Many antique and classic boat enthusiasts have had the opportunity to see one of the Ditchburn boats built in Gravenhurst, Ontario prior to the collapse of the company in 1938.
Herb Ditchburn was the genius who guided the company to its domination of Canada's boating industry. Progressing from simple fisherman's rowing skiffs to luxury cruisers of 100 feet in length, Ditchburn products penetrated unexpected markets in New York, Montreal and Western Canada, far from their home waters.
But how many enthusiasts know that Ditchburn ended up working in Trenton, Ontario for the Central Bridge Company, which built steel tugboats beginning in 1942. The company had never built boats but it certainly knew steel.
Let's go back to the beginning. Senator William Alexander Fraser (pictured at left) was born in Trenton, Ontario where he served as Mayor in the 1920s. He represented the riding of Northumberland in Parliament with the Liberal party from 1930 through 1945. He served as Chief Whip in the Mackenzie King government. He was later appointed to the Senate, where he remained until his death in 1962.
Fraser pursued a variety of business interests including the Trenton Cooperage Mills, a major cold storage business, fruit-growing and processing, regional newspapers, movie theatres, and a bridge-building company that later helped manufacture corvettes for the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II. One of his major feats was acquiring the RCAF Air Base for Trenton a few years before the outbreak of World War II. He was known as "Nickel Billy", perhaps in reference to his business skills. He died at a Kingston, Ontario hospital, at the age of 76.
Ditchburn had built a 45-ft ketch-rigged sailboat for Senator Fraser in 1929. With the onset of World War II the British Air Ministry required fast and seaworthy rescue boats to rescue downed pilots in the English Channel. Senator Fraser remembered Ditchburn and realized he knew someone who could build them.
Ditchburn responded and immediately moved to Trenton in 1940 to help out with the war effort, a city where he was to live out the rest of his life. Aero-Marine Crafts Ltd. was formed, with another well know classic and antique boat builder Gar Wood as a director, along with his brother Phil. Having already built many vessels for government service, Ditchburn quickly designed an 80-ft. vessel, very much like a motor torpedo boat, that were called "hospital ships." Gar Wood supplied the WW I Liberty engines. Six ships were built in record time and taken on flatbeds to the east coast to be shipped overseas.
In 1942, a contract for steel tugboats was issued to Central Bridge in Trenton and Senator Fraser again recruited Ditchburn to join that company. Ditchburn organized the more than 200 men working for the company into an efficient production facility. Sub-assemblies were built separately, then mated at the end, with two vessels completed each week! Each vessel has 200 hp and weighed 74 tons (displacement). In all between 250 and 260 invasion tugs were built between 1942 and 1945, taken through the Erie Canal to Baltimore, and put on the deck of ocean going boats to head down the canal to New York city, where they were loaded as deck cargo for delivery to various ports.
Eben James Sr. knew Herb Ditchburn when he was a young lad growing up in Trenton where he toured the Central Bridge factory. He wanted to build his own runabout and with the help of his uncle, he was able to obtain Ditchburn's help with the design and building of his project.
Ditchburn never returned to Gravenhurst and the Ditchburn factory fell into disrepair. He died in poverty in Trenton in 1950 at age 70. He was buried in St. George's Cemetery, which is on land known as "boot hill" (just north of the Trenton WalMart store).
Eben approached ACBS in Toronto regarding this part of Ditchburn's History and he was referred to Harold Shield who wrote the book Ditchburn, A Muskoka Legacy. Chapter 9, entitled A Heroic Contribution to Winning the War, covers this part of Herb Ditchburn's legacy,. Eben went on to design a monument to Ditchburn that was to be erected in Trenton. He would pay 10% of the $30,000. When he approached the ACBS, the association declined to get involved and the momument was never built.
Information and photos for the above article were provided by Mike Batty of Belleville, Ontario from a 2012 Speakers Night held by the Bay of Quinte Power and Sail Squadron, a unit of Canadian Power and Sail Squadrons. The photo of Senator Fraser is from the Parliament of Canada website.