Archive Awareness week at the Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre is a time to look back in history.
With Lake Huron’s long and rich marine heritage, we are taking a step back to look at only a part of Lake Huron’s marine heritage and what was the last of the working sailing vessels while also taking a small look at the rich tradition of Southampton’s boat building and marine history.
The Last of the Huron Boats
While most people have heard of the sailing legend the Bluenose of Nova Scotia, few have probably heard of the Helen McLeod II but she, too was very significant, in that she was the last of the Huron boats, a fishing vessel powered by sail on Lake Huron.
The McLeod story begins with Hugh McLeod who emigrated to Canada with his parents from Scotland in 1834. The family settled in the village of Bayfield on the shore of Lake Huron at the mouth of the Bayfield River in Huron County. The mouth of the Bayfield River was a natural sheltered harbour and, by 1869, the settlement was a port of entry where vessels touched there on their route from Detroit to Goderich and, during the 1870s, a large, permanent harbour was built.
With its growing marine prosperity, McLeod became one of its first boat builders and fishermen in the village. It was said that he built the original Helen McLeod I to honour his deceased infant daughter.
Following Hugh McLeod’s death in 1910, his son Louie, who returned from World War I, took over the business and built a replica of his father’s boat, the Helen McLeod II, in 1923.
The Helen McLeod II, at 38 feet long and 10 feet wide, was a prime example of a two-masted schooner fishing vessel before boats became mechanically powered and was launched in 1926.
By 1945 however, things were not going well for the fishing industry and the Helen McLeod II. It was a very tough year for the vessel when her owner, Louie McLeod, suffered a stroke but also for the fishing industry as the trout population became severely depleted to extinction due to the invasion of the Lamprey eel.
Subsequently, the Helen McLeod II was put out of commission and not used again until 1950 when two Detroit historians purchased her and used it as a sailing yacht, renaming her the Anna S. Pigott.
Then, in 1960, she was used as a training vessel by the Trenton Rotary Club and, in 1969, the was donated to the Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle and, again later to the Saugatuck Marine Museum. Each time she was passed on however, her condition gradually deteriorated.
It wasn’t until 1996, some 71 years following her launch, that the Bayfield Historical Society finally gained ownership of the Helen McLeod II and she was brought home where she began and where planning for her restoration is underway.
Today, the Helen McLeod II sits in a custom cradle in a shed at the Bayfield North Antiques and Flea Market on Highway 21 where she is being painstakingly reconstructed.
According to the Restoration Committee led by the Bayfield Historical Society, the preservation and display will eventually serve as a memorial to the days of the Great Lakes fishing schooners, a tribute to her late builder Louie McLeod, and a celebration of the generations of fishermen who sailed the Great Lakes.
Further north on the Lake Huron shoreline is Southampton, also with a rich marine history and known as the oldest port on the Bruce coast. At the mouth of the Saugeen River, Southampton began as a trading post in the early 1800s. The Anishinaabe First Nation people lived by the mouth of the Saugeen River when Pierre Piché arrived in 1818 to begin fur trading in the region and, by 1826, the Hudson’s Bay Company established an outpost at Saguingue to compete with independent fur traders like Piché.
Fur trading continued here until the mid-19th century when Southampton was founded. What began as a trading post soon changed direction however, when in 1858, the government of the day built a breakwater on the north bank at the mouth of the Saugeen River and a pier on the south side.
The result of the harbour formed was that Southampton became a busy fishing and ship-building Centre where, according to sources, at least 30 vessels were launched.
Captain Alfred A. Hackett was the first builder and launched his first vessel, the ‘Britannia’ in 1858, a schooner of 39 tons.
By 1893, the Southampton fishing fleet included 13 sailing vessels and three steam tugs that employed some 58 men.
With the advent of the engine, sailing in a work environment came to an end.
Boat building in Southampton however didn’t stop and continued as a viable industry through to the 1950s. According to grandson Wayne Doran, his grandfather Nathan Doran and sons operated a wooden boat-building business at the mouth of the Saugeen River in Southampton for many years. The business was known as the ‘Saugeen Boat Works’. “I’m not sure exactly when the business started but I believe it was in operation from the mid 1930s until the early 1950s,” says Doran.
Nathan Doran’s ‘Saugeen Boat Works’ produced ten vessels between 1936 and 1950 in the 35 to 40 foot length category, including commercial fishing boats, cabin cruiser pleasure craft, and sail boats.
On the commercial fishing boats, fishermen would return with their catch to the harbour, where, in the fishing sheds at the docks, workers packed 60 lb. boxes of fish in ice and sent them by train to city markets as far away as Detroit. Fishing net drying reels also lined the docks where the daily nets were hung to dry or be repaired if needed.
In 1946, the Dorans built the ‘Sauble Clipper’ tourist boat. According to Wayne Doran, his father Morice, operated the ‘Sauble Clipper’ tour boat for sunset cruises and fishing trips from the Dorans’ dock on the Sauble River for many years. “If the lake was too rough for the evening sunset cruise, Dad would take passengers for an enjoyable ride up the river to the Sauble Falls and back,” adds Doran. Upon retirement in 1974, Morice Doran sold ‘Doran’s Boat Livery and Sauble Clipper’ business.
The Sauble Clipper was eventually sold to a party in the Bracebridge/Huntsville area where it was operated for some time as a water taxi in Muskoka.
The marine heritage of Lake Huron and Southampton continues today. In Southampton, close ties to its marine history remain, particularly, with the restoration of Chantry Island and its Imperial Lighthouse, one of only six built on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.
Bruce County Museum Archives
Gordon Boyd, Southampton
Bayfield Historical Society