One of the strangest ships ever seen around Toronto Harbour made its appearance here some seventy-five years ago. Known as the ROLLER BOAT, she had a particularly unsuccessful career and we thought that some of our readers might like to hear something of her story.
The idea for the ROLLER BOAT was the brainchild of one Frederick E. Knapp of Prescott, Ontario. He attempted to design a vessel that would roll over the water instead of trying to push its way through rough seas, and thus provide comfortable and safe accommodation for passengers as well as speedy transit for freight, Knapp gave his plans to Polson Iron Works of Toronto and the construction of a test steamer progressed under the direction of W. E. Redway.
Upon completion in October 1897, ROLLER BOAT had a length of 110 feet and a beam of 22 feet. The hull was built in the shape of a cylinder and looked about as unlike a ship as anything could. The boat actually had two hulls or shells, one inside the other, and with a space of about five feet between. Four small steam engines were placed in the vessel and, working on spur gear rails running around the inside of the outer cylinder, they were designed to rotate the outer shell while the inner remained stationary and level. The rolling outer hull was to get a bite on the water by means of "paddles" which were affixed in a ring around the centre of the hull. Knapp spoke of speeds nearing a "mile a minute" but, in fact, the top speed produced was only about five miles per hour.
The inside cabin and freight spaces were to be entirely free of motion, either from propulsion or from the seas outside. For those passengers desiring air, there were two small platforms, one at either end, extending outwards from the hull and mounted on the inner shell so that they would not revolve.
The general appearance of the finished product was akin to that of a large, floating, smoking sewer pipe with a verandah on each end, ROLLER BOAT proved equally useful! Knapp had originally planned the vessel as a test, for he had in mind a ship of some 800 feet in length which could be loaded and unloaded by means of railway trains which could be run right through the hull! Needless to say, it was never built. So many problems became evident once the working model was placed in operation that the whole idea was abandoned.
The ROLLER BOAT herself did not operate much, if at all, after her trials in October 1897, and never really was given her chance to prove whether she could carry cargo with any efficiency. She was laid up in the boneyard east of Jarvis Street in Toronto's old harbour and there she stayed for a quarter of a century, settling gradually into the mud. In 1927 that area of the harbour was being redeveloped and the hull of the old ROLLER BOAT was dug out and cut up for scrap,
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.