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The train doesn’t stop here anymore: The ghost town of Depot Harbour

October 2016

A ghost town is a once flourishing town that is wholly or mostly abandoned, usually as a result of the economic activity that supported it has failed, usually due to resource exhaustion, natural disasters or government actions that make the area economically non-viable.

One such ghost town in the Parry Sound District in Ontario is Depot Harbour.

Located on Parry Island, which is part of the Wasauksing First Nation, Depot Harbour was once the western terminus of the Canadian Atlantic Railway and a very busy shipping port on the eastern shores of Georgian Bay.  While Parry Island and Depot Harbour are still occupied by residents of the Wasauksing First Nation, Depot Harbour is a shadow of its former self.

Depot Harbour was founded in 1892 as a railway company town by John Rudolphus Booth, owner of the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway (OA&PS) as the western terminus for his railway.  The town featured many of the amenities of any other town, including 110 houses, two large grain elevators, docks, a railway station, a hotel, a bank and stores.

A roundhouse and maintenance facilities for the locomotives were also built.

Booth originally planned to have the western terminus at Parry Sound, but the high prices for the needed land prompted him to change the location to the Parry Island.  A sheltered harbour was found and taking advantage of provisions of the Indian Act that allowed expropriation of land for railway use, bought 314 acres from the Anishinaabe Indian Reserve for the railway.  A further 111 acres was expropriated in 1899.

Depot Harbour would go on to become one of the most important Great Lakes shipping ports, along with Collingwood, Midland and Owen Sound.  Depot Harbour featured the best natural harbour on the Great Lakes and was the shortest route for shipping grain to the Atlantic Ocean.  Trains bringing goods were arriving and departing every twenty minutes.

Goods were brought in from by ship from Chicago, Duluth and Milwaukee, and transported by the railway to ports in Montreal and Portland, Maine, where they were loaded onto Canada Atlantic Transit Company ships.

Booth sold the railway to the Grand Trunk Railway in 1904, who continued to operate the Depot Harbour port.  In 1923, the Grand Trunk became part of Canadian National Railways.

The population of Depot Harbour in 1926 was 1600 permanent residents, with around double that in the summer.

The beginning of the end of Depot Harbour came in 1926, when the roundhouse and rail yard were closed.

Several factors lead to the decline of Depot Harbour, such as the construction of the Welland Canal in 1932.  The portion of the railway line in Algonquin Provincial Park was abandoned in 1933, when trestle near Cache Lake was damaged beyond repair.  As a result, trains no longer traveled to Depot Harbour from Algonquin Park.  

A drop in grain prices brought on by the Great Depression further killed Depot Harbour as a shipping port, with ships now rarely arriving.  The CNR decided to close the Depot Harbour facilities in 1933 and transfer operations to its own facility in South Parry.

The population gradually moved away in search of jobs and by 1941, the last two ships that used the harbour, the Dalwarnik and the Canatco, stopped arriving.  The customs office closed shortly afterwards.  While some residents remained, most of the shipping and railway buildings sat empty.

The warehouses on the other side of the harbour were eventually taken over by an Australian wool company and Dominion Industries Limited, who used them for storage of cordite used in munition production at their plant in Noble, ten kilometres north of Parry Sound.

On 14 August 1945, while the grain elevators were being torn down, they caught fire.  A strong wind carried embers across the harbour and ignited the warehouses.  The fire brightly illuminated Parry Sound, seven kilometres to the north.

In 1946, the Depot Harbour wharf came to life again when it was acquired by the Century Coal Company, a subsidiary of Canada Steamship Lines, for use as a coal distribution terminal.  As the coal handling plant was automated, there were few new jobs for the remaining residents.

In the late 1950s, the market for coal was in decline and the terminal was closed.

Also around this time, with population of the town rapidly diminishing, the houses were being sold for $25.  Eventually all but one of these houses were moved or demolished, leaving only foundations.  By 1963, all that remained of the town were the abandoned roundhouse, the Catholic Church and one house.

In 1959, the wharf was in use once again, this time by National Steel Corporation for loading of iron-ore pellets from its Low Phos Mine in Sellwood, north of Sudbury.  A rail mounted gantry crane ran the length of the wharf for loading the lake freighters that docked at Depot Harbour.  One of the regular ships that made regular stops at the Depot Harbour facility during this time period was the Edmund Fitzgerald, an iron-ore carrying ship that sank in Lake Superior in 1975 and was immortalized in the Gordon Lightfoot song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

The Low Phos Mine closed in 1979 and as a result, Depot Harbour also closed as a shipping and railway port, this time for good.

In 1987, the Depot Harbour land was finally returned to the Anishinaabe First People.

In 1989, the rails were removed and what was once a busy Great Lake port was left to be absorbed by the wilderness.

Little remains of the once bustling shipping and railway port.  Scattered foundations, the steps to the Catholic Church, sections of walkway and the foundation of the church, can be found in the area, all of which is slowly being consumed by the vegetation.

The bank vault can still be found and the pier still stretches out along the shoreline.  The ruins of the old roundhouse can still be seen beside a dirt road, standing eerily silent among the surrounding trees and slowly crumbling to pieces.

The old rail-bed is now the roadway leading from the Wasauksing Swing Bridge that crosses over the strait between Parry Island (Wasauksing First Nation) and the mainland.  Cars now travel over a bridge that once saw old coal-fired steam engines crossing it.

Only one of  the former residences remains in use as a cottage and the port is still used as a fish farm, owned by a resident of the Wasauksing First Nation.

Sources:  information provided by the Parry Sound District Museum, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depot_Harbour,_Ontario, www.ontarioabandonedplaces.com, www.ghosttownpix.com/ontario/towns/depot.htm.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/the-train-doesnt-stop-here-anymore-depot-harbour-ghost-town/

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