Kingston Yacht Club Marine Railway

With the closing of the Club’s marine railway, it is the right time to stand back and look at the history of this example of 19th century technology and its use in the marine industry.

The marine railway was patented in the UK in 1818. Its original purpose was to provide an economic means of taking ships out of the water when the only practical alternative was an expensive shore-side or floating drydock.  Marine railways, often referred to as “inclined planes”, were also used to provide links between ship canal sections where topography made locks too expensive or impractical. An example of this latter use still exists in Ontario: the Big Chute “lock” on the Trent-Severn waterway, located near the north end of the canal. Big Chute can handle vessels up to 100t, and is a fascinating device to watch in operation. It is the last of its kind in North America.

Use of marine railways by commercial vessels was eventually limited by the rapidly increasing tonnage of ships with the onset of steam and steel in the mid-1800s. For boatyards and boatbuilders however, the marine railway continues to this day as a viable means of launching and hauling out smaller boats.

Back now to the Kingston waterfront....the many boat and ship builders around Kingston from the early 1800s and on, often used one or more marine railways on site as part of their boat-handling equipment. Portsmouth Harbour had several installations, as did the Kingston shipyard and its predecessors. Simcoe Street seems to have had a boatbuilding shop located on the west side over a long is referenced in the 1867 City directory, and is shown on the 1908 City insurance map (see image).

This brings us to the KYC marine railway. It consisted of about 200ft of “main line”, from its winch at the top end, down into the Club inner basin. The underwater section totaled about 80ft in length, at a much steeper grade than above ground. The load-carrying car running on the ground track also included an upper section of cross-track, set to both height and gauge of each of the three “spur” tracks on each side of the trench. Boats sat in cradles equipped with railway wheels which allowed the cradle and boat to be rolled laterally to and from its storage location. An electric winch and cable provided the power to move and control the car itself.

The history of the marine railway is not entirely clear, but it was almost certainly much older than KYC (1896). The famous 1875 “birds-eye” map of the City shows what is likely the marine railway between the boat shop and the shoreline boathouses. Another factor is the track gauge that was used: five feet, six inches. This was the old “Provincial Gauge” mandated by law for railways in Canada West, later Ontario, in 1851. This law was scrapped in 1870 when its original security and trade rationale faded.  So why would a marine railway user chose this gauge when the rails could be any reasonable distance apart? One reason might be that it was built during or shortly after the Provincial Gauge era, when it was the standard of the day, or perhaps because one or several surplus cars to that gauge were available. The latter reason has cropped up in railway building elsewhere, why not here! In any event the maps and the gauge suggest a time frame of c1860s-70s. This makes its lifespan about 140 years. Not as much as Kingston Penitentiary at 178 years, but just as much a casualty of changing needs and utility.

In closing I would like to mention that members’ experiences with the marine railway ranged from the good to the not-so-good, including unexpected speedy descents, being stuck half way up, all the while listening to the clanging noise of the winch. All gone now.......

for the Heritage Committee,
David Page, KYC Archivist
01 November, 2013

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