masthead image

Depot Harbour


Town site photo

The roundhouse

©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko

John Rodolphus Booth never did things in a small way. Booth, an ambitious railway and lumberman, was ready to expand into the grain trade. To be successful, he needed a harbour which, when coupled with his railway, would give him the advantage of having the shortest route to the Atlantic.

Booth, a self made lumberman of humble origins, was born on a Quebec farm in 1827. A carpenter by training, Booth, youthful and newly married, arrived in Ottawa in 1854 with a mere $9 in his pocket. He never looked back. In 1857 he rented a small sawmill on the Chaudiere Falls and the following year won a contract to supply all the wood for construction of Canada's new parliament buildings. Booth had correctly calculated that it would be less expensive to haul timber using horses, rather than oxen, and was able to undercut all his competitors and come in with the lowest bid.

Booth was a visionary and low transportation costs were at the root of his vastly growing business empire. Over time he managed to secure the largest timber limits in Canada and went on to become the biggest lumber manufacturer in North America.

When J.R. Booth took over the Parry Sound Colonization Railway (PSCR), Parry Sound residents were thrilled at the prospect of receiving their long awaited rail link. But the cunning J.R. Booth had other things in mind. Canada's deepest freshwater harbour was located on Parry Island, a mere seven kilometres west of Parry Sound. The island was owned by the Ojibwa, however legislation in effect at the time allowed for the expropriation of native owned land for railway purposes. Booth took advantage of the legislation to purchase 314 acres of land on Parry Island at a price of $9 per acre. In 1899, he purchased an additional 110-acre parcel for an adjacent town site, thereby managing to infuriate the residents of both Parry Sound and Parry Island.

Although Booth was known to be a tough businessman with a amazing knack for taking advantage of an opportunity, he was anything but your average robber baron. Overall, he had a reputation for honesty and ingenuity and his employment practices were surprisingly enlightened for the times. Over a 16-year period, from 1895 to 1911, Booth gradually reduced the workday from 11 to a respectable eight hours, without a corresponding decrease in pay. He ensured the men who worked in the lumber camps were well fed with nutritious meals. It was said of Booth that he would never ask his workers to do anything he himself would not do and he often worked alongside his men until he was well into his eighties.

The PSCR and the Ottawa Arnprior Railway were amalgamated in a merger with the Canada Atlantic Railway (CAR) by 1897. Construction of the line was completed two years later, effectively creating the shortest grain link from the Great Lakes to the eastern seaboard of Vermont. The same year as the terminus construction was being completed, Booth merged his railway with the larger Canada Transit Company. This linked all his railways and shipping lines into a massive conglomerate.

In the meantime, Booth set about building a town site. A large modern harbour, with an industrial sector that included a full harbour and railway facilities, quickly went into operation. The harbour included two large elevators, a powerhouse, warehouses, coal docks, ore docks, as well as offices and large docks for freighters. Railway facilities consisted of a large roundhouse, freight sheds, coal chutes, water tower, turntable, and rail office.

The company town site was 12 blocks in size and included 89 homes for workers and their families. There was also a railway station, school, a 110-room three-storey hotel, post office, general store and three churches, Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian. Initially 103 families, totalling 562 residents, called Depot Harbour home. By 1911, after the population had grown to 657, a few more businesses, including an additional store and butcher shop, were added. Parry Sound residents were somewhat appeased by the addition of a spur line, linking Depot Harbour with the Ottawa Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway.

Booth had planned carefully to ensure the success of his little kingdom and his initial efforts were amply rewarded. The town's population quickly swelled to a permanent 1,500 residents and in 1917 construction began on five additional blocks. The boom continued with the population peaking at 1,600 permanent residents by 1926 and a summer population estimated as high as 3,000.

Although the CAR was financially successful, to Booth it was nothing more than an expedient means to enhance his lucrative lumber business. In 1904 Booth sold off the entire operation to the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) although the purchase was not officially ratified until 10 years later. According to some sources, negotiations between the federal government and GTR to build a second transcontinental railway may have played a part in the sale. Competition between the GTR and Canadian Northern Railway was also heating up and Booth may have decided it was a good time to jump ship. Whether Booth made his decision for sound business reasons, or whether it was due to government urging will never be known, but in doing so he unknowingly initiated a chain of events that ultimately finished Depot Harbour.

From 1911 onwards, Depot Harbour continued to boom. The GTR, on the other hand, was in serious financial trouble. Like the Canadian Northern Railway, the GTR was a victim of poor business planning and over expansion. The railway had borrowed extensively from the federal government in an attempt to expand into Western Canada and by 1919 found itself teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. The government swooped in and nationalized the railway which led to the formation of the Canadian National Railway (CN) in 1923. In 1924, the facilities at Depot Harbour were switched over to CN In the short term, nothing changed.

J.R. Booth passed away on December 8, 1925 at the ripe old age of 98. Things continued along normally until 1928 when CN, in a move to reduce operating costs, began eliminating duplicate routes and centralizing their facilities. The roundhouse at Depot Harbour was one of the early casualties. Rail maintenance and equipment servicing were transferred over to new facilities, located in nearby South Parry, right on the CN mainline.

CN, like most other carriers, was hard hit by the depression. Apart from the serious economic issues, the prairies were plagued by drought and grasshopper infestations. Grain markets collapsed resulting in a serious drop to CN's revenues. After a bridge trestle was damaged by a winter ice floe during a storm in 1933, CN chose to shut down the line, rather than repair the bridge. Depot Harbour no longer had the shortest route to the Atlantic and its once busy warehouses sat empty. The exodus of residents began and by the late 1930s, the population had dwindled to around 200.

The Second World War temporarily breathed a bit of new life into Depot Harbour. Canadian Industries Limited (CIL), who had a dynamite plant in nearby Nobel, used one of Depot Harbour's elevators to store cordite, a highly explosive munition that was being used in the war effort. Although the situation remained grim, at least the opportunity offered employment to a number of Depot Harbour's few remaining residents.

On August 14th, 1945, Depot Harbour's inevitable fate was sealed. Residents were celebrating V-J Day with a midnight bonfire and fireworks show when the festivities were unexpectedly cut short. A gust of wind had blown flaming debris across the bay directly into the elevator where the cordite was stored, resulting in an explosion and fireball said to be clearly visible in Parry Sound, some eight kilometres away. Although no one was injured in the inferno, Depot Harbour was finished.

With the harbour no longer functional, most of the residents left almost immediately. A small coal company operated for a while, but closed in 1951. Most of the homes were dismantled, barged or towed away in sections after being sold to cottagers or residents on the reserve for as little as $25. One resident held out and remained in his home until mid 1980. The railway tracks were lifted in the late 1980s.

The harbour was later automated. For a time it was used to ship iron ore pellets from the Moose Mountain Mine, situated north of Sudbury, to the American markets. Interestingly, the first time ore was shipped from the harbour was in 1916, when the same mine moved its harbour facilities from Key Harbour to Depot Harbour.

The remains of Depot Harbour include a large number of foundations alongside the harbour, the striking remains of the roundhouse, cellar holes and rubble where the hotel foundations are clearly marked. The road patterns are very clear and the remains of a sidewalk and steps lead to the former site of the Catholic Church. In a fitting piece of irony, ownership of the land was rightfully transferred back to the Ojibwa in 1987.