Argosy on the Rocks
A Dowager Yacht Seeks Redemption
Story by Cobourg Kid
From her perch on a rocky knob, a ninety year old Bridge Deck Cruiser silently regards me. She has seen much better days. Hemmed in on all sides by tall pines, ferns and fragrant juniper, the open ground around her is incongruously laced with a collection of metal cast offs, items seemingly left over from a steampunk convention.
ARGOSY was born during the wicked winter of 1925-1926 by the peculiarly named Great Lakes Foundry and Machine Co. of Midland Ontario.
The firm’s owner, William Wilson (aka “Scottie”) Nicholson’s and his crew generally filled much of their days servicing James Playfair’s extensive Great Lakes freighter fleet or fabricating parts for his Midland Shipbuilding Co., however, during winter, when work slacked off and the lake boats lay dormant in the ice clogged harbour, Scottie set his mind (and his men) to constructing boats.
The new 47 foot, 10.5 foot beam, bridge deck cruiser was one of six ultimately fabricated by the firm. Always a lucky ship, ARGOSY escaped destruction not long after her keel had been laid when an overheated furnace set part of the shop alight. Thankfully the fire was doused just in the nick of time and the incident was soon forgotten.
Once complete Scottie used ARGOSY sparingly for fishing charters and private cruises until June 1929 when, just shy of the onset of the Great Depression, he sold her to Louis Orville Breithaupt, the newly minted president of the Breithaupt Leather Company of Kitchener.
The Kitchener, Ontario based Breithaupt clan were no strangers to Georgian Bay. They had operated a branch tannery in nearby Penetang for many years and had cottaged in the Cognashene area since 1912. Once in Louis’s care ARGOSY spent the next thirty years safely transporting the family back and forth from Cognashene to Midland and Penetang, with occasional side trips to points north.
While Breithaupt was a masterful CEO – his true passion was Public Service (in fact it was a bit of a family tradition). Having served at the Municipal level in the early 1920s, including several terms as Mayor of Kitchener, Ontario – he later went on to become MP (Member of Parliament in Canada) for the riding of Waterloo North from 1940-1952, after which he was asked to assume the Vice-Regal position of Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, a role he performed through much of the 1950s.
As for ARGOSY – she had been built to a William Hand “V” bottom design (possibly a modified version of his “Racoon” model) and was initially powered by a monstrous 6-cylinder Kermath engine. The combination proved perfect for dealing with the capricious wind and waves of Georgian Bay.
As part of an extensive renovation in 1937 – Breithaupt (who had always worried about gasoline explosions) had the Kermath pulled by Scottie’s crew and replaced it with a new 160 hp Cummins Diesel. At the same time a new fully enclosed mahogany salon/helm cabin was added replacing the original partially open helm. A few years later, when war broke out in Europe, the patriotic Breithaupt offered ARGOSY to the Navy as a rescue boat, but she was not accepted – specifically because of the volume of yachts offered for that purpose exceeded demand.
ARGOSY was again remodeled in 1951-52 when a fly bridge was added and the salon deck cabin remodelled yet again by the redoubtable Great Lakes Foundry crew. Later that year, the newly minted Lieutenant Governor used his updated yacht to arrive at the side launching of the Gordon C Leitch, a giant lake boat that had been constructed by the Midland Shipbuilding Co.
“ARGOSY remained with the Breithaupt family until December of 1960 when Louis unexpectedly passed away. The little ship subsequently passed through a number of caring hands including George Addy, an Ottawa based lawyer, who later became a Justice of the Supreme Court of Ontario and still later into the hands of Kennie Wells, a legendary Toronto based top 40 Radio DJ, and his soul mate Irma.”
Of the six yachts built by Great Lakes Foundry and Machine Co., ARGOSY is the sole survivor. Remarkably – two of Scottie’s creations had the honor of serving the British Royal Family. In Argosy’s case it was ferrying the Queen’s official Ontario Representative to functions on Georgian Bay, similarly ARGOSY’S youngest sister “Wausau II”, had the honor of bearing Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth ) and Prince Philip along the Ottawa River under the gaze of thousands of spectators during their royal visit to Ottawa in October 1951. Astonishingly a newsreel of that cruise still exists (just Click Here).
Over the years ARGOSY traveled extensively on lower Georgian Bay, the Trent Severn Waterway, spent time on the Rideau Canal and called Ottawa home for a while. She has spent time amongst the islands of the St Lawrence, and completed several long haul voyages to Montreal and Quebec City.
Still later, the little ship spent time at Toronto’s Royal Canadian Yacht club and then, finally found her way back to Georgian Bay where she often cruised with “Mona II” (now “Miss Scarlett”) a lovely bridge deck cruiser built in 1929 by the long gone Gidley Boat Co. Of Penetang, Ontario.
Over the years ARGOSY protected her owners from wind, waves, two fires and two tornado strikes, she is indeed a lucky ship. But luck nor blessing can stem rot in ageing wood, repair ancient machinery nor make a once fashionable boat fashionable again – thus in 1990 with a failed gearbox and mounting woodwork issues the once glamorous cruiser was towed to Midland harbour where she took on a new life as a houseboat. Still later – when she became unseaworthy – she fell into hands that led her to storage in the back end of a marina, which for most old boats would have led to the scrapper.
But through luck, fate or divine intervention ARGOSY managed to survive. Her current master (a onetime neighbour of Kennie and Irma) pulled her from oblivion about four years ago, moving her back to Honey Harbour. Unfortunately his dreams of restoring her have been thwarted by the reality of too little, too little time, too little resources and in too little protected storage.
For the past year ARGOSY’S master has been hunting for someone who has the resources to restore this wonderful and unique old craft. But time is running short, she must find a new home.
But as we all know, a boneyard boat with no provenance, no matter how pretty, has little if any allure.
To correct that I have, over the past eight months, poured hours of work into finding, interviewing and documenting the memories of the various family’s that once owned ARGOSY.
Surprisingly all were delighted to talk about her at length and I quickly discovered that they shared a commonality, without exception they expressed love for the old girl dearly and explained they (or their parents) had parted with her only reluctantly. It’s thanks to their memories that whomever acquires ARGOSY will surely have a more detailed and interesting provenance than 98 percent of classic boat owners.
At one time the Great Lakes were festooned with hundreds of white sided motor yachts all boldly slicing through the rollers like a well-honed knife; but no more. Canadian built boats of this age are now very rare seabirds.
It’s difficult to be precise but there are probably less than ten pre-1925 wooden yachts still in existence in our country, most quartered in British Columbia and none (that I found) other than ARGOSY that have any Royal connection.
For those that love boating history ARGOSY has woven a fascinating tale through the waves of time, perhaps it’s your time to add to her journey.
Those who want to be part of this historic and important boat’s next chapter are encouraged to contact the owner at [email protected]
Respectfully – Cobourg Kid
Thanks to Cobourg Kid for sharing this story with us today. I know he has been working very hard behind the scenes preparing the full story on this old wooden boat, which now includes more that 15,000 words.
If there was ever a Unesco World Heritage Site designation for small wooden cruisers – I’m sure ARGOSY would be included. Sadly, too many of these old wooden cruisers are being lost to the ravages of time.