By Alex Binkley
The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes aims to chart a course beyond the usual representation of the past, to bring the present and future of marine transportation to life for visitors to its historical structures on the Kingston waterfront. “We can’t be a just a collection of dusty archives,” says Chris West, Chairman of the Museum’s Board of Trustees. “We have to be relevant to modern issues.”
The Museum has embarked on a refurbishment of its massive collection of materials and displays, which includes the original drydock and pump house along with the retired Coast Guard vessel Alexander Henry. West said in an interview that the Museum wants to develop an exhibit that can go on the road to tell the story of water transportation on the Great Lakes.
The Museum is reaching out to Great Lakes interests to support its efforts and thinks it can help shipping lines with the challenge of finding the next generation of men and women to operate their ships in the future, notes Museum Manager Doug Cowie. “We are uniquely positioned to tell the contemporary story of an industry whose importance goes largely unrecognized. “The public would be fascinated with the immense scale of today’s shipping industry: the size and technology of the ships and the move to make it a an even greener industry, the amount of tonnage transported every year, the commerce it generates and the expanse of the many support industries that make it all happen, including education.” The Museum could help raise the public profile and make today’s students aware of careers in the shipping business, he explains. It has been working with the Chamber of Marine Commerce to build its connections with the shipping community and the ports and industries it serves. “We’re trying to get the word out about what we can do for them.
“The Museum is already committed to telling the Great Lakes shipping story by virtue of its link to the drydock and pump house as a National Historic site, and we think telling the contemporary shipping story is part of our mandate and will substantially enhance that presentation,” he continues. “We are hoping the shipping industry will support the proposed new exhibit and continue to support the museum thereafter.”
The Museum’s records, artefacts and photographs trace the evolution of marine transportation on the Great Lakes from the earliest days of European settlement through the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway to modern times.
The Museum houses the largest single collection of Great Lakes historic material, including many collections that have been designated as Canadian Cultural Property; 4,000 artifacts, more than 13,000 books; over 50,000 ships’ plans; 31,000 images including paintings and drawings; and 3,500 linear feet of archival records. The museum has five permanent galleries throughout the old shipyard buildings and pump room, a Special Exhibit Gallery with changing exhibits, a gift shop and the Museum Ship Alexander Henry, afloat in the historic drydock. Over the years, the Marine Museum has received collections from several shipping companies that operated on the Great Lakes including Canada Steamship Lines, Upper Lakes Shipping Company, Montreal Transportation Company and the Calvin Company of Garden Island. These collections consist of a broad range of business records such as correspondence, financial reports, photographs and marketing materials as well as other records created during the course of business.
“In addition to our shipping company records, we have large collections of records from shipbuilding and naval purpose-architecture firms,” West points out. “We have business records from shipyards including those at Port Arthur, Collingwood, Midland and Kingston as well as the Davie Shipyard in Lauzon, Quebec. We also have ship plans and records from other companies including Canadian Vickers, Canadian Dredge and Dock, Canadian Shipbuilding and Engineering and German and Milne.
“Our archival collections are supported by vertically integrated artefact and library collections,” he notes. “We have over 5,000 artefacts from ships, shipyards and shipping companies including navigation and communication equipment, ship models, material samples, moulding patterns, and office furniture. Our library holds over 4,500 books and periodicals on shipping related topics such as shipbuilding, ship design, canal systems, navigation and many others.”
Even with all these features, operating a museum in the black is no easy feat with less government support, West continues. While the Marine Museum has accomplished that goal, it still has a lot of work to do to increase its potential, including finding off-site storage for many of its treasures when not needed for displays, which will open up new gallery space for more exhibits
The Museum has been attracting more visitors in recent years, which is helping to support “exciting plans to bring the museum into the 21st Century and make it more relevant and attractive to a more demanding pubic.”
The Museum is also enjoying its historical connections. The 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and the museum’s special exhibit, “Kingston War Ships: 1812-14”, helped draw attention to the Kingston shipyard site as one of the main cannon batteries protecting the port and the Royal Navy dockyard at RMC. The Kingston shipyard would later produce many navy purpose-built ships.
In 2015, Canada will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald. The last public function of the first Prime Minister of Canada was to lay the first cornerstone of the drydock, which is now part of the museum site.
Cowie says the Museum’s displays aren’t just about the ships and cargoes that have moved over the Lakes, but also the men and women who built the marine industry. “For instance, we have a section in our permanent gallery about the “Life of a Sailor” that tells what their lives were like during the early 20th century. This links a narrative experience to the objects and information presented in the exhibit, which is vital to making a connection that people can relate to. Facts alone can’t do this.” The Museum has a credibility with the public that enables it “to communicate information about the shipping industry in ways others cannot, and we can do it with the professional credentials the public will respect.”
The Museum staged a War of 1812 exhibit that drew in many new visitors, Cowie says. “We would present the shipping industry exhibit the same way and focus the attention on what the industry is today and direct visitors to the historical collection in the permanent galleries to get the historical picture as well. But the focus of the Special Exhibit would be the modern industry, as it is today. That alone will fill the gallery.
“After the summer season is over, we would move the new shipping exhibit into the permanent shipping gallery we already have and link the two exhibits together to present a complete narrative story of past to present,” he explains. “We can certainly find the space for a new modern shipping exhibit in the permanent gallery by reorienting the galleries as needed, and we can present a lot of information in a relatively small area with technology such as video, touch screens and interactive stations.”
The exhibit on modern shipping “would first be installed in our large Special Exhibit Gallery where we hold new exhibits that we consider special attractions. These special exhibits have a Grand Opening with many invited guests and a second public opening soon after, and it would be featured as our main attraction for the season and stay set up in the gallery. Our recent From Kingston’s perspective, the Rideau Canal, together with Fort Henry, the military infrastructure lining Navy Bay and the Marine Museum, constitute a unique regional complex that ties the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River into the story of Canada. Given UNESCO’s recent designation of the Rideau Canal and Kingston military installations as a World Heritage Site, the Marine Museum is uniquely able to interpret the link between the Rideau Canal, which was initially military in intent, and the subsequent development of commercial shipping on the Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway system.”
Kingston can trace its roots to shipping on the Great Lakes back to 1678 when the first vessel was built at Mississauga Point, the site of the Kingston shipyard where the museum is located.
The significance of the commercial shipping industry led the federal government to construct a drydock on the site in 1890. Designed by Henry F. Perley, the drydock extension was restored in 2010 and is, along with limestone pump house building, a National Historic Site.
The original limestone drydock and limestone pump house was constructed in 1890. The limestone was carried all the way from Belleville. Two large pumps in the pump house were driven by two steam engines supplied by three large boilers vented through a tall limestone chimney. The large arched windows and doors are fine example of architecture of the period. The drydock was extended by 100 feet in the late 1920’s with concrete, the “modern” building material of the time, not limestone. Over the years the concrete deteriorated to the extent that it had to be completely removed and replaced with new concrete in 2010. It is a testament to the materials and engineering skills of the original limestone drydock that when the water filled the drydock again after the construction, the water level flowed over each step of tiered limestone equally on both sides and down the entire length almost simultaneously, indicating it was still perfectly level after so many years.
The building for the air compressor, attached to the limestone pump house building was built sometime between 1914 and 1916. A pipe building shop was added around WWII.
The historic drydock and pump house are among the few true “engineering” assets owned by the Department of Public Works, and the Marine Museum considers it its mandate to present the historic site to the public, along with the remains of the shipyard and its buildings.
In 1910, the shipyard, operated by the Department of Public Works as a repair facility for lake vessels, was enlarged and leased to Kingston Shipbuilding Co., the first of a series of private owners. After the lean years of the Depression of the 1930s, when the shipyard was said to put patches on patches of ships needing repair, the shipyard constructed 12 corvettes for the Navy. Two of them, HMCS Charlottetown and HMCS Trentonian, were lost in action. There is a Navy and merchant marine memorial in front of the museum, in Navy Park. Canada Steamship Lines controlled the shipyard from 1947 to its closure in 1968, ten years after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. CSL had asked the government to further lengthen the drydock. The yard was left in a state of benign neglect after it closed, and Kingston ceased to be a commercial shipping port when the Seaway bypassed it.
In 1974, then Conservative MP Flora MacDonald secured the site for the Marine Museum. It was incorporated in 1975 and opened a gallery to the public. In 1980, the restoration and renovation of the shipyard buildings was launched. The Dominion Marine Association, now the Canadian Shipowners Association, was a major donor. The museum officially opened in 1982, and in 1985 the Alexander Henry, built in 1958, arrived on site. The former light icebreaker and buoy tender illustrates a 40-year span of shipbuilding technology and is a Museum Ship open for self-guided tours. In 1986, the drydock and pump house were declared a National Historic Site. In 2000, the Museum launched a plan for a Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Centre. Many of the components identified in the planning studies are now in place, including the restoration of the drydock and the installation of the Gordon C. Shaw Study Centre. The restoration of the Kingston Dry Dock was completed in 2010, and a new traditional iron railing was installed around it. Two years later, preliminary engineering and environmental studies were completed on the restoration of the East and West piers adjacent to the museum. Hopefully the piers will be restored soon so they are open to public access again and the museum can once again host many of the transient ships that once tied alongside, including the Bluenose II, Navy and Coast Guard vessels, and Tall Ships. Public Works closed off the two piers several years ago because of structural concerns.