Tobermory Pioneers

Tobermory pioneers experienced a life in a community that was anything but the tourism hive of activity that it is today.

Every summer, from the twenty-fourth of May weekend until Thanksgiving the community of Tobermory is a buzz with visitors. For decades thousands of travellers have passed through the community each year to board or depart from the various ferry boats which have plied the waters between the peninsula and Manitoulin Island. Many other visitors have made Tobermory a destination rather than “jumping off point” to Manitoulin and the north shore. They come to the “Tub” to dive and explore the many shipwrecks which dot the underwater landscape of the area.

The hive of activity that Tobermory has become and the presence of many successful commercial enterprises might surprise some of the earliest visitors and settlers in that area.  However, it must be remembered that in the 1800s tourism and other related ventures were not the reasons why pioneers came to the Bruce Peninsula. It was the quest for land suitable for agriculture which attracted settlement.

In The Early Settlement of Tobermory and St. Edmonds Township, Patrick Folkes provides excerpts from the reports of three early government representatives whose responsibility it was to ready the area for an influx of settlers. Their comments were less than enthusiastic about the future prospects of that area. In 1857 A. G. Robinson, the chief engineer for Lake Huron lighthouse operations described the area as being “totally unfit for agricultural purposes”. In 1869 Public Land Surveyor, Charles Rankin, arrived in the area to resurvey the proposed road which would run through the centre of St. Edmonds from the Lindsay town line to Tobermory harbour. After six weeks of struggle to complete the task, Rankin and his crew returned to their base camp. He summarized in his report that the work had been “one of the most troublesome explorations and pieces of line running ... which I have ever met with”.

William Bull, a representative of the Indian Department, was sent in 1873 to explore the region to ascertain the amount of good agricultural lands and the quality and quantity of timber resources. He reported that the town plot and some of the surrounding area was “nearly all burnt off, leaving the white rocky ridges quite bare”. However, Bull also reported that the area, nearly four thousand acres, adjacent to the community was perhaps the best in the region.

Despite such warnings, during the 1870s and 1880s the government sold land tracts to prospective settlers under the guise of promoting them as agricultural lands. The result was chaotic. Some pioneers arrived and struggled to create farmland. Others came and after battling the environment and the elements left. Some of these plots were taken over by others, while tracts remained undeveloped.

The hardier Tobermory pioneers remained. While many continued to cultivate the soil, they turned to other ventures to sustain their families. Many worked for the lumbering companies which held the timber rights in the area. Fishing had long been carried out in the area.  Editions of the Owen Sound Comet from the early 1850s report of fishermen arriving from “Tupper Murray” with large catches of fish to trade for supplies.  Many of the early settlers to the region augmented their diets and income by fishing.

The area around Tobermory remained relatively isolated for many decades after the arrival of the first Tobermory pioneers to the area. Land transportation was difficult at best. Consequently, the community was dependent upon the vessels which sailed around the tip of Bruce Peninsula from Georgian Bay to Lake Huron.  

However, the arrival and emergence of the automobile as a means of transportation had a great impact upon the Tobermory area. The automobile age was closely followed by the growth and expansion of the tourism industry. To facilitate both of these twentieth century phenomena a good system of roads had to be built. The completion of an automobile route to Tobermory marked the end of isolation and the beginning of tourism in the area.  Today tourism is a major economic factor in the life of the area.

A version of this article originally appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times in 1998.

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