Providence Bay – Come for the fair and the beach, stay for the mystery

This Thursday, August 15 at 3 am, visit the Providence Bay Beach for your chance to get a glimpse of the ‘burning boat.’ Shutterstock

by Isobel Harry

If you’re in Providence Bay this weekend for the classically old-fashioned and famous Fair, 136th annual edition, with Fair Ambassador competition, pie-eating contest, parade, pony rides, livestock and crafts displays, judging of best pickles, cakes, vegetables, flowers and quilts, the hotly-awaited horse pulls, music, midway rides and games, vendors and food galore – you’ll also be stepping back into a much earlier time.

Providence Bay has long been settled – from archaeological finds of tools, seeds, fish bones and arrowheads, an Odawa settlement has been dated as being on these shores from about 1600 until 1620. The saw and grist mills of the 1870s brought more settlers as the bay became a shipping port in the late 80s and the 1890s for the thriving production of railroad ties and pavement posts. When the Providence Bay Fair was founded in 1884, the community had a dock, post office, stores, hotel, boarding house and two churches and was ready to showcase its achievements in ‘fancy work,’ home baking and in raising prize livestock – all still highlights of the Fair today.

Known as ‘the North’s longest beach,’ Providence Bay’s alluringly tranquil expanse of sand lines this broad bay of Lake Huron as it stretches to the horizon. The contoured shoreline saw its share of many shipwrecks during the great era of steam-powered passenger and shipping traffic, giving rise to a mysterious and persistent sighting on these shores.

It’s known as the Legend of the Burning Boat and the phenomenon occurs only at about 3 am on the night of a full moon, which just happens to be tomorrow, Thursday, August 15. “Just offshore from the former site of the lighthouse,” says Shelley Pearen in ‘Exploring Manitoulin,’ “a red burning mass” appears over the water, and in it the eerie outline of a phantom sailing ship.

The story of the fiery flames blazing upon the bay’s moonlit waves proved to be a popular attraction for the little village in the 1940s when, according to former Expositor writer Robin Melton (now Duncanson), “tourists and locals alike used to line the shores of Providence Bay, directly in front of the Cornish’s camping park to try and catch a glimpse of the flaming enigma.” 

While some dared to suggest “hot gases” combined with “reflections” caused the dreamlike apparitions, 30 or 40 people at a time would come to witness the event, says Mr Melton, “and all would scan the bay until three or four in the morning.” There is film in existence somewhere—with real, actual proof—but today the strange occurrences remain a mystery and seem largely forgotten. Could a selfie with the Burning Boat glowing red in the background provide the definitive confirmation of the elusive phenomenon?

Another legend down here on the south coast is also associated with the Big Water at Providence Bay, and that is of the Sailors’ Grave. In a campground at Providence Bay Park, among the forested dunes and the campsites and up a cleared path lie a cluster of three huge boulders, or megaliths, sometimes at the centre of a bunch of kids playing. 

Many years ago, the story goes, a boat was wrecked on the rocks in Providence Bay, and the bodies of two sailors washed ashore. An Indigenous man found them on the beach and brought them to the site of the three boulders, where he buried them, according to what he understood to be the sailors’ custom. In 1908, the Rev William Monroe described the man’s heroic deed in a long poem that reads in part: 

“Within the woods near by,

A quiet, sheltered place.

Beneath the huge, o’er hanging side,

He could the shipwrecked bodies hide.”

On Fair weekend and all summer there’s lots to enjoy in Providence Bay – with just a touch of mystery to ponder.