Langmaid's Island - Private Preserve, Publicly Shared
Article by J. Patrick Boyer/ Photography Rob Stimpson
Muskoka’s numerous lakes hold many islands. Each offers its own dimension – thanks to the adventure, the extra effort and the psychological distance from mainland preoccupations one has by travelling to a further shore.
Bigwin is the largest and most famous island in Lake of Bays but the second largest, Langmaid’s Island, is spectacular in its features. Girded by some four miles of pristine shoreline, its 147 acres dramatically feature three hills rising 175 feet above the lake, which account for its earlier name Hump Island, seemingly a translation of its Ojibwe name.
Langmaid’s virtually undisturbed shoreline hosts fish spawning areas. Its stands of old-growth forest pre-date the logging era. Wildlife migrates back and forth to the mainland across a narrow channel. Uncommonly long sand beaches provide nesting grounds for turtles. Ancient rock cliffs abutting the island’s southeast provide thrills for anyone daring a cool plunge.
Lake of Bays is the highest major lake in Muskoka’s watershed. The particular mystique of the lake derives from its inlets, isthmuses and isles being enveloped by densely-forested shores and sheltered amidst rising remnant guardians of Earth’s oldest rock. A most irregularly shaped waterbody, it currently has 32 islands – the number a function of lake levels. Bruce MacLellan, author of two history books about Lake of Bays featuring his unique collection of century-old postcards, notes, “Depending on water levels, Langmaid’s can be one or two islands.” This long, large island escaped photographer’s lenses, being too big to yield a postcard view or any other picture not resembling mainland shore. The only known image from a century ago shows a tiny gap near one end – one island in two parts.
All a function of water levels – both Nature’s-own and dam-created – some of the lake’s rock stands sentinel-high as bluffs. Other parts barely protrude above the surface as squat islands. Some are too small to even have names. Despite such differences, all share being the summits of submerged bedrock.
Around these islands are deep dark ravines. The lake descends 260 feet in places. If drained, the rugged rocky basin holding this immense lake would be revealed as a cratered canyon the retreating ice could only lightly scour 10,000 years ago. Down there are haunting remnants of prior epochs, adding to what Mary Lynn Findlay called the lake’s “primitive direct appeal” that drew her back for 50 straight summers. It’s what permanent resident Jacqueline Goddard today calls its “raw natural beauty.”
Over time, its name has changed from Nagatoagoman and Nun-ge-low-e-nee-goo-mark-so-Lak-a-hagan, to Baptiste Lake then Trading Lake, and on to Forked Lake and next Lake of Two Bays before officially becoming Lake of Bays in 1853, though Trading Lake (for its fur-trading activity) persisted into the 1900s. Most pertain to the shape of the lake, whether the Indigenous Lake of the Forks from its many deep bays and points of land, or its Anglo echoes in Forked Lake and Lake of Two Bays.
Here, as elsewhere in Muskoka’s watershed, the difference between a place being mainland, peninsula, isthmus, island or submerged reef depends on water levels. Dams have caused islands to disappear, turned an isthmus into an island, made creeks into lakes, while digging canals has turned creeks into navigable waterways.
For instance, in the mid-1880s Ontario’s Department of Public Works excavated a canal between Fairy and Peninsula lakes, turning a swampy creek-bed into the longest artificial navigable route in Muskoka’s watershed. The Cut enabled advances with steam era transportation that boosted Lake of Bays’ vacation economy beyond its fur trade and lumbering economies. On the lake itself, the Muskoka River’s natural outflow was quite low, so the dam Baysville’s founder William Brown built across it in 1872 to power his sawmill altered Nature’s handiwork by raising the water to run its turbine. After four decades, Brown’s deteriorating timber dam caused the Department of Public Works to replace it in 1918 by a stone dam. It looked better and made Lake of Bays five-feet higher.
Altering water levels impacts the ecology, cottagers, boaters and the status of islands and isthmuses – even names. In 1905 when the water was still lower, renowned English opera tenor Joseph Tapley arrived at the lake. Attracted by its magnificent sand beach in Haystack Bay, which fondly reminded him of a wilderness sand crescent called Bondi Beach he’d enjoyed while on tour in Australia, he bought it and named his Lake of Bays place “Bondi.” His name suited, explains his granddaughter Nancy Tapley, until the new 1918 Baysville dam raised the lake. “The big crescent of sand that was here when Grandfather Joseph Tapley first arrived was flooded,” she says.
If temporary spring flooding creates havoc, nothing beats a permanent five-foot hike in a lake’s level. Chippewa Chief John Bigwin once grew potatoes on sections of Langmaid’s Island that are now below water.
Through the Indigenous epochs and since arrival of traders, loggers, homesteaders and vacationers, this island has been intermittently occupied yet lightly used. This reflects how the distinctive place enthralls people, commanding respectful awe. In the late 1990s Langmaid’s Island was designated a natural heritage area under the District of Muskoka heritage program. The Township of Lake of Bays thereupon incorporated within its Official Plan a clear policy to preserve Langmaid’s Island from development.
But how this large island came to be special is also a human story. In the historic shift from First Nation relationships with land to the English-based ownership concepts of property, the first settler to acquire title to the island was a Langmaid.
In 1871, Eliza and Samuel Langmaid from Portsea, England, were among the first in Muskoka’s McLean Township claiming land under the settlement-encouraging 1868 Free Grant and Homestead Act. Between 1872 and 1874, their sons William, Samuel Jr. and John with his wife Eliza Jane, followed.
Samuel Jr., developing a feel for life on the Canadian Shield, paid $29 for the 29 acres of Hump Island in McLean Township; the rest of it lay in Brunel Township. Samuel became distinctive in the Baysville community, a confirmed bachelor and landowner. He used Langmaid’s Island, as it now became known, for hunting with other men and their dogs. Some ran deer from one end to the other where the other hunters waited with loaded rifles. A building at the island’s east served as a hunting cabin.
His brother, John, followed a different script, continuing his father Samuel Langmaid’s trade as shoemaker with a shop in Baysville. In 1883, Eliza Jane gave birth to their son, Billy. He, too, would learn boot making. But Billy preferred retailing, had a knack for it and by age 15 was a Baysville merchant operating a satellite store for Fenn, Anderson & Co, a leading Bracebridge dry goods concern. Six years later, in 1904, when Fenn Anderson expanded its downtown Bracebridge store to add a grocery department, Billy Langmaid was inspired to open his own grocery store in Baysville.
The village was a happening place that summer with a new iron bridge being built to replace the original 1870s structure. By early 20th century, Lake of Bays had become a summer magnet for well-to-do North Americans, offering an array of resort accommodations, while others were building cottages to enjoy life’s advantages as seasonal Muskokans. Langmaid’s new store and the village’s improved bridge were keeping pace with the vacation economy as Muskoka increasingly became a fashionable, as well as a scenic, destination.
Among arrivals from the United States was the Peck family of Chicago. David Billings Peck, his wife Janet and their two sons arrived at Lake of Bays 1915, a year after Canada’s prime minister, vacationing on Lake Rosseau with his wife for their second consecutive summer, had raved when addressing a summer regatta at Port Carling about Muskoka’s “far famed renown.” By then, the District had indeed become prominent on the map of North America. Still, the summer of 1915 was a sensitive time for Americans to show up; the United States was still sitting out the World War but Muskokans were preoccupied fighting, sacrificing and dying in it.
In her memoirs, My Happy Years at Lake of Bays, long-time cottager Jessie Garratt explains that Dr. Peck was head of Borden’s dairy operations in Chicago and very wealthy. Peck bought Burnt Island, a small island at the lake’s south end, then hired local men to build a large cottage on it. Both sons were highly enthusiastic about boating, and their father gradually built up a fleet of several mahogany motorboats and a beautiful steamer.
By 1920, with both the Great War and the Spanish Flu Pandemic over, and with 16 years’ experience running his business, Billy Langmaid relocated and expanded “Langmaid’s Groceries,” specializing in fresh meat, vegetables and fruit. He also began operating a summer supply boat, the Joe Bell. Already well-known for Langmaid’s store in Baysville, calling around Lake of Bays gave the Langmaid name even greater caché among cottagers.
“A special treat was the arrival of Mr. Langmaid and his supply boat, every Tuesday,” recalled Dean Matthews, a summer resident at Port Cunnington from 1920 on. If one wanted Captain Langmaid to put in, “all that was necessary was to tie a white towel in a branch near the dock. He always had bananas and fresh fruit, which were quite a luxury to us in those days.” The “penny candy was popular with kids,” reports Bruce MacLellan, “a treat.” Some families doubted that Billy really knew his cuts of meat, because they often got surprises when asking him for certain roasts or other cuts.
Meanwhile, from 1873 when Samuel Langmaid Jr. bought the lightly-used island property, it changed hands several times, yet always within the Langmaid family. By 1935, Billy Langmaid, provisioner to the Lake of Bays, owned Langmaid’s Island outright.
Hearing of endless pleasures to be had at Lake of Bays, David Peck’s sister Katherine and her husband Henry T. Adamson, also from Chicago, “often visited her brother at Burnt Island and fell in love with Lake of Bays,” as Judy Vanclieaf explained about the important Peck and Adamson families in last year’s Lake of Bays Yearbook.
Burnt Island, increasingly known around the lake as “Peck Island,” lay close to Langmaid’s. From her first sighting of it, Katherine Peck-Adamson became enchanted by this Island. She coveted the “large island that had a beautiful beach,” summed up Jessie Garratt about the Chicago woman’s perspective. In 1936, Katherine and Billy reached agreement. She became its owner in exchange for $3,000 – an amount any Muskokan was happy to pocket in the depths of the Great Depression.
After that, “It soon became apparent,” reports Jacqueline Goddard, member of the Lake of Bays Heritage Advisory Committee, that “Billy Langmaid was a man of means and most generous to others in the community.” Langmaid’s Island had been gifted to him in trust when a boy by his Uncle Samuel. Like his benefactor, Billy remained a life-long bachelor, too. He continued “Langmaid’s” retail store until his death in 1966, aged 83.
By mid-century, Burnt Island was identified by the Peck name and Langmaid’s was increasingly called Adamson’s Island. Katherine and Henry Adamson’s son Gordon confused matters when he and his wife Emily named their children for his parents. A son born in 1949, Henry Norcross Adamson, and their daughter, Katherine. Common sense led to them being known “Henry N.” in distinction from “Henry T.,” and “Kate.”
The island had been a hold-out of long standing, with property development happening elsewhere but not on it. However, a modest change occurred after the ownership change. Five high calibre rustic buildings appeared in one discreet spot on the large island. The main cabin included a fireplace and living room with guest bedrooms. Another housed a kitchen with propane cooking and dining room, plus a bedroom for the cook. There were two sleeping cabins, one for Katherine and Henry T. Adamson, another for Emily and Gordon Adamson, each with double bedrooms. The fifth housed a somewhat noisy but all-important diesel generator, which enabled the compact island colony to be comfortable and self-sufficient with lights and appliances. At the shore, a large boathouse held various craft including a specially-designed boat to transport propane cylinders directly from Baysville.
Adamson’s Island was not a place much shared. “Both the Pecks and Adamsons seemed to have unlimited means but lived quite secluded lives.” An exception, recalled Garratt, was “young Cameron Peck who raced madly around the lake in fast boats or in sea fleas.”
“Despite it being private property,” wrote Judy Vanclieaf, “there is a long history of locals and cottagers visiting the island, particularly its beaches, which were popular gathering spots on hot summer days, and the rock cliffs where many a daredevil plunged into the lake.”
A long-time family friend, Johanna Henning, told her the Adamsons “did not mind sharing the island’s natural assets as long as there was no garbage, fires or disturbance of wildlife.” Infrequent use of the island by its owners, and more cottager activity at the lake, meant use often became abuse.
Public enjoyment of unoccupied islands in Lake of Bays is familiar. The cover of Bruce MacLellans’ book Post Cards from Lake of Bays features a pre-1909 scene of picnickers on Burnt Island “before it was occupied.” In Doug and Helen Cunningham’s Memories of Lake of Bays, a Haystack Island postcard is captioned, “Although privately owned now, Haystack Island was once a favourite spot for picnics, exploring and diving from the cliff on the south side.”
Over the 80-odd years of Adamson ownership, the Island changed hands three times but, as with the Langmaids, the transfers were always within the family. In 1987, Henry N. Adamson inherited the island from his parents and looked forward to many years at Lake of Bays. He cared intently about heritage and in 1985, he and 11 others became founding directors of the Lake of Bays Heritage Foundation, a registered charitable organization. Indicative of his commitment was his intent that the island be designated a Muskoka heritage area to limit future development and plans began to transfer ownership to the Heritage Foundation.
In his mid-40s, Henry suffered blindness. He always felt he would recover his vision and return to his island life but inability to travel from Chicago to Adamson’s Island led to its abandonment. In 2014, an accidental staircase tumble in his home ended his life at age 65.
The anomaly of a single island being in two different townships – the result of surveyors in the 1860s and 1870s imposing a fixed grid pattern across Muskoka’s lakeland terrain – was remedied in the 1970s after Muskoka’s municipal government revamp. When adjusting boundaries, Langmaid’s Island was placed in McLean Ward, Lake of Bays Township. Then a Crown grant, back-dated to October 20, 1874, was registered May 22, 1975 on title, granting Samuel Langmaid Jr. “All of this island.” With this new retroactive root of title, Billy Langmaid had the entire island when he sold it to Katherine Adamson in 1936, so that when Henry N. became owner in 1987, it was of the entire island.
After his death, probate for the estate was granted in September 2016. The family, his sister Kate in particular, wanted to gift the island to the Lake of Bays Heritage Foundation, a worthy gesture said to have been precluded by U.S. tax laws. As a result, the property (now being referred to as “Langmaid Island”) was put up for sale. The executor acted quickly. There were two offers below asking price, and the executor accepted the second one when the Heritage Foundation, which had a 30-day right of first refusal, ran out of time while raising the $9.4 million.
When new owner Langmaid Island Corporation unveiled its intended changes to the property, a rezoned Langmaid’s Island would be divided into 36 lots with shuttle access from a location on the north shore, in Huntsville’s jurisdiction. Many expressed concern about the island’s proposed changed appearance, natural landscape impacts, ecosystem disruption, boating safety issues and discontinuity in the heritage and character of Lake of Bays; a public meeting of about 100 people spoke loud and clear on these points, with only three builders supporting the application. The boating safety issue, repeatedly emphasized, concerns increased boat traffic in Little Whiskey Bay. Because water by the mainland parking area is too shallow to dock many boats, a shuttle would run continuously across the bay, in addition to 32 families using their own boats for pleasure.
The complex application required many studies and peer reviews. Both the Town of Huntsville and Township of Lake of Bays planners recommended the application be declined, citing numerous reasons. When this was made known, Langmaid’s Island Corporation appealed to Ontario’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (the renamed Ontario Municipal Board) on the grounds of delayed response.
The appeal hearing took place in cyberspace during February and March this year. The application’s sole supporter was Langmaid Island Corporation. Opposing it were Lake of Bays Association, Lake of Bays Heritage Foundation, Town of Huntsville, Township of Lake of Bays and citizen Kelly Zytaruk representing the community. The contest gained news media attention and online as virtual hearings were intently followed by interested parties.
The ruling, still pending at time of writing, will determine if this unique island remains part of “off-the-grid” Muskoka.
“I think this situation is all about whether the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal will support municipalities whose established policies protect natural heritage,” sums up Judith Mills, president of Lake of Bays Heritage Foundation, “or whether a developer can change an official plan enacted with community support.”