From Coal Yard to Condos – The History of the Gordon Marine Property on the Gananoque Waterfront
Part Two: The Cuttle Years
It has been said that the key to entrepreneurial achievement is to clearly identify an opportunity and then to follow through and develop a successful venture that capitalizes on that vision.
That is exactly what Gordon and Marilyn Cuttle did when they decided to open a marina on the waterfront in Gananoque in the early 1960’s. Like a growing number of other people at the time, the Cuttle family regularly vacationed in the 1000 Islands for their summer holidays and they often remarked about the lack of decent marina facilities along the Canadian shore. Gord, as he was known, was not shy about tackling large projects and the thought of building a full service marina from scratch proved to be irresistible.
As a testament to Gord’s skill as a builder the family boat at the time, the Shasta II, was purchased as a bare 32 foot hull from the bankrupt Richardson Boat Works in Buffalo and he finished building it beside his house in Mississauga. It was then craned onto a flatbed for launching when it was completed. This boat made the trip from Port Credit to the Thousand Islands each summer for the extended family vacation. After a couple of weeks of holidays Gord would leave Marilyn and the kids aboard the boat during the week while he commuted back to Toronto to work.
In 1964 Gord negotiated the purchase of the Sampson Coal Company property on the Gananoque waterfront for his marina development project. The coal yard had been sitting idle since 1960 when Sampson’s ceased operation due to the falling local demand for that type of heating fuel. The first thing that Gord tackled was to convert the old coal company office and scale house, located at the top of the hill, into a living space for the family with the help of a local contractor, Eugene Cirtwill.
When the renovations were completed in early 1965 Gord, Marilyn and the three kids, Mike, Susan, and Joanne, packed up and moved to Gananoque to start their new life there. With three bedrooms and a single bathroom for a family of five it was definitely tight living quarters for the Cuttles.
Work began on the marina store and office following the completion of the scale house renovations. The old stone building that was once a soap factory and then a stable for Mr. Sampson’s delivery horses was torn down to make way for the new construction. The building plans also included a spacious family residence above the store which was to be built at a future date.
To cater to transient boaters, who made up an important part of the marina’s clientele, laundry facilities and clean washrooms, complete with showers, were added. Regardless of all the marine–related services offered by the business Marilyn was a firm believer that it was clean washrooms that brought customers back so she and “Daisy” Ketchum, a good friend and employee, made it their personal mission to ensure they stayed that way.
Local architect Selwyn Cooke was hired to do the design work for the marina buildings and Gord saw to it that as much work was contracted to local tradesmen as possible. In order to help transform the coal yard into a suitable site for an operating marina many truckloads of fresh gravel were hauled in by Griffin Brothers Construction and spread over top of the remaining coal.
Another integral part of the construction project was to get the gas dock, boat launch and other mooring spots built. This phase was being undertaken during the winter months while there was solid ice to work from. Unfortunately, Mother Nature was not playing nice that year and an early thaw meant that the remaining piling could not be driven until the ice was gone and a pile driver on a barge could be brought in to complete the job. All of the steel framework and decking for the docks was supplied by Leeds Bridge and Iron of Gananoque. Once the Esso gas docks became operational at Cuttle Marine the White Rose pumps located at Steinburg’s next door were shut down and removed.
The old coal storage shed located near the shoreline was spruced up and put into service for boat storage during the first couple of years of operation. Gord painted the roof and had, “Cuttle Marine” printed in bold letters on it so that it was easily recognizable. A large sign was also posted on the front of the building, facing the river, to direct traffic to the gas dock. The talented local painter Cedric MacDonald was hired by Gord, after much “intense” negotiation, to do all the signs for the marina.
An important piece of equipment for any marina is a boat lift and Cuttle’s built one themselves that was capable of hauling out a twenty ton boat. The government inspector who was sent to certify the equipment was skeptical that it could lift that much weight but he was convinced when he saw it in operation. That boat lift is still in use today.
In 1967 an engine repair shop was built near the waterfront adjacent to the large coal shed. This building was subsequently moved across the parking lot to the bottom of the hill to allow more room for maneuvering boats in and out of the water with the lift.
The following year Gord’s request to the Federal Government for funding under the Assistance to Marina Operator’s Act to install a one hundred foot long breakwater along the western perimeter of the marina was approved. The purpose of the floating structure was to protect the property from tour boat wash and ice damage. The $70,000 for the project came with the condition that Cuttle Marine had to invest an equal amount in upgrades and improvements to the marina property. To comply with the government stipulation for matching the breakwater funding the Cuttles undertook several major projects. The first one was to build the new family home over the Marine store. Compared to their previous living quarters in the renovated scale house the newly constructed residence was a huge improvement. Everyone got their own bedroom and there were two bathrooms!
Another big change came in 1969 when the old wooden coal storage shed was demolished and a new metal “Butler Building” was erected in its’ place. The addition of the new building provided Cuttle’s with significantly more boat storage capacity and allowed them to store much larger boats as well. Due to delays in the construction schedule the new shed was filled with boats before the exterior cladding was completed so that they didn’t get left out in the approaching winter weather.
The final construction project that was undertaken by the Cuttles was to build a larger engine repair shop to meet the growing demand for service work as an authorized Mercury dealer. This new facility made the old wooden shop redundant so it was hauled away by Gord to its new home on Highway 2 near Trident Yacht Club. Some of the employees working in the marina’s shops at the time included mechanics Lawrence Mallory, Bob Rice, Jeff Rice and Bill Beckstead, who also took on machinist duties. Bobby Goff worked as a carpenter.
During their twelve years of operation Cuttle Marine grew into a bustling business. In addition to the Mercury franchise and Esso gas dock Cuttle’s was also a distributor of Carver Yachts and Chris Craft cruisers. Mike Cuttle has memories of driving the company’s flatbed truck and trailer to the Chris Craft factory in Holland, Michigan to pick up two cruisers at a time and haul them back to the marina. That was a pretty big responsibility for a 19 year-old kid and his mother often worried about him while he was away on these “missions” by himself.
Cuttle’s was also an agent for Skipper Rent-A-Yacht and as Mike recalls, “Each Saturday morning four new families of inexperienced boaters would head out in their 30 foot Chris Craft cruisers seemingly in search of rocks to hit, other boaters to run into and general mayhem to cause, along with the fleet of rental houseboats heading out from other various locales”. It was during this crazy time on the river in the late 1960’s that Gord coined the phrase “Reggie the Renter” to describe the large number of unproven and unskilled boaters sailing the waters in the Thousand Islands.
Of course, having a vast armada of “Reggies” cruising the river was a boon to Cuttle’s rescue and repair operations. It seemed the gods had a marina business in mind when the Forty Acre and Jackstraw shoals were created! “Toe Boat”, the Cuttle’s converted Steel Liner work boat, made regular trips to both of these submerged hazards to assist boaters in distress. The old craft was perfect for towing with lots of power, a huge propeller and a big reduction gear. It could pull almost anything, just not very fast!
In an attempt to make the business viable all year round the Cuttles became a Ski-Doo dealer and sold snowmobiles and a whole line of accessories and clothing for several years. I remember, as a kid, getting a Ski-Doo coat and boots for Christmas one year and they were the warmest pieces of outerwear that I think I’ve ever owned. In hindsight the Cuttles felt that taking on the Ski-Doo franchise was a big mistake as it prevented the family from making trips to Florida in the winter when the snowmobile business was at its peak.
Of course, having a business located right next to the water meant that Cuttle’s was at the mercy of the river’s “ups and downs”. In 1973 the water reached historic high levels and flooded a good part of the marina’s property. Catwalks had to be built along all of the docks at great expense which had a huge impact on the profitability of the business that year. Mike recalls eating lots of baloney sandwiches during those days! Tim Ketchum, a Cuttle employee at the time, also remembers the high water well and remarked, “I think I had webbed feet by August, wading around in knee deep water all day.”
Cuttle Marine had a nice tradition of commissioning different artists to create sketches of the marina that were used on their annual Christmas cards that they sent to family, friends and customers. Some of the artists included Trudy Doyle, Heather Grindley and David Muir.
The story of Cuttle Marine certainly would not be complete without a few words, and tales, about Mr. Cuttle himself. Gord grew up in the affluent Montreal neighbourhood of Westmount but he was not the least bit interested in pursuing the academic path that his parents had laid out for him. Instead, he followed his passion for “hands on work” and became a mechanic, working in a small garage in downtown Montreal. Boating was another passion in Gord’s life and he spent most of his summers as a young man at the Hudson Yacht Club. It was there that he met a beautiful girl named Marilyn Spencer who also shared the love of boating. Gord’s “wild and crazy” side charmed Marilyn and it wasn’t long before they were engaged and married. The year was 1951. Family friends have described Marilyn as being, “a one in a million living doll” who was the reason that Gord was so successful. Gord began working in the air conditioning business in Quebec but, in 1957, decided to move the family, which by now had grown to include two children, to the small Toronto suburb of Mississauga. He was successful in the business and became President of Remington Air Conditioning before he decided to pack it all in to chase his dream of building the marina.
After the purchase of the Sampson property in 1964, and while renovations were being completed on the family’s new living quarters, Gord took up temporary residence at The Gananoque Inn which was just around the corner from the marina. Over time Gord became a regular patron at the local watering hole but that welcome eventually wore out. One year Gord purchased a sheep, aptly named “Lawn Mower”, to graze on the steep hillside on the marina property. Word has it that Gord would often visit The Inn with “Lawn Mower” in tow, much to the chagrin of the establishment’s owner, Roy Hicks, who Gord would like to “wind up” for fun. The final straw came when Gord brought a pony that he was keeping for a friend into the bar one night. Apparently that incident led to a permanent ban from the premises.
Not all stories about Gord revolve around his rather “exuberant” personality and outrageous behaviour. He was among the founding members, along with some of the other marina operators in the area, of the Ontario Marina Operators Association (OMOA) which is still operating today under the name “Boating Ontario”. This organization provides many valuable resources to the boating public.
In 1976 Gord decided that it was time for “a change of vocation” and the sale of Cuttle Marine to the Gordon family of Kingston was finalized. Gord and Marilyn moved to Florida for the winters where Gord took on several house building projects.
Gordon T. Cuttle passed away in Florida on October 23, 1994 at 65 years of age. In accordance with his wishes he was cremated and his ashes were spread on the river. Each family member had to decide where they wanted to spread their portion of the ashes and Marilyn chose the Jackstraw Shoal area since she figures the revenue from those rocks alone helped to pay off their mortgage! Mike, Susan and Joanne each chose a spot amongst the local islands that held special memories for them. A very fitting end for a man that loved the river! Marilyn Cuttle passed away in 2011 in her eighty-third year.
I would like to thank the following individuals who assisted in gathering the historical information for this story and supplying personal anecdotes on the subject:
- Mike Cuttle
- Jo (Cuttle) Fillery
- Tim Ketchum
- David Muir
- I would also like to thank the Cuttle family for trusting me with their priceless family photo albums so that I could assemble all of the terrific images for the article.
Next month: The Gordon family ventures into the marina business.
Last month: The Sampson Coal Company [Note. Be sure to review the many comments received]
By Tom King
Tom King and his wife Marion, have lived in Milton, Ontario for the past 28 years, where they both worked and raised their family of three children; Kris, Mike and Becca. Tom still has a strong attachment to the Thousand Islands, having grown up in Gananoque and being a “river rat” from a very early age. The family tries to return to the islands every summer and for the past several years have been renting a cottage on Sampson (a.k.a. Heritage) Island, just out from Gananoque.
This is Tom’s 11th TI Life article and Part 2 of 3 parts to the Sampson property story. Click here to see his past articles.
Editor’s Note: It was the Cuttle family that first welcomed the Smith family to the Thousand Islands. I appreciate this article very much and thank the author for not only capturing this unique and important part of Gananoque’s history, but for capturing the spirit of Gord Cuttle. He and his wife Marilyn, were very special islanders. Susan W. Smith.