Part 1 Dinorwic
This central part of North America was more populated before the railway than most people realize; travel was by birchbark canoe on our myriad rivers and lakes. A network of canoe routes covered the district, more elaborate and sophisticated than one might think, even including trade routes. Example, a route up the Albany and down the Berens rivers, regular traffic with salt from Hudson’s Bay going west, and prairie pemmican (sort of like aboriginal Klik, fast food) going east. There was a main north-south canoe route, connecting Lake Superior and the Mississippi through Rainy Lake to Lac Seul and the Albany River. It came up the Manitou’s and Wabigoon/Dinorwic Lakes, and on through Minnitaki Lake.
When the CPR was built some attention was paid to these routes. The railway was divided into Divisions, ours being from Fort William to Winnipeg, and Subdivisions, we are in the ‘Ignace Subdivision’. The Subdivision points were Ignace and Kenora; these would be railway towns, with a concentration of maintenance employees and actual train crews. There was also a railway presence at the midpoint of each Subdivision, ours being Eagle River, also a small crew of maintenance workers at each section, these being (in our area) Oxdrift, Barclay, and what is now Dinorwic, then known as Wabigoon or “Wabigoon Mission’. Dinorwic then was the intersection point of the new CPR with the old canoe routes and would have been a commercial center or village of some sort, certainly with a Hudson’s Bay Company presence. And if it was a ‘mission’, perhaps there was a church even before 1882.
The District changed in the 1890’s, with the rise of gold mining activity especially south of Lake Wabigoon, and establishment of the agricultural community at what became Dryden.
As it happened, the CPR line ran over the point of a small bay on Lake Wabigoon, making that spot an ideal place to transfer freight from train to steamboat. As steamboat traffic grew to serve the gold mining activity across the lake, this became important, and the CPR transferred the name Wabigoon to the village growing on that bay, sometime around 1896.
Hazel Fulford, in her book “When Trains stopped in Dinorwic”, reports that an early resident of Dinorwic was named ‘Taffy Jones’ (presumably as early as the 1890’s, Hazel’s story doesn’t really start till after the turn of the century). Taffy was a Welshman, and apparently remarked that there was a town in Wales named Dinorwic. So, if he was one of the few residents of the village when the name ‘Wabigoon’ was scooped for the new settlement further west, perhaps Taffy nailed down his place in history by putting forward a new name, “Dinorwic”, for his home community, formerly known as ‘Wabigoon Mission”. If you google ‘Dinorwic, Wales’, you will find it was the site of a large slate quarry, now a tourist attraction. Bingo.
Part 2, Stamboats on the Wabigoon
One of the things I am impressed by in studying history is how rapidly things got done in olden times, before bureaucratic inertia, ‘environmental’ studies, ‘traditional land use’ claims, and assorted kinds of political interference and graft became such stumbling blocks. Between the opening of the CPR in 1882, and the start of Dryden in 1896, a considerable amount of mining activity got going in our district, including a number of sites south of Lake Wabigoon, culminating in the rise of the (now ghost) town of Gold Rock. It grew to its maximum population of 800 by 1902, if I remember my reading of “Ghost Towns of Ontario” right.
Supply point for all of these was from the CPR by water across Lake Wabigoon. The CPR main line actually crossed a small bay at one point, so that there was water deep enough for sizable boats right adjacent to the tracks. Freight could easily be transferred from rail to Wabigoon Lake steamer.
As noted last week, the community of Wabigoon sprang up at this rail-water transfer point, and by the 1900’s there was a network of regularly scheduled steamboat runs all over the lake. In addition to Gold Rock, there was gold mining activity around Contact Bay and in the Guy and Bob lake area accessible from Wabigoon Lake’s West Arm.
All these were served by a regular scheduled steamboat service on Lake Wabigoon. Routes went from the village of Wabigoon to the south end of Dinorwic Lake heading for Gold Rock; to Contact Bay, and to MacLeod’s creek in the west arm. The water was sometimes too shallow for these boats in the channel from Dinorwic Lake to Wabigoon Lake, so in 1898 the lake was raised by a low dam on the Wabigoon River where Dryden’s Duke Street dam is now.
Dryden did not yet exist, its location was known as “Barclay Tank’, and it was a regular stop on the western steamboat routes. Old mining inspectors reports from the 90’s tell of accessing the Guy/Bob lake mines by getting off the train at Barclay Tank, taking the regular steamboat run to MacLeod’s creek in the west arm of Wabigoon lake, then renting a canoe from the operator there (dare I call it a marina?). They would then paddle up the creek to the mining area – a mile or two south-east of the present landfill.
John Crerar, one of the earliest arrivals to our community, noted in his memoirs that the CPR in old Ontario sold him a ticket to Barclay when he set out to go to the demonstration farm in the new northwest country in 1896; it was the local trainmen who suggested he stay on the train till ‘Barclay Tank’. He noted that the only building at Barclay Tank, other than the demonstration farm, was a bunkhouse about where the Swanson Block is now (King and Earl), where one could rent a bale of hay to use as a bed, sort of an early motel.
So it is well documented there was regular steamboat traffic to and from Barclay Tank in the 1890’s, but I can find nothing in the historical record as to exactly where the steamboat dock was.
Part 3 Steamboat Dock at Dryden
So, if there was a motel at Barclay Tank and a marina at MacLeod’s Creek to serve the steamboat traffic bound for Guy/Bob lakes gold mines, there had to be a volume of traffic. There had to be a place for passengers and freight to get on and off the boat. The question then arises, where was the steamboat dock, however primitive it might have been?
This is liable to be a subject of debate, even heavy debate, even, dare I say, argument whenever two or more old Dryden history buffs get together. There are a number of theories defended by various individuals, some even hotly defended. Remember that the river was lower than now, and would have been narrower and might have run more rapidly at times, and also that steamboats were clumsy things compared with a modern outboard. I expect the boat would have been mostly filled with a boiler and engine, with perhaps pretty Spartan passenger accommodation, think “African Queen” (Haven’t seen it? Great old Bogey movie). There is still a remnant of one of the Wabigoon Lake boats laying on the bottom at Boudreau’s Landing on Dinorwic Lake, so we have some idea as to what they might have looked like. George Wice, in his excellent book ‘Carved from the Wilderness’ refers to the “Dryden Belle”, a steamboat made especially for the Barclay Tank stop, smaller with a shallower draft than the lake boats.
One theory is that the dock had to be on the south side of Sawmill point (or is that Tugboat point), the rocky point in front of the mill. Presumably passengers would leave the motel, and walk across the railway bridge, then around a considerable swale and the present mill site to the point. That would mean walking on the ties, between the rails, with nothing below if you slip, while watching for signs there might be a train approaching, hardly a trip for the faint-hearted. Not impossible – there are tales of people making that journey, even herding a cow across, presumably with the aid of some temporary planks.
Other theories have the dock somewhere south of Duke Street, or at what is now Skene Landing. I have done some detective-ing, and am here to tell you, I have solved the mystery; it was Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with a wrench (oops, wrong mystery). I will bore you with a full description of my investigation and unimpeachable logic in the next few chapters.
First bit of evidence, John Crerar’s memoirs indicate that he walked south along the river in his tour that first day here, back in 1896. The east line of Earl Ave would have been cut out by the land surveyors as far as Duke St. the previous year, so he probably followed that. He reported that there was a ravine with a small creek crossing Earl and emptying into the river just south of present day Princess St, and another bigger ravine and creek somewhere around present-day Albert Street. Both of these creeks were filled in with slabs and sawdust from sawmills in subsequent years, and that is still there, under our neatly finished town.
John reports he made a big loop south, but did not indicate any sign of a wagon trail or road or path.
Part 4, The Dryden Youth Centre
If we want to look for the steamboat dock, let’s look at the river. Fortunately, the town commissioned O. S. Jackson, a local professional photographer to take a series of photos of the town from a low-flying aircraft in 1955. The museum has a complete set, as does Public Works. That was just at the start of the major expansion of the mill and the town, and is a valuable reference when looking for ‘how things were back when’.
Get down your copy of “Dryden’s Pioneer Tree, a glimpse of yesterday”, published by the Museum in 1985. Got no copy? Maybe you should have! Anyway it is in Dryden Library, or you just have to use your imagination to make sense of the following.
This book’s cover liner is one of Jackson’s aerial photo’s looking southwest across the downtown. It provides a nice shot of the downtown section of the river. Just east of the mill dam and bridge is quite a large building with a large parking lot, well-filled when the photo was taken. That is the “Youth Centre”, very much a center of activity in those days.
It was built in the 30’s for the Boy Scouts with support from the mill, primarily as a training hall, and was used by the military, cadets and so on as a military training place during the war. Also used by the Jaycees as a depot for scrap iron collected from the homesteads for the war effort.
After the war it was expanded by the Jaycees and rechristened the ‘Youth Center’, the idea being that it would be a dance hall as well as used by Boy Scouts and as a headquarters for the Jaycees, a very active young man’s organization. Everyone who was a teenager in the 50’s remembers the ‘Teen Canteen’, a town-sponsored dance every Friday night; the place was always crowded. The building burned down in 1968, and the town refused to allow the Jaycees to have it replaced. This was a major factor in the disappearance of the Jaycees (and in my becoming involved in municipal politics).
It was on a rock island, now the west part of the mill parking lot, which supports the east end of the dam and bridge, and extends to the north a ways. Not quite an island, it was connected to the shore by a small bridge of rock at its northeast corner; this was blasted open to provide a route for water to escape while the first dam was under construction in 1898. This passage was used as the tailrace for the water wheel that powered F. T. Brignall’s sawmill, which was between the island and Earl Ave., just south of the buildings in the picture.
Back to the picture. Between the Youth Centre and Earl is a grassy area, with a swimming pool near Duke Street. This area is all fill; it was originally just a swampy ravine. A pipe was included in the fill under Duke Street when it was built so river water could be allowed into this area, it became a pond which we are told was used by the settlers as a convenient place to park their horse-drawn wagons to soak and tighten up the wooden wheels in their steel rims. Later it became the swimming pool shown in the picture.
Part 5 Where was the Steamboat Dock?
So, adding up, we have a creek in a ravine coming across Earl Ave from the east just south of Princess Street, deep enough that John Crerar noted it in his memoirs; in fact Art Fisher remembered it as twenty feet deep! City records corroborate there was such a ravine, we know that much of what is now the TD bank parking lot and Princess street itself are built on quite a depth of sawdust and slabs from F. T. Brignall’s sawmill; this is even discussed in ‘Carved from the Wilderness’. The creek would have emptied into the shallow bay next to Earl Ave., separated from the rapids where the dam is now by the rock island which used to carry the Youth Centre. Given one would walk from the CPR, and there was no road or trail past Princess for wheelbarrows or horse drawn conveyance to carry freight I conclude the dock was in the mouth of that creek, just west of Earl, a bit south of Princess.
But let’s look at one more bit of evidence.
Look carefully at the aerial photo we were studying last week (inside cover, “Dryden’s Pioneer Tree, a Glimpse of Yesterday”). You will see a sidewalk starts on the west side of Earl, at a random point a few feet south of Princess, and runs diagonally across the open field to Duke St., a short cut to the mill. A footpath branches off it and runs to the Youth Centre. That was in 1955.
OK, all you old folks who trooped to the Youth Centre back in the 50’s and 60’s for Teen Canteen, Jaycees, Boy Scouts, or whatever, focus your mind on that sidewalk. I remember it started with a set of stairs, perhaps 4 steps down, from the Earl Avenue sidewalk. Remember that? I also remember the stairs were not concrete, but sort of handmade, antique-y looking, made of flat slabs of dark stone, perhaps slate, laid in mortar.
I think that stair was the remnant of a much longer one, down to the steamboat dock perhaps fifteen feet below, back before 1910 when the river was much lower and before the bay was filled. Can any old-timer’s confirm what I remember about those stairs, or if not tell me I am a senile old fool. If I am right, those stone stairs are almost sure to be still there under all that fill and pavement.
One more confirmation, one of our first hotels was near Duke and Earl, a bit away from the CP station, but this location makes sense if it were near the steamboat dock! So, mystery solved, steamboat dock was between Princess and Duke, west of Earl, at the bottom of that stair. Probably never described in any early history literature as being too obvious to comment on.
So what does all this mean? Just one more reason the City ought to acquire this property, now the under-utilized mill parking lot. It is needed for the Arena crowds, and would be a place to put up a memorial to steamboats on the Wabigoon! And a place for downtown festivals and markets! Hello City of Dryden, get on it!