The Watts Boathouse – which has graced Collingwood’s shores for more than 135 years – was moved to just north of the municipal ferry dock where it now serves as home for the boats of the Collingwood Dragon Boat and Canoe Club.
Built in the 1870s, it was originally used to store lifeboats built by the Watts' Brothers. It was originally located on the east side of the current Shipyard property, and was moved to what was then the north end of Maple Street around 1910.
After Henry Watts family sold the remaining pieces of the family business to the Collingwood Shipyard in the mid-1940s, he retained the boat storage building.
Only one boat was ever constructed: the Fred Watts, built by long-time Shipyard employee Reg Watts, who built the steel-hulled skiff based on his family's boat design, and named after his father.
Club president Brian Saunderson says the idea of getting the boathouse came to him while walking past it during the 2006 MS Supercities Walk with his wife and two friends.
“We said, ‘boy, wouldn’t that be the perfect boathouse,” he said.
Saunderson approached the town to start the process of finding out who owned the property, thinking it was in the possession of the municipality; however, the land and building was still owned by the Watts family.
Initially, the town contacted Peter Watts – who also collaborated several years ago with former Collingwood Museum curator Tracy Marsh on a book about the Watts family and their boatbuilding business – and in August, club members started to discuss their ideas with Watts.
“It was a slow process of introduction; Peter was very accommodating, but he had plans to develop it as a museum and had some interest expressed (by another group),” Saunderson said. “We were a second alternative for him, but probably by mid-November it became apparent that we had a pretty good shot at getting the building.”
In February, 2007, after the other deal failed to go forward, Saunderson received a call from Watts offering the Club the boathouse.
Club members pitched the idea to FRAM Building Group representative Fred Serafero about contributing to part of the cost of the move, as well as get permission to move the building across FRAM’s property, the former shipyard; moving it across the FRAM property only necessitated lifting two hydro wires, while a move along public streets represented a logistical headache.
“FRAM has been very supportive of the canoe club,” Saunderson said.
Along with FRAM, through the “good graces” of club sponsor Swiss Chalet and the Town of Collingwood, the club was able to afford the cost of the move.
On one of the coldest February days in memory, with a north wind whipping across the Shipyards, Ivan and Norm Weatherall moved the structure across the Shipyard.
Primarily the first thought of getting the building was the opportunity to have a boathouse, as several of the club’s wooden boats – including an 80-year-old restored war canoe – which shouldn’t be left out in the sun.
“It was very critical for the club’s development to have a permanent facility where we could store our boats, store our equipment, and have a defined area on the waterfront for club use specifically,” Saunderson said. “But when I started talking to Peter Watts and learned the history of the building, it really opens your eyes to the historical importance of the building.
“When you walk in that building, it takes you back a century; it was like the guys left at the end of the day and never came back,” Saunderson said. “It was quite startling to walk into because it’s a really living time capsule, and when we first walked through it with Peter Watts, it really took our breath away.
“So we came to appreciate the historical significance of the building as we worked along.”
The club received a $75,000 Ontario Trillium Foundation grant to renovate the building – exterior work such as redoing the stucco on the outside walls, and replacing the two chimneys that needed to be taken down prior to the move. However, the club has kept many of the historic tools and other equipment in place, and organized.
“To the extent we can preserve the interior, we’ll do that as well,” he said. “It’s an exciting challenge, but one that everyone in the club is looking forward to.”
Organizations and companies involved in the move include: The Town of Collingwood Leisure Services Department; COLLUS Utility Services; Fram Building Group; Ivan and Norm Weatherall; Seeley & Arnill; Georgian Aggregates; Crozier & Associates Engineers; Porter Skelton & Associates; Collingwood Heritage Committee; Collingwood Harbourlands Committee; Christie/Cummings, Barristers & Solicitors; Havens Home Hardware Thornbury; RBC Dominion Securities; CRS Rentals; and Barill Engineering.
The club is especially grateful to the former owners, Peter and Angela Watts.