Guelph purchased Puslinch Lake property in 1903

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Last week’s column on Puslinch Lake traced the history of Wellington County’s first holiday resort to the 1860s.

This week we continue  the story up to the 1920s and the beginning of the modern era at this popular recreation area south of Guelph.

The success of Alex Parks and Tom Frame with their hotels on Puslinch Lake attracted competition by the mid 1860s. Several other taverns and hotels opened. Because this was a summer-only trade, their proprietors reduced expenses by ignoring the requirement to have a liquor license.

Possessing only minimal amenities, these refuges attracted a less desirable element, primarily young people from Guelph and other nearby towns. They found Puslinch Lake to be the ideal place to do things they wouldn’t dare do at home.

The presence of these dives hindered for a few years the development of Puslinch Lake as a resort attractive to family reunions and church groups. Strict enforcement of liquor laws in the years immediately after Confederation soon cleansed the shoreline of these sinkholes of iniquity.

Through the 1870s, boat races on the lake on public holidays became a major attraction. These usually featured teams from Guelph vying with Puslinch locals. The prize of $5 was a considerable one in an era of dollar-a-day wages for most working men.

The boat races strengthened the ties between Puslinch Lake and Guelph, even though Hespeler was much closer in distance.

Visitors in 1876 and 1877 included the artillery regiment from Guelph, which set up its summer encampment on the shores of the lake. The soldiers used the lake as an artillery range, but this activity was terminated when stray shells imperilled other users of the lake.

George Sleeman, the effusive and ebullient Guelph businessman, took a serious interest in Puslinch Lake beginning in 1879. In addition to the family brewing and malting business established by Sleeman’s father in 1834, George had a finger in a number of pies in Guelph’s business community.

As well, he took a strong interest in military and sporting activities, and especially baseball in the 1870s and 1880s.

Sleeman’s original purchase of land at Puslinch Lake was an eight acre parcel on the north side of the lake, part of Lot 4, Concession 1. Sleeman acquired an additional 22 acres in 1882, and two years later, another 25-acre parcel that included the island in the lake and most of the land surrounding Little Lake, the small body of water to the north of Puslinch Lake.

For a couple of years, Sleeman operated in partnership with John Davidson, the previous owner of the land, but he soon purchased Davidson’s interest in the property. Sleeman began an ambitious development program for the lake, building some facilities himself and bringing in operators who built and ran other facilities on leases.

The land purchases and amenities constructed by Sleeman and his lease holders made him the dominant operator on Puslinch Lake in the 1880s and 1890s.

In the mid 1890s, Sleeman’s energies concentrated on a new project: a streetcar system in Guelph. He received a charter from the city in 1894. Construction started the following spring, and the system opened for paying customers in September 1895. Most of the passengers rode the cars during the morning and evening rush hours.

Sleeman sought ways to increase the usage during off-peak hours. His major efforts were Riverside Park, which he established as a private facility at the end of the Woolwich Street car line, and a skating rink to boost winter patronage.

In 1901, he approached city council with a more ambitious scheme: he wanted to extend the Guelph streetcar system to Puslinch Lake. Fearful of other electric railway lines, he asked for and received exclusive rights to operate electric railways within the city.

Later in 1901, the provincial government amended the charter for Sleeman’s Guelph Radial Railway to allow him to build to Hespeler via Puslinch Lake, and to construct another line to Kitchener.

These plans were in part a defensive move by Sleeman. Between 1899 and 1901, there were three serious proposals for electric railways from Hamilton to Guelph, all of which planned routes via Puslinch Lake.

As well, Sleeman, by 1901, found himself under financial pressure. The streetcar system failed to produce any profits, and he came to believe that the best way to make money on it was to expand the system to secure more passengers.

The Bank of Montreal and the Traders Bank sought additional security on Sleeman’s loans in 1901, and took a mortgage on the streetcar system and the Puslinch Lake holdings.

Unable to meet loan payments, Sleeman lost control of the streetcar system and the Puslinch Lake resort to the banks at the end of 1902.

A group of Guelph investors took over control of the streetcar line and resort under a trusteeship arrangement with the banks, with plans to purchase the system from them.

This group convinced the city of Guelph to invest $25,000 in the streetcar system to pay for the extension to Puslinch Lake. The bonds issued to finance the scheme could not be sold, and these plans had to be deferred.

While the trustees struggled to find financing to purchase the Sleeman properties from the banks, the Guelph Board of Trade began negotiations with the bankers for a purchase by the city of Guelph. They soon agreed on a price of $78,000 for the railway and Puslinch Lake holdings, a sum about $20,000 less than Sleeman had invested in them. Guelph ratepayers approved the purchase of the streetcar line and Puslinch Lake resort in September 1903.

Following the purchase, a committee of Guelph council managed the rail line and resort. The proposed extension of the streetcar line to Puslinch Lake remained under active consideration for years. Financing was the obstacle. Guelph spent a fortune acquiring public utilities and building water and sewer lines in the years after 1900, and everyone feared going further in debt.

Streetcar access to summer resorts became something of a fad after the Metropolitan Railway found immense success with its Bond Lake resort on Yonge Street, north of Newmarket. Built in 1901, this streetcar line reached Jackson’s Point on Lake Simcoe six years later.

Fast streetcars would bring Puslinch Lake within convenient reach of Hamilton as well as nearer communities.

None of these proposals materialized. Most serious of them was a plan by the Grand River Railway to extend its Preston-Hespeler line to Puslinch Lake.

Not until motor cars became popular after the First World War did the concept of a streetcar line to Puslinch evaporate.

Rising operating losses on Guelph’s streetcar system led the city of Guelph to place the Puslinch Lake holdings on the market in 1916. The city commissioned a plan of subdivision that divided the eastern portion of the city’s holdings into 42 cottage lots, plus the shoreline resort.

Most of the lots sold for amounts in the $75 to $115 range, but the shoreline resort facilities remained city property until Ernest Bridges purchased them in 1931 for $8,250. The Butler family took over this property in 1938.

J.W. Lyon, another important Guelph businessman and political figure, had followed Sleeman to Puslinch Lake, purchasing about 35 acres when it a streetcar link seemed likely.

Lyon subdivided much of this land, to the west of the city-owned land, into 42 lots in the fall of 1916. He called it Lakeside Park. Most of those lots sold between 1919 and 1932.

The land on the eastern end of the lake had originally been granted to Eliza Eagle by the crown. John M. Eagle commissioned the third Puslinch Lake subdivision, Eagle Park, in 1920, dividing part of the family holding into 26 lots.

These subdivisions marked the beginning of the modern era of Puslinch Lake, which combined private cottages with publicly accessible facilities.

It is interesting to ponder how development might have progressed had the north shore remained under city of Guelph ownership, and connected to Guelph by streetcar.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 18, 2000.