The all-wood canoes had aesthetic appeal, they were light and much more durable than their bark predecessors, and they were used by latter-day explorers such as the Tyrrell brothers, but for use in wilderness locations, for lugging rock samples, hunting equipment or survey instruments, there was a much more practical and durable design – the wooden canoe with a canvas skin. The Peterborough boat builders knew this technology and were using it to some degree, but some would say that, relatively speaking, they were well behind their counterparts in the northeastern United States. Builders at the E.M. White and Old Town canoe companies had been refining canvas-canoe manufacturing techniques since the 1850s, experimenting with canvas sandwiched between wwoden layers in the hulls of canoes, and with painted cotton duck as a skin on the outside of cedar ribs and planking that made the boat waterproof and protected the vulnerable wooden ribs and planking from abrasion and impact damage. – James Raffan, Fire In The Bones
The Canadian connection to these, arguably superior, New England canoes was through the owners of the hardware store in Fredricton, New Brunswick. Stiff tariffs had made it advantgeous for merchants in Canada to buy Canadian, which had protected the Peterborough canoe-building industry and its all-wooden boats, but the Fredricton “Daily Gleaner” reported in 1897 that Mr. W.T. Chestnut had imported a canvas canoe from a “leading and renowned boat building house in the United States, it being especially for use at Pine Bluff Camp.” The article maintained that this fine canoe would be exhibited at R. Chestnut and Sons’ hardware store for a few days. Shortly thereafter, the J.C. Risteen sash and door company in Fredricton (owned by a group including W.T. Chestnut and his brother Harry) started making a canoe identical to the imported American model and, in 1905, the venerable R. Chestnut and Sons canoe company was incorporated.
A curious aspect of this importation of an American canoe was that W.T. Chestnut secured a Canadian patent for the canvas-covered canoe design, despite the fact that the technology had been in use elsewhere in the country in one form or another for decades. Armed with this new patent, Chestnut launched a lawsuit against the Peterborough Canoe Company, alleging violation of its canvas-covered canoe patent. According to canoe historian Roger MacGregor, “Peterborough’s reply….was lengthy, detailed, and devastating. Chestnut did not even file a counter-reply.” And, MacGregor notes, as if to add insult to injury, another company, the Canadian Canoe Company of Peterborough, seeking entry to the canvas canoe market in 1907, simply acquired a Chestnut canoe in Fredricton and copied it exactly as Chestnut had done earlier with the American canoe. – James Raffan, Fire In The Bones
Although in later life Bill vehemently defended the virtues of his beloved Chestnut – his personal fleet included three, a 16′ Pal, a 16′ Prospector and a 17′ Cruiser – he could have been paddling any number of canvas-covered canoes built in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. In fact, there were on the market, for all intents and purposes, dozens of nearly identical models, made by various manufacturers in the United States and Canada, many of which had the model name “Prospector.” But, even as a class or type of canvas-covered canoe, the Prospector that became his favourite was entirely consistent with Bill and his view of the world. It was mostly made of natural materials – steamed white cedar ribs and planking; brass tacks and screws; cotton-canvas skin; and white ash or oak seats, thwarts and gunwales. It was solid; it was durable; it could be repaired in the field; and it moved quietly and responsively in all types of water. – James Raffan, Fire In The Bones
Nothing feels like a cedar-strip canvas canoe – Omer Stringer, a confirmed traditionalist
Beautiful things made by hand carry within them the seeds of their survival. They generate a spark of affection. For some it’s sentimental, for some it’s the art of the craftsmanship, for some the beauty of the finished boat. People love these things and try hard to ensure they endure.
The survival of the wood-canvas canoe (to paraphrase John McPhee) is certainly a matter of the heart; a romantic affair. The economics are unfavorable. In fact, the wood-canvas canoe’s most conspicuous asset and advantage is that it’s a beautiful piece of art. It’s the Shaker rocking chair of outdoor sport – handcrafted, simple, clean, and functional. There’s nothing in it that doesn’t have to be there, but all of the pieces add up to more than the parts. It works well and looks wonderful doing it.- From Honeymoon With A Prospector by Lawrence Meyer
Capsule History: The Chestnut family started marketing canvas canoes in the late 1890′s in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The early Chestnut canoes were modelled after a canoe built by B.N. Morris, and indeed, the early Chestnuts show the influence the Morris canoes. Chestnut incorporated in 1907 as the Chestnut Canoe Company, Limited. The Chestnut factory burned down in December of 1921, and was quickly rebuilt. Chestnut Canoe Company and Peterborough Canoe Company merged under the holding company Canadian Watercraft Limited. Canadian Canoe Company joined them in 1927. All three companies continued to maintain there own identity. Chestnut shipped its last canoes in early 1979, then closed. Most of the Chestnut molds survive, and are being used in several wooden canoe shops in Canada. For more details about the history of the Chestnut Canoe Company, see Roger MacGregor’s book When the Chestnut was in Flower.
Serial Number Format - Highly variable. Most Chestnut canoes are not marked with serial numbers. Those that are may have five-digit numbers or a number starting with the letter “C”. Without accompanying paperwork that provides information about shipping, it is not possible to date Chestnut canoes using the serial number. Unlike Peterborough Canoe Company and Canadian Canoe Company, Chestnut never marked a model number on their canoes.
Kissing Cousins: Following the mergers in the 1920′s with the Chestnut Canoe Company, Peterborough Canoe Company and Canadian Canoe Company, all three firms marketed nearly identical lines of canvas canoes. It is often said that Chestnut was responsible for the canvas canoe production for all three companies. While canoes built in one factory were often given a decal for one of the others, for the most part, evidence indicates that each company was responsible for the production of most of its own canoes. Models that are otherwise the same in the catalogs show subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences in hull shape, rib patterns, sheer lines, tumblehome, and the shaping of trim parts.
Chestnut Canoe Models
A brief description of the more common model classes offered by Chestnut:
- Pleasure Models: These are the general purpose recreational canoes offered by Chestnut. These are excellent paddling canoes, and are the most commonly found models of Chestnut canoes. The 16′ Pal is perhaps the most famous of the lot, but the 15′ Twozer/Gooseberry/Chum is my personal favorite canoe yet.
- Lightweight Pleasure Canoes: Built lighter than standard models. Includes the 11′ Featherweight and 15′ 50-pound Special (popular known as Bobs Special).
- Prospector Models: These are deeper and beamier than pleasure models of equivelant length. Meant to carry lots of gear for extended trips, there is a lot of canoe packed into a Prospector. Bill Mason’s hype about the Prospector aside, it is a fantastic canoe, and is perhaps the model most widely copied by modern day composite canoe builders. Prospector models were available in double-ended or transom-sterned models.
- Trappers Canoes: This is a loose grouping of smaller canoes that changed over the years. This class also includes lower grade pleasure canoes and the Bantam, which is a 2nd grade version of Bobs Special
- Cruisers Canoes: Designed to go fast, these models are narrower, more rounded across the bottom and have finer lines than other models. The Guides Special models are cruisers than have close-ribbing.
- Freight Canoes: If the Propsector can be considered the pick-up truck of the North, the Freighters are the semi-trucks. Bigger abd beamier, they have great carrying capacity. Available in double-ended and transom-sterned configurations.
- Ogilvy Specials: Named after famous guides of New Brunswick, these models are designed for shallow, fast water canoeing, like that found on the famous salmon rivers of New Brunswick.
I love wood canvas canoes….especially those built by the Chestnut Canoe Company….my favourite canoe is based on the 16 ft. Cruiser, the Kruger….other models built my good buddy, Bruce Smith are similar to other Chestnut designs, the Chum and the Prospector. Several builders continue to build canoes either directly from the original Chestnut forms (such as Hugh Stewart of Headwater Canoes) or taken from Chestnut designs.
Of course, there are examples of Chestnut canoes in the Canadian Canoe Museum. One of which is Bill Mason’s favourite red canoe (I’ve written about Bill Mason’s love of Chestnuts here before….Reflections On the Outdoors Naturally: Bill Mason….And Canoes….Especially Chesnut Prospectors).
From the Mason family website, Red Canoes: Red Canoe Donated to the Canadian Canoe Museum :
The Mason family donated Bill Mason’s treasured red Chestnut Prospector to the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough Ontario, on June 17th, 1999….
Bill Mason loved his old canvas-covered wood canoes and used many of them throughout his career as a filmmaker, author and painter. But he always said his Chestnut Prospector was “the most versatile canoe ever made”, and that if he “could only have one canoe it would be the original Chestnut wood-canvas 16′ Prospector”. He journeyed quietly through the wilderness in this canoe, treating it not just as a vehicle, but also as a subject, a symbol and a friend. Bill’s Prospector has a lifetime of memories in it and if it could talk, all the little tears in the canvas, each broken rib and every cracked plank would have quite a story to tell.
Photo of Becky Mason paddling her father’s favourite red Prospector before it was donated to the Canadian Canoe Museum, taken by Rolf Kraiker from Blazing Paddles: The Last Outing For Bill Mason’s Canoe.
Photo of the Bill Mason Exhibit at the Canadian Canoe Museum, from the Canadian Canoe Museum: 2011 Jack Matthews Fellow & Award-Winning Canadian Author Nicolas Dickner To Speak At CCM Jan 26th.
For more on Bill Mason and his Chestnuts….especially in his films….see Mike Elliott’s articles from his Kettle River Facebook page:
It is apparent that Bill did call all red canvas canoes in his films “Prospectors” when in fact they were sometimes Pals; in fact in Ken Soloway’s book The Story of the Chestnut Canoe (on pages 159-160 in the chapter on Bill Mason), Ken writes that he visited with Becky Mason at the Mason home on Meech Lake to examine Bill’s Chestnut canoes….even though Bill expounded that the 16 foot Prospector was the “world’s best all-round canoe”, Bill had acknowledged in his final writings that many of the canoe photos used were not of the Prospector, but of the 16 foot Pleasure model (the first “real” canoe he owned)….as Ken further states Mason enthusiasts who want to see for themselves, should examine either the books or the films. The Pal has cane seats and narrow ribs. The Prospector has slat wood seats and wide ribs. Ken continues and says he examined the two red Chestnuts….both showed signs of wear and much use….Soloway then states that the Pleasure model, Bill’s first canoe was officially not a Pal but a Deer because of its narrow, rounded ribs; also the Pleasure model Bill owned was the later widened version from the 1950s (Appropriate since Bill entered in his diary that he had purchased the canoe on April 12, 1958, about the time Chestnut widened the 16 foot Pleasure forms….the other red Chestnut was a Prospector but Ken Soloway found it to be quite used and rather distorted so the measurements he took off it weren’t quite true to those of the original form (which Ken owned) but that was probably from years of use….Bill also owned an 11 foot Chestnut Featherweight….Ken concludes that the Prospector was a very large canoe and would have suited Bill on some of his trips where his canoe was heavily loaded and Ken was personally convinced he (Bill) would have found a narrow Pal more fitting to the esteemed title of “best all-round canoe” if he travelled as light as most trippers do today.
Much has been written about the Chestnut Canoe Company….besides the previous noted articles, Mike Elliott of Kettle River Canoes has written several articles on his blog (Canoeguy’s Blog) pertaining to Chestnut canoes, including the following:
Lawrence Meyer wrote a great article on his Chestnut Prospector, which is on the WCHA forum:
Two books on the Chestnut canoe have been written. One is by Kenneth Solway entitled The Story of the Chestnut Canoe (mentioned above), described on Amazon.ca as:
The Chestnut Canoe Company began in Fredericton, NB in 1897 and its impact was unequaled on the development of recreational canoeing and the canoe itself. Photos and images from the famed catalogues illustrate this intriguing Maritime story.
Photo from Amazon.ca: The Story Of The Chestnut Canoe.
Another book on the Chestnut canoe is When the Chestnut was in Flower by Roger MacGregor. When the Chestnut Was In Flower: Inside the Chestnut Canoe is the definitive history on the Chestnut canoe. On his website, Ivy Lea Shirt Co. Ltd.: When The Chestnut Was In Flower – Inside The Chestnut Canoe, Roger describes his book as:
A canoe fancier’s reminiscent look at the Chestnut Canoe Company, the result of nearly two decades of searching for traces of the canvas canoe from Fredericton, New Brunswick. Tells where the Chestnut came from and where it went. A book about canoes, travel, memories, and canoe-building. Includes professional lines-drawings of favourite Chestnut canoes: Kruger, Chum, Ogilvy, Prospector, Bobs Special. In hard cover, with over 400 pages, nearly 100 photographs and a few surprises. Sure to appeal, whether you know the Chestnut canoe in person or in passing – or would like to.
I love Roger’s book….it is the most complete book on the Chestnut canoe….I love the professional lines-drawings of favourite Chestnut canoes: Kruger, Chum, Ogilvy, Prospector, Bobs Special. I thought I’d include three of my most favourite canoe drawings:
Chestnut Prospector canoe drawing, lines taken off by Roy MacGregor November 1997, drawn by S.F. Manning August 1999.
Chestnut Chum canoe drawing, lines taken off by Roger MacGregor October 1997, drawing by S.F. Manning January 1999.
Chestnut Kruger canoe drawing, lines taken off by Roger MacGregor June 1998, drawn by S.F. Manning May 1999.
Photos from my copy of When The Chestnut Was In Flower, by yours truly.
These three Chestnut canoes typify three major types of models….the Prospector, the Pleasure and the Cruiser (also same as Guides Special except for closer ribbing).
As previously noted above, Dan Miller wrote in Dragonfly Canoe: Wooden Canoe Identification – Chestnut Canoe Company:
Prospector Models: These are deeper and beamier than pleasure models of equivelant length. Meant to carry lots of gear for extended trips, there is a lot of canoe packed into a Prospector. Bill Mason’s hype about the Prospector aside, it is a fantastic canoe, and is perhaps the model most widely copied by modern day composite canoe builders. Prospector models were available in double-ended or transom-sterned models.
Pleasure Models: These are the general purpose recreational canoes offered by Chestnut. These are excellent paddling canoes, and are the most commonly found models of Chestnut canoes. The 16′ Pal is perhaps the most famous of the lot, but the 15′ Twozer/Gooseberry/Chum is my personal favorite canoe yet.
Cruisers Canoes: Designed to go fast, these models are narrower, more rounded across the bottom and have finer lines than other models. The Guides Special models are cruisers than have close-ribbing.
The Prospector of course was made famous by Bill Mason (even though he owned and used a Pal in many of his films. The Chum was Omer Stringer’s favourite canoe (it is said that the one he paddled was especially made for him by Chestnut….that he even went to supervise it’s construction in Fredricton…..not sure if that’s true….but Omer did likely alter his Chum a bit any way….actually technically Omer’s Chum was a Doe since it had narrow ribs)….the Chum is the 15 ft. version of the Pleasure class of Chestnuts (the Pal was the 16 ft. model). The Kruger was a classic design….my beautiful green canoe is based on this model….and it is a dream to paddle….but I’ve written a lot on that subject already LOL LOL.
My beautiful dream, photo by yours truly.
Check out Roger MacGregor’s fine book….there is so much great information….just about ‘everything you ever wanted to know about Chestnut canoes, but were afraid to ask’.
You might want to check out the Chestnut Canoe Company Catalogs from various eras. (NOTE: There are other photos related to Chestnut canoes, as well as other catalogs and photos for canoe companies such as Kennebec and Old Town.)
Paddles up until later then.