The Canadian Museum of History preserves and safeguards the William James Roué Collection, which helps tell the story of Canada’s best-known naval architect, and designer of many vessels—including the iconic schooner, Bluenose.
This online exhibition explores William Roué’s life from 1879 to 1970, and provides an overview of some of his many designs. It also offers a behind-the-scenes look at care and conservation of the William James Roué Collection at the Canadian Museum of History.
William James Roué is Canada’s best-known naval architect. During a career that spanned over 50 years, he created more than 200 designs. His iconic schooner Bluenose, launched in 1921, became—and remains—a famous symbol in Canada and abroad.
William Roué was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on April 27, 1879. He grew up in the city’s south end, close to its bustling harbour.
From a young age, he was fascinated by boats, building models to test his designs. As an enthusiast of boats and their design, Roué was also drawn to the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron. He frequented its boatyard and clubhouse, and crewed on members’ boats while still a teenager.
William Roué left school early, but continued to nurture his passion for sailing and designing boats. Teaching himself about naval architecture, and taking classes in drafting, he began a career as an amateur naval architect while working at the family’s soft-drink business.
His early designs were for Halifax-area sailors with the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron, where Roué became a member at 18.
In October 1920, the first competition for the International Fishermen’s Trophy pitted working fishing schooners from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, against their counterparts from Gloucester, Massachusetts. The American schooner Esperanto won this initial series of races.
A committee was formed to build a challenger to bring the trophy to Nova Scotia. It included William Roué’s friends and clients. They tasked him with designing a championship vessel, which became the schooner Bluenose.
William Roué had never designed a fishing schooner before. He drew upon his knowledge of naval architecture, and his experience with yachts, to create a design that could not only win races but also work as a successful fishing vessel.
The October 1921 races for the International Fishermen’s Trophy attracted attention across Canada and in the United States. Held in the waters off Halifax, the competition pitted Bluenose against the American schooner Elsie.
Bluenose won the trophy, bringing William Roué national acclaim. The schooner’s continued racing successes and publicity trips, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, made it Roué’s best-known design.
1921 International Fishermen’s Trophy Race
Length: 38 seconds
National Film Board of Canada, 1921
“In testimony and admiration of his skill as designer of the BLUENOSE”
— Pocket Watch Inscription
The success of Bluenose brought William Roué greater attention in Canada, as well as in the United States. His career flourished in both countries, including a long-term association with the New York yacht designers and brokers, Ford & Payne.
These new commissions allowed Roué to devote more time to naval architecture. Many of his designs were built in the small shipyards along Nova Scotia’s coast.
“The hull and sail plan are entirely attributable to Bill Roué’s genius.”
—T. F. Cooke, joint owner of Seven Bells, 1928
In 1929, the Roué family sold its soft-drink company, and William Roué became a full-time naval architect. In 1934, he moved to New York City, where he worked with Ford & Payne before returning to his home in Dartmouth in 1936.
The Second World War brought new challenges and demands, and Roué became involved in designing vessels for wartime use.
In 1949, William Roué closed his office in Halifax, moving his business to his home across the harbour, in Dartmouth. Despite the death of his wife Winifred in 1954, he remained active as a naval architect, designing vessels for private and government clients.
William Roué worked as a naval architect into the early 1960s. He was involved with plans for Bluenose II, which followed the overall design of the original Bluenose.
Like its namesake, Bluenose II was built at the Smith & Rhuland shipyard in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. The schooner was launched in July 1963, with William Roué and Angus Walters—captain of the original Bluenose—among the guests of honour.
William James Roué died at his Dartmouth home on January 14, 1970, at the age of 90. Although he designed a wide range of vessels during his lengthy career, he remains best known for Bluenose.
The schooner’s image has appeared since 1937 on Canada’s 10-cent coin, as well as on stamps, and in many other places.
In late 1920, the committee seeking to win back the International Fishermen’s Trophy for Canada in 1921 turned to William Roué. As Roué later wrote, “It was decided that if we ever hoped to have a fighting chance, something new and different would have to be built.”
Combining the best features of fishing schooners from Nova Scotia and the United States, Roué produced Bluenose, a fast vessel that would also prove commercially successful.
In August 1962, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired a documentary about Bluenose. It included interviews by J. Frank Willis with Bluenose captain Angus Walters and with William Roué.
Excerpts from “The Bluenose,” 20/20
Length: 1 minute, 38 seconds
CBC TV Archives
Bluenose was the first fishing schooner William Roué ever designed, and was built to precise specifications. International Fishermen’s Trophy regulations included limits on both length and the total area of sails.
Roué’s plans, two of which are seen here, helped detail how the ship would be built. The Smith & Rhuland shipyard in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, used these plans and Roué’s written specifications to build Bluenose.
Babette was William Roué’s first design for a client. Frank H. Bell, a long-time member of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron, had encouraged and supported Roué’s interest in sailing and naval architecture.
Designed in 1908, Babette was built in 1909 by Joshua Mader in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
One of William Roué’s final yacht designs was Charlan, built by Kenneth MacAlpine & Son in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, and launched in 1956. Designed for Charles Copelin, a professional merchant mariner and naval veteran, Charlan was intended for cruising rather than racing.
Charles Copelin’s son—also named Charles—made a film about the design, building and launch of Charlan. It included Copelin’s visit to Roué at the latter’s home office in Dartmouth.
Length: 1 minute, 32 seconds
Produced by Charles Copelin, 1956
Original footage Directed, Written, and Produced by Charles Copelin
William Roué was an avid and skilled sailor who designed many racing vessels for Canadian and American clients. Some were built to meet specific rules for hull and sail measurements. Others were more individual.
He also designed the Roue 20 and the Bluenose Class sloop. These were “one-design” classes—multiple examples built to a standard design, making fair competition easier. Both of these types are still sailed today.
During the Second World War, Roué designed the MINCA (“Made In Canada”) barge for Britain’s Ministry of War Transport. Built to be shipped overseas in sections, the barge was assembled after delivery.
Designed to carry cargo, it could be towed by tugboats, or powered by its own large outboard engine. More than 1,300 of these barges were built at shipyards in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
William Roué designed a range of wooden cargo vessels for commercial and government clients. Some were built for Arctic service with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The design seen here was for the Government of Newfoundland. Ten of these vessels, called the “Splinter Fleet,” due to their wooden construction, were built at Clarenville, Newfoundland. One of them, Trepassey, supported British activities in the Antarctic between 1945 and 1947.
An important but lesser-known part of William Roué’s career involved designing ferries. Largely used in Nova Scotia, some were small, simple vessels.
Larger, more complicated examples carried people and cars across Halifax Harbour, or across the Strait of Canso prior to construction of the causeway between mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. Some of these ferries were still in use well after Roué’s death in 1970.
Containing over a thousand items, the diverse William James Roué Collection is safeguarded by experts within the Museum's Collections Division. This section explores some of the behind-the-scenes work involved in assessing the collection and ensuring its long-term preservation.
This double-sided working drawing for Bluenose, likely William Roué’s first and second drafts, is unique for being the initial expressions of his vision for the schooner. It allows us a privileged look at the evolution of his design. That Roué kept it is significant, as early drafts rarely survive.
Assuming a scale of 1/8 inch to 1 foot (0.32 centimetres to 30.5 centimetres) in both drafts, the differing dimensions between the two drawings help to tell us which one came first. The second draft - the one titled “BLUENOSE” - is shorter on its water line, reflecting the committee’s revised instructions to Roué.
The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) is a special operating agency within the Department of Canadian Heritage, whose conservators and conservation scientists serve cultural heritage organizations across Canada. In collaboration with the CCI, state-of-the-art exploratory imaging techniques were applied to the double-sided drawing. This imaging revealed information not easily visible in normal light and helped inform the conservation treatment.
This series of images shows the results when raking light, ultraviolet light, and infrared light were applied to the double-sided working drawing for Bluenose. The captions explain what information was learned from the different imaging techniques.
Conservators propose conservation treatments for a variety of reasons and with a number of goals in mind. These can include improving aesthetics, legibility, and/or chemical and physical stability. Sometimes, however, the decision not to treat, in order to preserve evidence of manufacture or use, can be just as critical as an interventive treatment.
In this case, informed by what was shown about the process of creating the two drawings in the images taken by the CCI, the surface cleaning step was applied extensively to one side of the drawing, but not to the other. Examine this series of images to see the changes that resulted.
This series of images shows different steps undertaken as part of conservation treatment of the double-sided working drawing for Bluenose.
It is important to note that the treatment steps illustrated here were designed specifically for these drawings and are not necessarily recommended for other works on paper.
Compare the second draft before treatment and after treatment. Zoom in to look at specific details, such as the band of heavy grime, previous erasures and tears. Notice that the conservator has retained these features after treatment. This decision was informed by the images taken by the Canadian Conservation Institute, and reached through consultation between the curator and conservator.
Compare the first draft before treatment and after treatment. Zoom in to look at specific details, such as the band of surface grime, and a major tear. Notice that the conservator has repaired these elements. This decision was informed by the images taken by the Canadian Conservation Institute, and reached through consultation between the curator and conservator.
Before the Roué Collection arrived at the Museum, a team of cultural heritage professionals - including a curator, a paper conservator, and two collections managers - was sent to assess and determine its scope, material types and physical condition.
The Roué Collection contains nearly 800 plans, 30 linear centimetres of archival documents and 32 3D artifacts. Determining the scope and requirements for care of this extensive collection was necessary before subsequent steps could be planned.
The acquisition of a collection comprised of a large quantity of individual items, most of them over-sized, requires a storage plan that balances the preservation needs of different materials with facilitating access to them by researchers.
Conservation treatment plans will vary, depending on a range of factors including the characteristics of the materials used, and risks posed by those materials.
These supports are most often made from cotton impregnated with starch or a synthetic material. When new and flexible, tracing cloth stood up to repetitive use (rolling and unrolling) better than common 20th century papers.
However, although impregnating the textile with starch created a suitable writing surface, it is an inherent vice when it comes to preservation, as starches are very appetizing to insect pests.
Translucent supports were an integral part of the design process, and in common use until the invention of acetate and stable, transparent polyester film. Due to their methods of manufacture, most 20th-century tracing papers are inherently weak.
Mending tears and splits in translucent papers is difficult, because the selected mending material should be weaker than the paper being mended, and can show through from verso to recto. Custom heat or solvent set tissues – or, more recently, nanocellulose films – are used to repair tears and splits and to reinforce along creases where plans have been folded.
"Blueprint" is the common name for documents copied using the cyanotype process. Blueprints were the chief reprographic format for almost a century, thus their ubiquity in museum and archive collections.
Blueprints are alkaline (pH 7+) sensitive in high relative humidity environments. This combination can result in the loss of their characteristic blue colour. Conventional treatment steps such as tear repair with wheat-starch paste must thus be modified to reduce the use of water and to control the pH during conservation treatment.
After conservation treatment, the final step before storing or exhibiting a collection is digitization. Photographs of the items in a collection play an essential role in documentation, preservation (acting as a surrogate for an artifact so that it doesn’t have to be handled), and in dissemination. Online exhibitions are a perfect way to share fragile, oversized objects and collections with the public.