From Coal Yard to Condos – The History of the Gordon Marine Property on the Gananoque Waterfront
Part Three: The Gordon Family Era
When Ken and Jean Gordon purchased the Cuttle Marine property in 1976 they had a vision that this would be a business that they could share with their family for years to come. As operations currently wind down I don’t think they could have ever imagined just how successful of a family venture Gordon Marine would turn into over the course of almost forty years. It truly was “The Family Business on the Water”.
The Gordon family did not have any experience running a marina when they purchased the property from Gord and Marilyn Cuttle but Ken, Jean and the kids had spent many weekends on their sailboat in the Thousand Islands and were very familiar with the area. As Ken neared retirement from his position with The Frontenac County Board of Education he was on the lookout for a business opportunity that the entire family could become involved in. He happened to see an ad for the sale of the Cuttle Marine property in Gananoque and fired off a letter to enquire about the opportunity. Unfortunately, the Cuttles were in Florida for the winter and didn’t receive the correspondence until they returned home in the spring. After some back and forth negotiation an agreement was arrived at and the sale of the property was finalized. In order to swing the deal Ken and Jean sold the family home in Kingston and Ken had to part with most of his motorized “toys” and his beloved sailboat.
It didn’t take long for everyone to find their place in the new business. Ken, as President, oversaw the operation and Jean, as Vice President, looked after the store and did the bookkeeping. Eldest son Sandy assumed the role of General Manager while younger brother Neil became the Sales Manager. Ross became the Chief Mechanic and ran the maintenance and repair end of things. For the first few years little sister Jan spent her summers working on the gas dock and helping in the store. Eventually she assumed full responsibility for managing the store and doing the accounting. A fourth son, Don, had started a career with the Kingston P.U.C. and decided that he didn’t want to give that up to join the marina business.
Because the marina was “landlocked” in its two acre location on the Gananoque waterfront there wasn’t much opportunity to expand the operation beyond the physical borders of the property so the family decided to concentrate on the sales and service aspect of the business rather than trying to become a large scale yacht basin providing permanent mooring to lots of boats. They did, however, maintain some transient boater slips for overnight rental and provided clean, modern washrooms, showers and laundry facilities for that particular clientele.
The Gordons quickly learned that operating a marina business was not a summer-only undertaking. All of the work associated with preparing the boats for winter storage, ordering and receiving new stock for the following year, hitting the boat show circuit, and, finally, taking the boats out of storage and getting them ready for the upcoming boating season managed to fill in most of the time from October until April.
In May of 1988 tragedy struck the business when a devastating fire ripped through the marina’s store and the family apartment above. According to the local press reports most of the Gananoque firemen were at a function on Howe Island when the call came in and it took them almost 45 minutes to reach the blaze due to being held up waiting for the ferry. The lone fireman on duty, Ed Dempster, put a call out to the Town’s volunteer brigade, as well as requesting assistance from the Lansdowne and Seeleys Bay fire departments, but most of the damage had been done by the time help arrived. It was bitter irony to the Gordon family that the marina was located literally next door to the fire station yet there was such a long delay to get personnel and equipment on site to fight the flames.
Neil, his wife Debbie and daughter Lauren were staying in the apartment when the fire broke out and, luckily, were able to escape unharmed when they detected smoke coming from the store below. He recalls frantically trying to move boats away from the flames and out of harm’s way. Several boats ended up on the street and in neighbour’s yards and, in Neil’s words, “many were damaged but we saved a lot.” When the smoke cleared it was found that the store, along with most of its contents, as well as the apartment above, were a total loss.
Down, but not out, the Gordon family quickly made plans to rebuild the structures that had been destroyed in the fire. This was also an excellent opportunity to make some upgrades to the facilities that might not have been possible otherwise. The new building would contain an expanded marine store, additional shop space and a much larger showroom that could display boats up to 36 feet in length.
Almost a year to the day after the fire occurred Sandy officiated at the grand reopening ceremony for the newly constructed and expanded marina facilities. After the rebuilding was completed Ken decided to retire and scaled back his involvement in the business, leaving the day to day operations in the capable hands of his children.
As if the fire and subsequent rebuilding wasn’t enough pain for the family to endure they were also the victims of a couple of major burglaries in the spring of 1989 which resulted in several thousands of dollars of equipment and merchandise being stolen. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound!
After recovering from the fire the Gordons continued to make improvements to the property and squeezed as much usable space out of their two acre site as they could. Additional parking areas were created for both customer vehicles and boats wherever possible. The South Street residence formerly owned by the White family was purchased when Mrs. White passed away and after being rented out for several years the structure was demolished to make way for a larger boat display area at street level. It was interesting to hear stories about whenever any excavating was done on the property chances were that several pieces of coal would be found.
Over the years Gordon Marine greatly expanded their new boat sales under the guidance of Sales Manager Neil. They sold all kinds of watercraft including sailboats, inflatables, skiffs, runabouts and cruisers. Some of the major brands that they carried included Chaparral, Grew, KMV, Tanzer, Crestliner, Limestone, Carver, Zodiac, Key West, and Hobie Cat, to name just a few. Having the new, huge, indoor show room allowed the marina to keep a larger stock of inventory on display for potential customers to examine and compare. Neil and his crew were also very active during the Boat Show season and represented the marina at all of the major events in the area.
The sales and service of Mercury outboards was also a key part of the business. Ross became a Mercury Master Technician and oversaw the entire repair and maintenance department. He was later joined as a certified Master Technician by Jeff Kellogg, a longtime mechanic at the marina. Another key employee who played a major role in the success of Gordon Marine was Chris Schapelhouman who managed the Parts Department as well as wearing many other hats in the business.
The type of repairs that Gordons was called upon to perform ran the full spectrum from routine maintenance work to complete engine rebuilds. Of course, fixing the damage to boats and motors caused by hitting one of the many shoals in the area always kept the repair technicians busy during the peak boating months. The marina’s team was always ready to spring into action whenever they received a distress call from a boater in trouble. The old steel tow boat got lots of work pulling vessels of all sizes off the rocks and back to the home base for damage evaluation and repairs. Dealing with distraught owners who had just run their pride and joy onto a nasty shoal was definitely not one of the more pleasant aspects of the business!
One of the other benefits that came from rebuilding the burnt out marina facilities was the additional floor space available for a greatly expanded store area and Jan took full advantage of the opportunity. She put together one of the best stocked marine chandleries in the area with everything from electronic gear and safety equipment to water toys for the large number of boaters and cottagers who frequented the shop.
Probably the busiest part of the marina’s business was the gas dock. Originally branded as an Esso dealership, the sign on the dock changed to BP, Petro-Canada, and finally Ultramar over the years. Countless gallons of gasoline passed through the hoses of the pumps into thirsty boats of all shapes and sizes. With the influx of more large cruisers and cigarette type boats to the area it was not uncommon to have fill-ups in excess of a thousand dollars and many boaters still paid for those whopping bills with cash! The gas dock was also a place to watch if you wanted to be entertained. Rookie boaters would almost pull their hair out trying to land their shiny new craft at the dock while dealing with river currents, gusty winds and tour boat wakes. The row of tires that lined the dock certainly prevented many unsightly dings to the highly polished gelcoat hulls of the boats that crashed into them!
Of course, being in the marina business for almost forty years didn’t come without its challenges. Mother Nature always kept the Gordons on their toes with her offerings of high and low water levels, varying amounts of river ice, and those lovely east winds that would buffet the exposed gas dock to make landing there even trickier than normal. The most frustrating thing that the family had to deal with, however, was the government. Many of the policies that were introduced over the years, such as The North American Free Trade Agreement and the GST and HST, took direct aim at the bottom line of the business. Negotiating with the various levels of governments on items such as property taxes and water lot leases proved to be very aggravating, and costly, for the family too.Figure 11: Gas dock attendant Cory Cooper exemplified the friendly, efficient service that Gordons became known for.
When the Gordon family collectively decided that it was time to retire from the marina business attempts were made to sell the operation as-is and keep it open. Unfortunately, those negotiations broke down and the group instead decided to sell the property to a developer who had plans to build a condominium complex on the site. The gas dock was permanently closed in the fall of 2013 and site preparations for the construction of the condos are currently underway.
The purchaser of the Gordon property is CaraCo Development Company, a subsidiary of the CJM Property Management Company, which is owned by the Blommestyn family of Kingston. They have also acquired the properties adjacent to the marina and plan to develop the block of land stretching from Stone Street to the 1000 Islands Playhouse. Century 21 Keyes Real Estate Ltd. is acting as the local sales agent for the development.
The proposed six-storey condominium has 102 units, ranging from just over 1000 square feet to over 2200 square feet in size, and features all of the modern amenities that you would expect in a building of this nature. The developer is currently in negotiations with the local officials to get final approval for their plans.
As the Gordon family vacates the location that they have occupied on the Gananoque riverfront for so many years they can look back with a large degree of satisfaction knowing that they have provided a valuable service to thousands of customers and that they have also been good corporate citizens, supporting many worthy causes, over those years. The Gordons have also written a significant chapter in the history of the property as it transitioned from Coal Yard to Condos over the past one hundred years.
I would like to thank Ken and Jean Gordon, Ross Gordon, Sandy Gordon and Jan Gordon-Shortall for spending time with me to gather the information for this story.
I would also like to thank the Gordon family for giving me full access to their scrapbooks and photo archives so that I could include so many terrific photographs in the story.
Appreciation is also extended to Rusty Shaikh of Century 21 Keyes Real Estate Ltd. for his assistance in gathering information on the Riviyra Condominium development.
February 2014 Part One: The Sampson Coal Company
March 2014 Part Two: The Cuttle Years
[Note. Be sure to review the many comments received on both articles]
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 12th TI Life article and Part 3 of 3 parts to the Sampson property story. Click here to see all of Tom’s articles.
Editor’s Note: The Gordon Family played a huge role in the lives of so many islanders on the River and their marina business will be sorely missed this summer. (In fact, I don’t know what we will do without them.) The whole family from the parents - Jean and Ken; the boys - Sandy, Neil, and Ross; and daughter Jan - are wonderful individuals. Their care and support to our family as well as our neighbours and friends, will be long remembered. Our very best wishes to the Gordons and THANKS for the service and the memories!