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From wood to steel

During the post-war period, the economy was strong, the industrial sector was booming, and the province of Quebec was no exception. Schooner captains in Charlevoix had plenty of work, shipping larger and larger cargo for the development of Quebec’s remote regions: rail tracks, steel piles, fuel and oil, building materials, explosives, machinery, etc. In those days there was only one way to secure contracts: acquiring bigger steel ships. However, these sturdier ships required substantial investments. Captains and shipowners had to pool all their resources and take out large loans. Every branch of the Desgagnés family made the move.

This colour photograph shows a model of the Mont St-Martin coaster. The model is a cross-section. The hull features a black and a green stripe. The upper portion and cabins are painted white. The ship’s propeller is visible in the back.

Half-hull model of the Mont St-Martin


Black and white photograph. In the foreground, a group of people in Sunday clothes on a small stage. In front of them, a priest is standing next to two women holding bouquets of flowers. Behind them, towering over the group, is the huge white hull of a ship. The name of the ship is painted on both sides of the hull: Mont St-Martin.In 1956, brothers J.A.Z., Roland and Maurice were encouraged by the Clarke company—who all but dominated the river in those days—to build their first steel ship at the George T. Davie        & Sons shipyards, on Quebec City’s south shore. Total cost: $380,000. This steel coaster had a cargo capacity of 1,000 tons, nearly double that of the last wooden ship built by the three brothers. They christened it Mont St-Martin, in honour of the youngest member of Maurice’s family.

Black and white photograph. This picture gives us a front view of the Champlain coaster in all its length. The ship is light-coloured, with its name written in black lettering on its prow. It is also fitted with two boom masts but does not seem to be carrying any cargo. Three men are standing at the front of the ship, which is floating on the water.

The Champlain


Their younger cousins Denis and Roger followed soon after. Having spent his sea time on steel ships, Roger was familiar with their potential. The owners of Desgagnés Navigation Ltd, Roger and Denis bought a steel coasting vessel built in Great Britain during the Second World War. They named it the Champlain.

Black and white photograph. This picture gives us a front view of the Fort Liberté coaster in all its length. The ship’s hull is painted black and white, with its name written in black lettering on its prow. It is also fitted with two boom masts but does not seem to be carrying any cargo. Part of a lock canal is visible in the background.

The Fort Liberté

As Gérard traded the D’Auteuil II for a coaster renamed Fort Liberté, Jean-Paul replaced the G.Montcalm with the Champlain’s sister ship, which he renamed the Fort Carillon. Their cousin Edmond acquired the Ste-Marguerite in 1963, a ship of the same series as the Champlain and the Fort Carillon.

A black and white photograph taken on the deck of the ship, at stern. The ship is filled with rigging, on top of which a woman is seated, facing away. In front of her, the boom mast and white ship’s cabin are visible.

The Ste-Marguerite


Although bigger and more resistant than wooden schooners, theses steel-hulled coasters still could not weather the ice of Canadian winters. Captains in the Desgagnés family dreamt of being able to sail twelve months a year.

The need to sail year-round was reinforced by fierce competition with the trucking industry. Then, the development of a rail ferry between Baie-Comeau and Matane combined with the longshoremen’s strike of 1966 led to the near-disappearance of the last schooners from the St. Lawrence River by the mid-1970s. Wooden schooners were forced into retirement almost overnight.

The picture shows a page from a newspaper on which are printed a photograph and an article about the longshoremen’s strike. On the picture, we see a crowd of protesters in front of three men standing on a stage.

The longshoremen’s strike