CANTIN, AUGUSTIN, shipbuilder; b. 17 June 1809 in Cap-Santé, Lower Canada, son of Guillaume Cantin and Catherine Defroie; m. 29 May 1841 Elizabeth Benning in Montreal, and they had ten children, of whom three survived infancy; d. there 30 Nov. 1893.
Augustin Cantin learned ship carpentry at Cap-Santé before moving to Montreal in 1831. There steamboats and other vessels were being built for an expanding commercial traffic. After working for a few years in shipyards, Cantin started his own business but then abandoned it to learn advanced shipbuilding techniques in Liverpool and New York. He returned to Montreal about 1837, worked in local shipyards, and established an excellent reputation. In 1841 he again started business on his own, near the entrance to the Lachine Canal. He quickly expanded, taking orders for steamboats from as far away as Hamilton, Upper Canada.
Cantin failed in 1843 but rebounded immediately, and in 1846 he opened the first stage of a new shipyard and dry dock. Within ten years, an engine foundry and sawmill were added to his works, which covered 14 acres. In 1850 he began to build small ocean-going vessels and to export on a limited basis. By that time the industry had become so centralized, efficient, and technologically advanced that only three producers remained in Montreal. Cantin had an advantage over his rivals because he was the first to run an entirely integrated operation and thus to be able to sell and service complete vessels, that is, both engine and hull. Business was good and Cantin’s reputation sound. A reporter for the credit agency R. G. Dun and Company wrote in 1855 that he was “one of the most enterprising Frenchmen in the city and has a great deal of go ahead.” That year he exhibited at the universal exposition in Paris.
By 1857 Cantin’s business, known as the Montreal Marine Works, was employing 150 to 250 workers and was estimated to be worth £32,000. According to a Dun reporter, it was not only the biggest shipyard in Montreal but also “the largest most complete & convenient manufacy Estabt in the City.” In addition Cantin owned considerable real estate in Griffintown (Montreal). Personally he was deemed “of Excellent Cha[racter] bus habs, & Responsibility Honble & Straightforward in his dealings, . . . perfectly safe for all his engagements.” Nevertheless, although he was believed to have been making big profits, Cantin experienced financial problems in 1859 and creditors pressed in. It took him several years to stabilize the business, but by the mid 1860s he was again thriving, turning out vessels for the Canadian government, Montreal firms, and navigation companies serving the St Lawrence River and Great Lakes traffic. As well, he built the blockade runner Sumter for the Confederate government, steamers for Cuba, and revenue cutters for France. In 1871 his fixed capital was estimated at $180,000, his working capital at $45,000, and the value of his annual output at $70,000; that year he paid wages totalling $35,000 to 84 employees.
As a leading shipbuilder and forwarder, Cantin spoke out on matters of interest to mariners, in particular strongly advocating increased protection of the shipbuilding industry by the dominion government from American competition. Born a Roman Catholic, he married and was buried in the Presbyterian church. After his death in 1893 a son, Charles-Albert, continued the business.
A portrait of Augustin Cantin is in Canadian album (Cochrane and Hopkins), 4: 512.
ANQ-M, CE1-115, 2 déc. 1893; CE1-125, 29 mai 1841. ANQ-Q, CE1-8, 17 juin 1809. Baker Library, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, 5: 218 (mfm. at NA). NA, MG 24, D16: 17304; MG 26, A; RG 31, C1, 1871. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1876, no.61. Montreal in 1856: a sketch prepared for the opening of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (Montreal, 1856). L. S. McNally, Water power on the Lachine Canal, 1846–1900 (Quebec, 1982). Tulchinsky, River barons. John Willis, The process of hydraulic industrialization on the Lachine Canal, 1840–1880: origins, rise and fall (Quebec, 1987), 360–61. É.-Z. Massicotte, “Les chantiers Cantin, à Montréal,” BRH, 42 (1936): 509–10.