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Ketchum Boat Co., 1924. (Original image via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Capital History: Ketchum’s/Ratté’s/Ratty’s Boathouse, 1860s–1950s

By Ashley Newall on September 19, 2022


If there’s one thing Ottawa needs, it’s a new marina. OK, maybe affordable housing is a bit more of a priority, but right behind it on the to-do list would be a marina on the Ottawa River. A big one. Downtown. With tons of public boat parking. And an ice cream stand.

I should mention off the top that I’m totally biased as an avid boater myself. (And obviously, there are more pressing issues than a downtown marina.) And so, with my bases now covered, I bellow, “All aboard!”

In the everyday bustle of big city life, the Ottawa River has been largely forgotten—on this point I’m sure we can all agree. Leading this charge, as pointed out by Museum of History (Indigenous) architect Douglas Cardinal, is our Parliament, which literally has its back to the river. Naturally, the river is why and how Ottawa became a city. Let’s take it back, shall we?

“Ketchum’s, (NW) corner of Bank and Sparks Streets,” Sept. 1905. (Image via Library & Archives Canada.)

The Ketchum Boat Co., located on Ottawa’s Queen’s Wharf, was a spin-off of brothers Zebulon (Zeb) and Harry’s wildly successful “Ketchum & Co.” sporting goods store. “In 1896, the first Ketchum store, a bicycle shop on Albert St., was opened… [T]he store grew so rapidly that by 1900 the shop had been moved to the (north-west) corner of Bank and Sparks, and was (ultimately) handling everything from fish hooks to automobiles.” (Ottawa Citizen, May 14, 1947)

Ketchum & Co. Sporting Goods ad. (Ottawa Citizen – May 13, 1905.)

Queen’s Wharf was located in Entrance Bay, between today’s Alexandra and MacDonald-Cartier bridges, and behind the Royal Canadian Mint. The wharf was also used by steamers travelling the Ottawa River. (More on that aspect on my blog.)

The Ketchums’ spin-off boat company opened in 1904, when the brothers purchased the pre-existing “Ratty” boathouse on the wharf (established in the 1860s by Antoine Ratté). Of the acquisition, it was said at the time, “The old boathouse is to be thoroughly renovated and practically rebuilt. Building canoes will be a feature of the business.” (Ottawa Citizen, July 19, 1904) The brothers would soon also be dealing in motorboats.

Ketchum Boat Co., 1924. (Original image via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Antoine Ratté (aka “Ratty”) was most likely born near Quebec City, and first appears in Bytown records in 1853. In the 1864–65 Ottawa City Directory, around the time his “Victoria Boat House” opened for business, he’s listed as a boatbuilder. In the 1866–67 directory, he’s listed as a ferry boat proprietor on Queen’s Wharf, and the earliest record of the boathouse itself appears in 1868.

Ratté’s name is spelled in several different ways in newspapers and directories (Ratte/Rattie/Rattée/Rattey), and I’m inclined to guess that the “Ratty” spelling was likely an anglicization, à la “Big Joe” Montferrand/’Mufferaw’. That said, in his own advertising, he very often used the catchier “Ratty,” and so he embraced it (at least for commercial purposes).

“Typo of the Year” award winner for 1877! (Ottawa Daily Citizen – June 4, 1877.)

Ratté was lauded for a long crusade that included his filing of a lawsuit in 1884 against the Chaudière lumbermen (i.e. J.R. Booth et al.) for throwing sawdust into the Ottawa River and, relatedly, for allowing it to accumulate on the riverbed (causing methane gas build-up, leading to underwater explosions). His case went all the way up the legal ladder to the Imperial Privy Council, and he prevailed.

Aerial view of Ottawa showing Queen’s Wharf (bottom left), Ketchum’s Boathouse, Royal Canadian Mint (centre) and Government Printing Bureau (upper right), ca. 1920s. (Original image via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

Ketchum Boat Co.’s heyday was the 1920s, although ironically, its extensive press in that decade came not from boats, but rather from planes. Planes on floats, and planes on skis. Fancy newfangled planes. Ottawa’s first air mail delivery. Barnstormers. They all came through what had by then become known as “Ketchum’s Wharf.”

”USA. Visit – Front view of Douglas Transport,” Queen’s/Ketchum’s Wharf, 1927. Royal Canadian Mint in the background. (Photo via Library & Archives Canada.)

The Ketchums sold the boathouse in 1931 and dissolved the original concern, having moved on to bigger and better things in the U.S., as well as turning focus to the family’s gigantic cow-tagging business in Westboro, which was run by Zeb’s daughter, Isabel Percival. Despite the sale, the boathouse continued to be referred to as “Ketchum’s.”

(1937) Ketchum’s boathouse and boat storage house looking sad and decrepit only six years after the Ketchum’s sold. (Original image via Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall.)

In 1953, the neighbouring boat storage house burned down, taking with it 80 boats, including “the Governor General’s 25-foot inboard speedboat the ‘Sunbeam,’ and E.P. Taylor’s $4,000 day-cruiser, ‘Scamp.'” The Governor-General of the day was Vincent Massey, who evidently felt the need for speed. And you may recall Ottawa magnate E.P. Taylor—who truly was a scamp—from my recent apt613 story on Henry Brading’s Union Brewery. Thankfully, the floating boathouse survived the blaze.

Soon after the fire, the Federal District Commission (predecessor to the National Capital Commission) and the City together moved to expropriate the land. One of the excuses given was to clear the site of squatter shanties. There was some talk (by Mayor Charlotte Whitton) of installing a public pool on the site, which may have been dangled to make everyone feel a bit better about the expropriation, but obviously never came to pass.

The last known owner of the boathouse was one Fernand Cyr of Hull, who owned it from about 1948. It operated until at least 1956 or ’57 and was closed (and probably gone) by 1960. The boathouse had been known for its long-held and popular motorboat regattas, and there was an attempt to continue those past the life of the marina.

”Model of a marina project on the Ottawa River in Hull-Ottawa,” 1961. (Image via Library & Archives Canada.)

In 1961, with memories of Ketchum’s boathouse still fresh, there was talk of not one but two downtown marinas—one each on the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa River. These NCC plans may have been scuttled in part by an objection from still-Mayor Whitton, “warning of ‘grave questions’ of health, sewage, water pollution, traffic, and policing.” (Ottawa Citizen, June 14, 1961) (Dow’s Lake Pavilion was built later, in the 1980s, but it’s not downtown.) Whitton went out of her way to lodge the objection and seems to have had it in for any downtown marina—you might even say she was “anti-wake.”

Anyhoo, with the NCC presently reanimating the waterfront they’d previously de-animated (assisted by the City in the case of the wharf), perhaps now’s as good a time as any to, er, float the idea of a new downtown marina.

And where to put it, you ask? Same place as Ratté’s old boathouse.

Foreground: Approximate site of former Queen’s Wharf. (Photo by Ashley Newall – July 2022.)

More on this story on Ashley Newall’s blog. You can follow Capital History Ottawa (#colourized) on Twitter and/or Instagram.