Tragic hunting accident at Puslinch Lake in 1895

The Grand River Conser­va­tion Authority’s parks at Elora, Guelph Lake, Lake Belwood, and Lake Conestoga, 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 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.
Though summer was by far the busy season, Puslinch Lake attracted people in other sea­sons as well – in winter with hikers and snowshoeing 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 came up from Galt for a day’s 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 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 they would soon be seen and res­cued. Lamb, on the other hand, became frightened and agitat­ed. Several times he tried to climb onto 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 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. What neither man saw was that another hunter, Doug Sorby of Guelph Town­ship, was 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 did not 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 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 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 men-tioned 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 the spaniel was attempting to help its master.
That was not the first drowning at the 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 supernatural powers were the cause of some of the drownings there.
Guelph acquired the prop­erty in 1903, when 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 Puslinch Lake.
Puslinch Lake continued to be a popular resort through the twentieth century, though ec­lipsed by other facilities.
But that’s a story for another time.

Stephen Thorning