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Ghosts of Main Duck Island Past PDF Print E-mail
Written by Terry Spraque   
Jun 20, 2009 at 01:13 PM
by Terry Sprague
Kingston Whig-Standard

From an airplane at 4,000 feet, the long limestone shoals that flank Main Duck Island’s south side give the impression that the island is moving. It is these same shoals that spelled disaster to mariners in the late 1800s. Skeletal remains of over 60 ships lie beneath the surface of this part of Lake Ontario, fondly known as the "Marysburgh Vortex." Waves relentlessly pound the boiler from one of these ships off the shallow tip of Main Duck Island as a sombre reminder of the island’s earlier history.

Except for a few pleasure boats, the island’s tiny harbour is a far cry from the early 1920s when up to seven or eight rumrunners at a time used to seek its shelter in the 1920s. Here the illicit traders waited for darkness to fall before challenging the American Coast Guard and their high powered guns as they raced their illegal booze to the United States. Famous rummrunners like Ben Kerr, Bruce Lowery, Gentleman Charlie Mills and Wild Bill Sheldon are just a few of the names connected with the rummrunning days of this colourful period.

Once a thriving commercial fishery, Main Duck Island was a bustling community of close to 70 summer inhabitants, most of them staying in small modest shacks along the limestone shore of the harbour. Only one person boasted a lavish dwelling, Claude (King) Cole, who purchased the island from the Canadian government in 1904 for the sum of $1,200. Never one to be idle, Claude dabbled in rumrunning himself, maintained a small farm on the 323-hectare island, kept race horses, sheep, hogs and cattle. He even experimented with a few buffalo.

In 1941, the island was purchased by John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under President Eisenhower. Dulles often plied these waters with his sailboat and fell in love with the island, building a small cabin on one of the highest points of the shoreline, overlooking Schoolhouse Bay. He cherished his time alone from his political career, often retreating to his island paradise to fish and rough it in his own private wilderness. Today, only the sculpted chimney and stone foundation remains, the trees now fully mature and towering above the site, a white spruce, probably planted by Dulles himself contrasting against the bur oaks, hickories and ironwoods that dominate this island.

Dulles’ favourite pebble beach on which he used to relax, however, remains unchanged, stretched out between two corners of slab rock shoreline, created over thousands of years by the many moods of Lake Ontario. It was on this same beach that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, while on a Royal tour of Ontario in 1984, decided to have a private picnic. Well known for her spontaneity on Royal tours the Queen decided the island looked private enough for the impromptu visit. There were only three people on the island, one of them the lightkeeper for the historic lighthouse just west of there, built in 1913.

Had the Queen waited even longer to visit, the island would have been totally deserted, for it was only a few years later when the lighthouse became fully automated. Lightkeepers who faithfully monitored the stormy waters of Lake Ontario for many decades during the shipping season, closed up the buildings, and went home, for good. A bar of soap still lies on the sink in one of the bathrooms of the lightkeeper’s house, a stack of firewood remains in the porch where it was last piled 15 years ago. Dogwoods and tall grass have taken over the manicured lawns and cement sidewalk between the house and the lighthouse. Empty zebra mussel shells drift up on shore where barges once came with supplies.

Today, the island is owned by Parks Canada. Except for occasional pleasure boaters who explore the once established road between the harbour and the lighthouse, the island sees few people. Its inhabitants today consist of numerous water snakes who make their homes in the crevices along the rocky shorelines. Migrating birds still use Main Duck Island to "island hop" their way to the mainland; others like bobolinks nest in the very fields where buffalo once roamed. A lone red fox, who somehow managed to hike to the island one cold winter when the 20-kilometer stretch of lake water became frozen, struggles on a diet of turtle eggs. There are no squirrels, skunks or raccoons. He is alone, totally oblivious to the colourful events that took place over the years, and played such a role in the history of this island in Lake Ontario’s east end.

Last Updated ( Jun 20, 2009 at 03:56 PM )
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