The Douglas Patent Folding Canoe: “Okay, maybe it can fold. But does it float?”

If you’ve visited the Canadian Canoe Museum recently or perhaps read my earlier blog about a crazy, mid-19th century inflatable cloak that can also be turned into a canoe, you’ll  know that we have a new exhibit called “Canoes to Go: the Search for a Truly Portable Boat.

One of the many great stories we pursued for this exhibit was the invention and remarkable life of Campbell Mellis Douglas. He, like other inventors also featured, saw the need for a practical canoe that could also be made to conform to the constraints of a baggage compartment, steamship, aircraft fuselage and even submarine as new modes of intermodal transport became available.

Douglas’ invention, patented in 1883, was a canoe made from wood and waterproof canvas that collapsed along its keel. Like an umbrella, the longitudinal framework is fastened directly to the cloth and the result is something of a flattened, full-length silhouette of the canoe. We are fortunate to have three Douglas “folders” in our collection - two likely made by his son George and the third manufactured by the Peterborough Canoe Company in the early 1900s.

As with the other great inventions selected for this exhibit, just looking at these folding canoes is to want to see how they work. We needed stunt models to provide this opportunity and to protect the fragile artifacts.

Our twelve-foot Peterborough Canoe Company example was certainly the shapeliest of the lot.  By using this canoe’s ribs, stem profile and other parts for patterns, the building form was a rather simple set-up. Resembling the set-up for a wood strip/epoxy canoe, the notched stations were set on a strongback to receive the many components of the longitudinal framework. However, before committing the pieces to the frame, I nervously made sure that the gunwales would hinge correctly once mounted to the tips of the stems.

There was certainly no uniformity to the waterproof cloth on our original folders. Some feel heavier and stiff while one is finer and somewhat waxy. I consulted with a local design studio and was directed to a textile mill in New Jersey. Fairfield Textiles carry products like a waterproof cloth with roots to the 1830s and so this seemed like a good place to start. They were of course curious (but not skeptical) about the intended purpose of this cloth. In any case, the bolt of fabric that arrived is certainly a wonderful product to handle and also to work with.

Amazingly, even though several hundred copper nails pierce through the cloth covering where they fasten the inner and outer battens together, there didn’t seem to be any gasket material bedded here even though many are below the waterline in the original. I held my breath and began drilling and clinching nails.

This finished canoe now sits, for the most part, on a padded plinth in the exhibit where it is often being taken apart and rebuilt by museum guests. The inevitable question has been: “Okay, so it can fold. But does it float”?

After work the other day, we stole our stunt model canoe from the exhibit and took it to the Indian River just east of Peterborough for some easy trials. I can at last report (as can a friend of the museum (Peter Andree) and my wife (Anna Lee) that, but for the drips from using the double-paddle, it is a tight little ship. Like the umbrella that in part perhaps inspired its design, it certainly kept the water out. 

To learn more about this canoe the other stories, this exhibit runs until March 2013. As well, members of The Canadian Canoe Museum are invited to join me for a behind-the-scenes webinar on August 15th at 7pm.