Maritime Inventions: Chestnut Canoe


Wood-and-Canvas Canoe: Inventor: William T. Chestnut, Fredericton, New Brunswick. Patent Nos. (CA 91,848, February 23, 1905; CA 93,181, May 11, 1905; CA 117,374, March 23, 1909)

The Chestnut Canoe Company was the pride of Fredericton for over 80 years (1897-1979). The company maintained an average employment of 60 craftsmen and contributed greatly to the local economy. Because of the first patent listed above, the inventor and his brother Harry obtained the exclusive right in Canada to manufacture and sell their famous wood and canvas canoes.

Learning2 Maritime Inventions: Chestnut Canoe
The young William and Harry Chestnut learned the trade of canoe building from Peter Joseph (Pete Jo), a Maliseet from St. Mary’s reserve. Pete Jo was known as the best canoe builder along the Saint John River valley. His birch bark canoes handled well, were light and kept their shapes when loaded.

Chestnut soon became, and still remains, a symbol of quality and excellence in canoes. By 1915, the Hudson Bay Company was buying all the canoes the company could make, and the Chestnut Canoe Company became the largest canoe manufacturer in Canada.

Drawing Maritime Inventions: Chestnut Canoe

The manufacturing of these canoes was described in the first patent document as: “bending a plurality of transverse ribs about a suitable wooden form, securing the ends of the ribs to a suitable gunwale, covering the ribs with a plurality of longitudinal slats, covering the slats with a covering of canvas, and treating the canvas cover with an impervious filling material”.

But the most remarkable achievement is in the fact that the Chestnut brothers obtained a patent on the trade secret of someone else. At that time, a patent would have been granted for a new product or a new method of manufacturing a product. It was known that these wood-and-canvas canoes were already manufactured in Canada by Peterborough Canoe Co. in Ontario, and were imported in Canada by Old Town Canoe Co. and B.N. Morris Co. in Maine.

Building Maritime Inventions: Chestnut Canoe
Where the Chestnut brothers studied Patent Law

Therefore, this product was not new and could not be patented. They found out, however, that all three companies had kept a trade secret on their method of manufacturing these canoes.  Therefore, the method of manufacturing canoes was still meeting the test of novelty required to obtain a patent. Lawyer, Arthur Slipp who had an office next to the Chestnut manufacturing plant, has been credited for helping the Chestnut brothers to develop a strategy to secure this first Canadian Patent. Two more Canadian patents were obtained on improvements to the canoe. The Chestnut brothers used their patents to influence their clients and to intimidate their competitors. Although the term of their first patent was only 6 years, the Chestnut Canoe Co. continued to manufacture canoes for many more years, enjoying the good will of their company and their patents. Even in 1975, their canoes were still manufactured with a nametag showing “Patented in 1904”.

Judge Maritime Inventions: Chestnut Canoe
At one point during the proceedings, the judge was heard to say, “Let’s all go fishing.”

Peterborough Canoe Co. challenged a cease-and-desist letter received from the Chestnut brothers. The case went to court. This legal case, however, was not an easy one because it involved the patenting and obtaining an exclusive right on a trade secret of someone else. This was a clever strategy by the Chestnut brother. The lawyers and judges of that time were not at ease with this case. The Chestnut brothers had the upper hand so they dragged the legal case, to their advantages, for a period of 14 years. The court case was abandoned by mutual agreement of the successors of both parties. This legal case remains a classical example of the dangers in preserving an invention under a trade secret.


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