Puslinch Lake


John W. Gilchrist







Puslinch Lake is the name given to a beautiful piece of open water in the southwest corner of the Township of Puslinch, in the County of Wellington, Ontario.  Interesting stories are told, even yet, as to the origin of the name Puslinch, such as a man named Lynch being ordered to push on a mired wagon, or to push on with the surveyor’s chain.  However, it was named by Governor Colborne of Upper Canada, after an estate in Devonshire, England, in which he had an interest, being one of the very few displays of sentiment by that efficient officer.


It is situated (3) three miles from Hespeler, (5) miles from Preston and Galt, (10) ten miles from Guelph, and (25) twenty-five miles from Hamilton, connected to those thriving business centres by good roads.


According to the Ordinance map, its surface level is slightly under 1,000 feet above sea level, and 655 feet above Lake Ontario, which eventually receives the overflow, via the outlet from the lake to the Speed River, about one mile above Hespeler. 


It is set in a range of hills known to geologists as the Galt Moraine.  The delightful contrast that it affords to the rugged nature of many of these hills adds much to its natural charm.  Viewed from some of these hills, to the east or south in the morning, or form the west when the sun is declining on a calm summer evening, is impressive and delightful.  Some prefer to view the lake when the summer guests have departed and the leaves have put on their autumn colours.  When the hills, and the lake also, are covered with snow, many people confess to a gloomy, depressing sensation when visiting the lake during the winter season.  Those best acquainted with its charms during the summer are most impressed by the dreary contrast.






The area is about five hundred acres of clear water, besides a body of clear water, to the north, known as “The Little Lake”.  This Little Lake, with its deep clear water and timbered shores, usually escapes the notice that its merits deserve, owing to its charms being eclipsed by the larger water.  The two lakes have naturally resisted the natural forces that cause small bodies of water to form marshes, followed by timbered swamps.  The fact that near the lake are many timbered swamps that were once shallow lakes, makes this circumstance more marked.


That these lakes once occupied higher levels is shown by the raised beaches about the shores, especially when a hill breaks in on the shore line, the wash of the waves and the ice has carried the material of the hill a considerable distance.  These raised beaches can be conveniently observed on the Big Island and are distinct and well-formed on the west shore.


When at that level, the overflow went south to Mill Creek, then a glacial stream, whose waters at that time eventually reached the Mississippi, so some geologists maintain.  When the ice melted in the present channel to the north, the lake sank to its present level and separated from the Little Lake, and excepting for the slow growth of the vegetation about some of the shores, has presented the same surface to the sky through the unnumbered centuries since the ice receded.


The intense resistance of the ice, to the forces that finally overcame it, can be observed on the hills and the huge boulders that crown some of them, especially to the east and south, the most prominent, on the south shore, locally known as Mount Begerow.






An unusual feature of both lakes  is that while neither have a visible inlet  both have an outlet, the larger, of considerable dimensions.  The inlet exists, however, in numerous springs that with certain conditions of ice can be observed mostly on the eastern shore of the Big Lake.  These springs are probably supplied by seepage through an extensive gravel area that extends some miles to the northeast.  A small stream, known locally as “Irish Creek” flows on the northern edge of this valley and joins the outlet a mile north of the lake.  The gravel and general direction of this stream supports the theory that the glacial stream, formed by the melting ice, flowed in this direction and scooped out the basin of both lakes when in contact with the soil.


No springs are visible in the small lake, but its beautiful, clear water suggests their presence.  It is known to be quite deep and at one time teemed with fish, especially black bass, which were popular with fishermen.  It was avoided by local pleasure seekers; this sentiment was probably due to one of the earliest settlers being drowned in its waters.  A large marl bed on the east shore, which seems to be gradually extending, is another interesting feature.  Drainage has reduced its original level considerably.


For many years, during early spring, great numbers of suckers swarmed up the lake outlet and the Irish Creek, and though captured by many contrivances, their numbers did not seem to lessen until recently.  Spearing was very popular among the youth in the vicinity.


No systematic soundings have been made on either lake, though it is known that a depth of forty feet exists in the big lake, between the Big Island and Lyon Park, and a ridge of shallow water extends north and south of the Big Island, nearly the entire distance.


Excepting for the presence of water weeds in parts of the big lake, due, some claim, to the absence of the countless waterfowl that once fed on its surface, its attractions for small boats can hardly be excelled.  Owing to its islands and wooded shores, it is seldom that winds cause waves unsafe for the smallest craft.  Now that it has been reserved as a bird sanctuary, there is hope that birds may return.  In the meantime, enterprising summer residents have been discussing means of destroying  the weed patches and some experiments will likely be made in the near future.






No known data exists as to when the first white man visited its shores, though it could scarcely have escaped discovery by the intrepid French explorers and trappers.  Neither was there any indication when settlement began, or that beaver lived in its waters or about its shores, the only fur that would attract trappers in early days.  In 1874, while digging a well near the south shore, human remains were encountered, encased in wood; the condition of both bones and wood indicated that they had been placed in the sandy soil a long time before.  As Indians, at that time, did not use wood in burial, the remains may have been placed there by some unknown explorers.  Anyway, none of the earliest settlers knew anything about it until the spade revealed the decayed bones.


At one time, the lake formed part of the reserve granted by Governor Haldimand to the Mohawk Indians, and would doubtless be visited by their hunters.  In fact, early settlers told of a few families of Indians camping near the Little Lake during summer.  These “Reserve Indians” would have adopted firearms and metal tools long before that time.  Their presence in such few numbers would not account for the numerous flints and stone tools that have been picked up, and are yet being picked up, about the lake.  The soil between the two lakes contains many of these specimens.  Excepting for the presence of flint chips, where arrowheads were finished, neither the axe nor the plough have revealed anything of the nature of a permanent camp or longhouse, though some of the specimens were found in situations that left no doubt as to their antiquity.  An excellent collection, by Major John Limpert, can be studied at the Hespeler Public Library, and another by Mr. John W. Gilchrist, at the Agricultural College, Guelph.






The few Indians seen by the earliest settlers were of a very peaceful nature.  Mr. Archibald McAlister was the first born near the lake, Rear Lot 6, Concession 2.  He and his brother, Alexander, played with Indian children, they talking Gaelic and the Indians their language.  While playing on one occasion, a wolf sneaked out of the bush and carried off one of the first lambs produced in the little clearing.  Mr. John Thomson, who settled on Lot 10, 1st Concession, used to tell of an old Indian who occasionally fished Mill Creek and excited surprise by wading into the stream , bending down, and taking a drink.


Mr. James Little, who settled north of the lake in 1838, was regularly visited by an Indian hunter and his squaw, for several seasons, who exchanged venison and baskets for flour and potatoes.  As the flour, at that time, had to be carried from Galt, the trading was not likely too extensive, however, the Indians seemed to have been satisfied.  Simple as these tales may appear, they would break the oppressive loneliness of early forest life and furnish a pleasant contrast to the blood curdling tales of less favoured places.


Several legends survive as to the first white man known to have lived at the lake, the most favoured being that of a French official, of some sort, locally known as “The Monk”, who lived in seclusion on the Big Island, about the year 1825.  Surveyor Gibson commenced operations about 1830, and shortly thereafter, settlers began to arrive.  As there was no prospect of further seclusion, “The Monk” departed, leaving no historical record of whom he was or where he came from.  A small excavation, near the southwest corner of the Big Island, is claimed to be the cellar of his cabin.  Had he chosen to study botany, he could scarcely have found, anywhere, such a variety of trees and plants, as the seven acres of the island afforded.  Even yet, a geologist could easily find, in miniature, many interesting features on that small piece of ground.






About 1840, Father Sandelin, assisted by members of his church, notably Mr. Thomas Collins and the Barrett family, early pioneers in the vicinity, had erected a small but very attractive stone church on the Big Island, a serious undertaking.  The island itself could furnish some of the material, but most of it had to be rafted from shore.  The situation of the church proved difficult to reach and even impossible at some seasons, and regular attendance was generally abandoned.  Unfortunately, the little church was destroyed by fire in 1865.  The amount of skill and labour expended on the building is shown by the ruins that remain.  Admirers of the lake and its history regret that the condition of these ruins makes restoration practically impossible.


Another legend originated at about this time, no less than a chest of gold, featuring a settlement of pioneers from Pennsylvania, located near and about Preston.  A stranger appeared asking for a guide to direct him to a small lake.  When this was furnished, a small spade was also required.  When they arrived at the lake, the stranger produced a small map or chart, which he studied closely, and then proceeded promptly, like a man who knew his way, to the east shore, and commenced digging near a large tree.  When the spade came in contact with some metallic substance, a weird unearthly creature appeared, and caused the diggers to leave with utmost dispatch.  The stranger was never seen again, and nothing would induce the guide to make another attempt.  Some believed that the supernatural being was a confederate of the stranger, to remove the guide and allow the treasure to be removed without further observation.  However this may be, faith in the story was strong enough to cause more unsuccessful digging.






In 1840, the Presbyterians built a small log church on Lot 15, 1st Concession, and some years after, the Methodists, assisted by other denominations, erected a neat stone church about a mile northeast of the lake.  It still stands in good condition, an eloquent witness to the thoroughness of the workmanship.


In 1841, a school was built near the present No. 11, and in 1843, another in Killean, a mile south.  A small private school was maintained about this time by Mrs. Eagle, on Lot 6, adjoining both lakes, now occupied by her grandson, Mr. J. M. Eagle.  This school was very favourably remembered by those fortunate enough to be pupils.


Bush paths were mostly abandoned and the regular road allowances opened up.  Much remains to be written about the intelligent enterprise of these early pioneers.  During these years, the visitors to the lake were most likely those who could walk to it and those who liked to hunt or fish.  By the early fifties of the last century, roads were opened and log bridges spanned the streams, and the lake became really famous.  As it was the only extent of water between Lake Ontario and Lake Huron, its charms attracted hundreds from the vicinity and from the towns, already mentioned, that were growing into stirring centres. 


Several small inns, or taverns as they were then called, appeared, to cater to the wants of pleasure seekers, a supply of serviceable boats being most important.  To those engaged in clearing off the forest among numerous insect pests, with the intense heat of the sun pouring into the small clearings and the biting smoke of the clearing fires, the lake, with its cool breezes and shaded shores, must have been a delightful contrast.  A day at the lake was enjoyed to the utmost and furnished pleasant memories, to be recalled long afterwards.






Many of the early settlers were experienced boat men, on both salt and fresh water.  A season’s sailing on the Big Lakes schooners was a common means of acquiring a supply of ready money, a much needed commodity in pioneer days.  When these sailors retired from sailing and took up land and met at the lake in boats to their liking, they were not averse to showing their prowess, and exciting boat races were often a feature of holidays. 


The most prominent of these was a race, for Five Dollars, donated by the late David Stirton, member of Parliament.  The race was between oarsmen from Guelph, who brought a swift boat with them, and local oarsmen.  The local boat, built near the lake by a competent builder, of life boat pattern, from the famous Puslinch pine, was too large for the lake.  Mr. Archibald McDougald was the builder.  It was later sold, and when last heard of, was sailing on Lake Erie.  The local oarsmen were Wm. Ross, stroke oar, who had previously two seasons whale fishing in Baffin Bay, Walter McMillan, John and Peter Gilchrist, and with Malcolm Gilchrist, steersman, all experienced sailors.  The lighter boat and the active muscles of the Guelph Crew gave an advantage at the start, but when the old sailors settled into their regular stroke and their big boat acquired momentum, the race was won.  Their greater knowledge of the lake would also be an advantage.  It is to be regretted that the names of the Guelph oarsmen have passed out of local history.  Few events at the lake caused as much interest and excitement.


Another larger boat, built by Mr. Holm, was large enough to take the entire congregation to the church on the island.  Experiments with large boats on the lake have not always been successful.






Vast numbers of wild duck, and often wild geese, used to rest on the lake during their migration, especially on the return journey, and they were assiduously hunted.  While the timber remained about its shores, there was also other game, some of which still remain.  The most prominent hunter was Harry Pierce.  Stories of his prowess still linger.  Ten wild ducks with one shot was his record.  He also preferred to bring down his game when it was on the wing.


While the deer remained about, they were often observed bounding over the shallows to escape the wolves.  When the deer took to the lake when frozen smooth, they often became prey to the wolves, for the hoofs of the deer were almost useless on smooth ice.  An intrepid settler, Mr. Neil Currie, commandeered a deer from the wolves on the ice by scaring them away with a blazing pine knot, a method he used to light his way through the bush.  However welcome venison might be as a change of diet, it is not recorded that anyone else tried this means of securing it.  The last deer that was shot in the water was in front of Lake View, by Mr. Thomas Paddock, of Puslinch, and Mr. Absalom Shade, of Galt.  The exact date is not known, but it would be in the early fifties of the last century.  To Mr. Paddock also belongs the honour of having shot the last large bear seen in the vicinity.  Though the lake and surrounding country must have been ideal for game, the pioneers were too busy clearing their farms and establishing homes to devote much time to hunting, and excepting for occasional stories of wolves, of which nearly all were in fear, little history remains of the animals that once must have been numerous.


A strange grove of magnificent chestnut trees on the southeast hills has always been a puzzle to local observers.  If, as some maintain, the seed was brought by Indians unknown, centuries must have passed since, for trees to have spread and flourished as these did.  This variety of chestnut did not grow anywhere near.  Hunters’ tales yet linger of the numerous black squirrels in these trees.






For more than a quarter of a century, after these days, the lake was somewhat secluded, with promiscuous gatherings on statutory holidays, and large or small picnics on other occasions.  However, in 1876, the Guelph artillery camped west of the lake for their annual training, and woke echoes with their cannon, especially during target practice.  They returned the next year with improved cannon, of such power that some of the projectiles ricocheted to Killean, and caused such excitement as to prevent the lake being again used as an artillery range.


A change in the license regulations caused the smaller inns to close up, and pleasure seekers centered at the hostelry maintained by the late Alex Parks, on the site of the present Swastika Park.  Mr. Parks was an ideal landlord and for nearly forty years catered to the wants of crowds of pleasure seekers.  Such was his solicitous care that no drowning accident occurred during those years, though many of his guests had little experience of boats.  The few now remaining love to talk of the pleasant hours spent at the lake during Mr. Park’s time.


In 1879, Mr. George Sleeman purchased the property now known as Lake View, erected a large hotel, commodious stabling, wharves with boats, and more.  Perhaps greatest of all, the following year, he launched a fine steamboat, named “The City of Guelph”, commissioned to carry fifty passengers, and even this number was often exceeded. 


While the novelty lasted, long strings of horse conveyances, during the summer season, were on the roads from all points of the compass, making for the lake.  These were picnics, composed of friends and relatives, who usually went to the Big Island, to feast on provisions brought along, and dance on the platform, with boating also enjoyed.  While “The City of Guelph” was in commission this was the usual form of entertainment.






There was one notable exception, distinct and national.  That was the annual gathering of the Highland Scottish, under the auspices of the Gilchrist clan.  Though all of the usual amusements were followed, the important feature was the Highland dancing by the pioneers, with the inspiring music by Piper Malcolm McLellan.  The skill and grace shown by these elderly people in the intricate steps and mazes of the Scottish reels and the spirited tunes that had echoed for centuries among the hills and glens of Scotland will never be forgotten during the lives of those fortunate enough to be present.  Little perhaps those thought that they were viewing what they would never see again.  That form of entertainment passed with the early pioneers.  So famous was this event, that when the appointed day arrived, a promiscuous gathering of other pleasure seekers would flock to the lake, and caused the event to be abandoned in 1883.


The first actual settler was Mr. Alex Lamont, who purchased Lot 6 on the north shore of the Little Lake, and arrived with his family in the year 1831.  As they were carpenters and millwrights, they soon had a house and employment in Galt.  Unfortunately, the youngest son was drowned in Little Lake, and was the first death and burial.  He and, afterwards, other members of the family rest in a romantic place on the northeast shore of the Little Lake.  It seems appropriate that they should rest near the beautiful water where they were the first to arrive as residents.  Being the first, they would likely endure more of the privations and hardships, which have been ably described by talented and sympathetic writers.


The brothers Peter and Alexander Lamont were also the first of a long procession of musicians, one, a piper, and the other, a violinist.  Though never seeking publicity or prominence, they cheerfully assisted their neighbours, and many a pleasant hour they beguiled, that might otherwise have been dreary enough.






Afterwards, Piper McLellan, with his son, Malcolm, provided the indispensable music at many a gathering.  The lake has always been fortunate in music; the best performers were not at all above showing their skill, either vocal or instrumental, when visiting the lake.  Parties from the adjacent towns often brought skilled performers and orchestras, the most notable being maintained by the late Velton Limpert, of Hespeler, and assisted by members of the Jardine and Kribs families, who frequently visited the lake during the seventies and early eighties of the last century.


While the steamer plied the waters, the dancing was on an open platform on the island, where the dew fell heavily at night and interfered with some of the delicate instruments.  Even the obliging violins would often become faint and tweaking.  The dew did not effect the accordion however and an accomplished performer, Mr. August Begerow, lived on the south shore and played for scores of merry dancers with the sweetness and exactness of his race.  He was sometimes assisted by local violinists, Mr. Archibald Ramsay, William Young, and Anthony Robertson.  Mr. Barnard McQuillan was also the life of numerous parties.


Many of the visiting performers deserve mention if their names could be recalled.  Those few now remaining, who were fortunate enough to hear the music of these delightful performances coming over the still water on a pleasant summer evening, are not likely to entertain a high regard for the raucous jazz and machine music so prominent in recent years.  However, each generation has its own way, and if the members of the present generation enjoy themselves as their predecessors did, they may well be envied.






Next in importance to the music was a good floor manager, usually called “The Caller off”.  Most parties would have one or more young men who could call “the mazes”.  The most prominent local talents were Mr. J. J. Gilchrist and Mr. Donald McCaig, who would call an infinite variety of figure dances. 


The many charms of Puslinch Lake have also inspired the muses and it has been honoured by the verses of Professor Malcolm McCormick, of the Guelph Business College and Mr. Donald McCaig, School Inspector, and also by another unknown poet, “M.W.G.”, of Los Angeles, California.  In their attractive stanzas, they have embodied a sentiment often heard in ordinary conservation, “No one ever visits Puslinch Lake and forgets about it”.


Mr. Thos. Ellis was the first Justice of the Peace.  There were few misdemeanours, an occasional small fine or reprimand serving the requirements of law and order.  Mr. Ellis represented Puslinch when Wellington, Waterloo, and Grey formed a county council, in the years 1848 to 1851, and when the Wellington County Council was formed, Mr. Samuel Taylor was representative, years 1857 to 1861.  Mr. Taylor had the additional distinction of possessing the first lumber wagon in the vicinity.  Succeeding Justices of the Peace were Robert Little and Peter Gilchrist, both having had previous municipal experience.


With the steamer going out of commission, the time and expense of horse-drawn vehicles, as well as attractions elsewhere, the lake became somewhat secluded for some years, but the advent of the motor car changed all this, and now the lake may be considered “rediscovered”. 







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