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Kingston's waterways and the Canadian economy

Cayuga passenger boat
Cayuga passenger boat, c. 1907, Queen’s Archives

Kingston is located at the intersection of four lines of communication: the Great Lakes to the interior of North America; the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic; the Cataraqui-Rideau rivers and lakes to the north; and the Hudson-Mohawk corridor to the south. The ancestors of the Anishinabee and Haudenosaunee peoples were the first to make this location their home and to recognize its importance as a meeting place. This site also attracted French, British, and American settlers and tradespeople as a place of commercial trade, military defence, and transportation.

Because of its ideal location, Kingston rose to prominence in the 19th century as a “transshipment point.” Located at the important junction of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River shipping routes, Kingston served as a “break-in-bulk” port. Shipments of grain, lumber, potash, and other resources from the western interior were offloaded from the Great Lake ships onto smaller vessels that could negotiate the islands, shoals, and early locks of the St. Lawrence River to reach the Eastern seaboard and the Atlantic Ocean. Shipments of manufactured goods from across the Atlantic were also off-loaded at Kingston from St. Lawrence and Rideau canal-vessels onto Great Lakes vessels. Immigrants, too, were transshipped at Kingston and, while some stayed, most moved west to the better lands and greater opportunities of Toronto and western Ontario.

Kingston’s transshipment role became a vital component of Canada’s economic growth and development. Shipping and transportation firms like James Richardson & Sons, Ltd. and the Montreal Transportation Company, and ship-building and repair companies like Kingston Shipyards and R. Davis Dry Dock Company dominated Kingston’s shoreline until the 1960s. All are now gone except for MetalCraft Marine, which currently occupies the original Davis Dry Dock in the Inner Harbour. A reminder of Kingston’s maritime past, it still services large vessels and builds high-speed aluminum fire boats and patrol boats.

Boat tours, Kingston
Boat tours, Kingston, Great Waterway

Today, Kingston remains intrinsically linked to the lakes and rivers that brought people here hundreds of years ago. Although most of the large-scale marine activity along Kingston’s shoreline ended 50 years ago, Kingston residents have maintained their close relationship with the surrounding bodies of water. This has been enhanced by the City’s clean-up initiatives and its development of waterfront trails and parks. For locals and visitors alike, recreational use has replaced the waterfront’s industrial activity. Kingston is the sailing capital of Canada, drawing avid sailors from around the world. Boat tours of the St. Lawrence River, the Thousand Islands National Park, and the Bay of Quinte are well subscribed. The UNESCO Frontenac Axis Biosphere reserve and the UNESCO Rideau Canal and the Kingston Fortifications World Heritage Site attract thousands of visitors to Kingston each year. In these new ways, Kingston’s several waterways are still playing a vital part in the region’s story.