In 1739 a Royal shipyard was set up in Canada. A Rochefort naval engineer, Rene-Nicolas Levasseur, was sent to New France to take charge of ship building. Ten warships were built in the next twenty years including the first frigate built in Canada…Le Castor. “The Beaver” was a 26 gun (8 pounder). The keel was laid in July 1744, Le Castor was launched on May 16, 1745.
Rene-Nicolas Levasseur belonged to a family that had been involved with
ship building for nearly a century. His father was the supervisor of naval
construction at Toulon. Rene-Nicolas apprenticed under him and entered the
king’s service in 1727. In 1733 he supervised the building of a 40-gun ship,
Ships built in Canada by Levasseur include Canada (28 gun flute), Caribou (52 gun ship), the Carcajou (12 gun corvette), Martre (22 gun frigate), Saint-Laurent (60 gun ship), Orignal ( 60 gun ship), Algonquin (72 gun ship), Abénaquise ( 30 gun frigate) and another 30-gun frigate, Quebec, was begun in 1756 but not completed.
The Castor was one of the new "modern" flush decked frigates with cannons on her upper deck and based on Blaise Olivier's (Master Shipwright of the Royal Dockyard at Brest) "Medee" built in 1740. Included in this class of frigates were the Sirene and the Renommee.
The plans for the Castor arrived at Quebec in the fall of 1742. Correspondence to the Marine Minister (the comte de Maurepas) from Marquis de Beauharnois (Governor de la Nouvelle-France) dated September 17, 1742 advised that the plans have arrived and are in the hands of Levasseur, briefly discusses the plans, the dimensions of 115 feet (from stem to stern) and width of 31 feet. Beauharnois, an old naval officer, appreciated the lines of the new frigate. The intent of the letter seems to be a concern that plans for any sculpturing and other ornamentation was not included and the governor inquires if drawings will be sent or should simpler décor be used as was done with the Flute Le Canada .. i.e. a figurehead and some transom décor. PIAF – 48103
The problem with ship building in Canada at this time was finding quality wood to build the ships with and finding trees with the kind of bends and natural curves that futtocks and knees could be fashioned. Lavasseur would accompany expeditions into the bush to look for the kind of wood needed for ship building. White Oak was especially desired but in short supply. Spruce, red pine and elm were used to build ships up to this point.. Add to that skilled craftsmen were in short supply.
Initially Levasseur had every intention of building the Castor with Spruce
(with the blessings of Versailles) as indicated in his letter of August 1742
to the Chief of Ship Construction for the Royal French Navy. Beauharnois
though realizing the extra armament and the length of the Castor could not
be supported with spruce knees or other local wood available, insisted that
the ship be built primarily of white oak (recently found at Lake Champlain)
and set down his reasoning in detail in his dispatch of October 19th.
PIAF– 48161, PIAF- 49301
The Marine Minister, the comte de Maurepas sided with Beauharnois. In a dispatch dated April 1743 wherein Versailles confirmed that the white oak samples sent were of excellent quality, made it clear the Castor will now be built of oak. (An interesting note is the dispatch also indicates that a 24 gun frigate will be built at Brest using spruce to test its durability). Levasseur was given a 500 livre bonus and promoted from sous to maitre constructeur for work done on Le Canada. PIAF-238852, PIAF-238935
particular inventory breaks down the quantities of each wood type
and assigns the wood types to specific components of the frigate.
PIAF – 48259
The masts and yards were made with Cypress and Red Pine, the blocks from Ash. PIAF – 48582
In 1743 a list of equipment needs was sent to Rochefort. Everything required to build Le Castor (from nails to cordage) was ordered. Cannons are listed but there is a note that these will be made in Quebec. PIAF – 48240
Abundant supplies of large white oaks were found in the Lake Champlain area in the winter of 1744. Cypress was also found there of a quality, girth and height that masts could be fashioned. Levasseur wrote that transporting the wood back to the Cul de Sac would be economical relative to other wood sources. Further inventories of oak are recorded in the Kings Storehouse as at October 20, 1744 and assigned to both the Castor and the St. Laurent. PIAF - 48367 , PIAF - 48381
Noël and Jean-Baptiste Levasseur ( no relation to ship builder)
were contracted to decorate the ships being built at the Cul de Sac. The
Levasseur family are noted sculptors in New France (churches). The frigate
Castor was decorated with a figurehead of a beaver holding a shield with the
arms of France which was likely carved by one of the Levasseurs.
Pierre Noël Levasseur II, the son of (Pierre)-Noel, was sent to Rochefort in 1743 by Rene Nicolas Levasseur, (Castor Shipbuilder), to apprentice and improve his skills. Particularly in the design of ornamentation on ships. http://tceplus.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0007238
Sculptured decoration on the Castor would be far less ornamental then that found on ships built in France. A further hint of the extent of decoration that might be found on Le Castor is given in this correspondence (1747) where Levasseur is informed of the decision of the minister in connection with the sculpturing of the vessel Le St. Laurent … it must be "simple and in the same taste as those of the Caribou and other frigates built" in Canada PIAF – 48785
One interesting side note is that Pierre-Noel sent to his father three drawings/ designs of ship decorations. The drawings are preserved in the archives of the Séminaire de Québec. One of these drawings gives one an insight into how the Castor may have been decorated. Simple décor at this time would have been carvings of leaves and flowers.. "Gayac" or ironwood was used to trim the Castor PIAF – 49538