Puslinch Lake: tourist site shrouded in myths, legends

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.

It should surprise no one that Wellington County’s largest natural body of water, the 600-acre Puslinch Lake, was the first vacation resort in the area.

Facilities constructed there inspired, at least in part, the Pike Lake resort in Minto Township near Palmerston, and Stanley Park in Erin, but Puslinch Lake has a much older and richer history than any of them.

It is convenient to date the beginning of Puslinch Lake as a major resort to 1879, when George Sleeman, the noted Guelph brewer, purchased some existing facilities there, expanded them and began promoting the place in his flamboyant fashion.

It was an ideal location for a Victorian resort in an era when transportation was slow and expensive. Located near the southwestern boundary of Puslinch Township, three miles from Hespeler, five from Preston, and ten from Guelph, Puslinch Lake had the potential to draw large numbers of people for one-day outings.

The sheltered location made it ideal for boating and its large size meant that no one needed to feel crowded. There was even a sizeable island in it. An isthmus separated the main lake from a smaller one, known as Little Lake. Both were fed by underground springs, which supported a huge population of black bass before these were fished out.

In the larger picture, though, the beginning of George Sleeman’s involvement with the lake was only one of several chapters in the evolution of its history, which goes back continuously for more than 50 years prior to Sleeman’s purchase, and for more than 20 as a tourist resort.

The history of these early decades is filled with legend, myth and superstition.

The timeless quality of the water and the tree-lined shores have inspired speculation and myth-making that go far beyond the arrival of the first permanent settlers in the 1830s.

One local legend has Etienne Brule, Champlain’s assistant, visiting Puslinch Lake in 1615. Other stories place Brebeuf and other Jesuits at the lake in the 1640s, and some claim the lake as the site of pre-historic Indian villages.

The large number of arrowheads found in the vicinity lend support to the latter presumption.

A more likely candidate for the first white man to see the lake is Augustus Jones, who surveyed the southwestern boundary of Puslinch in 1771. Twenty years later Jones returned to survey the eastern edge of the township, a task that, two centuries later, immortalized his name with the designation of this survey line as the Jones Baseline.

Local legends place squatters – in most cases adventure seekers and refugees from authority of one sort or another – at the lake in the 1820s.

One of them, through oral tradition, has gained the moniker of “The Monk.” Reputedly a former official from France, he is said to have inhabited the island in the lake for several years beginning in 1825.

“The Monk” is undoubtedly a source of the story, enhanced through years of embellishment, that a Catholic monastery once existed on the island in Puslinch Lake. The romantic imagination of 19th century residents placed the monastery in the mists of antiquity, decades before the settlement of the township.

Stories of buried treasure, both on the island and around Puslinch Lake, have gained currency from time to time. One version is that the men at the monastery feared an Indian raid would endanger their large holdings of gold, and that the best way to protect it was to bury it near the monastery.

Another variant is that a German family from Pennsylvania buried a chest of gold on the island. Some time later, a stranger appeared in Puslinch, asking questions and directions to the island, where he was seen digging.

Those stories, popular in the late 1800s, prompted many people to dig and search for the missing treasure.

The “monastery” story does have some basis in fact. Roman Catholics did build a church on the island. A newspaper article from the 1930s, not credited to any author, claimed that stone for a church was taken across the frozen lake during the winter of 1837-38. A Father Cassidy reputedly owned land on the lake and island at that time.

A more credible version dates the church to the time of Father Simon Sanderl, who was based in Guelph from about 1846 until Father John Cullen replaced him in 1850. There are several variants to his name in historical accounts: Sanderal, Sandelin and Sandalan.

Puslinch historian John Gilchrist, writing in the 1930s, states that the stone church on the island was constructed by Sanderl with assistance from Thomas Collier and the Barrett family.

The location proved to be a bad one for religious services. The small rowboat connecting to the mainland could only handle a few people at a time, and was useless in spring and fall when the lake was filled with broken ice or not frozen sufficiently to support foot traffic. Evidently, this church was a personal obsession with Simon Sanderl, and was abandoned soon after he left Guelph.

Historian Verne McIlwraith, on several occasions, published a more fanciful story. In this version, Sanderl left money for the construction of a monastery on the island, then left for a lengthy pilgrimage to Rome.

When he returned, he discovered that the building had not been put up according to his instructions, and was unsuitable for a monastery. The Catholic Church then abandoned the site, and the building fell to ruin.

McIlwraith’s version is one of the “urban legends” of local history: someone commissioning a major construction project; then leaving the area for an extended period while others carry out the work; then the return to find the project totally botched.

This tale turns up repeatedly in Wellington County history.

The modest stone church on the island did exist and mass was celebrated there, however intermittently, for perhaps a half dozen years. In the late 1850s, men named Arnold and Coleman turned the abandoned church into a seasonal hotel, but there was not yet sufficient business to support such a venture, and they abandoned the project.

The building itself burned in 1865, but portions of the walls survived well into the 20th century, supporting for decades the myth of the ancient monastery.

Formal settlement of the Puslinch Lake environs did not begin until David Gibson surveyed this portion of Puslinch into farm lots beginning in 1828. Peter and Alex Lamont and their family are credited in most accounts as the first permanent settlers in the vicinity of the lake, arriving in 1831. By then, the squatters of the 1820s had moved on.

Not long after the Lamonts built their first shanty, Peter’s young son drowned in Puslinch Lake. Many of the neighbours believed that his spirit haunted the lake, and for a couple of generations fearful local residents avoided the lake as much as possible.

Nevertheless, the value of Puslinch Lake as a resort for residents of nearby towns was obvious to the first generation of settlers. Alex Parks, who arrived in 1843, built the first hotel on the lake a couple of years later. Parks remained almost 40 years, and must be credited as the founder of the tourism industry in Wellington County.

Thomas Frame, who occupied the area between Puslinch Lake and Little Lake, built a second hotel in 1848, and ran a sailboat to convey picnickers to and from the island.

Parks and Frame struggled with their hotels until the 1860s, when Puslinch Lake became increasingly popular among day trippers from nearby towns. Family reunions, fraternal societies and church groups found the location to be a refreshing one on a hot summer’s day.

The popularity of Puslinch Lake would grow considerably in the last three decades of the 19th century, with myth and legend adding to the natural allure of the setting.

Next week: Puslinch Lake in the 1870s and later.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 11, 2000.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015