S. Bernard Shaw, Mowat Village and Potter Creek, 1996

[…] Arthur Sturgis Hardy, Commissioner for Crown Lands, awarded a licence to Allan and David Gilmour of the firm of Gilmour and Company, Lumber Merchants, in May 1896 for 326 acres lying generally south of the almost-completed Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway and west of Potter Creek. The licence was for ten years, renewable subject to satisfactory performance, at a cost of forty dollars per annum, “for the purpose of erecting thereon saw mills and planning mills together with the necessary buildings and houses to be used in connection therewith by the licensees in cutting, sawing and taking off the pine timber in the Townships of Peck, Hunter and McLaughlin.” Provision was included for “booming grounds” (storage of logs within a chain-linked strings of logs) in Canoe Lake. In exchange for releasing some sixty nine acres in the south of this area, the Gilmours obtained a second licence on November 11, 1897 for fifty-three acres east of Potter Creek.

The steam engine at the Tramway powerhouse near Dorset was dismantled and, during the winter of 1896-97, laboriously hauled on rollers by teams of horses up the Gilmour Road to power a new sawmill on the northwest shore of Canoe Lake. […]

Essential to Gilmour’s new scheme was J.R. Booth’s Ottawa, Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway, running right across the Huron Tract from the Ottawa River to Parry Sound. With the benefit of hindsight, David Gilmour probably wished he had invested the fortune spent on the Trenton log drive to gather interest while he waited for Booth’s trains to reach Canoe Lake. A trial run was made on December 28, 1896 from Ottawa all the way to Depot Harbour on Georgian Bay but the railway did not officially open until the spring of 1897. The timing was perfect for Gilmour who, by this time, planned to have his sawmill processing the enormous quantity of logs held in Canoe Lake. A rail spur 2.4 kilometres long was run from the main line at Canoe Lake station to sidings near the mill. Sidings were also built near the station incorporating a “Y” to allow locomotives to turn around. These sidings had a total length of about four kilometers.

Once the steam engine was in place, the northwest corner of Canoe Lake became a hive of activity. Workers toiled around the clock preparing the new mill to saw “deals” (three to four-inch-thick boards) which would be shipped out by rail. David Gilmour was under tremendous pressure to recoup his enormous financial investment, much of it no doubt borrowed. He was also faced with the necessity of moving the accumulated logs choking Canoe Lake in order to accommodate the 1896-97 winter harvest. Perhaps because of the new mill’s financial vulnerability, it was established as a separate entity, Canoe Lake Mills.

Administrative policies for Algonquin Park were still being formulated and the Gilmours agreed, on paper at least, to comply with many conditions designed to protect the habitat. No buildings were to be constructed for the sale of goods; all buildings were to be used “extensively” by the Gilmours or their employees; there was to be no interference with canoe or other navigation, “except yearly for the five days that may be absolutely necessary in driving the said logs to said mills in the spring freshet in order to avoid raising the waters in summer;” debris likely to take or spread fire was to be removed; and the property was to be fenced and maintained in good sanitary condition. The harbinger of a rule familiar to today’s camper was, “no spirituous, fermenting or intoxicating liquor shall be sold.” The Gilmours had to pay half the salary of a park ranger, employed to ensure there was no violation of park rules, and agree to dismiss any employee guilty of transgression. Everything was subject to the approval of the park superintendent.

Significantly, in view of Canoe Lake Mills’ eventual bankruptcy, the Gilmour licence had termination clauses which called for “all buildings and structures of whatever kind to be taken down and removed… on the disuse of said mill or discontinuance of operations.” All the plant, machinery, appliances, rubbish and debris had to be removed from the park and the site restored to “a sightly and proper condition.” In fact, the Gilmours left the lake littered with debris, the surrounding hills denuded and a miscellany of buildings at Mowat and Potter Creek, some in use today. No real effort was made to clean up the site and much of their equipment was simply abandoned, to the delight of modern treasure hunters. Several cottages around Canoe Lake display logs stamped with a “G” by Gilmour’s scaler, and a wide range of artifacts recovered from the bush.

The settlement which soon grew around Canoe Lake Mills had to have a name. David Gilmour decided to honour – and flatter – Oliver Mowat, the most influential provincial politician of the era. He clearly wanted the government on his side. Naming the new village after the premier associated the government with Gilmour’s intent to log a vast area of the wilderness. In fact, as with so many of his ventures of this period, Gilmour’s timing was a little off. Sir Oliver (he was knighted in 1892) was in failing health and retired from politics in 1897 to be lieutenant-governor of Ontario, a post he held until his death in 1903.

The grave stone of mill worker James Watson in Canoe Lake cemetery establishes the population of Mowat at 500 in 1897 when Canoe Lake Mills commenced operations. A hospital, stables large enough to accommodate fifty teams of horses, a large warehouse, cookhouse and a variety of storehouses, offices, farm buildings and shacks grew around the mill. Accommodation was provided at the hospital and at the boarding house. During its brief life, Mowat showed remarkable growth in an area that had been reported by surveyor James Dickson in 1886 to be “devoid of settlement.”

The beginning of the end for Mowat came in 1898 with a depression in the timber business. Top-grade pine was stockpiled, waiting for the market to recover – perhaps another wrong decision. Sawdust, slabs and inferior logs were dumped in the bay alongside the mill to provide more stacking area. (Today, sawn timbers can be seen projecting through the still-spongy ground of the chip yard.) The market did not recover in time to save the fortunes of Canoe Lake Mills and insolvency came in 1900. Robert Gallna, who had worked in the mill, stayed on as caretaker and did his best to sell any remaining assets. He would have been the contact man for the sale of buildings in the following decade to Dr. Pirie, Huntsville Lumber Company foreman Hugh Trainor and others. Two banks, Canadian Bank of Commerce and Molson Bank, are shown on Records of Timber Limits, 1830-1949, Algonquin Park Museum Archives, as owning timber limits around Canoe Lake in 1901, presumably taken over when Gilmour defaulted on his loans. In 1907, a Kingston company was appointed as receiver. Shannon Fraser, a former employee of the Kingston Locomotive Works who became a key figure at Canoe Lake, was charged with dismantling the machinery.

Mowat was a company village. The Gilmour sawmill was its only reason for existence. Failure of the mill marked the beginning of the end for Mowat.

Effectively abandoning logging and Mowat in 1900, David Gilmour’s interests focused on the Trenton sash and door operation. By this time, probably following a disagreement over management of the company, Allan had no direct involvement in operations. The Gilmours’ Licences of Occupation around Canoe Lake were cancelled by Order-in-Council on December 11, 1911. […]

Source: S. Bernard Shaw, "Mowat Village and Potter Creek" in Canoe Lake Algonquin Park: Tom Thomson and Other Mysteries, (Burnstown, ON: General Store Publishing House, 1996), 41, 43-45

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