Early History of the Port McNicoll Public School: 1911 – 1953


In light of declining enrollment and ageing infrastructure, the Simcoe County District School Board decided in 2013 to close the elementary schools in Port McNicoll and Waubaushene. Beginning in the fall of 2015, students from the Waubaushene and Victoria Harbour Schools will be bused to the Port McNicoll School. In the spring of 2016, all students will attend the newly renovated Victoria Harbour Elementary School.

To view posts that have been written about other school closures in Tay, click “Tay schools” in the “Tags” portion of the right hand sidebar.

Many are reminiscing over the many memories made during the Port school’s nearly 100-year existence.

Prior to World War One the number of children in Port McNicoll was quite small and schooling was carried out in a hall over a restaurant across the street from the C.P.R. hotel; a photograph was taken in 1911 of the entire student body – approximately twenty five students largely under ten – twelve years of age. The school did not acquire a permanent location until 1916 when a large two-storey building with five classrooms was erected. The first classes, in this building, were held in January, 1917 with classrooms originally having thirty-five individual seat/desk combinations and slate blackboards on two walls. The school was fairly modern for the era having steam radiator heating, separate male and female washrooms as well as three separate entrances for teachers, girls and boys.

Mrs. Malone was the first principal of the school. She was the wife of Pat Malone Sr., a chief customs officer for the C.P.R. who had come with the company from Owen Sound in 1910. Mrs. Malone was largely responsible for establishing the early teaching facilities in the new community. However, in a community where religious bigotry still existed among some older residents, she was faced with some resentment as she was a Roman Catholic principal of a Protestant school. As a result she was replaced in September 1921 by Lewis C. Armstrong –  fresh from military service in World War I.  Mr. Armstrong had five years of teaching experience prior to joining the army and served overseas until he was wounded in action in September 1918. Mrs. Malone remained a teacher at the school until her retirement in the early 1930s.

Mr. Armstrong ran a no – nonsense school that would have challenged the reputations of the top English boarding schools. After WWI it was required that students remain in school until they were sixteen years of age or had successfully passed the eighth grade final exams. Mr. Armstrong was strictly of the opinion that students were there to improve their knowledge and if he had sufficient reason to believe that this was not the case, he sometimes did students a favour by releasing them at the age of fifteen. Because Port McNicoll was a thriving lake port with ships continually entering and leaving the harbour and no labour unions to interfere, it was extremely common for fifteen – year old boys to secure jobs on ships as deck hands, coal passers and other unskilled labourers. In some instances, this proved to be important to help parents with large families since there was no such thing as state assistance at that time.

Following the 1918 armistice, the social structure of the town changed. Many of men of European ethnic origin brought wives or prospective spouses from their countries of origin and established homes in Port McNicoll. In early years parents spoke their ethnic languages in the home so when starting school at the age of six their children spoke very limited English. Racial and ethnic slurs were unheard of and the entire student body, which included children of Anglo-Saxon, French Canadian, and several European backgrounds became a homogeneous melting pot under Lewis Armstrong’s strict academic control.

Initially, the new principal taught classes junior fourth and senior fourth (now referred to as grades seven and eight). Around 1925, high school forms one and two (now referred to as grades nine and ten) were added to the Port McNicoll curriculum. The lower grades were mainly focused on reading, writing, and arithmetic so that these faculties were well impressed on the students’ minds. Grades nine and ten averaged only ten to twelve students each and anyone wishing to complete a senior matriculation (grade thirteen) was required to attend Midland High School (M.H.S.) for grades eleven, twelve and thirteen. The distance from Port McNicoll to M.H.S. was five miles and students were required to get there by whatever means available to them as no bus service was provided.

The principal of Midland High School, J.J. Robbins, was very much a disciplinarian in his own right and, as did  Mr. Armstrong, had served in the army during World War One. Students who went on to M.H.S. were subjected to very much the same teaching environment that they had become accustomed to while attending school in Port McNicoll.

In 1928 a one – room frame building was constructed immediately west of and at the south end of the main school. This one – room structure accommodated senior third (grade 6). In 1939-40 the frame building was removed and the main brick building doubled in size with an expansion on the west side. The two –  grade continuation school was enlarged to provide classes to the end of grade twelve or junior matriculation.

Port SchoolThe student enrollment from the 1920s to 1935 was approximately 200 students.

Mr. Armstrong remained the dominant influence in the school up until his retirement in June 1953. Mr. Armstrong passed away on September 17, 1953.

The academic and other achievements of many of the students who passed through Port McNicoll Public and Continuation Schools while under Lewis Armstrong’s jurisdiction, and that of his successors, is quite remarkable considering the population of Port McNicoll never exceeded 1,000. These included seventeen university graduates comprising four medical doctors, three professional engineers, three priests, three academics (senior teaching positions), one commerce and finance graduate, one geochemist-geologist, one lawyer and one home economist. In addition to these university graduates there were nine registered nurses, several public school teachers, accountants and professional secretaries, eight ship captains, eight chief marine engineers, two railway conductors, several first, second and third class deck officers and several second, third and fourth class marine engineers. Among the other achievements of the students from Port McNicoll was a significant amount of service in both World Wars.


“art designer” P.O. Box 51, Port McNicoll, Ontario, Canada L0K 1R0, or Keewatingraphics@hotmail.com

Facebook: Port McNicoll Gateway to the North: http://www.facebook.com/groups/61683315861/

“Port McNicoll History Project” with consultants B. Spencer, M. Quesnelle, B. Patterson, J. Lefaive, D. Calvert and recounted by J.D. McCannell. (July 8, 2005),

Tay Heritage Committee http://www.tay.ca/en/your-municipality/tay-heritage-committee.asp

Additional information obtained from an interview with Mr. James McCannell, at 99 the oldest living Port McNicoll student, in June, 2015 by Carrie O’Brien (Tay Township Heritage and Planning Summer Student)



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