by Isobel Harry
GORE BAY—There’s a fresh feeling in Gore Bay these days, and celebration is in the air. A clue can be found at each end of Meredith Street (the main street), where big blue overhead banners proclaim this year to be the 125th anniversary of the town’s incorporation in 1890.
There’s been a lot of water under the bridge, as they say, since those days of horse-drawn carriages and log cabins when a thriving fishing and lumber industries turned Gore Bay into a boomtown almost overnight.
One hundred and twenty-five years later, after a devastating fire razed the town in 1908, after the grim days of the Depression and two world wars, in uncertain economic and political times, Gore Bay is enjoying a bit of a Renaissance.
One senses a certain amount of sprucing-up has taken place: there are new pieces of ‘street furniture,’ black iron benches that face the street, bright summer blooms in matching planters, and the new trees of a few years ago filling out the streetscape.
Look more closely at the imposing limestone Community Hall that stands in the place where the ruinous fire of 1908 started, in what was then Mutchmore’s Store; the new hall was built in 1927 by local stonemason Stewart Clarke. It has been renovated recently and looks brand new and ready for the theatre and community events of this anniversary year, now complete with disability access, bar and catering facilities.
A few doors down from the Community Hall is a building that escaped the 1908 fire. Then known as the Stone Block, it now houses Stepping Stone Toys and Twice as Nice Antiques and Collectables. The building’s new owner, Doug Smith of Manitoulin Transport, has overseen a wonderful restoration job on the limestone exterior, hiring Alain Desaulniers, a master stone mason, to painstakingly re-mortar the crumbling, but still beautiful, structure. Using a style of mortaring called ‘grapevine’, the mason followed the natural gaps between stones to insert mortar and then raise it slightly in a convex jointing technique. The effect has produced a historically sensitive architectural renovation of a beloved landmark.
Across the street is another important heritage building also recently bought by Mr. Smith, two storeys of red brick (actually brick patterns imprinted on concrete, a fashionable construction style in the 1920s) with classical architrave at the top and columnar sides painted white; built in 1922 as the Merchants Bank, and until recently home of the Espanola and District Credit Union, the building houses apartments and offices on its top floor and an eclectic gift shop called Susan’s that still holds the old bank vault. With coats of fresh paint on the outside and a renovated interior, the formerly tired sad-sack structure has regained all its former glory.
If you wander down to the waterfront, which used to be the hub of all business in Gore Bay, including wharves for shipping fish and lumber, sawmills, liveries and hotels, it is possible to see (and stay in) the former Queen’s Hotel (now Queen’s Inn), built in 1888 and lovingly restored with period furnishings and great attention to detail inside and out. And to the west, on your way to the perfectly preserved Janet Head lighthouse, built in 1879, you will pass two more great restoration efforts. The Harbour Centre, once an underused giant of a building, is now home to artists and their studios and shops and a gallery/event space. The bright lofty shops and studios offer affordable space to artists and great interaction and viewing and shopping opportunities for visitors. Across the way, the new Split Rail Brewing Company has set up shop in another old warehouse that has been given the refurbishment treatment, and along with the new stone breakwall that juts 600 feet into the bay, and the sparkling white boats bobbing on the glittering waters at Canadian Yacht Charters’ marina, this corner of town is looking positively perky.
Mayor Ron Lane is happy to see all this restoration and renovation. “The main street is the focal point in small towns. We work hard to maintain our appearance and we encourage businesses to take care of their properties; in the case of the former Stone Block and Credit Union buildings, we worked with Doug Smith to support his plan to maintain the heritage look of our main street.”
Mayor Lane adds: “We’ve invested heavily in the harbour—it’s the highest earning business for the town—and in the breakwall. Our harbour is unique, with the two bluffs on either side. Our marina is a key asset; as the largest public full-service marina on the North Channel, it can accommodate 150 boats.”
The mayor is enthusiastic about the changes. “There are cycles in small towns. Right now, we have no empty buildings; instead, we have three new businesses on the main street and one on the waterfront. We’re the same town, in many respects, that we were 125 years ago, we’re still the government centre for the Island, but now we have so many more features of larger towns, so much to offer visitors and residents. We have three seniors’ rental complexes, an 80-bed nursing home, a medical centre with three doctors and staff, a dentist, an on-call physiotherapist, a library and museum, a strong arts community, many home businesses, two drugstores, the list goes on; we’re the service centre for all of Western Manitoulin and that’s been the case throughout our history.”
Mayor Lane reports that the town is working on a new strategic plan with LAMBAC to look at the next five to 10 years. A draft plan should be ready by summer or end of year 2016. Community input from residents and visitors will be sought through surveys. As for current projects, Mayor Lane’s personal favourite is the walking trail development that will connect the boardwalk to the farthest lookout on the East Bluff. Once there, the full scope of Gore Bay’s development will be appreciated from the 825-foot vantage point, a feat that could hardly be imagined 125 years ago.
Celebrate 125 years of Gore Bay!
Today in Gore Bay on Canada Day from 9 am to 10 pm enjoy a farmers’ market, parade, sidewalk sales all day, barbecue and bake sale, beer garden, games, dunk tank, dog show and scavenger hunt, all capped with fireworks over the water. This is your chance to have some fun with friends and family, and size up the town’s new look!
The Gore Bay Harbour Days is a whole weekend of activities on Friday, July 24 to Sunday, July 26 when no stone has been left unturned in the exciting line-up. For everything from a pancake breakfast to theatrical presentations from Gore Bay’s award-winning theatre company to a tour of a tall ship, “fly-boarding,” fish fry, North Channel Cruise Line tours, a dance with a live band, you name it, check the website at www.gorebay.ca or Facebook: 2015 Gore Bay Harbour Days.
For in-depth history of Gore Bay, pick up ‘The Early Years of Gore Bay’ by John McQuarrie at the Expositor Bookstore or at other bookstores on the Island.