The original railway station, relocated and renovated.©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
In 1872 Thomas Foster opened up limits on all the crown lands that were situated around the French River and all its tributaries in north eastern Georgian Bay. It didn't take long for the Walkerton Lumber Company to begin cutting timber, which they boomed down to their mills located further south. Three years after the limits were opened a small mill and seasonal town site became established. Samuel Wabb, the first white permanent resident, established a large store and trading post that housed a seasonal post office, also known as French River. Thus the community of French River was born.
After observing the living conditions in the bunkhouses, Wabb built eight sturdy homes and rented them to mill employees. That same year he also built a family home near Dalles Rapids and was later joined by his family. The following summer Thomas A. Bolger surveyed a company village site named Coponaning. Very little building activity took place until the early 1880s, when a few structures were erected. In 1883 the mill, limits, and village were sold to the newly incorporated Ontario Lumber Company. This company was formed by Herman Cook's syndicate, which was comprised of his wife Lydia, Frank E. MacDonald, John Melville Dollar, and Frederick Hannell.
After the mill was enlarged, the surveyed plots on the north shore were quickly filled and the little town site boomed. Other companies were also established including Bruce Mills Co., French River Tug Co. (later F.R. Brown & Raft Co.), Irwin and Company, Log Jobbers, as well as the later John MacIntosh & Boom Co. The town quickly grew to include numerous structures, businesses, institutions and homes.
In addition to the sawmill, the village also included, lumber, planer, shingle and lath mills, warehouses, yards and office buildings. For the residents there were boarding houses, stables, a library with a reading room, a doctor's office and residence. Additional lodging was available at any one of the three hotels, the Copananing, the Queens Hotel and Joe Kelly's Hotel. Both the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities were well served with their own churches and schools. Other amenities included two stores, Wabb's as well as a company store. A post office was added to the company store in 1883. A jail was built to take care of anyone who decided to step out of line and, most importantly, a lighthouse was erected to guide the cargo ships safely through French River's rocky shore line.
Although French River's winter population never exceeded 600 residents, its summer population swelled to a boisterous 1500. The town prospered until around 1910 when the timber limits were depleted. Production levels varied throughout the latter years. In 1906, there were a mere 200 residents but two years later the permanent population had grown to 350.
Stricter environmental laws strained the firm's finances. In 1910 the O.L.Co. was found guilty of dumping excessive amounts of sawdust into the surrounding waterways. The company was heavily fined, resulting in the closure of the mill. The Pine Lake Lumber Company took over the mill, disassembled it and within the next two years moved it to Pickerel Landing Village. The York Wrecking Company disassembled much of the company town site around 1916.
Sam Wabb died in 1915, but his store remained open for the few remaining residents. It finally closed in 1923. The company store containing the post office had closed a year earlier and the office was moved to Pickerel Landing Village. The last resident was the lighthouse keeper who left in 1934. The lighthouse still stands.