Knapp Roller Boat

The Knapp Roller Boat with its inventor, Frederick Knapp, October 27th, 1897The Knapp Roller Boat with its inventor, Frederick Knapp, October 27th, 1897

One of the strangest vessels ever seen on Toronto Bay was the one created by Frederick Knapp. The story behind Knapp's so-called "roller boat" is a fascinating one.

Frederick Knapp was born in 1854 and was a resident of Prescott, Ontario. His vocation was that of a lawyer, his passion, that of an inventor. In fact, it was his passion for inventing that resulted in his famous (or as it turned out, his infamous) roller boat, a strange looking craft that was intended to roll over waves, no matter their height or intensity.

It has been suggested that Knapp's idea of a boat that would be impervious to wave action was prompted by his admiration of Queen Victoria. It was a well-known fact that his queen refused to travel great distances by boat because of her predisposition to sea sickness. Now, if Knapp could invent a vessel that precluded the motions that brought on this distress, Her Majesty would agree to cross the Atlantic and pay a visit to her dominion in North America. While in Canada, she would no doubt request an audience with this remarkable boat's inventor. There could even be a knighthood in it for Knapp.

Whatever the reason behind the young lawyer/inventor's decision to build such an unusual craft, his dream caused quite a sensation in the city when work on the roller boat got under way at the Toronto factory of the Polson Iron Works Co, located on the waterfront at the foot of Sherbourne St. (Today, the Polson site would be on the west side of the street south of The Esplanade. Interestingly, Polson was also the company that would build the now restored Toronto Island ferry Trillium and RCYC passenger launch Kwasind in 1910 and 1912, respectively.)

As can be seen in the photo, the prototype roller boat was a strange-looking craft, to sat the least.  Inside the 110-foot-long, 22-foot diameter outer cylinder was a slightly smaller cylinder in which freight and/or passengers would be carried. Two steam engines, one at either end of the craft were connected to the outer cylinder in such a way as to cause the latter to rotate (much like a rolling pin when it's rolled over a table). While the outer cylinder did its thing, the inner structure, suspended at either end on huge bearings, remained in a flat plane.  Blades affixed to the exterior of the revolving cylinder would catch the water, thereby propelling Knapp's vessel over the water.Theoretically, waves of any magnitude would not be felt on board the craft. The Queen would be pleased.

As work progressed, Knapp became more enthusiastic even to the extent of designing a pair of enormous roller boats, the first for the transportation of up to 4-million bushels of grain and the second as a troop carrier for the American government. With hostilities between Spain and the U.S. reaching a crisis point, Knapp was sure this latter vessel would be capable of quickly transporting up to 30,000 American soldiers, along with hundreds of tons of equipment, from Florida to Cuba. This action would ensure a victory over the Spanish troops who occupied the island and help in the liberation of Cuba.

Unfortunately, during trials on Toronto Bay, the prototype never lived up to expectations. While the vessel did roll, the speed attained was a major disappointment and even if the vessel were to be equipped with more powerful engines, it was obvious that a proposed to speed of 60 mph for the larger versions of the roller boat would never be attained. Knapp kept his spirits up over the next few years, constantly assuring everyone that his invention would pay handsome dividends someday. Several attempts were made to improve the vessel's operating characteristics. When they too failed a plan was put forward to use Knapp's creation as a barge.

Eventually, however, all interest in the vessel, including Knapp's ceased. All that is except that of its builder. One day in the fall of 1907, the long abandoned hull of the derelict craft broke loose from its moorings in the Polson wharf, wandered along the waterfront and hit one of the large lake boats. To pay for the damage it caused, the roller boat was sold, fetching a mere $295 for her fittings and another $300 for the hull.

For some reason the hull was never actually claimed and as the Toronto Harbour Commission continued to create new land across the waterfront, the time came when the roller boat was simply in the way. Crews arranged to drag what was left of the roller boat from its resting place in the now landlocked site of the Polson wharf to the new waterfront taking shape at the foot of Parliament St. It was here that the revolutionary craft became just so much landfill.

And while its exact location is not known for certain, it's quite possible that the remnants of Mr. Knapp's roller boat are under the Gardiner Expressway, as close to transportation as it ever got.