A derelict truck©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
In 1898 James McNiece Austin, a general merchant from Chapleau and George B.Nicholson a Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) engineer teamed up to form what would become Northern Ontario's largest lumber firm. With Austin's funds and Nicholson's knowledge of the area's timber berths, and managerial skills, the two men sealed an agreement to produce ties under contract for the CPR With a contract at hand, thanks largely in part to Nicholson, the two men hired local French Canadians to produce axe hewed ties.
Twenty-two miles west of Chapleau on the CPR, at a small station named Windemere Siding, Nicholson supervised his operations while still on the employ of the CPR. The site was rather crude at first, a bunkhouse and cookery of rough construction, housed the men, on a small horseshoe peninsula on Windemere Lake. The venture proved successful and in 1902 a three-year contract was awarded to Austin-Nicholson for 100,000 ties the first year, and 150,000 more per year over the next two years. Both men knew that their work force were inadequate to produce this amount by hand.
In 1903 a small mill was erected costing a modest $4163. The site was expanded and new accommodations were built. From the mill, a row of new buildings emerged. Beside the mill stood the manager's house, followed by the scaler's shack, store, cookery and finally the bunkhouse for the 30 hands. The CPR established a 'boxcar' station and renamed the site Nicholson Siding. The following year a proper frame station was erected complete with station agent.
The success of the firm was so evident that Austin-Nicholson decided to expand operations to exploit the full potential of Windemere Lake's watershed. With a need for more men for either the mill or bush operations, it was clearly obvious that a further expansion was warranted at the mill site. In 1911 the 56 4/10 acre peninsula was purchased by the firm and a population of 144 were found at the siding, albeit mostly men. The siding would then rapidly expand into a self containing community.
Prior to 1914 the mill had erected additional structures to support its development. These were; five large stables, along with two barns (one for cows, the other for 50 pigs), and three large warehouses. These warehouses were strategically placed between the water and the CPR spur line to facilitate loading of goods into barges and quickly expedite it to local bush camps around the lake. A town site was laid out and soon the company built a general store which included a post office, and grocery delivery. A larger bunkhouse and cookery were built which could accommodate 60 men. In 1913 a school section was established to accommodate 15 students. By years end however the school was at full capacity and a new school house was erected the following spring. Built beside the store the new schoolhouse was initially a one storey structure, but soon the school had to expand to accommodate once again but this time for over 80 children, and a second storey was added. The CPR station also received a second level.
Nicholson, a fervent Anglican, established an Anglican Church in 1914, and allocated the old schoolhouse for the larger Catholic congregation. The Catholics quickly re-furbished their new church and added a steeple and bell. Due largely in part to the large French Canadian population two services were held on Sundays. Many homes were built during the same period, and all of the same design. Known as cottages, the residences were built with cull wood furnished by the company. Residents paid a monthly rent of $5 for a single story dwelling or $7 for two stories.
To enhance the social atmosphere a post office was established in the company store, along with Potney's pool hall. The community also included the Sheffields boarding house (hotel), along with a harness maker, and blacksmith. In 1915 the settlement had grown to 350 residents and was fast becoming the largest lumbering settlement between Sudbury and the Lakehead. To enhance the social atmosphere and services, a crude piping system was installed to heat homes with the mills boilers. An internal phone system was also strung up, when tied in with the CPR telegraph line, long distance calls could sometimes be achieved.
By 1918 the mill was already at peak production and necessitated an additional 900,000 axe hewed ties to meet quotas. By then nearly 400 residents lived at Nicholson. After the mill at Dalton Mills was erected in 1921, the extra manpower was no longer needed and only 298 permanent residents remained. As a matter of fact this was only part of the picture. Each fall or spring as many 1500-2000 men funnelled through Nicholson before dispersing to the numerous logging camps for the winter. For a few months Nicholson would swell to over 500 residents. During the firms peak production years around 1922-1928, a planner was added to finish domestic wood products. As many as 360 permanent residents came establish themselves in this remote stretch of track on the CPR
In 1931 Austin-Nicholson still had seven to eight years of lumber left in its stands to keep the mill running. Although affected by the depression years the firm was by then the largest producer of railway ties in the British Empire. Even in shaky times the community was assured some years of prosperity before abandonment. In 1933 the mill burnt down and was not replaced. The planner was kept in operation for two more years until it too was shut down and moved to Dalton Station, 25 CPR miles away. The village breathed its last and quickly dwindled to a cluster of 30 or so residents. The school closed in 1936, replaced by the school car until 1956 when the last student left. The company store lasted until around 1954, while the post office followed suit in 1956. Finally the last private store also closed in 1963, and the station two years later. The section gang had been removed just a few years earlier.
Although abandoned, most buildings were still relatively intact by the early 1970's. It was even recommended that the site should be preserved as a historical site. After these plans were scrapped, a careless fire destroyed much of the site. Today the store foundations are evident as are a few intact cottages of Austin and Nicholson, and a few managerial homes. Dense brush has overgrown much of the village site, but the remains of the school and a few cottages, still linger around, along with the collapsed Catholic Church, and mill foundations. The foundations of the machine shop, blacksmith shop are also evident.