26 April 2019
(Please note that some of the information in this blog was gleaned from references in Edith Cameron’s book on the early days of this area of Algoma – “Pioneers in a Land of Promise” – other anecdotes are drawn from family history and J.B. Dobie’s diaries).
The twin “cities” of Day Mills and Portage City could have turned into a thriving metropolis on the North Shore of Lake Huron if only the Canadian Pacific Railway had possessed the same vision as the local residents of the area in the early 1880’s.
Day Mills had established itself as the centre of local activity with the construction of a sawmill and grist mill by WillIam Harris in the late 1870’s. The creek was named after Mr. Harris as he had bought up most of the property along the steep waters which drain Basswood Lake into Bright Lake some 30+ meters below. In fact Mr. Harris constructed what he called “Mountain Lodge” on the edge of the creek which was also his residence – it boasted 24 rooms and a gravity fed water system that was piped into the building through the foundation.
A Methodist Church near the creek and a school house about a kilometer south of the settlement soon followed the construction of the mills. The nearby farmers and their families from what is now Sowerby to the west, Sunset Beach Road to the east and Dayton to the south came the relatively short distance to avail themselves of the services provided in the small settlement.
About 400 metres slightly to the north and east was J.B. Dobie’s Komta Cottage which was originally built by a fugitive from the law in England who sold it to J.B. in 1880 (we will revisit that story in a future blog). J.B. was residing at the time in Thessalon where he operated the General Store and spent only his summer weekends at the Cottage on Basswood Lake. He would have loved nothing better than to be able to live full time at the Lake and he dreamed of a town developing in the area that would rival the status of Thessalon located 18 kilometers to the west.
To realize that dream and to support the lobby of a group of local residents to the Canadian Pacific Railway, J.B. had the area around Komta Cottage surveyed into a town site which he named Portage City. For interest, Komta Cottage was located adjacent to “the Portage”, a route which First Nations had utilized for centuries to portage up from Bright Lake to Basswood Lake – below Bright Lake the waterways led right out to Lake Huron and above Basswood Lake there were multiple connections to other waterways including the Mississauga River heading north west.
Being located on or very near the railway mainline was critical to the growth of any town back in the day. The locals really put their best foot forward to try to convince the CPR of the advantages of running the railway line across Harris Creek in the narrow strip of land between Basswood and Bright Lakes. From reading Pierre Burton’s book “The Last Spike”, in retrospect, this was the worst idea that these men could have conjured up. William Van Horne who headed up the construction of the CPR was very shrewd and he was involved in all details regarding routing of the line. He made a point in hundreds of instances across the entire nation of intentionally and often spitefully avoiding any location which would profit or provide advantage to anyone other than the CPR. As a result when the railway was constructed in 1887 it was located close to Lake Huron several miles to the south and the local stop was named Dayton Station.
Despite this setback, Day Mills did thrive for a time and at its peak in the early 1900’s had three stores, a furniture factory, two churches, a blacksmith’s shop, two mills and a number of residences. Portage City on the other hand never reached those heights – a Presbyterian Church and a few residences were all that were established although it certainly was a popular meeting place for picnics and social gatherings of the local community on the shores of Basswood Lake. The “twin cities” never did attain the heights that were hoped for at the turn of the last century.
Today there is little evidence of this once vibrant settlement. If you look up the hill at the Harris Creek crossing you will see a pioneer graveyard which was located slightly uphill from the Methodist Church in Day Mills. If you look carefully through the bush below the highway you will see the collapsed remnants of the sawmill complete with concrete foundations and other artifacts. As for Portage City, well Komta Cottage is still carrying on as a summer meeting place for the Dobie descendents and many stones from the graveyard behind the long gone Presbyterian Church can still be noticed if you know where to look.