Early Gentlemen Anglers and Royalty
(photo taken prior to 1923)
As early as 1865, gentlemen anglers were found on the Nipigon River. Between 1870 and 1880, Red Rock House, located at the mouth of the Nipigon River was at the height of its growth and was an important outfitting station. Anglers reached Nipigon mainly through the Campbell line of steamers on Lake Superior that stopped regularly in Nipigon. Tourists were outfitted for their trips up the Nipigon River by a Hudson Bay Company Trading Post called Red Rock House and by Clarks Trading Post, both located on the Nipigon Waterfront.
For a small fee, the tourists hired a Native guide, rented a canoe and traveled up the Nipigon River to fish for the famous brook trout. Those who fished the Nipigon met with great success. By the 1870s, word of the tremendous brook trout fishing was spreading. Famous American outdoor writer Charles Hallock (1873) wrote:
"Passengers, while waiting for the departure
of the steamer, have caught within an hour
or so from off the dock trout ranging from
one and one half pounds to five pounds each.
Of the 150 fish which we have caught, the
average, by actual test, was a little above
two pounds and one half pounds."
In 1887, the American Forest and Stream magazine named the Nipigon River the finest trout stream in the world. This article, and the 35 other articles published in this journal between 1873 and 1910 about the Nipigon River, served to attract crowds of wealthy and famous anglers from the United States, Canada, and Europe. With all the publicity, and the access to the area made easy with the completion of the railroad in 1885, it was only a matter of time before the fish populations declined. A.R. MacDonough, an American sport fisherman and outdoor writer wrote:
"It is no longer possible, as it was twenty-five
years ago, to take in a day, a barrel of trout
averaging four pounds, nor can the angler
now quickly fill his basket within sight of Red
Rock landing (MacDonough 1889)".
Old Rabbit Skin Point, (now submerged) on Lake Jessie
The number of tourists swelled and the costs for outfitting and guides increased. In 1901, landings, improved portages and trails to fishing pools were constructed between Lake Nipigon and Camp Alexander on the Nipigon River (Anon. 1912). In 1898, the federal Department of Marine and Fisheries relinquished their control over the inland rivers and lakes in Ontario. Ontario responded by forming a new Fisheries Branch. In the early 1900s, the Fisheries Branch received reports that the average size of fish had declined and that the fish were not as numerous. Consequently, the new Fisheries Branch singled out Lake Nipigon and the Nipigon River for special protection through a set of separate fishery regulations that were published alongside the regular Ontario fishery laws in an appendix to their 1899 Fishing and Shooting along the lines of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR 1899 ci Thoms 1995). These regulations required anglers wanting to fish the Nipigon River, to purchase special five to twenty-five dollar permits (Thoms 1995).
Despite the noticeable decline in the Nipigon River fishery, the tourists continued to arrive in Nipigon and the overseers reported steady increases in revenues collected from resident and non-resident anglers. In 1902, Overseer McKirdy estimated that, although only $1095 was spent on permits, $10,000 was spent in Nipigon on guides and supplies (Fisheries Branch 1902). From the revenue generated from the fishing permits rangers were employed to work on the river. By 1912, as many as eight rangers were employed on the Nipigon River to keep the portages clear, provide well-situated landing sites and numerous convenient camping sites (Game and Fisheries Commission 1912).
While the fishing had declined, by world standards, the Nipigon River was still a high quality angling destination. Distinguished visitors continued to descend on the area (Swainson 2001a). In 1913, a New York Herald journalist inspected the Nipigon overseer’s license registry and reported "few towns of its size in the world have sheltered so many of earth’s distinguished ones" (Anon. 1913).
In 1915 a world record was set when a brook trout was caught at Rabbit Rapids on the Nipigon River. Dr. J.W. Cook of Fort William, Ontario, caught a 6.58kg (14.5lbs) brook trout with a live minnow. This record has yet to be broken and of course served to enhance the legendary appeal of the "Nepigon". This prompted a royal visit in 1919 from Edward, Prince of Wales (also known as Price Albert Edward) and heir to the British Throne, who became King Edward the VIII.
Royalty on the Nipigon
If you have ever watched the movie, "The King's Speech", you will have seen the life style of Edward, Prince of Wales and heir to the British Throne who became King Edward VII before his abdication in 1936. My fascination with this story has a personal connection.
Years ago, I remember my grandmother mentioning that she was in Orient Bay, on Lake Nipigon, as a young girl of 18 when the prince was there fishing. She didn't remember much about the fishing, but did say the future king became ill for a few days and had to recoup in his private rail car. She was a cook at the Orient Bay Lodge and prepared several meals for him.
This trout caught in one of the more remote Canadian rivers symbolizes how Edward, Prince of Wales, got away from his hectic public duties and relaxed during a royal tour of Canada.
Edward. Prince of Wales and heir to the British Throne, who became King Edward VII before his abdication in 1936, made his first visit to Canada in 1919. For more than 3 months, the 25 year old Prince traveled across Canada where he made an appearance at 'Warriors Day' at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto as well as a visit to Ottawa where he laid the cornerstone of the Peace Tower of the new Parliament Buildings. Yet one of the sporting highlights of the tour was a three-day fishing and camping trip to the Nipigon River.
Prince Edward talking to his guide, possibly Andrew Lexie (Dr. Cook's head guide in 1915)
The Nipigon River has long been famous as a trout stream. Its reputation stems, in part from the world record fourteen and one half inch (pound) speckled trout which Dr. J.W. Cook caught in Rabbit Rapids near Virgin Falls in 1915.
In September of 1919, a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, who was struck by the splendor of the Nipigon River, provided the following description.
"It can give moments of sheer beauty in foaming rapids,
its white and tossing water leaps, its placid pools lying silent,
dark and enigmatic under sheer high bluffs,
forest clad, that rise abruptly from the surface of the water."
William McKirdy of Nipigon, who was experienced in the tourist outfitting business, made the local arrangements. He believed September was the best month for trout fishing. In a letter to Lieutenant-Colonel Henderson, the governor general’s secretary, McKirdy wrote in June 1919: "There are few tourists, no flies, and the fish are beginning to assume their most gorgeous hues." The royal fishing party, which consisted of 10 members and four servants, was accompanied by McKirdy’s son Jack and more than 40 aboriginal guides from the Ojibwa tribe. The Ojibwa guides were described as "cunning in camp life and the secrets of stream and wood." Andrew Alexie and Charles Kitchineeni, both of the Ojibwa tribe, were chosen as the Prince's personal guides. Just before the fishing trip began, two Ojibwa chiefs (Joe Salt and Tommy James) were selected for the expedition from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., roughly 400 miles from Nipigon, to attend a meeting of the newly formed League of Canadian Indians and to meet the prince. The return of the two chiefs to Nipigon in time for the outing was assured when the elder McKirdy arranged with the governor general’s secretary for them to ride on the royal train with one stipulation: They must travel in the baggage car. Despite this lack of respect for aboriginal peoples, Jack McKirdy told a local newspaper that aboriginal guides "are the most reliable, courteous and thoughtful of all tourist guides. The Indian takes a personal interest in seeing that his client has success in fishing."
On Sept. 5, 1919, at approximately eight o'clock in the morning, the royal train traveling via the Canadian Northern rail line, arrived at Orient bay, near the Nipigon's headwaters. After a brief stop, the motor launch Arrow, flying the royal standard, transported the Prince and his royal party to Virgin Falls, 15 miles from Orient Bay at the headwaters of the Nipigon River. Under the supervision of Jack McKirdy, Aboriginal guides transported the royal party, as well as all the fishing and camping equipment, by canoe through the rapids around the falls and over the portages of the Nipigon. Once on the Nipigon, the royal party began fishing its way down the river, stopping a number of times at temporary campsites to eat and rest. At Robinson's Pool, near Pine Portage, they encamped for two nights high on a river bank surrounded by trees. On Sunday, September 7th, the peacefulness of the camp site was suddenly disrupted by a fierce lightening storm during which the Prince had a narrow escape. A gust of wind sent a large tree crashing to the ground just missing his tent.
For the most part though, the weather was ideal for fishing. This, combined with the skill of the aboriginal guides, made the trip a great success. For example, the prince caught one speckled trout weighing nearly three pounds. Jack McKirdy landed one weighing well over six. In March 1952, McKirdy recalled how he wanted this fish mounted for the prince but His Royal Highness refused the offer. According to McKirdy, the prince said he might be inclined to tell friends in England that he caught it himself. Early Monday, the royal fishing party gathered at Cameron Falls, which was their final stop on the Nipigon River. Later that day, the prince walked a mile through bush to where, the royal train was waiting and went on to Port Arthur and Fort William, now joined as Thunder Bay. From there, the royal tour continued westward across Canada.
Royalty on the Nipigon
"The one that didn't get away"
by James Whalen
Government Archives and Records
#1: H.R.H. on the National's motor launch
#2: The Prince had some luck with his gun
#3: The royal guest at the Nipigon Lodge
#4: The Prince and his Indian Guides
#5: Arrival at Cameron Falls