DAVIE, GEORGE TAYLOR, shipbuilder and politician; b. 3 March 1828 at Quebec, son of Allison Davie* and Elizabeth Johnson Taylor; m. 3 Sept. 1860 Mary Euphemia Patton in Lévis, Lower Canada, and they had two daughters and four sons; d. 1 Sept. 1907 in Lévis.
Until he was four years old George Taylor Davie lived in his parents’ home at a rented shipyard on Rue de la Canoterie, Quebec; his father and maternal grandfather were partners in a shipbuilding concern there. The shipbuilding market was weak, so in 1832 the family moved across the St Lawrence River to Pointe-Lévy (Lévis), where Allison Davie had bought a beach property and had set up his own ship repair yard, equipped with a “patent slip” or marine railway. Since there was only one other dry-docking facility in the port of Quebec at the time, the Canada Floating Dock at Cape Cove, Davie’s business prospered. In 1836, however, tragedy struck the family when he drowned in the river, leaving his widow with seven young children and an eighth soon to be born.
George Taylor was sent to Gale’s Boarding School at Saint-Augustin, near Quebec, and remained there until he was old enough to learn the shipbuilding trade. He then had the good fortune to be apprenticed to John Munn*, Quebec’s most prominent shipbuilder. During his term at Munn’s shipyard in the faubourg Saint-Roch, he benefited from the high standard that Munn set in the construction of ships and from the presence there of Pierre Brunelle, another excellent shipbuilder. On completing his apprenticeship Davie was promoted yard foreman, and with that experience behind him, he was ready in 1850 to assume the direction of the family shipyard, which his mother had run for 14 years with some help from her ailing father.
In setting up a repair yard, Allison Davie had made a wise move, for although the demand for new ships fluctuated, the need for ship maintenance and repairs was always present. George, who had become well aware of the possibilities of steam navigation, was not content to pursue the ship repair trade alone, and he entered the fields of salvage, of building and operating steamboats, and, when the market was strong, of construction of sailing ships as well. It was in salvage, or wrecking as it was known, that he achieved his greatest success, often undertaking jobs on a “no cure, no pay” basis and earning a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic for his mastery of the trade.
In 1860 Elizabeth Davie passed away, and her seven surviving children inherited the shipyard in equal parts. Three years later, George and his brothers, Allison, Gershom, and William, bought out their sisters. By 1870, however, Allison had died, and Gershom and William, who were becoming increasingly involved in the operation of steamboats, agreed to sell George their shares. It had taken him 20 years to achieve sole ownership of the yard and, with the future of his four boys to consider, this independence had no doubt been his goal for some time.
In the early 1850s he had increased the dry-docking facilities at the yard by the addition of a floating wooden dock and in 1872 he purchased a second, larger one, 240 by 54 feet, in which he would be able to accept larger ships. He brought the handling of these simple, box-like structures to a fine art, docking vessels of over 250 feet. But at the beginning of the 1880s, with both more and larger metal ships on the river, he found himself at a disadvantage in two ways: not only was even his large dock too small, but he lacked the equipment to do more than temporary repairs to metal-hulled ships. Although he had ploughed every cent of profit back into the shipyard, business reversals and the fact that he had had to buy out his siblings had prevented him from building up capital needed for expansion. The federal government, however, was in the process of solving his first problem by building the Lorne Dry Dock at Lauzon (Lévis). The second problem was solved after part of his shipyard was expropriated for the passage of a railway. He used the compensation he received to buy from his mother-in-law, Mary Patton, approximately 100 acres of land on the river front at Lauzon strategically situated immediately beside the dry dock. At the time of the purchase in 1882, there remained on the property an old sawmill which his father-in-law, timber merchant Duncan Patton, had operated, and two building slips where Pierre Brunelle had once built sailing ships for Patton. It was the ideal site for establishing an up-to-date facility, and Davie seized the opportunity to do so in 1885 when the cargo steamer Titania was stranded on Anticosti Island. Having floated the steamer, he beached it in Indian Cove (Anse aux Sauvages), Lauzon. After arranging for the construction of a machine shop at the shipyard, he left for England, and returned with the foreman who had built the vessel and a team of skilled metalworkers. The Titania was the first ship to enter the Lorne Dry Dock. Repairs were carried out and most of the men returned to England. Some remained, however, to become the backbone of the new shipyard’s workforce and to train local workers, who readily adapted to the new techniques in metal shipbuilding. In the meantime, a larger machine shop was built, incorporating the original one, and Davie’s new yard was soon well equipped and well established. He continued to use the first yard at Lévis for the repair and wintering of smaller vessels.
During his lifetime, Davie owned and operated several salvage schooners and tugs, the best known being the two schooners named GTD, which, besides having room to store gear and provisions and accommodation for the crew and workers, were equipped as floating machine shops. The early tugs such as the Rambler were built at the Lévis shipyard, but with the increase in the size of ships, there was a need for greater power, so first the Lord Stanley and then the Lord Strathcona were built in Britain to his specifications.
Davie played an active role in the communities of Lévis and Quebec, serving for many years as a director of the Quebec and Levis Ferry Company Limited and the Chinic Hardware Company Limited, as well as a director and, for a few years, president of the Quebec Steamship Company. He was a member of the St George’s Society and a freemason. In addition, he represented Lauzon ward on the town council of Lévis for three terms: August 1861 to January 1862, January 1875 to January 1882, and January 1886 to January 1889. He was regular in his attendance at council meetings and served on various committees. On controversial issues he frequently voted with the majority.
As Davie’s career wound to a close, he made plans for his four sons to take over the business. Charles McCarthy, who was expected to become the plant manager, began in the traditional way as an apprentice at the Lauzon yard. John Leavitt, who had a natural affinity for drafting, was encouraged to develop his skills, while Allison Cufaude acted as his father’s secretary and also handled the books. George Duncan, the youngest, served his time in the machine shops of the Carrier, Laîné et Compagnie foundry in Lévis [see Charles William Carrier*], becoming a mechanic; he then joined his uncle William Davie, who was George’s mainstay in the wrecking department of the business. Davie’s plans were confounded, however, when Charles was killed in a shipyard accident. But even in his loss, he was fortunate that there remained three sons, and in 1897 he felt that the time had come to pass both his shipyards on to them in equal parts in exchange for an annual pension. Hull No.1, soon to become the paddle-steamer Champion, the first vessel laid down by the Davies at the Lauzon shipyard, was on the stocks a month away from her launching date when the deed was signed and the younger Davies took over the shipyard. From then on Davie remained in the background, always ready to give advice. He continually strove to persuade the government to pass laws that would protect Canadian shipbuilding, but with little success despite the general respect in which he was held both by the business community at large and by those in the trade. The large attendance at his funeral was a measure of the esteem in which he was held. He was buried in the family plot at Mount Hermon Cemetery, Sillery, beside his son Charles and brother Gershom. Only in death did religion come between him and his wife. Their marriage had taken place in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Lévis, which their sons later attended, but Mary was a Catholic and he had agreed that their daughters be brought up in her faith. She was buried beside her parents in the Catholic cemetery in Lévis.
Of all the 19th-century shipyards on the St Lawrence, only the Davie shipyard at Lauzon has survived. Now under the name of MIL Davie Incorporated, it boasts more than a century in the ship repair trade and almost a century in shipbuilding. During that time over 700 commercial and naval vessels of all sizes, including the largest vessels ever to have been laid down in Canada, have slid down the ways, each one a small tribute to the vision of George Taylor Davie.
ANQ-Q, CE1-66, 10 mars 1828; CE1-76, 10 sept. 1860, 4 sept. 1907; CN1-290, 30 sept. 1870, 22 déc. 1882; CN1-51, 6 nov. 1872; CN1-150, 11 juill. 1863. Arch. de la Ville de Lévis, Qué., Procès-verbaux, 1861–89. NA, RG 42, E1. Private arch., Eileen Reid Marcil (Charlesbourg, Que.), “Le chantier Davie à Lévis” (typescript, 1988). Le Canadien, 10 juin 1836. Quebec Chronicle, 2, 5 Sept. 1907. Quebec Gazette, 10 Oct. 1860. I. S. Brookes, The lower St. Lawrence: a pictorial history of shipping and industrial development (Cleveland, Ohio, ). G. W. Haws, The Haws family and their seafaring kin (Dunfermline, Scot., 1932). Eileen Reid Marcil, “Shipbuilding at Quebec, 1763–1893: the square rigger trade” (phd thesis, Univ. Laval, Quebec, 1987).