Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tolsmaville, Cockburn Island, Ontario -- A Lively Ghost Town

August 21, 2008

Sometimes you can't trust the guide books.

All the guidebooks we read talked about Tolsmaville being a ghost town, with absolutely no businesses, many abandoned houses, old rusting jalopies parked by the marina, and a handful of former residents returning in the fall for hunting season. So we pulled into the Tolsmaville Dock on Cockburn Island expecting to handle our lines ourselves (like we have to when at our homeport in Chicago but nowhere else). As we were coming in, though, a pick-up truck appeared out of nowhere, and a guy jumped out to help us with our lines. Another guy from a neighboring boat came over to help as well. Then, after ensuring we were secure, they quickly left, barely giving us time to thank them.

OK so there were two people on the island.

After we were safely tied to the dock, we settled in for what we expected to be a quiet and lonely afternoon.

So much for expectations . . .

Throughout the afternoon, there was a steady stream of people driving down to the marina, coming and going in boats, canoeing and kayaking, sunbathing, and just generally enjoying the summer day. As for the rusting jalopies, well yes, there were a number of vehicles, mostly pickups and SUVs, parked by the marina but we are almost embarassed to say that most of them were younger than Meridian.

After a while, we decided to take a walk through the "ghost town" to see all the deserted and abandoned buildings. Surprisingly enough, we couldn't find many deserted homes. Most were currently occupied and kept in good repair.

Some were getting new porches, new roofs, and there were various home improvement projects going on. And there were streetlights! There weren't even streetlights in Meldrum Bay.

As we walked further into the island, cars kept passing by. And they all used their turn signals! We were wondering where they were all going. Then, as we passed by a very nice looking place, clearly someone's summer home called "The Last Resort", a bunch of people piled into a jeep and took off, waving as they passed. us by. We began to think maybe there was a WalMart or something further up the road.

Finally, we just shook our heads, baffled by it all, and returned to Meridian where we continued to watch the parade of people and vehicles passing by the marina.

Then, in the early evening, things really started to pick up. A crowd of people came down to the marina and gathered out on one of the finger piers. One of the residents recently purchased the strangest water toy we have ever seen - a "water bird" - and they were trying it out. The best way we can describe a water bird is to say "think of a pogo stick on the water". It seems to be incredibly difficult to use and half the fun is laughing at the person who is trying it out. We just had to go over and join in the fun, as did some of the folks on the catamaran that was anchored out in the harbor. Bernie took some photos, promising to email them to the brave souls who tried out the water bird. And that's when we met Joe, Beth and their friend Dave.

After the fun at the docks, they were kind enough to invite us over to their cottage for the evening. And, as it turned out, they owned "The Last Resort". It is a beautiful log cabin - the oldest existing home on the island - that has been modernized. And the grounds are really beautiful.

We enjoyed a lovely evening around the stone fire pit, staying much longer than we should because it was one of those nights that flew by because of the fascinating conversation. Joe had lived in Meldrum Bay either full time or summers since the 70s. He told great stories about summers "back in the day" when there would be 60 boats in Meldrum Bay (hard for us to imagine). His father still lives in Meldrum Bay and is the owner of the rooster we heard in the morning when we were at the marina.

Suddenly, though, at the stroke of midnight the fire went out and Joe, Beth, and Dave magically disappeared without a trace leaving us alone in the silent stillness of Cockburn Island with only the basket of freshly picked oyster mushrooms that they had given us as a hint that maybe it had been real. We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and said, "Well, I guess the guidebooks were right. It really is a ghost town."

The next morning, Darren the Harbormaster - the guy who drove down in his pick-up to help with our lines - appeared out of nowhere again to help us with our lines again. As harbormaster he also collected the dockage and we bought a Cockburn Island Flag to remind us of our great stay. He faded away waving us a farewell (even now, we aren't sure he was real), as we headed off for Drummond Island.

Dockage at Tolsmaville is $0.85 per foot, and electricity is available (new this year) for $6.00 or $8.00 per night depending on boat length. Not many people come here when cruising the North Channel but we found it to be a delightful stop. The people we met were incredibly friendly and hospitable and it was definitely a stop full of pleasant surprises.

Cockburn Island is the smallest "organized township" in Ontario. "Organized" means that the tax money they collect is all budgeted and spent locally. They are very proud of that. And, from what we saw, they have reason to be proud. It was a wonderful place to visit.

Click on image to read the Cockburn Island Poem
that is posted on the Telephone Building
(a public telephone - one of two telephones on the island)


Craig said...

Cockburn Island had a permanent population of just 10 in the 2006 Canadian census -- but for the reasons you describe, it's a popular recreational cottaging area, with a population that swells to about 200 or so in the summer.

There was also a misunderstanding about Cockburn in the 2001 census: due to Statistics Canada's counting methods (they round off population figures below 15), the island officially had a population of "zero" that year. But obviously, a lot of people misunderstood what that meant.

I think we need a new word to identify "living dead" places like Tolsmaville that thrive in the summer and then turn into ghost towns in the winter.

beth haddle said...

Thank you for your information of this island. My father inherited it a few years ago and I wasn't sure what the island was about. Have a nice day.

Anonymous said...

Cockburn Island has a very unique and interesting history. The island has alot to offer. The people are very friendly and love having boaters stop in. I've had alot of fun on Cockburn over the years and have made great memories. Defintely a place worth checking out.

Anonymous said...

I love Cockburn Island! My grandparents own 2 camps in the village. I have never missed a summer going over. I go over many times a summer. It is the best part of my summer and i have wonderful memories of cockburn. Cockburn has a very interesting history, and a few spooky tales.

Cockburn is a hot spot in the summer but is almost deserted in the winter except for the odd snowmobiler.

wayne golden said...

My great grandparentson my mothers side moved to this island and homesreaded a farm. The Catling farm. MY mother Hazel Elizabeth Catling (Golden)was the last of her family born on the island Can any one tell me where the cemetery is on the island and the location of the old Catling farm

Ken Becker said...

Can you tell me something about the old church. Understand from another site that the the Island celebrated the church's 100th anniversary a few years back. Am very fascinated with the history of old churches, especially in an abandoned place. Would like a contact with someone who might know the Island well. You may contact me at

Jean-pierre lacombe said...

Il visit cockburn island this week end .fantastic place great People nice place .il feel bad to left the town but you see me again

Rob said...

Sounds like a wonderful place to visit or live. Courteous drivers and friendly people what a winning combination. Great write up.