This article was originally published in the 2019 Spring issue of Invest In Style Magazine.

 

Ditchburn boats are among the most sought-after by collectors in Muskoka and abroad. It only takes a glimpse of one of these gorgeous watercrafts to understand why they are held in such high regard among the pantheon of handcrafted wooden boats.

 

 

The history of Ditchburn boats is closely linked to the history of Muskoka itself, and the town of Gravenhurst specifically. But the Ditchburn family’s boatbuilding roots run back to a time before Europeans had ever set foot in Muskoka. Henry’s ancestor, William Ditchburn, was a naval advisor to Queen Elizabeth during the Sixteenth Century, and the original Ditchburn boatworks produced vessels of great renown from their base of operations in Blackwall, England.

 

In 1869, Henry Ditchburn, along with his brothers William, John and Arthur, emigrated from England to Canada and settled in the town of Rosseau, which was on Ontario’s rugged northern frontier at the time. The brothers quickly realized that their multi-generational boatbuilding expertise could be put to good use as part of the fledgling resort and tourism industry that was starting to incubate in the Muskoka region. By 1874, the brothers had constructed a fleet of 24 rowboats which they would rent out to guests in the region.

 

 

In 1890, the newly established H. Ditchburn Co., under the leadership of Henry, moved their base of operations to Gravenhurst. The town saw a great deal more traffic due to its prime location on the railroad.

 

Ditchburn began adding gasoline-powered launches to their existing line of rowboats in 1898. They specialized in building custom gas-powered launches by hand, using high-end materials. The vessels typically had engines in the front and cockpits in the rear, with a focus on function, beauty and design. In 1904, the ageing Henry granted ownership of the company to his nephew, Herb Ditchburn, who partnered with Tom Greavette. The company greatly increased production during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century, primarily catering to the wealthy cottage owners who were increasingly congregating around the big lakes of Muskoka.

 

 

In 1915, the company suffered a serious setback when their Gravenhurst factory burned to the ground. But it wasn’t long before they were established and producing watercraft from a new, brick facility in Gravenhurst; one that would stand for the remainder of their operations. Ditchburn was the largest boat manufacturing company on Lake Muskoka with 30 employees in 1921, expanding to 60 by 1923, and (after opening a second plant in Orillia in the mid-1920s) a high-water mark of 130 men by the 1930s. The company had come a long way from building rowboats for tourists to building lavish luxury cruisers over 100 feet long for wealthy clients from New York to western Canada.

 

Like many other businesses across North America, Ditchburn was crippled and eventually ruined by the Great Depression. They produced their last vessel in 1938. During its tenure, Ditchburn produced a number of remarkable vessels, although the vast majority have now been lost forever. One of their more notable vessels was the Kawandag II, which was constructed for John Eaton of Eaton’s department store renown. The Kawandag II was a 73-foot yacht made entirely of mahogany, and was considered the gold standard of boatbuilding at the time.

 

 

Another vessel, the 28-foot racer Silver Queen, was built for circus magnate John Ringling, of Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus, in 1927. The vessel would become the template for Ditchburn’s popular line of launches that were known as the Viking line. They were capable of travelling up to 45 mph. Six vessels modeled on the Viking were also commissioned and put into service to patrol the Atlantic coast on behalf of the Canadian Government. Ditchburn also created several racing boats, dubbed Rainbow, which competed and won in the highly competitive Gold Cup racing series.

 

After the Second World War, the focus of boat construction moved away from handcrafted vessels towards mass production and synthetic materials. For those lucky few who own a Ditchburn, it’s become more than a status symbol or a pleasure cruising vessel – it’s a responsibility. The condition of many of the existing Ditchburns is a testament to those boatowners who have taken up the challenge with zeal. There will likely be Ditchburns for everyone to enjoy for many decades to come.

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