Toronto Urban Legends: Frederick Knapp's Roller Boat
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Toronto Urban Legends: Frederick Knapp’s Roller Boat

In 1897, a Canadian inventor launched a ship intended to revolutionize maritime travel. It didn't.

The truth behind the tales people tell about Toronto.

The roller boat, in 1898. Photo by the Patent and Copyright Office, and courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

The late 19th century was a time of unprecedented technological marvel. The industrial revolution had transformed the planet with steamships, telegraphs, and other wonders. The wireless and the airplane were close on the horizon.

But records suggest that Toronto was home to a particularly odd outgrowth of the era’s technological enthusiasm: a boat the shape of a paper towel roll that briefly prowled the waters of Lake Ontario. Could it be true?

In fact, yes. The so-called “roller boat” was the creation of lawyer Frederick Knapp, who saw the craft as his ticket into the pantheon of his age’s great inventors.

The roller boat was unlike anything seen on the water before. The vessel was essentially a hollow paddle wheel—a large floating cylinder affixed with paddles, which revolved around a stationary inner shell housing passengers, crew and cargo. Attached to each end of the cylinder were platforms for passengers wishing to escape the windowless confines of the boat for a breath of sea air.

Knapp speculated that this unique design would allow the boat to ride atop waves free of the turbulence that plagued more conventional craft. He figured it would be capable of reaching speeds over 100 kilometres per hour.

And unlike like many starry-eyed inventors, Knapp got a chance to see his dream come to life. With $25,000 from an optimistic Ottawa financier, he engaged Polson Iron Works Co. of Toronto to build a 110-foot long, 22-foot diameter test vessel.

As his brainchild was under construction, Knapp’s optimism grew, and he spent his days designing a pair of jumbo-sized roller boats, intended to carry up to four million bushels of grain or thirty thousand soldiers.

The roller boat slid into the water of Toronto Harbour on September 8, 1897 to the cheers of thousands of onlookers. Unhappily for Knapp, the cruises that followed were less than successful. Far from shattering speed records, the roller boat was barely able to achieve 15 kilometres an hour as it lumbered around the harbour. And it was, predictably, difficult to manoeuvre.

Although by all accounts Knapp continued to promote his invention, he was alone in his enthusiasm. No further models were constructed. According to some sources, in 1901 the roller boat served briefly as a ferry from Prescott, Ontario to Ogdensburg, New York. It’s not clear whether this really happened, but we know that by 1904 she was back in Toronto, to be used as a barge.

The roller boat failed to find customers even for such prosaic work, though, and she languished at the Polson dock. In 1907, after breaking from her moorings and damaging another ship, she was sold for scrap.

In a final indignity, the remains of the once-revolutionary roller boat were never even collected by the buyers. Around 1927 the scrap was dragged from the former Polson yard to be used as landfill for the new harbourfront, and to this day no one is quite sure where she rests.

Additional Material from the Toronto Marine Historical Society and
Heritage Toronto.

Photo of the roller boat’s interior by Marsden Kemp, and courtesy of the Archives of Ontario.

CORRECTION: Deember 18, 2012, 12:30 PM Because of an editing error, the first published version of this post was an early draft. We’ve substituted the final draft.