The History of Thessalon

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The Indigenous history of Thessalon goes back, as with most of the area of Canada, millennia before the arrival of Europeans. For centuries, the Indigenous would move through the area of what would be Thessalon, fishing and following wildlife along the North Channel. The area was primarily the land of the Anishinaabe and the Mississauga. The local rivers were also rich in sturgeon, and provided the Anishinaabe a quick route deeper into the future province of Ontario where game was plentiful.

As Europeans arrived, the Indigenous would slowly see their lands shrink with the new arrivals. Prior to the 1800s, most interactions with Europeans were with fur traders and explorers, along with the occasional Jesuit priest.

Things would begin to change by the early 1800s, especially when Bruce Mines began to grow thanks to its highly profitable mines.

On Sept. 9, 1850, the Government negotiated Treaty 61, in which the Indigenous agreed to cede territory in the area in exchange for £2,000 and £600 per year after. The treaty was signed by 20 chiefs and 21 principal men. The Indigenous were told that they could continue to hunt and fish on their traditional lands, but that would soon change as the trees that dominated the landscape were slowly cut down by settlers.

In 1850, the Thessalon Indian Reserve was created, which ran along the North Channel to a depth of four miles inland. Unfortunately, pressure from lumber companies and settlers pushed the Indigenous off those lands and to a small portion of their former reserve. The reserves exists to this day, with 120 living on reserve and 400 off reserve.

It was on that former reserve that a man named Nathaniel would arrive. He had come to Canada in 1832 and had lived in what would be Ontario for several years, gradually building up a lumber business that became very profitable. In 1871, he obtained a licence to remove timber from the Thessalon Reserve and one year later arrived in the area. He would build the first major steam-powered sawmill in the area’s history and quickly got to work bringing down the trees for shipment elsewhere in Canada.

So what about the name? A truly unique one in Canada, its origin is believed to be lost to history but there is a theory that it comes from the Indigenous word Neyashewun, which means point of land. It is believed that this was turned into Tessalon in a map of the area done in 1670 and by 1880 that had become Thessalon. Another theory states it came from the Jesuit priests who came through the area. Traveling through the area, they would have met hardships such as mosquitoes, limited food and more. That may have made them feel like early Christians, described in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, hence the name. Of course, yet another origin says that the Jesuit priests called the place Leaning Point, which sounds like Thessalon in French.

Thanks to that sawmill, the community of Thessalon began to grow. Within a decade, there were 200 residents living in a series of dwellings that clustered around the saw mill. In all, there were 18 houses, a school, a store, two churches and eight shacks. In 1892, the community had become a town with its first mayor being Walter Barrett. 

In 1878, a lighthouse was built by the lumber company, consisting of a crude light at the east end of the mouth of the river. It was a simple building that was only eight feet high with two panes of glass in one side and a lamp. That building would be upgraded to a 30 foot lighthouse above the water, with a proper lantern in 1898. Painted white and red, it was highly noticeable on the landscape and likely prevented several ships from taking a wrong turn into the shore. James Harvey served as the first lighthouse keeper for this new lighthouse until he died in 1915. Esther Harvey took over from her husband and would serve for 25 years, earning the name of The Brave Little Lady of the Light. When she passed away due to a terrible fall in 1942, her son took over and served until 1950. Clyde Lewis took over at that point but only served one year until the lighthouse was automated. The lighthouse would eventually be discontinued in 1961. Today, the footprint foundation remains.

The lighthouse actually has a bit of a tragic story attached to it. At some point around the turn of the century, two mailmen were attempting to drive horses over the lake when a large crack appeared in the ice near Thessalon. Unable to go any further, the men got off their horses and wrapped themselves in their blankets for the night. When they awoke, the found the horses gone. Believing the horses had fallen through the ice, they decided to split up, a terrible idea in any circumstance. One of the men made his way towards the lighthouse I had mentioned but before he could make it, he collapsed. Unable to make a fire, he was found later by searchers, frozen to death, near to the lighthouse that could have saved his life. The other carrier was found frozen to death in the sleigh. As for the horses, they were found in the spring by an Indigenous hunting party, still wearing their harnesses but alive.

In 1903, the population of Thessalon had reached 1,200 residents, making it one of the most important communities along the North Channel.

Two years later, Thessalon would become the centre of a scandal that rocked through the House of Commons and it was all because of the post office. The story goes that the postmaster worked Thessalon until May 21, 1904 when he resigned. He was then re-appointed on Feb. 21, 1905. He had resigned after a post office inspector visited the community and reported that the assets were not correct and that the postmaster had made false returns. It was soon discovered that the postmaster had used $400 from the till to buy a house, $175 to pay for some pulp wood and another $200 and $300 for other purchases. Rather than be dismissed, he resigned. Sir William Mulock, the Postmaster General of Canada, gave orders for the dismissal and that a replacement be found. Thessalon then did not have a postmaster at its disposal. It was later found that while he had resigned in May, he was paid until August. He then became a worker and talker the local Liberal MP in the election. After the MP was elected, the former postmaster was reinstated as the postmaster, with what seemed to be a higher salary than before. This then led many in the House of Commons to wonder why Mulock had dismissed the postmaster, only to reinstate him again after the election. Mulock said he had acted hasty in getting the resignation, then said that someone else was to blame without giving evidence. The postmaster would himself say that it was the fault of his assistant, who was his daughter, and she stated she would take the blame. Mulock would then say that the man had been a good worker for 20 years, and his daughter was sick, so he wanted to give some charity to the whole matter. In the end, nothing changed and Mulock would go on to become the Chief Justice of Ontario and the Lt. Governor of Ontario briefly. As for Dyment, he would stay in the House of Commons until 1908.

As you travel through Thessalon, you will see a unique red bridge that stands out. That bridge is not new, far from it, and it dates back to the early years of the community itself. Built in 1888, it stretches for 100 feet, it continues to be an iconic part of the community to this very day.

Around this time, it was not unusual to see a moose sharing a pint at the local bar with other regulars. While that may seem odd, it was actually just Biddy the Moose, who traveled with local man Michael McGuire. She was so well-known and well-liked by the regulars that when they saw her approaching, they would clear the bar top off and buy her a beer, which Biddy would drink with her tongue. She would also haul bottles with McGuire and along the way would sample some ice cream at the local ice cream parlor, which McGuire always repaid the owner for. Of course, Biddy also enjoyed the vegetables growing in gardens of residents and that led to the town passing a bylaw that ruled moose could not roam the streets freely. Eventually, Biddy’s wandering nature led her to be donated to the Toronto Zoo but before she could get there, she was shot by an unknown hunter, ending the story of Biddy the Moose. 

In 1928, a unique building was built east of Thessalon by Alex Campbell Jr. It is a 12 sided barn and it stands to this day, measuring 75 feet high and 60 feet in diameter. There are only three 12 sided barns left in Canada, and this is one of them. The great thing about this building is that it is not sitting on a property slowly losing the battle to time, but still stands to this day to the east of Thessalon. The building also features a Weatherstick that serves as a natural barometer for the area. If the stick bends upwards, fair weather is on the way, but downwards means you have some bad weather in your forecast. 

On Dec. 1, 1950, one of the worst events in the history of Thessalon would occur when a fire destroyed several buildings. The fire was believed to have started at the taxi stand when an oil stove exploded. It then spread, destroying the undertaking parlor, which was owned by J.A. Fullerton, the local member of Parliament for the area, who would represent the area as a Progressive Conservative from 1945 to 1963, a furniture store, restaurant and electrical shop, while only damaging the barber shop. Local firefighters worked hard to contain the blaze, fighting it for nearly three hours. By the time the blaze was under control, the men were covered in ice from the water that had frozen everywhere on the street. In all, it was estimated the fire had caused $600,000 in damages, or $6.9 million today. This wasn’t the only major fire to hit the community. Two decades previous in 1932, the lumber yard caught fire, resulting in nine million feet of lumber valued at $250,000, $4.8 million today, was completely destroyed. In all, 25 million feet of lumber were threatened by the flames that were thankfully brought under control with help from not only Thessalon firefighters, but men from Blind River and Sault Ste Marie as well.

If you do visit Thessalon, then stop over at the 18-foot wooden Muskoka chair just to the west of the community. Called Algomy Red, it is the largest Muskoka Chair in Northern Ontario and was built completely by local high school students.

Of course, anytime you visit a community, the best place to learn about it is through the local museum. The Heritage Park Museum just north of Thessalon is a fantastic museum that was built in 1977 and it offers a clear glimpse of what life was like in the area over 100 years ago. On the museum grounds, you can see a general store, a chapel, blacksmith shop, stables and farming equipment from that period in the area’s history. The park also hosts an annual Country Fair and Silent Auction each year, which includes live music, cooking and baking, at tractor show and more.

I’m going to end this episode talking about one of the most beautiful places in Ontario, and it is right near Thessalon. It is called Aubrey Falls and it is only about a 90 minute drive north of Thessalon. These falls cascade down 53 metres, over seven to ten different sections, with each section being a drop in of itself. Within the waterfall there is also beautiful pink/orange granite, creating a beautiful and scenic view. The falls also have a deep historical connection. The trail towards the falls was even used by the Group of Seven, Canada’s greatest landscape painters, as they looked to capture the beauty of not only the falls, but the entire Algoma area during their iconic Box Car Tour in 1919. In fact, Tom Thomson, came to the falls in 1912 to tour them and paint them prior to his sudden and mysterious death in Algonquin Provincial Park in only five years later. Thomson would describe his trip to the falls as, quote: “The finest canoe trip in the world.”

Today, there is a monument erected at the falls to honour the memory of Tom Thomson, a man who died far ahead of his time.

The falls were also used by loggers to send lumber down the river, but they presented a major hurdle to logs initially. As a result, a log chute was made to divert the logs past the falls and on down the line.

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