Depot Harbor

History

Photo of roundhouse
Roundhouse ruins
©Jeri Danyleyko

John Rodolphus Booth never did things in a small way. Booth, an ambitious railway and lumberman, was ready to expand into the grain trade. To be successful, he needed a harbour which, when coupled with his railway, would give him the advantage of having the shortest route to the Atlantic.

Booth, a self-made lumberman of humble origins, was born on a Quebec farm in 1827. A carpenter by training Booth, youthful and newly married, arrived in Ottawa in 1854 with a mere $9 in his pocket. He never looked back. In 1857 he rented a small sawmill on the Chaudiere Falls. The following year he won the contract to supply all the wood for construction of Canada’s new parliament buildings. Booth correctly calculated that it would be less expensive to haul timber using horses, rather than oxen. He then undercut all his competitors to come in with the lowest bid.

Booth was a visionary and low transportation costs were at the root of his vastly growing business empire. Over time he managed to secure the largest timber limits in Canada. Then he went on to become the biggest lumber manufacturer in North America. Not wanting to rely on the CPR, he felt his best move would be to build his railway as far as Parry Sound which would give him direct access to the Great Lakes.

Although Booth was a tough businessman, in all fairness he was never a robber baron. Overall, he had a reputation for honesty and ingenuity. He was also an excellent employer for the times. Over a 16-year period, from 1895 to 1911, Booth gradually reduced the workday from 11 to a respectable eight hours. There was no corresponding decrease in pay. He ensured the men who worked in the lumber camps were well fed with nutritious meals. An oft-repeated comment about Booth was that he would never ask his workers to do anything he himself would not do. He often worked alongside his men until he was well into his eighties. Despite his reputation as a tough businessman, both business colleagues, and community residents admired and respected him.

At first Booth’s takeover of the dormant Parry Sound Colonization Railway (PSCR) in 1892 delighted the residents of Parry Sound. They looked forward to receiving their long awaited rail link to Ottawa. Unfortunately for them, the foxy Booth had other things in mind.

Canada’s deepest freshwater harbour was located on Parry Island, a mere 7 kilometres west of Parry Sound. Not only was the harbour far superior but the facilities at Parry Sound would have required regular dredging. The final strike against Parry Sound were the high fees for dock space. Parry Island won the draw thereby infuriating the residents of Parry Sound in the process. To appease Parry Sound’s residents, Booth constructed the James Bay Railway in 1897. It was a small, six-mile spur that ran from Parry Sound to Rose Point, where they could transfer their goods. Since there was only one train per day, the James Bay Railway wasn’t an option for residents wanting to travel to Ottawa. They took the ferry over to the railway instead. The Canadian Northern Railway took control of the James Bay Railway in 1902.

Parry Island was, and still is, owned by the Wausauksing First Nations. Legislation in effect at the time allowed for the expropriation of native-owned land for railway purposes. Booth used the legislation to expropriate 314 acres of land on Parry Island. According to one source, Booth leased the land at a cost of $9 per acre. According to another, Booth purchased the land. Regardless of which is true, one thing is pretty clear. The owners had no choice in the matter. In 1899, he expropriated an additional 110-acre parcel for an adjacent townsite.

Booth amalgamated the PSCR and the Ottawa Arnprior Railway in 1896. The following year, Booth formed the Canada Atlantic Transit Company, comprised of two separate companies on each side of the border. These companies operated a total of seven steamships to various ports in the US and Canada and also to the Canadian Maritimes. Then in 1899, Booth folded the combined PSCR and OA & PS into the Canada Atlantic Railway (CAR). Between rail and steamships, Booth had managed to shave 800 miles off the route thereby creating the shortest line from his vast timber limits in the Ottawa area to the Great Lakes.

Booth planned his little kingdom of Depot Harbor carefully. Original plans called for a town of 300 residents. The initial townsite was 12 blocks in size and included 89 single and double homes for residents and their families, a boarding house for transients, town hall, post office, general store and butcher. A 110-room hotel and three churches (Anglican, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic) quickly followed. Almost all the buildings, with the exception of some of the railway structures were of wood frame construction. The community itself was wedged between two tracts of native land on the east and west sides. The railway facilities, including the roundhouse, lay just east of the townsite.

To access the mainland, the railway built the Rose Point Bridge in 1887 or 88. The Grand Trunk Railway built the twin-towered Rose Point station on the mainland adjacent to the bridge. A new steel span, now known as the Wasauksing Swing Bridge, with the capability of carrying automobiles replaced it in 1912.

The first church was the Childerhouse Memorial Presbyterian, built in 1899. St. George’s Anglican Church followed in 1902. Early Anglican services took place in the hotel and later in a shack, known as the “Black Diamond” owned by Booth. The railway donated both the land for both the Anglican Church and parsonage. Other donations included 2,000 feet of rough lumber from the Parry Sound Lumber Co. and an additional donation of $40 worth of shingles from Booth. The congregation raised $700 to cover costs, which might have included an organ, purchased by the choir. January 4, 1903 was the date for the first service, with official consecration in 1905. Further improvements included a bell in 1907 and a furnace in 1911. Unfortunately no details are available on the Roman Catholic Church.

Goads Fire Insurance Map from 1899 shows a school at the north end of the community. Unfortunately it was for the lower grades only. High school students had to travel by train daily to attend school in Sprucedale. Luckily that was not a problem. Depot Harbor was strictly a company town and with a few minor exceptions everyone worked for the railway. At its height in 1910, there was a train every 20 minutes.

Booth took particular care in the planning of the railway structures and elevators. The CAR had grown to become much more than a lumberman’s toy. By 1899 a little over 35% of the railway’s freight was lumber and about 35% was grain. The remainder was other commodities such as livestock feed, flour and packaged goods. Although Booth was his own biggest customer, the CAR also carried lumber for other mills along the route.

The grain trade was particularly lucrative. The initial capacity of the grain elevators was one million bushels of grain. In 1907, they expanded that by an additional million bushels. In 1910, Booth’s lines were shipping 100 to 120 carloads of grain daily. Often there were three or four ships waiting in the harbour for unloading.

Besides the elevators, they built two huge freight sheds 4.8 metres high (16 feet), 24 metres wide (80 feet) and 185 metres (607 feet) long on pilings and rubble in 9 metres (30 feet) of water. Access came from a 701 metre (2,300 foot) double track trestle. A 2,400 square metre platform (7,800 square foot) allowed for four steamers to tie up the sheds all at once. Other companies also used the facilities. In addition to the warehouses and elevators there was a powerhouse, coal docks, ore docks and offices. Railway facilities included a roundhouse and turntable, coal chutes, a water tower, rail office and a station.

In 1905 Booth made the decision to sell the CAR to the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) at a cost of $14 million. The reasons behind this decision remain murky however it was certainly not for the money. In fact Booth took a financial hit of $4 million on the sale. A contributing factor could have been a number of devastating and costly fires at his mills in 1900 and again in 1903. Another factor could have been his age, which was late 70s at the time. There are also suggestions that the CAR would have had to spend several million dollars in rehabilitative costs, an expense Booth may not have wanted to undertake. Lastly there were suggestions of government interference in favour of the Grand Trunk in order to keep another suitor, the Canadian Northern Railway, out of the east.

Booth was first and foremost a businessman, and a successful one at that. He likely made his decision for sound financial and business reasons, but in doing so he unknowingly set off a chain of events that ultimately finished Depot Harbor.

Depot Harbor began with a population of 103 families, a total of 562 residents. By 1911, the population had grown to over 600, rivalling that of Parry Sound.  Obviously this necessitated the opening of a few more businesses including another store and butcher shop. Unlike the economic conditions in most communities during World War I, Depot Harbor continued to boom. According to some sources, the population grew until finally reaching 1,500 residents. In 1917 construction began on five additional blocks. The population reportedly peaked at 1,600 in 1926. The numbers, which included transients, swelled to an estimated 3,000 during the summer months when shipping was at its peak. Elevators and sheds operated from 12 to 18 hours per day.

It took parliament some 10 years to ratify the sale of the CAR. By then, the GTR was in serious financial trouble. A victim of poor planning, poor management and reduced revenues during the war, the British-owned GTR was heavily indebted to the Canadian Government due to a disastrous and poorly executed decision to expand into western Canada. With the railway teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, the federal government took over management in 1920. In January 1923 with all court battles exhausted, the government was finally in a position to roll the GTR into CN. The GTR joined a group that included the Canadian Northern Railway and a group of Maritime railways the government already owned.

J.R. Booth passed away on December 8, 1925 at the ripe old age of 98. He remained active in business until two months before his death. Shortly after Booth took ill, CN obtained authorization to close the shops in Depot Harbor and begin construction on new shops in James Bay, located in nearby South Parry. As a federal agency, CN had taken on the debts of all its constituent railways and was under orders to reduce costs, eliminate duplications and turn a profit as quickly as possible. It made far more sense to move everything over to more centralized facilities on the mainland. The railway facilities at Depot Harbor were among the early casualties.

CN, like most other carriers, suffered hard during the depression. Drought on the prairies, leading to a collapse of the grain market, resulted in a further drop to CN’s revenues. The final blow came in 1933 after flooding in Algonquin Park caused serious damage to a bridge trestle. The government turned down CN’s request for funding for repairs. The government was already funding the building of a highway through the park as part of a Depression relief project and saw no reason to put up more money into what was essentially the same route on rail. CN, they reasoned, had alternatives for rerouting the line. As a consequence, they shut the line down. Depot Harbor no longer had the shortest route to the Atlantic and its once busy warehouses sat empty. The exodus of residents began and by the late 1930s, the population had dwindled to around 200.   

The Second World War temporarily breathed a bit of new life into Depot Harbor. Canadian Industries Limited (CIL), who had a dynamite plant in Nobel, used one of Depot Harbor’s elevators to store cordite, a highly explosive munition used in the war effort. As grim as the situation was, at least the opportunity offered employment to a number of Depot Harbor’s few remaining residents.

Nevertheless in September 1944, perhaps in anticipation of the war coming to an end, CN invited applications for tenders. They specified the demolition and removal of the old elevators, marine legs and brick boilerhouse. In the end the proposal was deemed too costly.

The sealing of Depot Harbor’s inevitable fate took place on August 14, 1945. Stories differ on what happened next. According to folklore, residents were celebrating V-J Day with a midnight bonfire and fireworks display when the festivities were unexpectedly cut short. A gust of wind reportedly blew flaming debris across the bay directly into the elevator storing the cordite. The result was an explosion and fireball said to be clearly visible in Parry Sound, some 8 kilometres away.

Another version hinted at arson. Two men were seen running away from the elevators just before flames were spotted. Although there were no injuries in the inferno, it was all over for Depot Harbor.

With the harbour no longer functional, most of the residents left almost immediately.  The Century Coal Company used the dock space from 1945-51 for a while, but then closed. During the 1950s, they removed most of the homes. They dismantled some for lumber. They barged or towed away others in sections after selling them to cottages or residents on the reserve for as little as $25. One resident held out and remained in his home until mid-1980. CN abandoned the tracks between Scotia Junction and James Bay Junction in 1952. They lifted the remaining trackage in the early 1960s.

Later on they automated the harbour and for a time used it to ship iron ore pellets to the American markets from the Moose Mountain Mine, north of Sudbury. Interestingly, the first time they shipped ore from the harbour was in 1916, when the same mine moved their harbour facilities from Key Harbour to Depot Harbour.

Depot Harbor’s remains include an extensive number of foundations alongside the harbour, the striking remains of the roundhouse, cellar holes, and rubble clearly marking the hotel foundations. The road patterns are very clear and the remains of a sidewalk and steps lead to the former site of the Catholic Church. In 1987, CN returned the land to the Anishinaabe First Nations. Be sure to obtain permission from the band office before exploring the area.

According to postal records, Depot Harbor with no “u” in the word harbour is the correct spelling for this community.

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