My earliest memory of Algonquin Park involves a tent with no floor and a hemp rope.
In the late 1950’s my family set out to the Park on our first camping trip. “Inexperience” was written on all our foreheads.
Gear was minimal, borrowed and prehistoric. It included a small, square, floorless tent. When you’re borrowing, you take what’s offered.
My father Norm, an over-reactor at the best of times, had also brought along a long hemp rope.
After he and my mother struggled for some time with the tent’s deployment, Dad proceeded to lay the rope around its circumference. “What are you doing Daddy?” was this oldest daughter’s query.
“This rope is a snake deterrent,” he answered me. “Snakes don’t like moving their bellies over the fibres in the cord and they’ll turn back. So we’ll be safe.”
I slept not a wink that night, anticipating the drama that would, no doubt, be taking place outside our sleeping quarters.
It was some years before I learned that my father’s idea was sound—if we’d been camping in Burma and our foe had been a viper instead of a fearful garter snake!
Algonquin Park, encompassing 7571 square kilometers of land and water was established in 1893. It was the first designated Provincial Park in Canada. A wilderness paradise, the park boasted five rivers and numerous lakes that added contrast to the densely-wooded landscape.
The Park had been founded to serve three purposes: as a forest reserve; as a fish and game preserve; and as health and pleasure resort. By the early 1900’s Algonquin Park had become a favoured getaway for affluent vacationers.
City folk flocked, by the thousands, to Algonquin. To bring them north, a rail line had been built from Toronto’s Union Station. A series of “spur lines” were laid within the Park itself.
Hotels and lodges close to the rail line began to sprout like dandelions. The wealthiest of Park fans built gracious cottages.
But tourists weren’t the only ones drawn to the raw beauty of Algonquin Park. Artists made the pilgrimage too. One of them was the man now considered one of Canada’s finest artists. His name is Tom Thomson.
Born in Grey County in 1877, Tom started his art career as a commercial artist in the U.S. He later returned to Canada, and joined Grip Ltd of Toronto, a large photo engraving firm.
Grip became the spawning ground for Canada’s future artists. Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, Franklin Carmichael, Fred Varley, and Franz Johnson worked alongside Tom Thomson.
The painters routinely set off on weekend sketching trips to Ontario’s “near north,” including Algonquin Park. Occasionally Tom would join them, but more often than not he went solo. Tom, quiet and brooding was a loner.
He’d discovered Algonquin’s charms as early as 1912. Over his years scouting the best places to paint, Thomson had also developed a reputation as an expert canoeist, a skilled hunter and a knowledgeable guide.
Sketching seated on a log, or from the vantage point of his canoe, Tom created magic on his canvas. One of his earliest paintings, “A Northern Lake” was purchased by the Government of Ontario, for $250. It was a considerable sum, given that Tom’s weekly salary at Grip was $35 a week!
It didn’t take long for Dr. James MacCallum, a wealthy patron of young Canadian artists to become aware of Tom Thomson. He guaranteed Tom’s expenses for a year. This would allow him to leave his “day job” at Grip to devote his efforts and time towards painting Ontario’s north.
Tom would routinely arrive in the Park before the spring ice-melt. His residence there was Mowat Lodge on the northern shore of Canoe Lake. With a reputation as a surly individual, especially when he was “in his cups,” Thomson frequently clashed with Mowat’s proprietor Shannon Fraser.
Enmity between the two men increased with the rumour that Thomson had had a brief affair with Fraser’s wife Annie. Money came into play too. Tom was anxious to recover the money he had lent Fraser to buy new canoes for the lodge.
As soon as the ice began its spring melt, Tom was anxious to get on the water. A comfortable lodge was no place to observe the changing seasons. Packing his grey canoe with a few supplies, including a fishing pole and gun, his paint box and brushes, Tom Thomson would disappear into the bush for weeks on end.
Occasionally painting friends would join him. A.Y Jackson was a frequent companion. But more often than not Tom would set out alone.
At Mowat Lodge, Tom had made the acquaintance of one Winnie Trainor. She lived in nearby Huntsville but frequently vacationed at a cottage in the Park. Although Tom’s feelings for the young lady were never recorded, most Canoe Lake folk considered them a couple. Indeed, Winnie told friends and family that she and Tom were engaged.
When Winnie left Huntsville for an extended period of time, the rumour was that she was carrying Tom Thomson’s baby.
In early July, 1917, Tom set off by canoe on another painting excursion. Given his pattern, no one expected him to re-surface for some time.
On July 8, 1917, canoeists spotted a body floating in Canoe Lake. A length of fish line was wrapped around the man’s ankles. It was surely Tom Thomson. After examining the body, the coroner judged the artist’s death as “accidental drowning.”
The official judged the bruising above the artist’s temple and the bleeding from one of the ears as consistent with Thomson falling and striking his head before he tumbled into the water.
The manner of Thomson’s death, given his savvy as an outdoorsman, shocked Park regulars. Talk ran to disbelief when the coroner’s findings were released. Something was surely “fishy” here—and not just the fine trout that had been found in Tom’s abandoned canoe.
Within hours, Park regulars were talking murder. The most vocal of those was Winnie Trainor who had recently returned from her mysterious and extended “holiday” to find her friend/lover dead.
Burial initially took place in a small cemetery overlooking Canoe Lake. A stone cairn, financed by Thomson’s patron, J. MacCallum was erected to honour him. The inscription on the cairn had been penned by artist J.E.H. MacDonald.
TO THE MEMORY OF TOM THOMSON ARTIST, WOODSMAN AND
GUIDE WHO WAS DROWNED IN CANOE LAKE JULY 8TH, 1917
HE LIVED HUMBLY BUT PASSIONATELY WITH THE WILD
IT MADE HIM BROTHER TO ALL UNTAMED THINGS OF NATURE
IT DREW HIM APART AND REVEALED ITSELF WONDERFULLY TO HIM
IT SENT HIM OUT FROM THE WOODS ONLY TO SHOW THESE REVELATIONS THROUGH HIS ART AND IT TOOK HIM TO ITSELF AT LAST.
Later, at the request of Thomson’s family, his coffin was exhumed and his remains were taken to the family plot outside Leith, Ontario. Rumours and speculation now flew again. Some wags believed that the body now resting in the Thomson family plot was not Tom at all.
Covert “body switching” had taken place. And who were the supposed body-nappers? None other than Tom’s artistic friends! The tale now turns fantastical.
After Tom’s Algonquin burial, his friends and colleagues had caught wind of the Thomson family’s plan to have Tom’s body returned to Leith. Those who knew Tom best–certainly not his family– believed their deceased friend would have disapproved of the change in his final resting place.
And so they spirited Tom’s corpse out of the coffin, burying him in an unmarked grave on the shores of Canoe Lake.
With the complicity of a medical man (Dr. McCallum?) the body-snatchers replaced Tom’s body with an “imposter.” This was who was buried in the Thomson cemetery.
Edwardian squeamishness would, it was hoped, prevent family members from opening the casket to discover the switch. And they were right. The casket purportedly containing Tom Thomson’s corpse has never been opened.
Almost 100 years later, debate on Tom Thomson’s demise continues to fascinate.
Doubt has always centred on the fish line wrapped tightly around the artist’s ankles. “Death by accidental drowning”skeptics ask: “How could a man of Thomson’s superior outdoors knowledge and skills have tangled himself so badly that it caused him to lose his balance and fall overboard?”
Speculations of the real cause of death of Tom Thomson’s tragic death abound. One sees Shannon Fraser, the owner of Mowat Lodge with whom the painter had differences, as the Thomson Murderer.
The scenario sees Fraser following Thomson at a distance as Tom paddled across Canoe Lake. Overtaking the artist, Fraser dealt him vicious blow to the head with his paddle. If Tom was not already dead before he fell into the water, he quickly drowned.
Other speculations are no less fanciful.
- Distraught about Winnie Trainor’s pregnancy, Tom chose to commit suicide over being trapped into a loveless marriage.
- The “demon rum” was the cause. Drunk, Thomson got his feet hopelessly tangled in the line and fell out of the canoe.
- Death by assailants unknown—perhaps relatives of Winnie Trainor They wee punishing the “shiftless” artist for making her pregnant. Worse still was Thomson’s abandonment of her.
Roy MacGregor in his excellent biography of Thomson called Northern Spirit offers his own theory.
Thomson never really intended to marry Winnie. Thomson was manic-depressive. Thomson didn’t commit suicide. Thomson didn’t fall out of his canoe. Thomson probably wasn’t even in his canoe when he died. Thomson was responsible for Winnie’s pregnancy. Thomson and Fraser, perhaps in a dispute about money, sex or Winnie’s pregnancy, got into a fight. Fraser struck Thomson and then panicked, and he and his wife disposed of the body, using fishing line to weigh Thomson’s remains down before dumping it in the lake.
Soon after the second burial, rumours grew again. Speculation was that the body, now resting in the Thomson family plot was not Tom at all.
Persistent tales of “body switching” had surfaced. And who were the supposed body-nappers? None other than Tom’s artistic friends!
Those of the “switched-body” mindset, believe that after Tom’s Algonquin burial, his artistic friends had become aware of the Thomson family’s demand to have Tom’s body returned to Leith. This did not set well with them. Nor would it have if Tom himself had had a say in the matter!
And so these nameless “protectors” spirited Tom’s corpse out of the coffin, burying him in an unmarked grave on the shores of Canoe Lake.
With the complicity of a medical man (Dr. McCallum?) they replaced Tom’s body with an “imposter.” This was who was buried in the Thomson cemetery.
Edwardian squeamishness would, it was hoped, have prevent family members from opening the casket to discover the switch. And they were right.
The public’s fascination with the mysterious death of one of Canada’s greatest painters has continued through the decades. A flurry of interest was resurrected in 1956 when four “snoops” decided to break the law and dig up Thomson’s original grave-site.
They discovered what they believed was Thomson’s coffin. The sleuths also found a skull, with a bullet hole through the forehead. Authorities were quick to reiterate that the body of Tom Thomson lay buried in a family plot lo! these many years. Still, theories and suspicions of a Tom Thomson cover-up continue to this day.
And people call Canadian culture “boring.” Not on your life.