Sunday, 6 December 2020

Puslinch Lake, Guelph's first resort

Though situated at the confluence of the Speed and Eramosa rivers, which have always provided ample bathing and boating opportunities, Guelph's citizens looked from early times to Puslinch Lake as a desirable retreat. For many years, Guelphites seemed bent on almost annexing the Lake to the Royal City. Despite this close connection between the two places, and the best efforts of Guelph's patricians, this effort eventually failed to bear fruit.

The connection began early on in the history of the settlement of the district. One story had it that a Father Cassidy, founder of a Catholic mission in the village of Guelph, caused a church to be built on the Big Island in Puslinch Lake in 1837. Stones were hauled to the site over the frozen lake that winter and a flat-bottomed scow was built to ferry local parishoners to and from the site.

Another account is that a church was built on the Big Island by Father Simon Sanderl, who ministered to the faithful in St. Bartholemew's Church in Guelph, predecessor of the Church of Our Lady on Guelph's "Catholic Hill," from 1846 to 1850. It seems that construction of the church on the Big Island was a pet project of his. One account says that Sanderl retreated to the church in 1850 after a dispute with a parishoner who balked at paying the Father's dues before burial of his dead child. (Sanderl was, apparently, very forward in collecting dues due to the expense of finishing St. Bartholemew's.) Rather than render the pre-payment, the man buried the child himself, whereupon the good Father ordered the corpse to be exhumed and "as some would say, sold to the doctor."

(St. Bartholomew's Church, ca. 1879. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums, Grundy 68.)

On this account, Father Sanderl fled to the Island church to escape the public's opprobrium. In 1852, he relocated to the Gethsemane Monastary in Kentucky and became a Trappist monk.

In any event, Sanderl's modest stone church on the Big Island was abandoned in the 1850s as it was simply too difficult to reach on a regular basis for services. It was then acquired by two men who turned it into a summer hotel but it could not attract enough custom to remain solvent. The church/hotel burned down in 1865.

Even so, the existence of the old ruins added to the romance of Puslinch Lake and fostered legends that a monastery had once existed there on the Island, whose monks had buried their treasure hoard in fear of Indian raids. Later treasure hunting expeditions failed to turn up any gold chalices but the allure of the Lake only continued to grow.

In its early years, people in the area took a predominantly utilitarian view of the Lake. Locals saw it as a place to draw water, wash sheep, shoot ducks, and catch fish. Experience made them apprehensive of its waters. The Lamont family were the area's first permanent settlers, having arrived in 1831. In 1833, their youngest, 17-year-old son drowned in the Lake after falling out of a canoe while duck hunting. Many neighbors believed that his spirit haunted the place, which dampened their enthusiasm for its waters for a couple of generations.

By the 1860s, efforts of hoteliers to popularize Puslinch Lake as a resort began to pay off. Increases in population and income, not to mention improvements to local roads, began to make the Lake a popluar destination. Initially, these hotels were somewhat seedy, served alcohol illegally, and attracted some unsavory elements.

One early mention of the Lake as a honeymoon resort occurred in the Guelph Advertiser (per the Mitchell Advocate, 1 September 1865). It concerned one George Coleman, proprietor of the "Oyster Bay Saloon," a notorious "groggery and gambling hell" in the West Market Square in Guelph. Coleman had married the respectable daughter of one Mr. Hugh McGinnis, of Puslinch, and honeymooned with her by Puslinch Lake (perhaps at the former church-hotel on the Island that was also run by a "Mr. Coleman"). Subsequently claiming to be called away on business to his family in Rochester, New York, Coleman departed but did not return or write to his bride. Communication with his family revealed that Coleman was a scoundrel with several wives in many states, all subsequently abandoned. The author condoled with the poor girl and helpfully added that the tale should serve as a warning to other young ladies to be careful about whom they marry.

Increasing enforcement of liquor laws tended to tidy up the clientele. In July 1867, for example, the Lake played host to a decidedly proper picnic laid on for the Guelph Artillery Company:

Wives and sweethearts are to accompany them, and should the weather be propitious the chivalrous artillery-men will enjoy, what we wish them to the fullest extent—a very pleasant time luxuriating on love and the dainties that are generally considered the indispensable requisites of a pic-nic.
The contrast with Coleman's endeavor could hardly be clearer.

In the 1870s, daytrips to the Lake from Guelph became a commonplace and water sports like rowing were featured attractions, For example (Mercury, 17 July 1874):

The Butchers’ picnic.—The picnic to Puslinch Lake yesterday was, as we anticipated, a most enjoyable affair. Altogether about two hundred persons were present. The spread was, as may be imagined, bountiful; so extensive, in fact, that a quantity of refreshments were brought home again. The best of order prevailed all day. Quoiting, base-ball, boating, dancing on the green, and similar diversions occupied the happy hours. A rowing match, we believe, was one of the features of the occasion, and Mr. George Hood claims the palm as the champion oarsman. The company returned home about dusk, arriving here between eight and nine o’clock.
The increasing popularity of Puslinch Lake with Guelph's well-heeled and well-to-do attracted the attention of the Royal City's patricians. George Sleeman, Mayor of Guelph, owner of the famous brewery, and promoter of the renowned Guelph Maple Leafs baseball club, took a serious interest in recreational development of Puslinch Lake. In 1879, Sleeman bought an eight acre parcel on the north side of the Lake, added 22 acres in 1882, and another 25 acres in 1884. He and his initial partner John Davidson spruced up recreational facilities on the Island.
(Portrait of George Sleeman. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Musuems 2009.32.951.)

In 1882, Sleeman bought out Davidson and turned the hotel on the north shore of the Lake into a full-featured resort.

(Photograph of a picnic at the Puslinch Lake Hotel, owner, George Sleeman, ca. 1905. Courtesy Guelph Civic Museums, 2014.84.1075.1.)

To shuttle people from the shore to the Island facility, in 1880, Sleeman purchased a steamboat signifcantly named the "City of Guelph." Built in Barrie, the boat was a side-wheeler with a 41 foot keel, a 9 foot beam, and was 13 feet tall. With two 4 hp. engines, it could speed 50 persons back and forth at speeds of up to 8 knots. On busy days, up to 100 people jostled cheek by jowl on her deck while she towed a large scow to accommodate even more.

Guelphites and others swarmed to Puslinch Lake on holidays to admire its views and enjoy its recreational opportunties. For example, The Mercury describes the celebrations of Victoria Day in 1881:

The turn-out at this pretty spot numbered about 600. They spent a quiet, enjoyable day with nothing to mar their amusements. The accommodation at the hotel is first class in every respect both for man and beast. The steamer was kept busy.... The small boats, croquet, quoits, and bowling alley were in constant demand and the dancing floor although 30x40 feet in size was none too large. Dancing was a species of amusement and was carried on to the music of a concertina—the boys without coat or vest and hoeing it down to the best of their ability. There were a great number of little family picnics all of whom declare it is the nicest and cheapest place to spend a holiday. The last of the visitors left about 9 p.m.
The wear and tear on the City of Guelph seemed too great and she ceased service after the 1883 season. Visitors to the Big Island could make their way in a small fleet of manually-powered craft provided for the purpose.
("Puslinch Lake near Hespeler, Ont." published by Chas. P. Grill., postmarked in 1910.)

New visitors to the resort also made the acquaintance of another of its legends, the Puslinch Lake Serpent. The Mercury describes one sighting as follows (6 Sep. 1884):

While rowing from the island to the mainland at Puslinch lake on Thursday two Galt gentlemen saw a huge serpent rise fully four feet out of the water. The reptile headed towards their boat and only ceased following them when shallow water was reached. The serpent is described as being fully 14 feet in length with a large flat-topped head. An old farmer who lives across the lake says the same serpent was seen twelve years ago.
Sightings of the serpent continued for some years but the creature was never captured for close study. Perhaps put off by the increasing crowds of visitors, it may have slithered to a more secluded residence.
("A view of Puslinch Lake near Galt," published by F. H. Chapple, Galt., postmarked 1908.)

However that may be, the increasing popularity of Puslinch Lake with Guelphites and others pleased Sleeman. In 1901, he approached City Council with the idea of extending the Royal City's streetcar system to its shore. This system was owned by Sleeman and inaugurated in 1895. Although popular enough, the system was not making money. In addition, there were several proposals to establish an electric railway between Hamilton and Guelph, all of which would include a stop at Puslinch Lake. Convinced that a connection to Puslinch Lake would be profitable, and wanting to fend off competition, Sleeman convinced the provincial government to amend his company's charter to allow the extension.

The Bank of Montreal and the Traders Bank loaned Sleeman money to pursue the scheme but required a mortgage on the streetcar system and Sleeman's property at Puslinch Lake as security. In 1902, Sleeman was unable to make the loan payments and trustees for the banks took over the properties. These were then purchased by the city of Guelph in 1903.

("Puslinch Lake—near Preston Springs Hotel," real-photo postcard, postmarked in 1926.)

The city took a hands-off approach to the properties, leasing them to proprietors who ran them at a profit. In 1916, to make up for continuing losses from the streetcar system, the City subdivided some of its holdings into 42 cottage lots and sold them off. J.W. Lyon, a Guelph magnate who had purchased 35 acres at the Lake in conjunction with Sleeman's project, subdivided his holdings and sold them off for cottages as well.

The city of Guelph maintained ownership of the resort into the 1930s. In addition, various new schemes were proposed to build railways connecting Guelph to the Lake. For example, the Grand River Railway, a Canadian Pacific Railway subsidiary, proposed to take over the Royal City's streetcar system and extend it to Hespeler, including a spur line to the Puslinch Lake resort. This scheme was opposed by Sir Adam Beck, boss of the forerunner of Ontario Hydro, who sought to build an inter-city railway service run by the utility. Guelphites voted down the proposal and thus scotched the idea for good.

In any event, the conception of Puslinch Lake as the site of a public resort was slowly fading. One reason was that construction of cottages there was turning its shores into private property. Increasing prosperity in Ontario allowed or even prompted its residents to purchase vacation properties rather than renting accommodtions or using shared facilties. Puslinch Lake was very much an instance of this development.

("Aerial view, private section, Barber’s Beach, Puslinch Lake, R.R. 2, Hespeler, Ont.," real-photo postcard, postmarked in 1948.)

Another reason was increasing adoption of automobiles. As the province's middle classes took to their cars more and more to enjoy the countryside, and as governments spent large sums to improve roads, enthusiasm for railway connections waned. Rather than have a relatively small number of railways transport holiday makers to a small set of resorts, people increasingly expected to drive anywhere in the province they had a yen to visit. Although automobile adoption widened the potential audience for recreation at Puslinch Lake, it also increased competition for motorists' attention.

After World War Two, cottage and residential development tended to dominate at the Lake.

("At Puslinch Lake," real-photo postcard, ca. 1910.)

Perhaps the swan song of Guelph's direct involvement with Puslinch Lake came on 1 July 1928, when George Young, the Canadian swimmer who had first conquered the channel from Catalina Island to mainland California the previous year, came to swim at the Lake. (Young had visited Guelph itself previous year.) Andrew Aitcheson of Puslinch had arranged for the noted natator and some colleagues to go to Puslinch Lake to show off their strokes and have a friendly 1-mile contest with local marathon swimmer Stanley Hodkinson (Toronto Star, 3 July 1928).

(Ad in the Evening Mercury, 29 June 1928.)

Unfortunately, this plan ran afoul of the Lord's Day Act of 1906, which expressly forbade any sporting competitions on Sundays. As a result, Young's contribution to the proceedings was somewhat underwelming:

Provincial Police Inspector Grey made this point quite clear. Young could swim but he could not race. The result was that, almost unheralded, the conqueror of the Catalina channel stepped into the water, showed a few of the strokes that carried him to victory, and then stepped out.
As a result, only a few of the 6000 people, who had driven to the Lake in at least 2000 automobiles, actually witnessed Young's performance.

No matter. Besides Young's brief appearance, the event was to include a huge bash featuring music and dancing. To avoid conflict with the Lord's Day, the music was slated to start after midnight—thus on Monday morning rather than Sunday night. This nice distinction had drawn protest to City Council from the Royal City's religious leaders but the city fathers decided that the affair could proceed as long as Aitcheson undertook never to organize another such slippery celebration again.

After eight hours of enjoying the Lake's paths and rustic benches, or simply canoedeling in their cars, the assembled took to the dance floor after midnight when the band began to play. The result was apparently quite a bash:

Parked cars were emptied and rustic benches deserted as the young people answered the call of the dance music. But the desertion was not for long. It was impossible for all to dance at one time. Many watched the dawn come from the dance hall floor, but just as many saw it come through the windshield of an automobile and from the sheltered nooks along the water’s edge.
Guelph's possessive embrace of Puslinch Lake soon slackened. Despite George Sleeman's best efforts to haul it in, like the legendary serpent, Puslinch Lake will always be the one that got away from the Royal City.
Works consulted for this post include:
Puslinch Lake also has the honour one of the many places described as the location of this scene:
("On Puslinch Lake, near Preston, Canada," published by Stedman Bros, Brantford, Canada, ca. 1910.)

In fact, this is a picture of Florence Sallows paddling a canoe in the vicinity of Goderich, Ontario. Her father, Reuben Sallows, was a noted Canadian photographer who was the source of thousands of beautiful postcard images of Canada. As Mike Smith explains, "I discovered that the crafty Goderich photographer repeatedly conscripted his daughter when he needed a female model. Flo Sallows was certainly an excellent choice—she was very attractive and undoubtedly saved her father a bundle on modelling fees."

Smith's book, "The Reuben R. Sallows picture postcard handbook," lists no fewer than 24 different postcards featuring this image but captioned variously as "Black Creek, Port Dover, Ont." to "River Lynn, Simcoe, Ont."

This little item confirms that collectors have to remember that picture postcards, like any images, are not always what they seem.

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