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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The roller boat of Toronto

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The city has been extending its waterfront since the early 1900s, that much is no secret, but what we've been burying down there is a little more curious. Somewhere in the east end of the Toronto Harbour lies an eccentric turn-of-the-century contraption that was once touted as the vessel that could revolutionize marine travel.

The Roller Boat was the brainchild of Frederick Knapp, a lawyer and aspiring inventor. As he traveled to England in the 1890s, Knapp found fault in the sluggish ocean liners — the trip was too long and seasickness abounded. His solution was to build a cylindrical boat that would roll sideways, skimming across the top of the water, using the waves for propulsion rather than plowing through them.

It was to have a rotating outer shell affixed with a ring of paddles powered by two steam engines, and a stationary inner shell to hold passengers. By his tests and calculations this alternative boat design would travel upwards of 300 kilometers per hour, crossing the ocean in a day. He found an Ottawa financier to foot the $25,000 production cost, and in 1897 the first roller boat was built at Polson Iron Works in Toronto.

Its maiden voyage on Oct. 21, 1897 was hardly impressive. The Toronto Daily Star wrote: "If the boat can only develop a speed double that at which she ran in the Bay this afternoon she will yet be a most miserable failure." On that calm autumn day, the roller boat didn't reach even close to 15kph.

In 1901 it served for a short time as a passenger ferry from Prescott, Ontario to Odgensburg, New York but Knapp was never able to realize the potential of his invention. Interest in the roller boat waned and by 1904 it was back in Toronto to be modified for use as a non-rotating barge. In 1907 the unused boat broke loose from the Polson wharf and collided with another ship in the bay. After being auctioned off in 1907 the hull was never moved and by the mid-20s the remnants were buried in Toronto's expanding waterfront.

Its exact location is unknown, with guesses placing it at the foot of Frederick and Sherbourne streets south of The Esplanade, possibly covered in railway tracks, or buried under the Gardiner.

Toronto Archives photo: fonds 1244, item 251