Mowat was a mill town that attracted residents in 1897 on the northwestern shore of Canoe Lake in western Algonquin Park. Mowat was a lumberman’s town that included all the usual stores and businesses of the early mill villages including a hospital for a town that grew to a population of more than 500, the largest town in the Park. A school opened in 1898, listing 30 pupils in attendance. But then the lumber industry entered a recession and the population dwindled to just over 200. By 1914 it was down to 150. The community continued to decline and in 1946 the school closed having only 6 pupils. Soon the trains stopped running and Mowat became a ghost of its former self. A fate all too common in Northern Ontario, including, to a lesser extent my home base.
After Mowat’s decline the Group of Seven painter, Tom Thomson painted and lived in the area. Thomson often stayed at Mowat Lodge, a tourist retreat operated by Shannon and Annie Fraser, which made use of a converted Gilmour company building. In 1917 Thomson died in Canoe Lake under mysterious circumstances after staying at the lodge. Speculation is that he was murdered. During the time Tom Thomson used Mowat as his ‘home base’ in the Park, residents there included visitors from as far away as Europe, cottagers from the United States of America, as well as from Canadian cities such as Ottawa and Toronto. The population of Mowat also included those people who serviced tourists’ needs, such as hotel operators and guides. Park staff watched over all of them, maintaining the safety of the area, and enforcing Park regulations.
Today, time and forest regrowth has reclaimed most signs of the community of Mowat, originally named in honour of Sir Oliver Mowat, Premier of Ontario from 1872 to 1896. Only a few cottage leases, old foundations, and the Tom Thomson cairn commemorating the artist’s life remain in Algonquin Park.
Next time, we’ll take a closer look at Tom Thomson himself and the influence Algonquin Park had on his paintings, as well as the circumstances surrounding his death. Did he die by misadventure or was he murdered by spies?