Boating Through The Years

A roadless region until the 1950s, the area has seen a progression of waterway travel. As part of a vast network of canoe routes linking all of present-day Ontario with the rest of Canada and the United States, travel by canoe by various native tribes provided extensive hunting and trade opportunities before European contact.

In the 1600s came the French voyageurs and later English fur traders and explorers who used the French River as a vital link in the east-west route across a vast expanse of wilderness. With the advent of steam power in the mid-1800s, steam boats soon began to ply Lake Nipissing and the Upper French.

Then in the late 1800s, J.R. Booth, the well-known lumber baron, orchestrated the movement of pine timbers from the Restoule area down to Lake Nipissing and across to Callander, where the timber was taken by train to Lake Nosbonsing and down the Mattawa to the Ottawa.

Steam boats also provided the means for the first recreational use of the area and the first camps and cottages began to appear. Steam power is now gone and the area is now dominated by powered watercraft; but the canoe remains the prime choice to explore the French River, now a Provincial Waterway Park.

Felix Lariviere Canoe c. 1906

An example of canoes built in Dokis is shown Pennuscan Cottage.pdf

Post Card of the Day

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French River 1910


Chief Commanda I and II


In 1975, the newly launched Chief Commanda II (on right) towed its predecessor, Chief Commanda I (on left), from Dokis to Callander. The Chief Commanda I now rests on land at the North Bay waterfront where it functions as a restaurant during the summer season.

Booth Boats Add To The History Of Area Waterways

The Booth ready for one of its passenger excursions on Lake Nipissing (late 1800s)

From Heritage Perspectives by Doug Mackey, North Bay Nugget, Nov. 24, 2000

J.R Booth used Lake Nipissing and its rivers to full advantage in his logging operation at Wisa Wasa, where the Wasi River enters Lake Nipissing. He used dams on all of the rivers entering the lake to build up heads of water, in order to flush the logs downstream in the spring.

Log slides were used down the side of waterfalls on places like the Duchesnay River and the Wasi River. The dams were sometimes shared with other lumbermen, and the logs were stamped to allow for later separation. Booth also used water to drive his jackladder at Wisa Wasa.

Booth's dams often caused flooding and brought Booth some criticism. The book Pioneer Days in the Township of Nipissing describes how Booth was confronted for the flooding his dam created on Beatty Creek, a tributary of the South River.

Booth also got in trouble in Chisholm Township where he dammed the Wasi River above Wasi Lake to get an overflow east to the Nosbonsing River and into his access to his mills in Ottawa. The government put a stop to it, but Booth continued to flood the Wasi River to float his logs easier, and to have water for his Wisa Wasa jackladder all year round.

The flooding in Chisholm split the township in two, but did have an impact on wildlife. A Chisholm history book notes that "this flooded area of thousands of acres was a paradise for bullfrogs, which sent up a thunderous roar around sunset.

If the land was useless, there was a harvest of yellow pickerel the year round, while the autumn skies were alive at dawn and dusk with black ducks."

With Booth's Nipissing and Nosbonsing Railway hauling thousands of logs a week, he needed a variety of steamboats on Lake Nipissing to support the operation. This article looks at boats connected to the Booth operation.

In 1884 Booth built a fifty-six foot long steam tug, the NOSBONSING, for the handling of his logs on Lake Nosbonsing at the end of his railway at Astorville. This steam tug was later replaced by the KING EDWARD.

The two original steamboats on Lake Nipissing were the INTER OCEAN and the SPARROW, and they were soon put up for sale when the anticipated railways through Nipissing Village did not materialize. The 103-foot INTER OCEAN carried passengers and freight, but was not a tug and drew too much water for where Booth wanted to go. The 50-foot SPARROW also drew too much water. When Booth turned down the purchase of these boats he asked the builders to build a large steam tug for him. He was not able to complete the deal, so he built his own boat, the 120-foot BOOTH, a light-draft paddle wheeler, at Wisa Wasa.

The BOOTH burned in 1898 and was replaced using the same power plant by a 140-foot tug, the BOOTH (II), which was the largest steam boat ever to run on Lake Nipissing. This second BOOTH sailed for nine years until 1908, when she burned while up for the winter at the dock at Wisa Wasa.

The 50-foot KING EDWARD, purchased a month later, took over the major towing work for Booth.

Booth also had "a swarm of small tugs" collecting logs for the BOOTH to bring to Wisa Wasa. Several of the tugs were owned, for some reason, by Thomas Darling, Booth's superintendent; the KING EDWARD was owned at one time by Mrs. Darling.

The 27-foot ZEPHYR was brought to Wisa Wasa around 1890 and was often captained by Tom Darling's son Victor, who made a living as a captain on the lake all his life (more about him and the Darling family in a column on the Darling family next week). The ZEPHYR had an iron frame, which helped her last for fifty years in the hands of various owners.

The Darling's WASA LILY houseboat being towed by the tug ZEPHYR.

Booth also operated the 25-foot tug, the CALLANDER, again owned by Tom Darling.

The 26-foot SPITFIRE was a completely open boat owned by the Darlings. It towed logs, took passengers and towed houseboats as required. The 36-foot ANNIE LAURIE, was built in 1890 and did similar work.

In 1895 Booth added a 37-foot alligator tug, the LORNE HALL, which was probably used in Booth's operations north of Lake Nipissing. Booth later purchased a 60-foot alligator called the WISAWASA, built by Fred Clark at Sturgeon Falls in 1907.

One last boat in the Booth/Darling story is the 25-foot WASA LILY, a houseboat owned by the Darlings and usually towed by the ZEPHYR. It was used for hunting, fishing and family travel on the lake from 1890 into the 1920s. It could sleep a dozen people and had a well-equipped galley.

The Darlings owned an island in Callander Bay, where they often docked the boat for family get-togethers. The boat was eventually pulled up onto the island and used as a cottage for many years.

There were numerous other steamboats on Lake Nipissing, owned by various other operators. Some of them changed hands and names, as well as being re-built on occasion. For further information, see B. VandenHazel's From Dugout to Diesel (1982) and R. Tatley's Northern Steamboats (1996). 

The Aletis

The Aletis, white hull at bottom left, owned by the Ontario Northland Railway (ONR), spent time on Lake Temagami and then on Lake Nipissing, transporting miners to the mine on the Manitou Islands. 

The Aletis, a 55 foot deisel boat, also transported many cottagers up and down the Upper French River until it met its demise in 1954.

On December 5, 1954 the Aletis was being towed to its winter storage place in Callander Bay. The lake froze quickly, making it hard for the barge to tow the Aletis any further. The ice crushed the sides of the Aletis and it sunk, while the barge made it back to the North Bay shoreline.

For the original newspaper article regarding the sinking of the Aletis, go to:  

The Aletis must have benn salvaged and retored, as from 1955 to 1968 Norm Dokis Sr. worked on this boat and even delivered mail from the boat.  In 1967 Norm Dokis  bought the Aletis, but only kept it for a year.   It often wintered in Dokis Bay on the French River.

In 1970 the Aletis was given by its then owners, Charterways Ltd., to the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets in North Bay.  (Wayne LeBelle book- Dokis- Since Time Immemorial)

Many Upper French River cottagers remember the Aletis on the River during the 1960s.

Note that the Aletis is one of the boats featured in the 1955 Ontario Northland (Boat Line)brochure below.

ONR Boats

The following photos are from an April 1955 brochure of the Ontario Northland Railway (ONR) owned boats used on the Upper French River and Lake Nipissing. Click to enlarge each photo.

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