June 13, 2019
Even as a teenager, Charlie Cliffe (1921-2017) was interested in building boats. In 1947, he went to work at Link Manufacturing in Gananoque, milling the planks and other components for their line of canoes and runabouts. Only a few years later, however, Link ended their brief foray into boat building and Charlie Cliffe had the opportunity to purchase their moulds and other materials.
Taking these back to the family farm in Wilstead, he started his own sideline business, and a couple of years later he left Link to pursue boat building full-time. Before long, Cliffe began to design his own models and switched from cedar – used by Link – to mahogany lapstrake construction.
In 1960, another opportunity presented itself when Link Mfg. closed its Gananoque factory. Cliffe, with new partner Joe MacDonald, bought the property and moved production there. Along with the benefits of being on the St. Lawrence River, the larger shop enabled Cliffe Craft to produce more and bigger vessels. During the 60s, they produced runabouts and cruisers in the 16 to 26 ft range, which sold well, and at one point they built a 35 ft patrol boat for the OPP. The Gananoque factory employed about ten people.
Sales of wooden boats fell during the 1970s, and Cliffe Craft began to focus more on custom building. Finding it too expensive to switch to fiberglass production, they instead sold boats by other manufacturers. In 1984 Cliffe Craft ceased construction of wooden boats, but continued to do repair and restoration work. During the late 1990s, the business shifted to the manufacturing of wooden reels and Charlie Cliffe retired. He did, however, continued to build small boats at a shop near his home.
• Gerry Hatherley
Gerry Hatherley is a researcher and writer for the Archives at Muskoka Steamships and Discovery Centre. His main focus has been on the vintage boat builders of Muskoka. Gerry lives in Gravenhurst, ON, and has deep family roots in the region.
This article is the CYOB’s sixth in a series of articles and photos. The series is nine at the moment but Gerry is working on another six or seven. Other articles in the series include: