For many of us, thinking of the “old days” of northern Ontario tourism evokes images of roaring two-stroke outboards, crackling radiotelephones, and campfires with grandparents and friends who have long passed on. At this point in time, one can rarely hear a camp story from the earlier part of the twentieth century. Many of the lodges and cabins in this region were only built in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the trails and waterways around Lochalsh were travelled by tourists long before then. So what was tourism like over one hundred years ago?
The late 1800s and early 1900s can be a challenging period to find sources on, especially when investigating tourism in less popular destinations that didn’t have massive permanent infrastructure like the grand railway hotels seen in other places in North America.
Most of the history that I (Elorah) have written about to date has focused on mining activities in the region, which were admittedly the easiest to research. Either mine sites and dates could still be attested to by the living or there were clear trails of government paperwork from digital archives (the Ontario Geological Survey has extensive materials catalogued, dating back to the 1880s, and each mine in Ontario has a digital record of relevant documents). Most local history is focused on mining and forestry, and personal accounts of what this lifestyle was like in Wawa, Goudreau, and Lochalsh and some other rail-side settlements are accessible through books like Algoma: A People’s History by Dan Douglas.
Unlike gold discoveries, canoe trips and fishing tips didn’t make the weekly headlines in national newspapers, and government inspectors were not writing reports on tourism like they did for mines, as far as I’ve found. My progression of thoughts on how to research the topic was: Canoe. Train. Taking a canoe on the train? People still do that with the Budd Car today, so someone had to have done it a long time ago. These were the modes of transportation before bush planes and highways. So that was a start. Once I found documents from the Canadian Pacific Railway, the larger picture of early tourism came into view.
As for literal pictures, there are not many photographs from this era, except from the CPR brochures. To prevent copyright problems, I’ve clipped a few selections from the full digital documents that I have.
If you are interested in looking at digitized documents from the past years of the CPR, you can access the free Chung Collection from the University of British Columbia and explore their CPR Company archive. This is where I found most of the documents for this post.
Waterways of Northern Ontario
The northernmost reaches of Ontario lead to James Bay and Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. A number of rivers lead from the Lake Superior area to James Bay, and have long been transportation routes for Indigenous peoples in the region, namely the Ojibway, Cree, and Oji-Cree. European missionaries and traders reached the region by the 1600s and also travelled the rivers by canoe to reach trade goods and establish settlements.
The Hudson’s Bay Company (which still exists today as a department store and owns a number of brands) built trading posts along the main waterways to collect furs. They brought in European trade goods like wool point blankets, firearms, metal cookware, fabric, and food items such as flour and sugar. The post managers, referred to as “factors,” would often be the only means of communication and outfitting for visitors— not that there were casual tourists swarming the rivers in this era.
To read a more in-depth article on the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the fur trade, see The Canadian Encyclopedia.
The locations of reserves today are not necessarily where Indigenous groups historically lived–– many people nomadically followed seasonal foods–– but where the British (later Canadian) government assigned them to settle and established trading posts, churches, and schools. The government appointed “Indian agents” to supervise the reserves and enforce colonial law, and these men sometimes served as guides or outfitters to the rare leisure traveller of the era.
Reading reports from the 1800s, I’ve seen many remarks wherein geologists and surveyors describe Indigenous families living in their own settlements along waterways and fishing, hunting, trapping, and farming. The waters provided sustenance to all.
The Beginning of Tourism
Some of the earliest records of tourism in Algoma that I located date back to the 1830s. Writers from Europe and more southern reaches of North America sought to tell tales of the northern wilderness and Indigenous populations. There were no outfitters or infrastructure in place for “tourism” as we know it; these travellers hired fur traders or Indian agents to escort them (Jasen, 1993, p. 14-15).
By the 1850s, tourists took steamship trips around the Great Lakes. One popular route started at Collingwood, on Lake Huron in southern Ontario, and stopped at places such as Sault Ste. Marie on the way to Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay). On Lake Superior, they would see Indigenous people travelling by canoe, stop by settlements to see the Indigenous way of life— which might involve some intentional theatrical production by the residents who could no longer follow traditional lifestyles due to displacement and environmental change–– and buy handmade souvenirs and wild foods. Some tourists were searching for land to settle on, hoping to find gold, or on a journey into fresh air to try to cure diseases (Jasen, 1993, p. 15-16).
Only those tourists who were physically and financially capable would hire fishing and canoeing guides to take them further inland, as historian Patricia Jasen explains:
Hunters and anglers for their part headed for places like Nipigon where fish or game were abundant, and where they could feel truly alone (under the care of their guides) in the northern wilderness. The combined costs of transportation, canoes, equipment and guides could make this an expensive pastime, and it was especially popular with businessmen from the eastern and mid-western United States. (1993, p. 16).
The largest change in tourism came about when the railroad was completed.
The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was constructed throughout the 1880s and 1890s, and the railroad that we now know as the Algoma Central was built in the early 1900s. By the late 1800s, with extensive provincial and transcontinental rail and steamship routes in place— and many connections to American routes— the CPR advertised convenient, scenic, and affordable summer tours.
The Algoma region was developed slowly compared to other more accessible Ontario tourist destinations like Lake of the Woods, Temagami, the French River, and Muskoka— in these places, CPR and private owners constructed luxury motels and “bungalow camps” for urban tourists. I found a number of CPR brochures that outline attractions across Ontario in the early decades of the 1900s; in each there are pages upon pages describing the conveniences and activities of popular camps, and about one paragraph advertising canoe trips out of Missanabie.
Missanabie was already a stop-off for traders and prospectors. The earliest tourism reference that I found to date is from 1891. A pamphlet called Fishing and Shooting on the Canadian Pacific Railway noted that there was a new “Soo Line” from Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie which also joined up to St. Paul and Minneapolis, allowing for comfortable travel and hotel accommodations (p. 51). The Michipicoten was toted as a top fishing route:
Leaving the train with canoe, camp supplies, etc., at Missanabie Station, one can paddle south for about ten miles on Dog Lake, and reach the Michipicoton River [sic], which flows into Superior. This stream is unrivalled in its way, and the visitor will never regret the experiment, for great sport will surely result. (p. 48).
In 1895, Forest & Stream writer J.E. Newsome travelled to Missanabie by train and boarded overnight with the Hudson’s Bay Company store manager, who located Indigenous canoeing and fishing guides for trout and walleye on the Michipicoten River.
An 1897 CPR pamphlet mentions the canoe route from Missanabie to James Bay, and also shows that steamboat travel was soon an option:
To fish [the Michipicoten river] you get off at Missanabie station and cross Dog Lake in a steam-launch, distance about ten miles, to Stony Point, where the fishing starts…By writing to the Hudson Bay officer at Missanabie, guides and canoes can be secured without any difficulty. (p. 44).
In 1902, following the news of new gold discoveries being made in the Wawa area, the gold rush was marketed as an appealing adventure for the tourist, not just the prospector. At this time, CPR listed the accommodation in Missanabie as a fifteen-person boarding house which cost $1 per night and between $3.50 to $5 per week (1902, p. 43). A brochure from the year says:
Another interesting trip is to the Michipicoten gold mines, on Lake Superior, which are reached by steamer direct from the Canadian Soo, or by the C.P.R. main line to Missanabie…and thence by the steamers of the Missanabie & Wawa Transportation Co. through Dog and Manitowish [sic] lakes to the scene of the recent mineral discoveries. (p. 26)
In 1909’s Fishing, Shooting, Canoe Trips and Camping guide from the CPR, moose are noted to be “quite abundant” for sport hunting in Missanabie and other northern regions, and sharp tailed grouse are said to be easily shot directly along the rail lines, as they eat grain dropped from trains (p. 11-12). The whole of northern Ontario— and Canada— is presented as a vast wilderness with abundant game populations, including vibrant illustrations and photographs to stoke the imagination. Canoe routes on northern rivers are outlined in careful detail, with pricing, outfitting contacts, and practical travel tips included. Little information is given for the Missanabie to Hudson Bay route except that travellers should expect four to five weeks for the round trip (p. 55).
1931’s Fishing Waters and Game Haunts suggests a number of canoe trips on northern Ontario waterways. Unlike the 1909 route descriptions, which focus mainly on scenery and travel challenges, the 1931 descriptions paint very colourful descriptions and over-emphasize the virility of the presumably male tourist (it should be noted that there were female writers and adventurers around since the 1830s, though they were much more rare). It is noted that in the Chapleau and Montreal River areas, “a few Indians, who have remained ‘native’, still roam this country” (p. 40). The Missinabie [sic] to Lake Superior route is advertised as follows:
A real he-man’s canoe cruise of marvellous possibilities is that via Dog Lake, Missinabie Lake, Whitefish Lake and Michipicoten River, to Lake Superior, coming out at the Algoma Central Railway. At Missinabie, on the Canadian Pacific, you detrain virtually on the shore of Dog Lake. And the man who demands excitement with his sport is in for a 58-mile feast of sparkling fishing— both speckled and lake trout running to generous size and quantity. There is only one difficult portage— the rest being comparatively east. But the guides at Missinabie simplify such matters just as expertly as the Hudson’s Bay Co. and Jules F. Ross settle your outfitting problems. (p. 40).
The guide also includes the Oba River route, which is imaged in quite exotic and stereotypical terms:
Unique, in that it passes through a region rarely visited by white man, the Oba is a delight to the canoeist seeking the novelty of running a narrow, shallow stream where the trees almost meet overhead like a jungle river. It is an easy trip, the current taking the load off the paddle, and portages are infrequent. Occasionally you will come across a canoe ‘homing’ towards an Indian village such as Oba— an Ojibway or Cree paddling lazily, with his squaw and children sitting stolidly up forward. (p. 40-41).
The 1939 guide includes the same copy for the Missanabie and Oba trips (p. 45). Along with fishing and hunting, CPR endorses photography tours and tips for the wilderness adventurers (p. 37), reaching out to other types of tourists besides the sportsperson. At this point, the Chapleau Crown Game Preserve had already been established.
In 1943, Fishing Water and Game Haunts in Eastern Canada shows a shift towards private tourism outfitters. For the Missanabie visitor, a number of private camps are listed, and near Franz, the intersection of the CPR and ACR, “a newly erected main lodge and two sleeping cabins on Esnagi Lake now assure the visiting hunter and fisherman of accommodations” (p. 31). The 1943 guide uses the same copy as the 1931 guide to describe the Missanabie to Lake Superior route, and also includes a write-up for the Missanabie to James Bay which plays upon historical imagery:
Conjuring up visions of bygone fur traders, trappers, and coureurs-de-bois whose moccasined feet blazed the trail of this, one of the oldest canoe routes in Canada, the trip from Missanabie to James Bay offers much to the canoeist. (p. 37).
Lochalsh itself is finally mentioned as a tourist destination in this 1943 brochure:
West of Chapleau and bordering the Preserve, is Lochalsh on the Canadian Pacific main line. The Prospect Hotel operated by J.W. Robichaud, Lochalsh, Ontario, provides accommodation close to good hunting. Boats, guides and other services are available and a line to Mr. Robichaud will bring additional information. (p. 31).
The Prospect Hotel was originally built to house Lochalsh’s gold hunters. Camp Lochalsh eventually purchased the Prospect Hotel because it was outside of the Game Preserve boundaries, and hunters were allowed to keep their firearms on-hand there (Douglas, 1995, p. 124). Staff were also housed in the hotel throughout the years. It was demolished in the 1990s due to deterioration, and stood right across from the house where I am spending the winter.
In 1947, geologist E.L. Bruce, working in the area, noticed that “a fairly large number of hunters come to Missanabie for the moose-hunting season owing to the fact that the open area to the south of the railway is easily accessible and guides and facilities for outfitting are available. Fish are plentiful.” (1947, p. 4). By the 1950s, the CPR brochures started to advertise the train route alone, as most outfitters were private and recruiting guests on their own. Eventually the construction of more roads, such as the Trans-Canada Highway (#17) would make lodges and fishing spots even more accessible.
In my research, I happened to find an article from Rod and Gun magazine about a 1913 expedition from Loch Alsh siding (as it was spelled then) to Fort Albany and back that details what one of the advertised canoe trips would be like. Next week I will discuss the challenges that tourists would actually encounter in comparison to the CPR advertisements, and more photographs will follow.
P.S. I’m still doing well living out here in Lochalsh. I haven’t put out anything on history for a while, so I decided to change things up. I will continue Winter at Wabatongushi soon!
You can leave any comments or questions below…
Bruce, E.L. (1940). Geology of the Goudreau-Lochalsh Area. In Province of Ontario Department of Mines, Forty-ninth annual report of the Ontario Department of Mines, Part III, (pp. 1-47). T.E. Bowman.
Canadian Pacific Railway Co. (1902). Canadian Pacific Railway Summer Tours: Volume III.— Upper Lake Tours. Montreal: Canadian Pacific Railway Co.
Canadian Pacific Railway Company. (1909). Fishing, shooting, canoe trips and camping [Advertisements]. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0228152
Canadian Pacific Railway Company. (1897). Fishing and shooting along the line of the Canadian Pacific Railway, in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, the prairies and mountains of western Canada, the state of Maine and in Newfoundland [Advertisements]. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0229196
Canadian Pacific Railway Company. (1931). Fishing waters and game haunts [Advertisements]. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0229064
Canadian Pacific Railway Company. (1939). Fishing waters and game haunts [Advertisements]. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0229332
Canadian Pacific Railway Company. (1943). Fishing waters and game haunts in eastern Canada [Advertisements]. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0229062
Douglas, D. (1995). Algoma: A people’s history. J. Turnbull (Ed.). Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press.
Jasen, P. (1993). Native people and the tourist industry in nineteenth-century Ontario. Journal of Canadian Studies, 28(4), p. 5-27.
Newsome, J.E. (1895, November 16). One day’s fishing. Forest and Stream, XLV, p. 427.
Sandys, E. W., & Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Passenger Department. (1891). Fishing and shooting on the Canadian Pacific Railway [Advertisements]. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0229063