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August 10, 2001

Heritage Days celebrate Brent’s history

Logging depot  
The abandoned Hawkesbury Lumber Company depot, used by the park ranger at Brent.

Brent, 30 km east of Kiosk on Cedar Lake in Algonquin Park, is the other major stop I want to look at on the abandoned CNR line in northern Algonquin Park. There are other stops that I might profile later, but Brent will celebrate its history next week-Wednesday and Thursday, August 15th and 16th. Brent was not only a lumber town, but also a railway, MNR, and tourist village in its prime. Like the other stops on the CNR, it suffered from economic expediencies, and again, the people took the brunt of it.

Today I will look at Brent's early history, and next week its later years, and current and future status. Cedar Lake and the surrounding rivers and lakes, along with the remarkable Brent Crater make it an outstanding Algonquin Park stop for visitors and the few cottagers that remain.

Alexander Shirreff (1829), William Hawkins (1837), and Alexander Murray (1853) made trips through Cedar Lake long before it became Algonquin Park in 1893. Murray noted the existence of squared timber logging there almost a hundred and fifty years ago. Early maps show Thistle, Carswell and Francis as an early logging company, followed by the Hawkesbury Logging Company (1890-1914). Jim Hughes lived in the abandoned main Hawkesbury Lumber Company house and was one of the main players in the early days, as Brent developed as a division point on the CNR.

The railway heightened logging activity (McLaughlin 1920, Brent Lumber Company 1925-29 and Gilles lumber Company 1933-1946) and boosted the population and importance of Brent. The Brent Lumber Company had a full depot with a sawmill, boarding house, general store, etc.

Little is known of the early days at Brent, after the railway went through between 1912 and 1915 when Brent became a division point-a halfway point on the CNR. There was a Roundhouse, turntable, water tower, coal chute, bunkhouse and cookery for men on change of shift. There were also several CNR families living there in customized boxcars until several homes were built for them by the CNR.
 
boxcar house Rebecca Nolan (on left) with friend, in front of her boxcar home in 1915. The railway began as the Canadian Northern and soon became the CNR.

My son and I had the pleasure of meeting 86 year old Rebecca Atkins, the daughter of Fred Nolan, the Brent superintendent in Brent's first six years. Rebecca had a remarkable memory of her early years there, before she left at the age of nine. She also had numerous photographs of those early days. We interviewed here several times and worked with her to produce our recent book, My Childhood in the Bush.

The book, in Rebecca's voice and accompanied by 50 photographs, tells about her life in Brent, as it evolved into a community that eventually had a school, store, restaurant and upwards of 300 people in the years ahead. Rebecca died at age 90, just before the book was published. Her family and friends see this story as a memorial to this passionate and articulate woman. At a recent book launch at Gulliver's books in North Bay, Rebecca's daughter, two granddaughters and one great-granddaughter attended, and one of the granddaughters read from the story.

In the book Rebecca describes the family's close relationship with park ranger Jim Hughes and the other families, as Mr. Nolan struggled to have the divisional point provide the service required. Rebecca was there during the war, the flu epidemic, and the making of a movie, all of which had an impact on the young girl. Rebecca tells the touching stories of her effort to find friends, her dog, learning to read and write, and the early experiences that led her to become a nurse later. The book has been popular with young people and seniors, but has been enjoyed by all. My Childhood in the Bush is available in many locations where books are sold in the North Bay area.
 

Brent railroad station Rebecca (on right) with her mother and a friend, waiting for a train at the original Brent Station.

The Brent Heritage Days in the Ranger cabin at Brent will include, along with a book signing, a display of photographs and other artefacts from some of the several families that spent long periods there in the decades that followed Rebecca's departure. Many former residents still have leases and visit Brent regularly. Our thanks to Jake Pigeon, the manager of the Algonquin Outfitter's Store at Brent, for his interest in Brent's history and his support of this Brent event. Material will be collected at the event for a full future publication on the history of Brent. The display will be open from 1 to 4 and 7 to 9 on Wednesday the 15th, and 10-4 and 7-9 on Thursday the 16th of August. There will be a talk and discussion from 1:30- 3:00 pm on Thursday. Everyone is welcome.

Brent can be reached by road by travelling 40 km south from Deux Rivières off the Trans Canada Highway (17). There are 29 campsites, an outfitters store and good beaches. The access point is 16 km from the Trans Canada. For further information on the Brent access point, and on the Brent Crater, check with your local information centre. Next week I will look at the later history of Brent, and at the Brent Crater discovered in 1951.

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