YE OLDEN TYME - Early Settlement of St. Joseph Island and the Tale of Milford Haven

11 July 2019

In this edition of “Ye Olden Tyme”, J.B. Dobie tells a great tale of an expedition to St. Joseph Island in the early days of the settlement of what is now a thriving and diverse community. In particular he seemed intrigued by a small bay and settlement on the south east side of the Island called Milford Haven.

This settlement of Milford Haven was named and first inhabited by Major William Kingdom Rains, a British veteran of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe from 1807 to 1813, who after first relocating from England to the lake Simcoe area, came with a commission to settle St. Joseph Island in 1835. Major Rains was born and had grown up in Milford Haven in Great Britain, and a well sheltered bay very near his Welsh birthplace and the long narrow inlet at his new home in what was then called Upper Canada, had very similar characteristics – perhaps this is why out of all of St. Joseph Island he chose this particular place to put down roots.

Prior to the discovery of copper at Bruce Mines the normal route for shipping and trade at the time was through the narrow channel which included Sailor’s Encampment to the north and Fort St. Joseph to the south (the historic site of the fort built by the British to monitor vessel passage during the War of 1812) and then boats skirted the open water along the southeast shore of the Island. It was not unusual then for Major Rains to start out at this location although time would dictate to him that a lack of fertile soil in this south part of the Island would be a hindrance to the successful long term development of a community in this area.

St. Joseph Island at the time was a virtual wilderness. It is very interesting to note that surveyors sent to the area in 1829 to prepare for settlement were exploring a creek and discovered “a neat log house far up in the woods, with a patch of Indian corn, and other vegetables. It was inhabited by an Indian widow and her daughter. Nothing could exceed the cleanliness of the lodge in the wilderness” (based on their description of the location of the creek it was likely Koshkawong Creek which empties into the upper tip of Milford Haven). The surveyors saw no one else on the island and apparently reported it as a jungle containing only bears and other wild animals.

In the late 1830’s Major Rains made the initial steps towards taming the wilderness at Milford Haven and with his partners they built a sawmill, set up a store and advertised for settlers to remove themselves from the lower parts of Ontario and come to this land of opportunity in Algoma.

This brings us back to J.B. Dobie’s expedition with his acquaintances from Bruce Mines some forty years later on the “Kate Mark’s” steamer to this sheltered bay – the crew of the steamship intent on loading up hardwood timber for the manufacture of fish barrels, and the sportsmen who hitched a ride on the boat, interested in visiting this location for some sport based on stories of plentiful fish and game fowl – which stories as J.B. details, were quite true.

J.B. had become a clerk at the Marks Bros. store in Bruce Mines in 1869 and since the new settlements on the Island depended heavily on the Bruce for supplies, close ties developed between the communities. This is confirmed with the pride in which J.B. describes his observations of the useful settlement of the Island on his subsequent visits many years later.

Unfortunately Milford Haven did not live up to the early promise which appeared to be an eventuality with the early construction of mills and investment by Major Rains and others in the mid 1800’s. Although not flourishing, activity still remained at Milford Haven even when J.B. last visited well into the next century, but since that time it has become a ghost town - deserted with some quite remarkable abandoned buildings and the story of its demise stoked by local folklore which perhaps brings some question as to the reason for what appears to be the somewhat hasty desertion of the settlement by its former inhabitants.

The inlet however still maintains some of the magic which first inspired Major Rains. It has now become a popular spot for sailing vessels from both Canada and the USA to anchor overnight as they navigate the North Channel of Lake Huron. The sheltered beauty and peaceful tranquility of the narrow bay continues to be a draw and place of refuge some 180 years after it was first named Milford Haven.

B. Swain


By J.B. Dobie


To Editor of Algoma Advocate,

Komta Cottage, Basswood Lake, September 7, 1925.

Dear Sir,

Away back in the 1870’s – when I was living in Bruce Mines, the settlers were coming into this north country quite rapidly, attracted by the offer of free grant lands. The “Western Advertiser” of London, Ontario was paying special attention to St Joseph Island and recommending the land on the Island as being very desirable for settlement.

The steamers from Sarnia, Collingwood and Owen Sound were bringing in settlers in great numbers and landing them at Hilton Dock, Richards Landing and Bruce Mines. Marks Bros. merchants of Bruce Mines, had built a nice little steamer which they called the “Kate Marks” which made trips to Duck Island with supplies for the fishermen there, who were carrying on an extensive fishing business for said Marks Bros. (Duck Island is actually a chain of 5 islands off the south shore of Manitoulin Island, a distance of about 100 km from Bruce Mines). The boat also made regular trips to St Joseph’s Island delivering supplies to the settlers at various points on the Island, and taking orders for more supplies to be delivered on the following trip.

On certain days the boat would go very early to the Island, bring back any settlers who wanted to come over and buy at the stores, and take them and their goods home again the same evening (Hilton Dock was a short 12 km trip from the Bruce Mines waterfront). The interval between the arrival and departure of the on those busy days was a busy time for the clerks and merchants, and parcels were put up at a rate that would make some of today’s shopping look like a motor car besides an ox team. Oh yes, mister, I’m not boasting – ask any old-timer, if there is one left, who lived then, and he will tell you that a store clerk did more work then in a week than they do now in a month, and no early closing or half holidays or any of those modern notions. Just ask Jim Cullis. He’s young yet, but he was at the job alright doing his 16 hours a day, and a very observing boy he was. Joe Rogers and Rory McBain could say a few things about it too. It was hard quick work, and long hours at it which made those old chaps, like myself, live so long.

One evening the “Kate Marks” was making a special trip to Milford Haven after some timber for fish kegs, and arranging to take a party of us over to get some shooting and fishing in the early morning while they were loading (Milford Haven being on the south east shore of St Joseph Island about 20 km from Bruce Mines). It was about September 1st , and weather conditions were just right, and about 9 PM we left the Bruce. Capt. Frank Prout, one of the finest sportsmen in our north country was one of the party. My brother Alex also was along, and Sam Marks, who was just a little boy then. I think Hugh Jackson was Capt. of the “Kate Marks” then, and Bob Rennie was engineer.

We were rather short on sleeping accommodation, but got some along the way. It was quite late when we tied up in Milford Haven. Early in the morning we were stirring, and rowed over to the mouth of the stream “Cascawan”, I think it was and Frank Prout's gun was soon at work, as the grouse were very plentiful and he was not long in bagging 10 or 12 brace of fine birds. I turned my attention to the creek and very quickly succeeded in landing a good catch of speckled trout.

A mill was being erected and dam constructed at the mouth of the stream by a settler named McQueen, a very fine, enterprising settler, who had taken up a farm including that portion of the creek and was doing his part as a good pioneer by building a mill to provide lumber for the settlers who were seeking home on the Island.

We were still busy with rod and gun when the whistle of the steamer warned us to hasten on board and with great reluctance we left that beautiful Bay, with its many wonderful charms, each of us vowing that we would return the following year, for a longer stay to enjoy the fishing and hunting and other delights of such a beautiful place “but the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley” etc. Each year brought its duties, and time sped swiftly on, and 30 years passed before I was again permitted to visit Milford Haven, this time driving from Hilton over beautiful road through hardwood timber. The McQueen Mill had done its work and fallen into decay. The dam had broken down and the water escaped and the mill pond was nearly dry. Fishing in the creek brought no response, the speckled beauties were gone.

A few rods up the stream a high fence was built across it and a sign on it forbidding anyone to fish. A case of locking the stable door after the horse was stolen, no doubt. A large modern mill had been built on the opposite side of the Bay and was turning out lumber not only for the settlers but for export to the United States, but the beauty and charm of the place still remained. It would have been hard to find a more beautiful spot for a picnic, or camping party, than Milford Haven.

Three years ago, I was again privileged to visit Milford Haven, this time going by train to Desbarats and over the channel in a gas boat which vibrated sufficiently to cure the most severe kind of bilious attack. After a rest at Hilton, a party of us secured a car and driver, and went over to Milford Haven and thence to many other points of interest, finally landing back at Desbarats, after crossing on the ferry.

What a wonderful change had taken place since my first visit in the 70’s. Good roads had been constructed all over the island and where the virgin forests stood unmolested, now along the roadsides are thrifty homes with substantial buildings and evidences of prosperity, with here and there an abandoned farm with its untold story of disappointed hopes and fruitless toil, probably the result of bad judgment or perhaps of tragedy never suspected.

What a story we could write if we only knew the inside history of these abandoned homes, the result of failures and disappointments or sickness and loneliness which many of the pioneers in new country have experienced. And what wonderful triumph is represented in those thrifty and prosperous homes with abundant crops of grain and fruit and vegetables, and herds and flocks of cattle, sheep and fowl, the results of years of toil and economy and thrift and patience.

How it must gladden the hearts of the remaining pioneers as they recall the hardships and toils of the early days, risking their lives as they made slow trips over the ice in winter, and buffeted with adverse winds as they crossed in sailboats and other small craft in summer, and compare those days with the present – good roads everywhere, a thoroughfare to the mainland, only a couple of hours ride to the Sault which is now a city. It took days to go to the Sault and return in the 70’s – and it was then only a village – what a wonderful change, in less than half a century from an unbroken forest to a beautiful panorama of farms and gardens, fruit and flowers, with beauty and abundance and contentment on every hand. How wonderfully the prophesies of the optimistic pioneers, have been fulfilled. I was delighted to read of a movement to take care of the ruins of the old Fort and make it a place of interest to visitors who cannot fail to be thrilled with its history, to visit St. Joseph Island and drive over its beautiful roads and enjoy its varied and beautiful scenery is an enjoyable holiday to anyone, even though he is not an old timer like myself, and St. Jos Island is only one of the thousands of places of interest and beauty and charm of this wonderful part of Algoma.

J.B. Dobie