History of Depot Harbour

by Wendy Shroeder

J.R. Booth, the owner of a sawmill in Ottawa, bought timber limits for an area now part of Algonquin Park. He needed a railway to get lumber from this location to his mill in Ottawa, and the railway had to have a terminus. Parry Sound's location was perfect, but because people in the town were holding out for prices that Booth thought were too high, he decided to build his own town.

The location he chose, to become Depot Harbour, was called "the best natural harbour on the entire Great Lakes" (F.K. McKean, Depot Harbour - The First Seaway Terminal p.180-186). It had a good entrance, with deep water right up to the shore. There was level land for constructing all of the buildings that were needed. It was also well-protected from the winds of Georgian Bay.

Ships arrived from the west and trains came from the east, delivering and dropping off goods at Depot Harbour. Exporting companies had easier access to the interior of the continent, and trains provided a faster route to the east than shipping around the Great Lakes.

By 1898 the two huge grain elevators were built, and the town was bustling. The permanent population was counted at one time to be around 1600 people, a number that swelled as high as 3000 in the summers. Goods were brought in from Chicago, Duluth and Milwaukee, and taken by rail to Montreal and Portland, Maine. Canada Atlantic Transit Company ships handled cargo - the SS Arthur Orr, the SS George N Orr, the SS Scranton, the SS Ottawa, the SS Kearsarge, the Dalwarnik, and the Canatco, with their uniform black hulls, white houses, and yellow stacks with black tops were generally used out of Depot Harbour.

In 1928, the roundhouse and rail yard were closed. In 1933, a trestle in Algonquin Park was crushed by a surge of spring ice, and was never repaired. Trains could not travel directly between Ottawa and Depot Harbour. The town was no longer used as a grain route, and ships became a rare sight in the harbour. The Depression was taking its toll on the town. People started moving away, in search of better jobs. In 1941, the Dalwarnik and the Canatco, the two ships that had continued to use the port, stopped calling, and the customs office closed shortly thereafter.

With the grain elevators sitting empty, it was decided to tear them down. The warehouses across the bay were also unused, until a manufacturer filled one warehouse with Australian wool, stored until further distribution. In the other, the Dominion Industries Limited plant in Nobel, ten kilometers north of Parry Sound, stored cordite it produced for use in British guns during the war.

On August 14, 1945, the elevators, in the process of being torn down, caught fire. A strong wind carried sparks from the fire across the bay, igniting the warehouse storing the wool. The fire quickly spread to the cordite shed. It is said that the fire was so intense, a newspaper could be read in Parry Sound, seven kilometers away.

Depot Harbour became a transfer point in the shipping of coal and iron ore, but the coal handling plant was automated, and therefore did not provide any additional employment. In the 1950's, the population was rapidly diminishing, and houses were being sold for $25. By 1963, all that remained in the town were the roundhouse, the Catholic Church and one house. By 1964, the town was abandoned, but the docks were still in use. In 1979, the docks closed, and the last train shipment arrived. In 1989, the rails were removed, and what was once a busy Great Lake port was left to be absorbed by the wilderness.

All that remains today are the shell of the roundhouse, a few sidewalks hidden by bush and trees, steps leading to the site of the Roman Catholic Church, a long pier, jutting into the water, and many tales of the industrious and dynamic days of Depot Harbour.

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