Tragic hunting accident at Puslinch Lake in 1895

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.

The Grand River Conservation Authority’s parks at Elora, Guelph Lake, Belwood Lake and Conestogo Lake have all but eclipsed older recreational facilities at Wellington County’s two natural reservoirs, Pike Lake and Puslinch Lake. 

Those two bodies of water, located at the north and south extremes of the county, were major attractions in the 19th century for a wide range of recreational activities. Indeed, both once had resort hotels on their shores. The improvements at both lakes were entirely privately owned.

Of the two, Puslinch Lake was the more important park. Its location, in close proximity to both Guelph and Galt, meant that high levels of patronage were easier to maintain. 

In the late 1850s, Alex Parks constructed a tavern on the lake, and advertised for fishermen to come to try their luck. He rented fishing tackle and rowboats. 

Elijah Arnold opened a hotel on the largest of the islands in the lake in 1860, and began to advertise it as a resort for summer relaxation, fishing, and hunting.

In 1880 Guelph businessman George Sleeman built a new hotel on the island, and improved the other facilities on the lake. He even brought in a small steamship, named “City of Guelph,” to connect the resort to the mainland and to cruise around the lake. To encourage fishermen, Sleeman arranged for the lake to be stocked with fish. In 1883 some 50,000 salmon fingerlings were released into the lake.

In the 1890s Sleeman formulated plans to connect the lake to his streetcar system in the Royal City. Later, there were plans for streetcar connections to nearby Hespeler and Galt.

Puslinch Lake in those days was popular with picnickers and boaters. Most people came for only an afternoon, but the hotel served guests staying for several days, and for various social functions, primarily in the summer. 

Though close to urban areas, the lake and its surroundings maintained a feeling of isolation that was attractive to those who wanted to get away from the pressures of their daily routines.

Summer was by far the busy season, but Puslinch Lake drew people in other seasons as well – in winter with hikers and snowshoe fans, and in fall with hunters. 

Migrating ducks and geese paused at the lake in October, and became targets for shotgun-wielding sportsmen. George Sleeman, himself a marksman of some ability, encouraged the hunting expeditions. During hunting season he kept the hotel open for meals and overnight guests. Rowboats could be rented by hunters.

On Oct. 14, 1895, a party of three men came up from Galt for a day of duck hunting. The group consisted of Bob Lamb, proprietor of the Central Hotel in Galt, Bob McCruden, who was the liveryman at the Central, and a friend of theirs, a tailor named Andy Patrick.

Arriving at the lake around noon, they hired two rowboats. McCruden took one, and Patrick and Lamb the other, along with Lamb’s dog, a brown spaniel. The two boats set off in different directions. There did not seem to be many ducks on the lake that afternoon. 

After an hour or so, Patrick and Lamb spotted a lone duck near the middle of the lake. Both fired their shotguns at the same time. The spaniel, experienced at hunting expeditions, jumped overboard to retrieve the bird. That, plus the recoil from the shotguns set the boat rocking, and in the ensuing confusion it upset, spilling the two men into the water. Both shots missed the duck. 

A few minutes later, the spaniel returned and climbed on top of the boat as Lamb clung to one side and Patrick to the other. They were in sight of the hotel. Patrick was certain that they would soon be seen and rescued. Lamb, on the other hand, became frightened and agitated. Several times he tried to climb up on the overturned boat, which was only about 150 feet from the shore.

Though only a couple of minutes had passed since the boat upset, Patrick was becoming alarmed as well. They had spotted no one moving around the hotel, and there was no response to their shouts for help. He told Lamb that he was going to swim for shore.

When Patrick let go of his side of the boat, it overturned again. Lamb, who could not swim, sank into the lake. 

What neither man saw was that another hunter, Doug Sorby of Guelph Township, was only about 500 feet away, though out of sight, obscured by some trees. Sorby had heard the calls for help, and was rowing toward the overturned boat. 

Sorby could see Lamb in the water, in an upright position and just below the surface. He reached down with an oar for Lamb to grasp, but he got no response from the man in the water. Sorby could not swim, and decided it would be foolish to get into the water himself. Instead, he rowed toward Patrick, who had barely managed to swim to shore.

Sorby helped the exhausted Patrick into the rowboat, and took him to the hotel. There he organized a search party. It took the group three hours to find Lamb. By then it was dark. When Lamb had slipped under the surface his feet became imbedded in the bottom of the lake. His head was less than a foot below the surface, but the searchers had much difficulty pulling the body out of the mud.

Meanwhile, Lamb’s dog was greatly distressed. It swam around the area where Lamb drowned, and eventually found his hat, which it brought to shore. The rescuers realized too late that the dog had been circling around Lamb all the time they were searching, but they had paid no attention to Bowser.

Lamb was an experienced hunter and marksman, and was in his mid-40s. He regularly participated in the shooting competitions in the area. Born in Blair, he had spent his whole life there and in Galt, most of the time in the hotel business. He was unmarried.

All three of the men in the party had been on many hunting expeditions. It is hard to understand their reckless and foolish behaviour that day, ignoring common sense and safety practices with a row boat. Perhaps liquor was involved, though that is not mentioned in any of the accounts of the accident.

Equally inexplicable was the three hours spent by the search party. Most would have been experienced with hunting dogs, and should have recognized at once that the spaniel was attempting to help its master.

This was not the first drowning at Puslinch Lake, nor would it be the last. Alcohol was a factor in all too many of them. The lake, with a surface of roughly 650 acres, possessed a mysterious quality that captivated some of the early settlers. 

Some believed that it was bottomless, and that supernatural powers were the cause of some of the drownings there.

Guelph acquired the property in 1903, when the ratepayers approved the purchase of Sleeman’s streetcar system from the banks that had foreclosed on it. For several years Guelph council toyed with the idea of extending a streetcar line to the lake, and there was another serious proposal to extend the Grand River Railway from Hespeler to the lake.

Puslinch Lake continued to be a popular resort through the 20th century, though eclipsed by other facilities.

But that’s a story for another time.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Jan. 11, 2008.

Thorning Revisited