Naval Shed

While the great freight canoe is readily associated with the fur trade, it is perhaps not as well known that that other waterborne craft were an integral part of the North West Company's transportation system.

The Naval Shed and the surrounding naval yard was the centre for Fort William's schooner and bateau construction activities. The naval shed housed the Naval Stores (rigging, sails, ropes, oars, tar and other ship supplies used to equip schooners, bateaux and other craft on their voyages) and the ship carpenter's tools used for construction. The naval shed included a sailmaker's loft for construction and repair of sails required by the schooners and bateaux, and would also be used for "lofting", that is the laying out of the patterns used for boat and ship construction.

The people working in the naval yard were usually sailors who also had skills as ship carpenters, riggers or other trades associated with the maintenance and construction of wooden vessels of European plan. Most of these men were of English extraction, steeped in the nautical traditions of the seafarer's life, not that of the voyageur. These men formed the ship's complement of the North West Company's schooners.

Schooners were an integral part of the North West Company's transportation system in the early 1800's. Since rapids along the St. Lawrence and the St. Mary's Rivers and the falls on the Niagara prevented uninterrupted shipping from Montreal through the Great Lakes to Fort William, goods sent via the Lakes had to be transhipped at Kingston, Niagara and Sault Ste. Marie. For Lakes Erie and Huron, the Company employed one set of schooners and for Lake Superior another.

Lake Superior schooners made the return voyage from Ste. Mary's to Fort William five to six times each summer. These workhorses carried mostly cargo brought up from the Detroit area: flour, corn, pork, lumber and farm animals. The schooners would bring in the supplies required by the Fort William artisans such as iron and steel for the blacksmiths, tinplate and wire for the tinsmiths, stave and hoop stock for the cooper. They also carried maple sugar, guns, shot and powder. To help lighten the load of the birch-bark canoes, which used the Ottawa River route to Montreal, they carried a portion of the trade goods and furs for the Lake Superior portion of their journey. The north shore of Lake Superior is treacherous, by carrying part of their load; the schooners made the trip faster and safer.