Port McNicoll, named after a Vice President of the CPR, was founded in 1909. The Canadian Pacific Railway had decided to build its own port on Georgian Bay, to replace its terminus in Owen Sound. Port McNicoll provided a fine harbour and a location easily reached by train, resulting in a more direct and shorter route for shipping western wheat to the eastern seaboard.
Construction of a grain elevator, railway depot and a half-mile – long wooden trestle over Hogg’s Bay began in 1908. In 1912, the CPR moved its 5 steamship fleet from Owen Sound to Port McNicoll.
The CPR’s buildings and engineering projects were impressive: two concrete piers, one 3,000 feet long and the other 3,600 feet long, lay at the end of a mile long, 600 foot wide channel created by dredging 3 million cubic yards of earth and 200,000 cubic yards of rock. Maple Island and Labatt’s Island became part of the mainland.
The Keewatin at Port McNicoll, 1938
The CPR built freight sheds as long as 2 city blocks, a station, an engine roundhouse, a water tower and company houses, all painted in CPR red.
Station, Boat Train and Sheds c 1950
Port McNicoll c1950
The centre piece was a massive grain elevator on the former Maple Island. Here the Company built a 2,200 foot long wharf for the ships and tracks for the freight cars.
Westbound the ships carried people and their baggage as far as the Lakehead. Eastbound shipping was mostly freight, primarily grain. Conveyer belts moved the grain to the elevator and four-wheeled electric trucks moved cargo to the sheds. The sheds could employ 160 men during the shipping season. Their freighters brought in western grain from Thunder Bay to be stored in the CPR elevator, and then shipped by rail to eastern ports.
However, the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway in 1959 cut the amount of grain coming into the elevators of the Bay ports drastically. Better highways and the development of the trucking industry further changed the modes for shipping lighter freight. The last of the CP freighters, the Manitoba, was withdrawn from service in 1949.
The Assiniboia Entering Port McNicoll
The twin passenger / freight carriers Assiniboia and Keewatin serviced the Port McNicoll terminal for over fifty years. In the beginning the majority of their passengers were immigrants heading west, but later, as traffic patterns changed, they carried mostly tourists. “Boat trains” from Toronto brought in passengers to take the scenic route across Georgian Bay and Lake Superior to Thunder Bay.
Many of them stopped to admire the gardens laid out along the docks at Port McNicoll’s rail station. Canadian Pacific Rail had established a horticultural department in 1908. Every year the company would send out huge supplies of seeds to each of its 400 stations. The most popular bedding plants were snapdragons, sweet alyssum, asters, cannas, coleus, geraniums, marigolds, petunias, phlox, zinnias, and verbenas.
At the Port McNicoll docks gardens of flowers were laid out in geometric patterns. In front of the station they might spell out the words “CPR STEAMSHIPS” or “CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY”. Flowers and plants from greenhouses at the docks decorated the dining tables and public rooms of the ships. The greenhouses were heated with steam from the CPR’s laundry.
CPR Gardens at Port McNicoll
Ultimately improved highway and airline systems ended passenger service in 1965. The rail line, station, sheds and grain elevator have since been demolished. The restored Keewatin remains as a Maritime museum and plans are in place to recreate the garden in a park nearby.
The Keewatin in Port McNicoll, 2012
Bourrie, Mark: Chicago of the North: A History of Port McNicoll, The Port McNicoll Historical Society, 1993
Facebook: Port McNicoll Gateway to the North: http://www.facebook.com/groups/61683315861/
Haskill, Mary: Nosing into the Past: Life and Times in Huronia, Huronia Museum, 2002.
Leitch, Adelaide A.: The Visible Past, the Pictorial History of Simcoe County, The County of Simcoe, 1992
Mantel, Allen, Port McNicoll
Tay Heritage Committee http://www.tay.ca/en/your-municipality/tay-heritage-committee.asp