History of Georgian Bay

From our beginnings as a native village, to our adolescence as a thriving logging town, the region has come of age as one of Ontario’s premier tourism destinations, and has grown accustomed to the numerous changes of its peoples. Yet some things always remain the same: the multi-coloured glacial rock formations, graciously left behind in the wake of the last ice age, the signature wind swept pines, natural wildlife habitats, and the ever-present, shining waters of Georgian Bay. All have seen these changes come and go, and will continue to stand by us for many years to come.


It has been dubbed throughout history with designations as varied as Spirit Lake (the Ojibway Natives), Lake of the Attigouatan (the Huron Natives), La Mer Douce (Samuel de Champlain), and Lake Manitoulin (Captain William Fitzwilliam Owen), before reaching its current moniker, Georgian Bay (Admiral Henry Bayfield), after King George IV. No matter what it was named, however, Georgian Bay has never ceased to amaze and captivate all who have been fortunate to experience it.

Georgian Bay Country’s potential as a summer destination was recognized very early. In fact, in the 1600’s it was used as summer hunting and fishing grounds by the Huron natives. The Ojibway First Nations reflected the beauty of the region when they named the first village in the area – located at the mouth of the Seguin River – Wasauksing, or “shining shore.”

The area was first seen by European eyes in the 1600’s by the French, as they capitalized on the area’s abundance of wildlife in the lucrative fur trade. By the early 19th century, Admiral Henry Wolsey Bayfield was commissioned to survey and map out Lake Huron as well as Georgian Bay.

In 1822, when he came to a protected bay, sheltered and beautiful, he named it Parry Sound, in honour of the great arctic explorer, Sir William Edward Parry.

Early History

The land around Parry Sound is the 12th oldest in the world, so records “The World in Which We Live.” On the edge of the Pre-Cambrian Shield, its scoured rocks show evidence of the recent (i.e. historically recent) ice ages.

The first man came to this area sometime after the last ice age, and at least 5,000 years ago. This seems proven by the finding of an artifact, bearing the unmistakable marks of having been shaped by man, on the shore of Mill Lake a few years ago [prior to 1974], which on being tested, proved to be at least five thousand years old. Who and what he was has been lost in the mists of time – for us, he exists only as a creature who, perhaps on a long-ago afternoon, carelessly dropped a rude tool by the side of a lovely placid lake. Or perhaps it was buried in his skull by an enemy, since as a general rule, stone endures longer than bone.

When the first explorers came in the early 1600’s the Indians were in possession. These explorers and/or traders were likely French, since a French made bronze mortar bearing the date 1636, was found near Trout Lake in the 1800’s. There is also evidence of the temporary visits of the Jesuits.

In the 1600’s the Hurons were in possession, a superior race advanced in the art of cultivation and rude manufacture. They shaped earthen pots for cooking, they wove rush mats with considerable skill: they spun twine from hemp by the primative process of rolling it on their thighs, and made nets of this twine for fishing. North east of them were the Algonquins with whom they were closely allied, and both these tribes frequented the Parry Sound area as a hunting and fishing ground.

Picture, if you can, the magnificent forests of that time. The tall trees which covered the area were so dense there was little underbrush. In “Free Grant Lands” (1877) Thomas McMurray wrote “The ridges are chiefly covered with pine and some oak, the valleys of good land between the ridges are principally covered with hardwood. Maple abounds, elm, basswood, beech and ironwood are plentiful with some balsam, hemlock and scattered pine.” In 1866 J.L.P. O’Hanley, Provincial Land Surveyor noted: “There is a great deal of white pine, but much is scattered (in McDougall Township)…except along the valleys of streams and the margins of lakes, and at Parry Sound…the country viewed from a distance would probably be considered a vast pinery. Red pine is entirely unknown.” In those days, manmade fire was rare; this area had suffered little lightning fire damage, so most of the trees were mature, hence large. [except in the (now) Pointe au Baril area where a forest fire had completely razed the forest leaving little to no opportunity for large scale logging]

Through this forest the red man flitted in his deerskin moccasins, in pursuit of game, which abounded, or in pursuit of, or in flight from his enemy, the Iroquois. The Hurons called this land Ouendake, “One Land Apart”, but Champlain called it “such a bad land”. That great explorer must have eaten something that disagreed with him that day – for anyone who called the 30,000 Islands or the North Shore, a bad land, must have been dispeptic, or blind, or both.

Eventually, in the 1600’s, the smouldering feud between the Hurons and the Iroquois broke out into bloody battle, and the peace-loving and agricultural-minded Hurons were massacred. As the remnants fled up the Georgian Bay they were pursued by their enemies and a dark and bloody history was imprinted on this fair and lovely land.

The Hurons made one of their last stands on the Belvidere (Note: we used the old spelling for Belvedere (with an “i”)), so legend says, and in early years there could be found a triple row of pits on the east side of the hill and in some of these pits were found iron tomahawks of the French period. At Shebeshekong, a long established Indian Village, they fought, at Shawanaga, and on the Limestone Islands, bloody battles raged.

With the power of the Hurons broken, the Iroquois turned their warlike genius to other conquests, and this land was left empty.

Into these hunting grounds moved the Ojibways and here they remained, although, according to their legends, the Iroquois made periodic raids in an effort to disposses them. The Ojibways were made of sterner stuff than their predecessors – they repulsed them.

Old records place one of their main villages where the Seguin River empties into the Georgian Bay, where now stands the Town of Parry Sound. The name of the village was said to be “Wausakwasene” – variously interpreted as “white around the beaches,” “distant outlook” or “white sheen.” Chief Flora Tabobondong, who is [was] Chief of the Ojibways on the Parry Island Reserve, and who, incidentally is the only woman to be so honoured by the people of this reserve, a descendent of the King family, which fathered many chieftains, says it means “shining rock” and should likely be spelt “Wausakwasing.” It got its name, according to old legends, because when the Ojibwas paddled into the channel, the sun was shining and glinted on the rocks of the island. At that time, this was all Indian lands. In 1788 the area including Parry Sound was called Nassau District, Province of Quebec. In 1792 it was renamed Home District of Upper Canada – in 1816 again renamed New Castle District of Upper Canada.

In 1850 the Robinson Treaty was signed, on September 9th, between the Honourable Wm. B. Robinson for Her Majesty Queen Victoria and various Chiefs along the eastern and northern shore from Penetang to Sault Ste. Marie and Lake Superior to Batchawana Bay, including the Islands. There were later adhesions to this Treaty 61 (ref. Parry Sound Forest District No. 2).

In this treaty, a Reserve was set aside for the Ojibwa on the Island [Parry Island] and a few settled at what was to become Upper Village and at Three Mile Lake, but eventually they moved in close to, and became part of, Upper Village. The majority were Ojibwa, but a few were Potawatomi and Ottawa, who emigrated from the United States.

The loss of the Huron “middlemen” forced the French traders to go inland to get the furs themselves. The mouths of the rivers entering the Georgian Bay were natural meeting places for fur traders and the fur hunting Indians, and in 1823, Dr. John Bigby, a surveyor travelling north among the 30,000 Islands noted such a post on an island on the Big Sound, operated by M. Bourassa and another near the mouth of the Shawanaga, the property of M. LaRonde. Most of the early white trappers were likely French “courier de bois.” Etienne Brule is thought to be the first white man to pass this way, possibly 1610. Father Joseph Le Caron, a Recollect priest paddled down the North Shore in 1615, the same year that Samuel de Champlain also passed this way. According to “History of Parry Sound,” (Dick McKean, 1964) Joliet in 1669, La Salle in 1680, Alexander Henry in 1764 and Sir John Franklin 1825, all passed this way. The wonderful, naturally sheltered canoe route among the Islands of the Georgian Bay was the reason they came by way of Parry Sound.

This was the way into the rich interior of Canada – There was no other.

(reprinted from Chapter 1, “History of Parry Sound The Place and The People”(1974), by Agnes I. Wing, former Mayor of Parry Sound and former Editor of the Parry Sound North Star

The Railroad

The railroad also played a crucial role in the development of Parry Sound and her outlying communities. Many rail companies eventually sent lines to and through the town, capitalizing on this important shipping location on the Great Lakes.

In 1855, the Northern Railroad from Toronto to Collingwood was completed, making Collingwood the northern-most terminal, but as there were no passable roads, early settlers were left wholly dependant upon shipping for both trade and supplies.

Thomas McMurray, one traveller on a northern bound steamer, was enamoured by, and saw potential in, the twin hamlets on the banks of the Seguin River, though there were much larger towns.

In a summary, carefully preserved by the “Parry Sound North Star”, preceeding the launch of his then new news journal, “The North Star” which began in 1874, McMurray writes, “…convinced of the superior water facilities of this country, and the varied advantages which it possesses for manufacturing purposes…abounds in mineral wealth…our aim to encourage manufacturers, promote development and secure Railroad Communication at the earliest possible date…”

The first railroad ran to Depot Harbour located on Parry Island just to the south west in Parry Sound Harbour.

J.R. Booth, Algonquin park lumber baron, brought the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway, in order to transport goods back to Ottawa.

Booth then founded Depot Harbour, which quickly grew to become one of the most important shipping locations in Canada.

First there was the Canadian Atlantic to Depot Harbour in 1897, [and the “must see” rose point swing bridge joining the mainland to Parry Island], then the Canadian Northern to Parry Sound in 1901, then in 1907 the Canadian Pacific Railway built an Edwardian-style trestle bridge spanning the Seguin River. The bridge boasts a whopping 1,695 feet in length, and 115 feet in height, making it the longest trestle bridge east of the Rockies.