SIMPSON, MELANCTHON, shipbuilder; b. c. 1827 at Ox Point, near Belleville, Upper Canada; m. first 1848 Esther Louisa Terry (d. 1872), and they had at least three children; m. secondly 1872 Harriet A. —; d. 7 March 1899 in Toronto and was buried in St Catharines.
Melancthon Simpson’s father was a British army sergeant and his mother was an American. It is likely that his early years were spent sailing. In 1846 he purchased a house in Oakville, where he probably learned the shipbuilding trade at the shipyard of his uncle, John Potter. Three years later Simpson, in association with his brother John, set up his own yard there. His first known vessel was the schooner Catherine. Oakville was typical of the lakeside communities of the mid 19th century, when most small ports had a harbour and at least one shipbuilder. With the coming of the railway, these ports faded in importance. Simpson remained at Oakville until about 1863, building sailing ships there and at the neighbouring ports of Bronte (Oakville) and Wellington Square (Burlington).
Perhaps drawn by the prosperity of the Welland Canal, Simpson moved first to the entrance to the second Welland Canal at Port Dalhousie, where he worked as a foreman at the shipyard and dry dock of Donaldson and Andrews, and then to nearby St Catharines. There, during the winter of 1863–64, he established his own yard, on the pond by lock 5, in competition with the town’s major shipbuilder, Louis Shickluna. The following spring about a thousand people witnessed the first launch at Simpson’s new yard, of the barque Jessie Drummond, a typical canal-sized vessel of 142' x 26' x 11'9".
In 1865 Simpson constructed his first mechanically propelled vessels, both steamers: the Lily, at St Catharines, and the Waubuno, at Thorold. The latter, of the Beatty Line [see Henry Beatty*], became famous in November 1879 when it sank in a storm on Georgian Bay with the loss of all 25 persons on board. The propeller Asia, built by Simpson at St Catharines in 1873, also sank on Georgian Bay in 1882 in the service of the Beatty Line, with the loss of 123 lives. Simpson occasionally built sailing vessels and steamers at other lake ports, including Owen Sound and Oakville. In 1871 he built two steamers, the Cumberland and the Manitoba, at nearby Port Robinson. Both exceeded canal size – there were no locks between that village and Lake Erie. Most of Simpson’s customers were local people and firms such as the Beattys of Thorold, for whom the Waubuno, the Cumberland, and the Manitoba were built, and James Norris of St Catharines. Local firms, including that of George Nicholas Oille*, also supplied most of the machinery and fittings for Simpson’s ships. Simpson’s skill as a shipbuilder earned him a wide reputation and many of the vessels he built became well known on the Great Lakes.
The construction of the third Welland Canal, between 1873 and 1887, made the second canal obsolete. In 1876 Simpson formed the St Catharines Dry Dock, Ship Building, and Warehouse Company, and purchased six acres of land on the new canal. However, nothing came of this venture and Simpson left St Catharines for good at the end of 1877. He moved to Hamilton and then to Toronto, where he continued building ships for a while before retiring. His best-known ship, and the only one still afloat (now on the Muskoka lakes), is the steamer Nipissing, built at Gravenhurst in 1887 and rebuilt in 1925 as the propeller Segwun.
NA, RG 42, E1, 1420, 1561–62. St Catharines Hist. Museum (St Catharines, Ont.), Assoc. of Canadian Lake Underwriters, lake vessel reg., 1869 (mfm.); Great Lakes reg., 1912; Marine insurance classification index, 1878 (mfm.); St Catharines shipping reg., 1874–95. St Catharines Public Library, Special Coll., Cemetery records, Victoria Lawn Cemetery (St Catharines), transcript of tombstone inscriptions. York County Surrogate Court (Toronto), no.13132 (mfm. at AO). Globe, 9 March 1899. Standard (St Catharines), 8 March 1899. St. Catharines directory, 1874. J. P. Barry, Ships of the Great Lakes; 300 years of navigation (Berkeley, Calif., ). Peter Charlebois, Sternwheelers & sidewheelers: the romance of steamdriven paddleboats in Canada (Toronto, 1978). Hazel [Chisholm] Mathews, Oakville and the Sixteen: the history of an Ontario port (Toronto, 1954; repr. 1971). Richard Tatley, The steamboat era in the Muskokas (2v., Erin, Ont., 1983–84). Owen Sound Sun (Owen Sound, Ont.), 6 June 1916. B. A. Parker, “Shipbuilding in the Niagara peninsula: a study of nineteenth century enterprise,” Inland Seas (Vermilion, Ohio), 36 (1980): 87–95, 179–185. Times (Owen Sound), 6 June 1916. P. D. A. Warwick, “Three shipbuilders from the Welland Canal,” Inland Seas, 43 (1987): 50–59.