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August 18, 2000

Nipissing Village once area's commercial centre

Nipissing Village This is an old postcard photo of Nipissing Village looking across the South River bridge. On the far right is the general store and opposite is the hotel.

On the south shore of Lake Nipissing, south-west of North Bay, the five kilometer long South Bay leads to the mouth of the rambling South River and to Nipissing Township. 

The village of Nipissing, another five kilometers up the South River, was the earliest and largest commercial centre in the district for a period before the turn of the century, before destiny intervened. 

Nipissing Township, surveyed in the late 1870s and incorporated in 1888, annexed Gurd Township in 1976 when it had about 550 residents and Gurd 260. Today there is a population of 1,469 in 1,113 households. 

Many of today's residents have a long-standing connection with the past history of Nipissing Township. Many of the households are summer homes on the south shore, South Bay, McQuaby Lake, and other choice locations that have become a magnet to cottagers and tourists. 

When Gurd Township was annexed the village of Commanda, split by the old Nipissing Road, was partly in Pringle Township. Nipissing's remarkable second museum, the Commanda General Store Museum, was on the Nipissing side of the road. I will profile Commanda next week. 

In the 1860s, Nipissing's early settlers came by way of the Champlain Trail along the Ottawa-Mattawa River and across Lake Nipissing. They settled around Nipissing Village first, then gravitated to the east towards Restoule, through an enclave called Hotham, along the South River and its tributaries to the east and to McQuaby Lake in the south. 

The Nipissing Colonization Road reached the village about 1875 and people were soon forming new settlements at the chute near Powassan and at Alsace, Storie and Barrett. 

The Fraser Lumber Company set up a sawmill at the mouth of the South River, and along with J.R.Booth and other lumbermen skirted the many rugged waterfalls on the river to bring their pine to Lake Nipissing form the hinterland. 

One of the better known lumbermen was Fred Baechler who had an early sawmill and established one of the two general stores in the village. Eventually, there were two hotels, a blacksmith shop, a school, two churches, a grist mill and a wagon shop. 

Town constable and jail established 

After incorporation, the roads were improved and extended, and a town constable and jail were established once taxes could be collected from the 300 people in the village and throughout the Township. 

A street plan laid out the community for future growth. 

Details on these early years have been carefully preserved in the Nipissing Township Museum, which was established in 1975 in the old squared timber Methodist church located on the main street. An additional building was added in 1991. About forty of the original families have provided detailed family histories and artifacts. Active museum boards and curators have raised funds and sponsored a variety of interesting heritage events over the years. 

Special Heritage Days have featured various areas around the township. 

Special Day for Christian Valley 

Christian Valley, south-east of the village on highway 534, will be the focus of a special day on Sunday August 20th from 11 am to 5 pm. 

Energetic museum Curator Joe Steele has long-time roots in the area through the early settlers the Steeles and the Beattys on his father's side, and the Armstrongs and Barbers on his mother's side. 

The museum is open through Labour Day, 11-5 daily except Monday (705) 724-2938. For a more detailed history of the township, pick up the Museum's book Pioneer days in the Township of Nipissing. 

In the 1880s Lake Nipissing's first steam boat, the Inter-Ocean, was built at Chapman's Landing on the South River south of the village. Parts were hauled up the Nipissing Road. It had a profitable existence for several years as did the fifty foot tug The Sparrow. Numerous other boats later plied the waters of Lake Nipissing well into the next century. 

The Fraser Lumber Company, mentioned above, built the John Fraser which became the largest marine disaster in the lake's history when it burned and sank in 1893 with the loss of several lives. 

The great future of Nipissing Village and area as a port and commercial centre was evident in those early days. It looked as if the Grand Trunk Railway coming north from Gravenhurst would swing through Nipissing Village before heading around the lake to Callander. The Canadian Central Railway (later the transcontinental CPR) was scheduled to go through Nipissing on its way to Georgian Bay and construction work was actually begun. The Canadian Northern Ontario Railway (later the Transcontinental CNR) was also scheduled to run across the south shore of Lake Nipissing in the 1910s (see June Hampel's Reflections of Restoule, pp. 50-53). The proposed Montreal-Georgian Bay Ship Canal, coming out of North Bay and cutting across Lake Nipissing, also had a potential impact on Nipissing at the turn of the century. 

If any of these things had happened, Nipissing would have been a completely different place. 

Unfortunately, the Grand Trunk went directly north to Callander and North Bay, the CPR went across the north side of the lake, and the CNR cut north in Chisholm Township and headed to North Bay. 

The Ship Canal was cancelled and the need for steam boats on the lake was significantly curtailed by the new railways. 

There are less than 100 people in Nipissing Village today, but the village and the township are remarkable places in which to live, are very accessible (highways 654, 534 and 522) and have all of the advantages of being close to lakes, rivers, and the wide-open spaces that make living in Northern Ontario worthwhile. 

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