Sarawak Township was the home of the first lighthouse on the peninsula's east coast. This light was important to regional sailors as it was the last beacon to shine every autumn and first harbinger of spring every year. It's name also represents a sense of foreboding to area Indigenous historians.
"No better or more desirable or enjoyable location can anywhere be found." This was how the Illustrated Atlas of the Dominion of Canada described the Grey County of Township of Sarawak in its 1880 edition. Today, many have taken this advice to heart, as thousands of people have built homes and vacation retreats on this thin strip of land which abuts the city of Owen Sound and snuggles along the its western shore on the Bruce Peninsula's eastern coast.
Sarawak, now part of the municipality of Georgian Bluffs, was the smallest of all the townships in the province of Ontario, has a rich and varied history. In 1856, when the Indian Peninsula, as the Bruce Peninsula was then known, the region of Sarawak was amalgamated with Keppel Township. It was later given individual township status in 1868 when it was separated from Keppel.
In the 1850s, part of this region was designated an Indian Reserve. However, the rapidly advancing encroachment of white settlement, due to the growth of the community of Owen Sound, led to the dispersal of the native community up the east coast of the peninsula to Cape Croker. This action was not without its controversy. In particular, the question of ownership of land held by a white settler named William Sutton and his wife, the Indian Princess, Nah-nee-hah-wee-quay. (A topic which has been well documented here and in many other venues.)
The handling of native land questions in this area can perhaps in part be understood when it is considered how the names given to Sarawak, Keppel and the community of Brooke originated. In the late 1850s, Lord Bury, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Canadian colony named the community of Brooke, formerly Newash, after his nephew James Brooke; Keppel Township after his family name, and Sarawak after the island over which Brooke had despotically ruled over the Indigenous peoples of the island.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Sarawak Township was not unlike the rest of the peninsula in terms of modes of transportation. The roads that did exist were often barely passable. Winter transportation was by either horse or oxen-drawn sleighs over the open fields and roadways. Development occurred along the coast, and connections with the larger centre of Owen Sound was by water. In fact, when King's Royal Park resort was built in the first decade of the 1900s, the easiest transportation link was a 10-cent ferry ride from Owen Sound.
The importance of water transportation led to the development of the community of Presqu'ile. In 1870, the first reeve of Sarawak Township, John Mackenzie, built a dock at that location. He hung a lantern on the end of the dock to serve as a beacon to passing vessels.
This primitive form of lighthouse was later replaced with a permanent signal which guided water traffic along the coast of the bay into Owen Sound.
The lighthouse at Presqu'ile became so important that the Wiarton Echo in the 1880s reported the closing and opening of the navigation season in terms of whether this lighthouse was functioning. It was the last lighthouse to close each winter and the first to be re-lit each spring.
Presqu'ile had a telegraph station, a general store and facilities to re-fuel the vessels of Georgian Bay. Mackenzie had high hopes for the growth of this community. With the assistance of Charles Rankin, who surveyed the town plot of Owen Sound, a system of streets was laid out. Some of the street names were Wharf, Centre, Main and Water.
However, Mackenzie's dreams were short-lived. As sailing vessels turned to coal to fuel their engines, they could travel further without refueling stops. This reduced the need for wood depots like Presqu'ile. The reduced port traffic hampered the growth of Presqu'ile's commercial establishments. Today, the former town site is home to a summer camp, cottages and year-round residents.
A version of this article first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.