Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“Here Nature holds her Carnival of Isles,
Steeped in warm sunlight all the merry day,
Each nodding tree and floating greenwood smiles,
And moss-crowned monsters move in ;;rim array. ”

Charles Sangster.

IN this district the interest of the story centres chiefly about the place that for considerably over a century was known as Rat Portage—so called, it is said, from the numbers of musk-rats seen crossing this way. Here the Lake of the Woods pours its waters into the Winnipeg River by three distinct cataracts —“Hebe's Falls,” "The Witch’s Caldron,” and another.

By this route, in 1732, passed La Vendrye’s son on his way to Lake Winnipeg, and many a later traveller followed in his steps, doubtless noting as he descended what one of them, Harmon, described as the “majestick and frightful waterfalls” of the Winnipeg River. In its course, says Captain Butler, in his Great Lone Land, there is a descent, "by terraces,” of 300 feet in 160 miles, and in ascending the river he had to make no less than twenty-seven portages, but words failed him in his attempt to do justice to its beauty. A quarter of a century earlier, Ballanlyne, the author of many a stirring book for boys, who was at that time in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company, crossed the Lake of the Woods in a great canoe paddled by eight sturdy boatmen, at a speed of seventy-two miles a day, and tells how the sight of the “sombre forest rivers of the American wilderness " had, upon him, “the same effect as sacred music.”

The Hudson Bay Company's first fort at Rat Portage was on an island below the falls, and at times was difficult of access, but before 1852 it was removed to what was later the west side of the main street of Rat Portage town. In 1870 Captain Huyshe described the post as “a small affair,” consisting of three log houses, roofed with bark and enclosed by a high palisade. Of the thirteen men attached to the post, nine were employed at outlying places; and the well-educated Scotchman in charge had been “buried alive” here for thirteen years, receiving news of the outer world only once or twice a year. But he was “quite happy and contented” with his family and his little farm, “of a few acres of wheat, barley, and potatoes, some pigs and cows,” and a large number of “nasty-looking” dogs, of all sizes and colours, used in winter for drawing sledges.

There were three distinct “carrying-places” at Rat Portage, to match its three waterfalls. One of these, distant three miles from the Hudson’s Bay post, was used chiefly for big boats, as it was only 130 yards long, and a nearer one, though twice as long and very rough, was used for light craft. Behind the town stretches the magnificent lake with its maze of islands, on which the Indians used to grow their crops of corn. The Ojibways called it the "Lake of the Islands,” and in its northern half at least it emulates “the Thousand Isles,” as many a voyager, venturing without a guide amongst the perplexing labyrinth, has found to his cost. No less a person than Lord (then Colonel) Wolseley discovered that in such a case “most haste” may be “least speed.” Travelling in a light canoe, he had been storm-stayed on an island in the southern part of the lake, and desiring to press on while there was still “too much sea” for so frail a craft, he had changed into a “gig.” But he had neglected to make sure of a competent guide, and hour after hour was spent in rowing into one "cul de sac” after another, till the bewildered white men had the good fortune to fall in with an Indian, who, understanding their signals of distress, though not their language, guided them safely to Rat Portage. There they found that seventeen large boats, filled with men of the 60th Regiment, driven by a favouring breeze, had arrived before them, and preparations were being made to light a beacon on a conspicuous island to guide the lost commander to his destination. A few days earlier six Hudson’s Bay Company’s boats had been sent to Rat Portage by the loyal people of the Red River, with an urgent request that men and guns might be sent back in them without delay, as there was danger of an Indian rising. But there is no occasion to follow the expedition further, for the story of its bloodless victory and of Riel’s flight belongs to Manitoba.

About this time began a struggle, in which the weapons were pens and maps and dusty old books; and the prize contended for was the western portion of Thunder Bay and the whole of the districts of Rainy River and Konora. It was one of the numerous boundary disputes which figure in Canadian history, but was strictly a family quarrel between the Dominion Government (later reinforced by that of Manitoba) against the Province of Ontario. In 1869, when the annexation of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Territories to the Dominion was being arranged, it was suggested that Ontario’s northern and western boundaries ought to be defined. Upon this there arose a dispute, of which it is impossible here to give a detailed account, as to where these boundary lines ought to be drawn. Ontario claimed that her boundaries on the north and west coincided with those of old Canada under the Quebec Act, but the Dominion contended for the Height of Land between the basins of the rivers flowing to the Great Lakes and to Hudson Bay as the northern boundary, and a iine drawn a little west of the 8yth parallel of longitude (or about six and a half miles east of Port Arthur) as the western boundary. The question, which involved a vast amount of historical research, was by mutual agreement submitted to arbitration. The award, made in 1878, upheld Ontario’s claim, but the Dominion Government refused to ratify it, and in 1881 passed an act putting this “disputed territory” under the jurisdiction of Manitoba.

Upon that Manitoba appointed justices of the peace at several places in the district, incorporated Rat Portage as a Manitoba town, appointed a police magistrate there, and acquired a building to be used as a jail. But the magistrates of Ontario had been exercising jurisdiction ;n the territory since 1871, and already there was at Rat Portage in the pay of Ontario a stipendiary magistrate and a small police force. There was also a court-house and a jail which had been built by Ontario. On August 13, 1883, a public meeting held at Rat Portage asked that it might be incorporated as an Ontario town.

Under these circumstances there was necessarily some friction amongst the rival guardians of the peace, and there was also trouble over the timber licenses issued by the Dominion Government. A few arrests were made, but the actual disorder was never very gi eat, though the confusion of authority made a perilous situation. For instance, September 28, 1883, saw the polling at Rat Portage for members for both the Provincial Legislatures of Ontario and Manitoba, and the latter province judged it necessary to order the Winnipeg Field Battery to assist to keep order, but the polling passed off peacefully. Soon afterwards the Manitoba authorities took action against the holders of Ontario liquor licenses; but when one of these, M'Quarrie, was arrested by the Manitoba Chief of Police and three of his men, a stronger force of Ontario policemen liberated M'Quarrie and arrested his captors.

Happily, at this pass the governments of the rival provinces determined to make a great effort to settle the dispute peaceably. Accordingly arrangements were made for the submission to the Imperial Privy Council of a Special Case. In the meantime all prisoners were released, and it was agreed that the affairs of the territory should be administered by the two governments jointly till a decision could be reached. In the following summer the Privy Council decided (as the arbitrators had done) in favour of Ontario, in which province the satisfactory settlement of the dispute was generally credited to Hon. Oliver Mowat, and upon his return from England in September, 1884, he received a welcome perhaps “unparalleled in the history of any Ontario public man.”

Rat Portage, now become, with one of its sister towns, Kenora (a name evolved ingeniously by adding together the first syllable of the three names Keewatin, Norman, and Rat Portage) has a population of over 6oco. It is a great summer resort for Winnipeg people and a growing industrial centre. At the neighbouring town, Keewatin (still having an independent existence) are immense works to develop power from the Falls. It possesses also one of the largest flouring mills in the world, built of granite quarried in the neighbourhood. A few years ago sturgeon roe (for caviare) and berries used to be the chief exports of Rat Portage, and still there are sturgeon (and numerous other fish) in the Lake of the Woods.

The land in the district is easily cleared, as the timber is generally small, and about Kenora are many market gardens, which find a good sale for their produce in Winnipeg. To encourage farming and to test the capabilities of the region for the benefit of the incoming settlers, the Ontario Government, in 1894, established an experimental farm at Dryden, in the Wabigoon section.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus