour being a location for watercraft development and the design being enhanced by Jacuzzi years later for Patrol Boats, Riverine (PBR boats) in Vietnam.14 With Jutten continuing to establish his profound reputation, he was able to assist in the opening of the Victoria Yacht Club, where the growing population of boaters could store and use their craft out on the protected waters of Hamilton Bay.15 Thomas Jutten was one of many innovative boat builders in Hamilton Harbour, and like many others in this early period of Post-Confederation History, he was an immigrant fueled by a passion to make something of himself a new country and in this case within the growing city of Hamilton.

Hamilton boat builders were motivated by economic success, as their businesses were significant to Hamilton Harbour but also to the rest of Canada. To understand this further one must look to, Henry Bastien, one of the nationally respected boat builders of that time. Bastien was a Quebec born French-Canadian who moved to Hamilton to build houses for the growing city.16 Prior to his move into the housing industry, he was a ship carpenter in the U.S. where he was first introduced to the processes of boat building.17 It was in 1865 that he returned to this trade, buying the boathouse on Picton Street to begin building boats again.18 However, it was his ability to build a wide range of boats that allowed him to become both personally and locally successful, and nationally renown. Bastien advertised canoes, racing yachts, dinghies, skiffs, rowboats, and motorboats which encompasses most pleasure crafts of that time.19 It was the wide range of craft that inspired the growth of recreational boating in Hamilton Harbour, which can be attributed to Bastien’s skillful craftsmanship at his new boat works and is further proven through his contribution to the Leander Boat Club which he was able to help initiate through his contribution of around 75 boats to be used.20

By the mid-1880s, boats bearing Bastien’s name were cruising across Hamilton Harbour, whether they be rented from him and the Leander Boat Club, or privately owned. However, his contribution to the Canadian boating community also extended outside of Hamilton, and even Canada. In an excerpt from one of his catalogues, Bastien describes that buyers should be interested in journeying to Alaska for the purpose of prospecting in which he recommended one of his purpose-built canoes.21 This advertisement reveals that he was interested in making his company known internationally, while also acknowledging that he had made enough of a name for himself outside Canada that an American prospector would be willing to use his craft to seek their fortunes. The scope of his business was explored in an article written in 1906 by J. McKenty, where it describes how Bastien's boats have been built over the winter for Canadians coast-to-coast, including larger 27- and 28-foot launches used by private owners and 26-foot launches used by the Royal Muskoka.22 What the article notes of significant importance, however, is that Bastien’s Canoe production reflected the growing interest in all forms of boat.23 A large contribution to Bastien’s success, besides the quality of his boats, was his ability to appeal to the distant buyer by making good use of advertising. In another advert, Bastien focused on how he employed only the best boat builders at his facility, while he notes that any vessel being shipped would arrive quickly and safely at their destination.24 His success thus also represents the broader success of the Hamilton boat building industry. In a very short period, Hamilton went from having nearly no involvement in the pleasure craft industry, to being a leading centre in Canada due to the quality craftsmanship and entrepreneurial abilities of people such as Henry Bastien.

The boating industry of Hamilton was not limited to the late 1800s and continued to expand through the First World War. For example, the Robertson Brothers Boat Works had successes in the 19th and 20th centuries. They started their business at the foot of Bay Street North, where they specialised in the construction of large, wooden boats and runabouts.25 However, they were not limited to being able to work on larger craft, but also constructed a wide range of craft types and sizes right down to the simplest canoe.26 Considering that they did specialize in larger runabouts, the Robertson Brothers had a large clientele base in the Muskoka region, where many summer resorts and cottagers looked to their company to provide a quality cottage boat for all purposes.27 Muskoka was a significant location for boating in Canada, in which many types of boating activities were practised such as fishing, remote cottage transport, and even simply for relaxation and sightseeing.28 The growing number of both settlers and tourists in the region also contributed to the growing demand for these boats which many Hamilton boat companies supplied.29

One of the vessels that the Robertson Brothers built was described in a 1911 boating magazine, Motor Boating, as a 23-foot launch driven by an 11-horsepower gasoline engine costing $615 on average.30 In today’s currency, that would be equivalent to $18,366.88 which is comparable to the price of a small car.31 This comparison gives a sense of what a cottager or resort in Muskoka around the same time might have received from the boat works, and what they would have had to pay for a launch. Observing the impact that the Robertson Brothers had on the boating industry in places such as Muskoka demonstrates how boats built in Hamilton could be used further north and more remote areas. The vessels may have been built in the city for mainly recreational purposes, but they were significant in shaping both Canadian tourism and settlement in the north. A boat making industry that started in Hamilton Harbour quickly expanded to shape Canada’s history.

Hamilton Harbour has been, and continues to be, a source of industrial importance. The city’s maritime beginnings highlight a history of craftsmanship where local boat builders were able to attract customers and create a new role for the harbour as a centre of pleasure craft activity. This essay discussed how boat builders transformed the bay into a centre of maritime development that impacted the growth of Hamilton and the small boat market in North America. Thomas Jutten and his innovative techniques helped create new ways of thinking about pleasure craft capabilities and even boat propulsion, while also contributing to Hamilton's interest in recreational boating. Henry Bastien displayed how a mass quantity of boats could be produced in many different styles should the right equipment be used, while also creating a national and international market for his boats and other Hamilton boat builders. Like Bastien, the Robertson Brothers developed many larger launches to be sold across Canada and they contributed to the development of the Muskoka region by supplying resorts and cottagers with boats. The two maps also revealed the ample effort of all local boatbuilders from a development perspective, considering the location and growth of the businesses on the waterfront. Hamilton may not be the small boat building centre that it once was, but its maritime history and contribution to the development of pleasure craft is a highly significant component of the Harbours' industrial origins and wider Canadian boating history.

  1. Figure 1: “Bird’s eye view of the City of Hamilton: Province Ontario, Canada,” McMaster University’s Digital Archives, Toronto Lithographing Company, 1893,

  2. “Bird’s eye view of the City of Hamilton.” 

  3. “Bird’s eye view of the City of Hamilton.” 

  4. “Bird’s eye view of the City of Hamilton.” 

  5. “Bird’s eye view of the City of Hamilton.” 

  6. Figure 2: “[Insurance plan of the city of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada]: [key plan, volume 1, sheet 3],” McMaster University’s Digital Archive, Chas E. Goad, 1898-01,

  7. “[Insurance plan of the city of Hamilton].” 

  8. Laura Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton: From the Mid 1800's to the Present (Hamilton, Ont.: In Harmony Promotions, 1992), 10-18. 

  9. Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton, 10-18. 

  10. Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton, 10-18. 

  11. “The Boat Builders,” Workers' City, accessed January 28, 2022,

  12. Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton, 10-18. 

  13. Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton, 10-18. 

  14. Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton, 10-18. 

  15. “Port of Hamilton Celebrates 100 Years - Hopa Ports,” accessed January 28, 2022,

  16. “Boating History: Bastien Boats of Hamilton, ON,” Canadian Yachting, January 24, 2019,

  17. “Boating History: Bastien Boats of Hamilton, ON.” 

  18. “Boating History: Bastien Boats of Hamilton, ON.” 

  19. “Boating History: Bastien Boats of Hamilton, ON.” 

  20. Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton, 19-25. 

  21. Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton, 19-25. 

  22. J.A. McKenty, “Busy Days among Hamilton Builders,” Boating 2, no.5 (May 1906): 153, accessed through The Wooden Canoe Museum,

  23. McKenty, “Busy Days among Hamilton Builders,” 153. 

  24. Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton, 19-25. 

  25. Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton, 30-32. 

  26. Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton, 30-32. 

  27. Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton, 30-32. 

  28. Scott Way, “Before Fibreglass- Celebrating Canada's Wooden Pleasure Boat Heritage (Part One),” BoatBlurb, September 10, 2020.

  29. Baldwin, The Boat Builders of Hamilton, 30-32. 

  30. “Motorboating: Second Annual Buyers’ Reference and Export Number,” Motor Boating 8, no. 6 (December 1911), accessed through Google Books,

  31. “Inflation Rate between 1911-2022: Inflation Calculator” $615 in 1911 → 2022 | Inflation Calculator, accessed March 25, 2022.