YE OLDEN TIME - The Beginnings of Algoma Mills and the Trials of a Pioneer Storekeeper

In this edition of Ye Olden Tyme, J.B. Dobie gives some insight into the trials and tribulations of a storekeeper in the pioneer days of the early 1880’s in Algoma. Having your horse fall through the ice and then having to walk fifty plus miles in the winter to collect on a bill is something that is certainly lost with email and the electronic billing of today – back then it was all part of daily life.

It is interesting to hear of the once bustling settlement of Algoma Mills located on the sheltered bay on the north channel of Lake Huron and how the many diverging circumstances led first to its temporary prosperity and then to its ultimate demise.

Firstly, the CPR had contracted with the Government of Canada to construct a railway across the country connecting British Columbia to eastern Canada. This was an onerous contract and one of the biggest conundrums for the railway company was finding a feasible route north of Lake Superior from Sudbury Junction, as it was then called, to the head of Lake Superior at Ft. William. This routing was very politically sensitive as it seemed that the barriers to construction in this area could be responsible for the failure of the entire network connecting east to west within Canadian boundaries – the cost was prohibitive and many frugal politicians preferred a connection to a US line from Sault, Michigan to Winnipeg.

As such, it appears that the 1884 rail line from Sudbury Junction to Algoma Mills may have been a result of the CPR hedging its bets by creating an interim measure to allow steamships to operate from the wharf constructed at Algoma Mills to carry freight and passengers to the Lakehead. Because the proposed routing north of Superior was expected to be so expensive, further government or private funding would not necessarily be forthcoming. If the combination Canada/US routing was chosen due to funding limitations then the 150 km of track from Sudbury would serve as the mainline to connect across the St Mary’s River at Sault Michigan and the effort would not be wasted.

In any event the CPR had a fleet of Great Lakes Steamships built to work the Huron/Superior water route. Algoma Mills, as the name would infer, had started up earlier in the mid 1800’s with a lumber mill and wharf constructed at the mouth of Lauzon Creek and coincidentally it was the closest location on the mainland from Sudbury Junction where the bigger water of the North Channel opens up to allow direct navigation to the Sault.

As fate would have it, and as J.B. describes in his writing, just as Algoma Mills was being developed as the eastern Great Lake shipping terminus an alternate plan came to light and Owen Sound was selected as the preferred alternative. This left the grandiose plans for Algoma Mills without financial commitment and the once vibrant settlement faded from view.

Even though the mainline across Canada was completed in 1885 – including the route north of Superior, the line from Sudbury Junction to the Sault was completed to allow connection to the US, again as a result of the CPR acquiring a financially strapped railway through Michigan and Minnesota. The decisions of the CPR back in the 1880’s shaped so much of Canada’s landscape that it is interesting to see how it affected life for many in Algoma, including Dobie & Co.’s humble Thessalon store.



By J.B. Dobie


To Editor of Algoma Advocate,

Komta Cottage, Basswood Lake, September 7, 1925.

Dear Sir,

When construction work was under way from Sudbury to the Sault on the C.P.R., Algoma Mills was selected by the company to be the Eastern water terminus for the Lake Superior traffic. (Note: This construction was occurring from 1882 to 1884 just as J.B. Dobie was establishing his Thessalon business after moving from the Marks Bros. store in Bruce Mines in 1880).

As the work progressed up towards Algoma Mills, Thessalon received a large trade in the winter time especially, both from the company and their employees. Teams came up on the ice from Algoma Mills and took back loads of such merchandise as could be obtained in the winter. I can remember on one occasion sending down a load with my own team and ended up selling the team, sleighs and harness as well as the merchandise to a contractor there.

Sullivan, Marpole and Co. were the principal contractors, Barrie men I think they were. Mr. Marpole later became a Divisional Superintendent of the C.P.R. in British Columbia and a new town was named after him. (Note: The settlement of Marpole which was home to canneries and sawmills near the mouth of the Fraser River on the north bank, was assimilated into the city of Vancouver as the metropolis grew over the 1920’s and is now a neighborhood in the south part of the city – it was the site of an archeological find of an ancient Musqueam village which was discovered during the upgrade of a road in the late 1880’s - many tools, weapons and other artifacts were found in what proved to be one of the largest village sites discovered in North AmericaGreat Marpole Midden).

When we ran short of goods in Thessalon I sent a team to the Sault and purchased goods in both Saults and hauled them down on the ice to help fill our orders, locally and for Algoma Mills. One day I received in the mail a number of bills from wholesale houses asking for immediate payment and as most of my assets were on my books I began to do some figuring, and found I had several thousand dollars due me from contractors and others in Algoma Mills.

I decided to take a run down on the ice and do some collecting. My brother Alex and George Dodds arranged to do with me and early one morning we started out with horse and cutter , a little bit crowded but being young and healthy and full of optimism we cared not for trifles.

The ice was in good condition, not over three inches of snow on it, and a west wind had driven the snow into occasional little drifts. About three miles out from town our horse dropped through the ice and left us looking down a crack about two feet wide which had been completely covered with snow and so well packed by the wind that it just looked like any other drift.

We had a great time getting the horse out. He was an ex-racehorse I bought from Jack Gordon and having been just fast enough to lose all the races he ever ran he was promoted to the course at Thessalon for ice races he proved to be nearly fast enough to get out of the water.

The three of us had to use all of our strength to get him out. As he was bleeding quite badly at the nose and seemed unable to proceed further, I decided to let the other two to go back with the horse and I proceeded on my way to Algoma Mills on foot (Note: A distance of 60 km from Thessalon). I reached it that night just at dark, having carried my overcoat rolled in a bundle and strapped on my back.

I remember calling at John Dyke’s to get something to eat. He kept a store for the Hudson Bay Co. at the mouth of the Mississaugi River, and a fine, honourable gentleman I always found him. When I arrived at Algoma Mills I found it a regular hive of industry and every house and cabin in the place was crowded.

Fortunately I struck up a friendship with a clerk of the Company, from Barie, about my age and a good fellow, who shared his bed with me, and I learned from him that the men I was most anxious to see were out at a big rock cut, sixteen miles he said it was. So early next morning, though tired and sore, I travelled the sixteen miles, found my men and got orders on Mr. Marpole, who kindly drove me back to Algoma Mills and fixed u pmy orders so that I was able to get a cheque from Mr. Abbott , the superintendent, who was, I believe, a brother of Sir John Abbott (Note: The third Prime Minister of Canada from 1891 to 1892).

Next morning I made an early start for the mouth of the Mississaugi and there hired a man with an Indian pony and the ice was in such good condition that we reached Thessalon at dark. I found that my horse had completely recovered and was training for spring races delivering goods in the village and a considerable distance in the country.

I made a good many trips to Algoma Mills after that before the railroad was completed, both over land and water but never again on the ice. When the C.P.R. decided on Algoma Mills for a lake terminus they made arrangements to erect a large hotel there to accommodate passengers who would come from Eastern points and embark on the boats for Fort William and for passengers coming from the west and taking trains east. On the east side of the dock, in a beautiful pine grove, a splendid stone foundation was built on which the big hotel was to be erected.

Just at that time the Toronto Grey and Bruce, a narrow gauge railroad from Owen Sound to Toronto, was struggling to keep going and a deal was consummated with the C.P.R. Co. for a ninety year lease with the T.G. & B., and Owen Sound became the Lake terminus of the C.P.R. and Algoma Mills abandoned, and the much talked about hotel was never completed.

I understand that the foundation is still there in a good state of preservation. When the C.P.R. Co. took over the Toronto Grey & Bruce they began preparations to widen the gauge and so complete was their organization when they had everything ready they accomplished the change of that 100 mile railroad from narrow to standard gauge in one day. The passengers reached their destinations in the new cars on schedule time.

How easily a big corporation can make or unmake a town (Note: As J.B. knew well from his own experience - see our blog on the twin settlements of Day Mills and Portage City for an example of such decisions). Algoma Mills gave promise of being a very live, active town and was indeed an active place until the decision of the C.P.R. Co. left it to settle down, content to remain a village.

J.B. Dobie