Unless otherwise credited, all words and photographs are © David Ritchie and may not be used without permission
The Quiet Port. Port Bruce, 14 km south of Aylmer on Lake Erie, was once a busy commercial fishing port. Today it is a quiet gem of a village, only busy in the summer with campers and sport boaters, family picnics on the beach. It is a frequent watering hole for us on motorcycles- coffee, tea or soft drinks only- at the Cornerview cafe.
There are no Horton’s, McDonald’s or other commercial blight to be seen, just the way locals want it. No bars, arcades or similar distractions. And no commercial fish tugs either.
It wasn’t always that way. Port Bruce has a fishing history but it has been long left behind. It ended for two main reasons: railways, a narrow harbour and the shallow silted depth of the Catfish Creek. Port Burwell to the east and Port Stanley to the west, benefitted from the railway. The CPR line in Burwell made it into a busy harbour, importing coal for homes and industry and exporting fish to markets. The London and Port Stanley railway served Port Stanley in similar fashion while also bringing thousands of tourists in the summer. Both ports had a wider, deeper harbour than Burwell, although they both needed regular dredging.
Postcard of the early years, photographer unknown. Courtesy of Ian Johnson. The wooden warehouses likely stored grain for export.
In the latter 19th-century thousands of bushels of wheat and tons of lumber were exported from Port Bruce while supplies for the neighbouring villages were imported. The lumber supply dwindled due to over-harvesting. The railway provided better land distribution for all commodities and the port suffered as a result.
The Eliza White was reputed to be the largest schooner built in Port Bruce.
The following information was gleaned from the book “Port Bruce As I Have Known It” by Stanley Stephens, 1975.
In the early years fishing was a very simple affair with only small rowboats required. Seine nets were strung in a semi-circle from the beach by boats and then drawn.
Later, pound nets were used. Pound (short for ‘impound’) nets are basically a trap set near the shore that the fish swim into and cannot escape. They were pulled out of the trap with hand nets and dumped into a boat. Originally small boats harvested the fish and were towed to port by larger steam engine tugs. Later the work was done exclusively by tugs with more powerful engines.
Photo titled “James Smale scooping fish for Jack Downing.” Photo from the Stan Stephens collection, Port Bruce. Jack Downing & Partners owned the Kathleen D.
Courtesy of the Stanley Stephens collection.
Between 1907 and 1910 gill nets came into use. Some of the names of fishing enterprises included brothers George and Levi Young, the Smales, Downings, George Brown, the Wonnacotts, Kenneth Gray and other names still common in the port and area.
The Edward S steam tug owned by Ed Smale. Photo courtesy of Stanley Stephens collection.
Photo courtesy of Stanley Stephens collection. Both fish tugs were steam-powered.
Identified on the reverse as “1906 Young tug” Photo courtesy of Bruce Johnson.
“Young Brothers fishermen at Port Bruce circa 1910.” The man front centre looks like James Smale in the third photo from the top. Photo courtesy of Bruce Johnson.
“Young brother’s tug Enterprise or Uncle Tom at Port Bruce” Photo courtesy of Bruce Johnson.
Nets drying, Port Bruce circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Stanley Stephens collection.
Early fishnets were made of cotton that had to be dried after use to prevent rotting. The wood frames used were a common sight in fishing ports worldwide. I’ve been told that the early cotton nets (used for pound and trap net fishing) were tarred black for preservation, the same technique used for lines and rigging on sailing vessels of earlier times. Later drying frames were made of metal. After the arrival of nylon nets that didn’t need to be dried, the racks fell out of use.
“Ross Johnson and George Cockerell in front of Wannacott’s fish house.”
Apparently, fishing wasn’t just hard work. Photo courtesy of the Stanley Stephens collection.
Captioned “Lorne Wonnacott at his nets, June 1939” Photo courtesy of Stanley Stephens.
Early photo of the tug Enterprise at Port Bruce, 1912 Photo courtesy of Stanley Stephens. The Enterprise was owned by the Young brothers.
Pound boat leaving Port Bruce to lift nets, circa 1920. Photo courtesy of Stanley Stephens
Upcoming: a look at the latter fishing history of Port Bruce, including connections to fish tugs built by Ralph Hurley.
My thanks to Ian Johnson of Port Bruce, Paul Cook and Shaun Vary for their help on researching this project.