On Saturday May 11 all roads led to Madawaska as former residents and descendants of Madawaskans headed home to the “Growing Up in Madawaska Reunion.” I was one of them. It felt like a homecoming even though I didn’t grow up there and only spend a few hours a year there visiting relatives or attending church suppers. However, my Woermke grandparents lived there between 1912 and 1943; my dad, Roy, was born and raised there; and I grew up listening to his colourful, poignant and wistful stories as he pored over the family album. That morning, driving west on Highway 60, I realized that the little hamlet of Madawaska occupies significant acreage in my imagination. (Above: Top: Hotel and restaurant. Covered platform linking station and hotel in foreground. Homes and churches in “Boneyville” in the distance. Bottom: Madawaska railway station. Photos from Growing Up in Madawaska Reunion.)
My father’s childhood world came together
At the reunion I had the opportunity to look at photos of Madawaska and its people and chat with Pam Aleck, Percy Bresnahan, Joe Florent, Glen Hamilton, Milton Towns and Thelma Haskins Villeneuve. I got new insights into my father’s Madawaska stories and was able to identify and place the buildings that appear in many family photos.
My father’s childhood world came together, and in my mind’s eye I saw him tobogganing on Reynolds’ Hill and playing hockey on the river with his friends in cardboard shin pads. I saw him waiting for his father at the gate at the end of the day, and hanging around Davis’ store with his friends and his dog Buster. I saw him in the school yard defending a deaf-mute who was teased by classmates and in a classroom crying after he learned that his favourite teacher, Mr. Sutherland, had enlisted. I saw him at the ball field where “Ma Beatrice,” one of the nuns, cheered him on even though he was a Protestant, and standing along the road in “Boneyville” watching the Loyal Orange Lodge parade when the white horse “King Billy” (his father) was riding bolted, startled the onlookers, and chased Mrs. Collins up the church steps. And I saw him at the station: boarding a train for Barry’s Bay when a worrisome forest fire caused the evacuation of women and children; and again in his Boy Scout uniform on a school excursion to see the royal family in Ottawa.
Top: Water tank and roundhouse. Bottom: Railway snowplough and hotel. Photos: Woermke collection.
My father often referred to being “flooded out” and spoke with sadness about the disruption the dramatically raised water levels in the Madawaska River resulting from an expansion of the Bark Lake Dam in 1942 had on his community. Families had to move their homes or leave. Brick and cement block structures like the schools and Catholic church were torn down and rebuilt, and frame structures were moved on rails to higher ground. When my father said “Madawaska was never the same again,” he wasn’t just referring to the physical changes. He was commenting on the loss of homes and jobs and the dispersion of family and friends
My father’s childhood home was located on several acres about a kilometre east of the railway bridge. His closest neighbours were the Jockos and the Youngs. It was a frame house which started as a bungalow, but in 1930 a second storey was added. In 1942 the property was expropriated due to flooding. His parents sold the structure to a Barry’s Bay carpenter who salvaged the material and shipped it to the Bay on a flatcar. For a year they lived in one of Booth’s old company houses, a duplex that had been moved to higher ground. In 1943, my dad and his parents left Madawaska. He often noted how hard this was on his mother. She was very proud of her home; her children were born there and she didn’t like settling for a smaller house in Barry’s Bay that didn’t have enough room for her quilting frame. The only Woermke to remain in Madawaska was Violet and her husband James Bennet “Bun” Young.
What was lost
Madawaska began as a tiny cluster of Indigenous families, lumbermen, workers on depot farms and a few settlers near the end of the Opeongo Road. It got a boost in 1867 when J.R. Booth purchased the surrounding timber limits and reinvigorated the local timber industry, and another in 1894 when, after a dispute with the burghers of Barry’s Bay, Booth moved the divisional point of his railway to Madawaska.
Consequently Madawaska’s economy boomed and its population burgeoned. The station, rail yards, roundhouse, coal chute, water tank and freight sheds were constructed. Bunkhouses, company houses, a hotel and restaurant, offices, a company store, schools, churches and even a steam-driven generator for electricity were built to accommodate and serve the needs of workers, their families and travellers. In its heyday numerous freight trains and four passenger trains passed through Madawaska daily. Farmers continued to arrive, and other lumber operations like Murray’s, Martin’s, Dunne’s and McCrae’s attracted workers to the area. Two banks opened branches in the village. Socially, the residents enjoyed dances and citizens participated in an orchestra, drama club, and various organizations.
Two buildings from the Booth era. Top: A duplex for railway workers and their families that was moved from “Boneyville” to higher ground. Bottom: A building that once housed Booth’s office and is now apartments. Photos: M. Woermke.
After peaking in the 1920s, Madawaska began to wane. A downturn in the lumber market; a slump in shipping and travel by rail; the Great Depression; improvements to the Welland Canal in 1932; and the end of CNR traffic through Algonquin Park in 1933 contributed to Madawaska’s decline. However, the Bark Lake Dam project in 1942, aimed at satisfying Ontario’s growing need for electricity, was the most damaging blow.
A snapshot of Madawaska in 1940
To get a better sense of what pre-flood Madawaska was like, I looked at the 1940 voter’s list for the townships of Murchison, Dickens, Clancy, Preston and Lyell. I actually knew a few of the folks on the list, but after hearing so many Madawaska stories over the years, I felt like I knew all 371. The list reveals interesting details about the ethnic diversity, economic activity and social makeup of the Madawaska community, before the flood. A sign of the times, single women and widows were identified by their given names, but wives were identified by their husbands’ given names. Here is a snapshot.
A group of Madawaska ladies in the 1920s. Alvina Woermke is third from left. Photo: Woermke collection.
Madawaska was served by Postmaster Fred Chaddock, Dr. Gilbert Post and clergy William Dwyer (Catholic), George Fish (United) and Robert Thatcher (Anglican). It had two schools, the Public School employing Cecil Sutherland and Sara MacLachlan, and the Separate School employing Sisters Beatrice and Pauline. Irene Collins was a music teacher.
Hugh Davis, Henry Fuller and Robert Thom were merchants while Kenneth Butler, Lawrence Gaffney, John Eldon Martin and T. Andrew Murray were book keepers and clerks. Five truck drivers — Wesley Buder, Greg Gaffney, Alfred Griffith, Pete Simourd and Clarence Woermke — delivered lumber or other goods and mechanic Wilfred Michaud kept them on the road. If they wanted to look smart, men went to barber Charles Ohlman and ladies got the latest dos from hairdresser Helen Fitzgerald. Afterwards, if they fancied a bite to eat, restaurant manager Ralph Carswell would be their host.
Clockwise: Paddy Jocko, Cliff Gaffney, Grace Chaddock, Garfield Yandeau (sitting) and Albert Popkie (standing) with Davis’ store in background. Photos: Woermke collection.
Twenty-seven farmers, ninety-six labourers and nineteen “gentlemen” were identified and many bore well-known Madawaska surnames. Some examples include farmers named Burant, Bresnahan, Helmer, Lentz, LIsk, Morrissey, O’Reilly, Reynolds, and Silieff; labourers named Carswell, Coulas, Fransway, Hamilton, Hilderbrandt, Jessup, Jocko, Paplinski, Pigeon, Wasmund, Simourd, and Thom; and gentlemen named Cameron, Davidson, Drummy, Holstein, Lavalley, O’Malley, Roggie, and Yandeau.
CNR employed a significant number of men including station agent Hugh Thurston and section foremen Charlie Weiss, George Woermke and Andrew Young. The section men were Vincent Benish, Albert Popkie, Edward Schultz, Harry Shellhorn, Alex Yankovitch and brothers J.B. and Ivan Young. Wallace Cameron, John William Jessup, Fred Lisk, John Edward Popkie and Lorne Schultz were identified as “railwaymen.” John Dwyer was an engineer, Russell White a conductor, Allan Cameron and Wilmer Schultz brakemen, and Henry Dupuis Jr., Tom Kelly and Leslie Roblin locomotive firemen. Nicholas Rozak was the car repairman and J.P. Dupuis was the shop man.
A CNR section crew in the mid-1930s. The foreman, George Woermke is seated on the motorcar. His future son-in-law, James Bennett “Bun” Young is at the far right. Photo: Woermke collection.
Folks employed in the forest industry included Hiram Lester a “woods superintendant,” Edward Simourd Sr. a camp foreman, Charles Hilderbrandt a millwright and Mr. and Mrs. William Griese, Arthur Lentz and Lawrence O’Leary who were all camp cooks. Daniel Cameron was the only resident identified as a miner. Garrance, Wilmot and Thomas John Hamilton were “caretakers” at Victoria Lake.
Where the world began
Madawaskans are understandably proud of their community’s past, but Madawaska’s story has universal appeal. The trials and tribulations of settlers, loggers, railwaymen and their families and the effects of world events, progress and the pattern of boom-and-bust on a small town make for a good story. Diverse people co-operating to build a community with all of the enthusiasm, joy, hard work, sorrow and tenacity that requires make a story great.
In 1972 Canadian author Margaret Laurence wrote the essay “Where the World Began” about how our hometowns inspire us, form our world views and figure large in our imaginations. For those who grew up there; for those whose families came from there; and for those who were raised on stories of life there, Madawaska is, “where the world began.”
About the author: Descended from railroaders and hotel keepers, Mark Woermke has deep roots in the Madawaska Valley. A high school teacher in Ottawa, Mark spends as much time as he can in the Madawaska Valley gardening, writing and enjoying its cultural wealth and natural beauty.
Wonderful work Mark! Spent 5 years with you at MVDHS and never knew you had such deep ties to my hometown! Very thorough narrative that brings back many memories. Thank-you for sharing.
Hello Mark. My grandmother was a Hamilton from Crosshill in Scotland. I believe the Hamiltons you reference in your article are cousins of ours and it would be wonderful to find a way to be in touch with their descendants. Would you know them by any chance? We live near Brockville, Ontario. Thank you!
My Grandmother was a Hamilton, and we visited this place on Victoria Lake when I was young. My Grandma was born in Victoria Lake, Wilmot Hamilton was her grandfather. (my great great grandfather). I remember her telling us how he and his wife were caretakers of this place for many years. When we visited i recall the very tall totem poles on the front lawn. I probably have the pictures somewhere. My Grandma was Alma Merle Hamilton (married Verner Boldt)
Excellent write up. Good old Madawaska! My 92 year old father grew up there. His father was Russell White and his mother was a Cameron. They owned and operated the White’s General Store. Dad lived through the depression there as a boy and remembers lots of stories. I can’t remember the name of a man that would go over the hill to set forest fires so the men would be hired to put them out during the depression (so they could feed their families. ) Dad’s best friend growing up was a Jocko. Amazing stories!
Great article Mark my parents have a cottage at McCauley lake I have done alot of research of the railway, I can’t seem to find a picture of the bridge that crossed the madawaska river up by egan estate station the McCauley Central railway.
A wonderfully evocative look back!
Wonderful article Mark brings Madawaska history alive. Thank you for writing it.
Mark Fella – No beer ever tasted better than the first one on a Friday night after a week of the mill cutting either hemlock or white pine. Thankfully there was an entrepreneur in town named Billy who established a cottage industry selling pints out of his home to wayward gentlemen on their way back home to Barry’s bay. Fantastic essay/article.
Very well written my Prussian friend. Great local history written by a proud local historian. Keep up the good work Mark. You Rock Man!
Great article and very well written Mark !!
Your article summons a sense of nostalgia and evokes a feeling of place and belonging tinged with warmth and comfort of times past. Well done!