Friday, 15 August 2014


By: L.M. “Buzz” Lein

When Buzz wrote this sometime in the early 1980’s (likely 1983) , George Nicholson was alive, therefore the title:


‘Someone once asked me how we found all these stories that we share with our readers. The answer is simply that we don’t – the stories find us.  As is the case with the one you are about to read.”

“If you recall, we wrote about a shipwreck on  Lake Nipigon in 1910.  This sparked a special interest in a Red Rock resident.  We were invited to communicate with him because he said that he knew quite a bit about those old boats that steamed up and down Lake Nipigon.”

“We did just that.  Not only did we meet an extremely nice gentleman but we added immensely to our Nipigon story.  You are reminded that we had no idea  who we were going to meet, and a vague idea of what we were going to talk about.”

“Meet George Nicholson of Red Rock.  This grey haired gentleman in his 88th year (as near as we can tell) is fluently bilingual.  He has spent his life in the Nipigon dIstrict;  has done everything he had to do  to survive and while he may have some regrets about some of the things that happened to him he is not bitter about the way life has treated him.  He has an excellent memory for bygone days and speaks about the past with an easy flow of language that would put many a university student to shame.”

“George Nicholson was born on the south end of Ignace Island at a place called by him “Burnt Harbour”.  We cannot find this spot on any of our maps. Since George’s birth was not recorded, he has only hearsay to go on when asked how old he is.  But backtracking in time from some things he told us, it was either 1895 or 1896.”

“While in Burnt Harbour, his mother died and his father presumably, decided tomove into Nipigon where there would be someone that could look after the baby better than he could.  But on the way in to Nipigon, the boat that was carrying them piled up on a rock and sank. No lives were lost but they had to row all the  back to Burnt Harbour to get some help.”

“Our guess is that Burnt Harbour was the headquarters for a group of commercial fishermen who abounded throughout this area about this point in time.  They arrived in Nipigon finally – at Red Rock as it was known in those days.  They disembarked at Nicholson’s Landing.  We think this is  the place where John Dampier  built his little cabin.  On the East bank opposite the Red Rock Post. But the Nicholson family were burnt out and had to move again.”

“ By this time George’s father was working on construction of the Revilllon Bros. post in Ombabika Bay at the north end of Lake Nipigon.  Taking a guess we would say this was about 1907 or 1908.  The Nicholson family then moved into this post and lived there while George’s father worked on the steamer Ombabika.”

“This boat was a steamboat and was fired with wood at the start – switched over to coal as the Nipigon Tramway came into service and could haul coal into South Bay. This Ombabika, by the way, was built at South Bay about 1906 from a kit that was made up and hauled into South Bay over winter roads.  This also was a Revillon  Boart.”

Revillon also built a motorized Scow, powered by steam. It was a big brute and had a shallow draught for getting heavy loads close to shore.  This one was the real workhorse of the Lake carrying hay, oats, horses, men and anything else that could be loaded on board.”

“It carried the material needed by the North Transcontinental to build their railroad across the top of Lake Nipigon.  Today it is part of the C.N.R. from Winnipeg to Montreal.”

“It was the Minewa that attracted George’s attention when he heard about the article we wrote on the 1910 shipwreck at Scherburn Island.  And we were wondering where the heck this Island was because we had never heard of it.”

By the way, in Ojibway, Minewa means “going back and forth.” Somewhat irreverently, we like the word “Yo-yo” better.”

“Anyway, the reason that Nicholson knew why the 1910 newspaper reported got the name of the boat wrong;  why the name of the Island was wrong;  why the location was incorrectly reported – was that George Nicholson  himself was on board the Minewa when the Captain piled it up on Flatlands Is..”

“This latter is north westerly from the mouth of the Sturgeon River about nine miles. It well deserves its name.  George, at the time was 14 or 15 years old and was sort of a roustabout on the scow. His father was also working on the craft at the same time.”

“Anyway, that Minewa was grossly overloaded with so much hay piled up in the front of the craft that visibility was much curtailed. It wouldn’t have mattered if that day had been calm and sunny – but it wasn’t.  It was snowing to beat hell the way it can do on Lake Nipigon and you couldn’t see 50 feet in any direction.”

“Now the Minewa had a shallow draught and was darn close to shore when they crunched on the bottom.  Probably sprang a small leak and since they couldn’t move, the scow just sat there and filled up. There were a couple of yawl boats and a whole crew of men on board so they scrambled off; un-loaded all the food they needed and just waited out the weather.”

“Sure enough as soon as the weather cleared – probably the next day – the Ombabika on her way north spotted the disabled craft and came to the rescue.  The Ombabika probably took most of the men back to South Bay, along with the Minewa Captain, Nicholson Sr. was left in charge.”

“By the time the Insurance investigation was complete – and by the way, that long ago reporter got the adjuster’s name right at least. George Rapsy. When all this was cleared up, the water transport was over for the year  and  George’s father took him to Ombabika Bay; ran in as far as the ice would let him and dumped  the young  fellow off and told him to hike home to the Revillon Post.  Obviously he made it all right.”

“George spent the winter of 1910-1911 freighting over the ice from South Bay to the Tramway terminus in Ombabika Bay. With freighting from South Bay to the Tramway terminus in Ombabika Bay complete;  the Nicholsons moved again, this time to South Bay where Nicholson Sr. became the Captain on another little steamer called  the “Pewabic” (iron) and moved freight from South Bay to MacDiarmid for the construction of the Canadian Northern.”

“George’s father worked for the Ontario Forestry Branch out of MacDiarmid for 36 years, mostly running the boat “Ogima” – (‘chief’ in Ojibway) - .  Abitibi had a boat by this name on Lake Nipigon, but it wasn’t this one – theirs was the Ogima II. It’s  at Oscar Styffe’s dock in Port Arthur.”

“George was now living at Sand Point which was the settlement  that preceded MacDiarmid. He worked for a while fishing on Lake Nipigon; worked for the railway as a section man and did whatever he had  to do to make a living.”

“ In those days there was no unemployment insurance and if you didn’t work, you didn’t get any money. Since work on the railway and fishing was seasonal employment a guy had to be nimble footed indeed to remain gainfully employed. Especially in and around Lake Nipigon.”

“We think that Nicholson freighted on the construction of the C.N.R. from MacDiarmid to Longlac but we have to talk to him about this. We were amused at one remark that George made about the time he was living and freighting out of South Bay and that was about the presence of a “whiskey” policeman there. He knew the guy’s name – it was Van Norman. Ring a bell? Van Norman Street in Port Arthur? His job was to check all northbound people for the possession of alcohol.  Van Norman must have confiscated dozens of bottles.  We often wonder where all those old whiskey bottles around Lake Nipigon came from. – Van Norman sure as heck didn’t get them all.”

“We also note A. M. Lower in his short description of going north on Lake Nipigon in 1909 mentions provincial policemen at South Bay checking one and all for the presence of liquor.”

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