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Thursday, February 18, 2010

G.B. Nicholson, 'the leader of life in Chapleau' during its early years

In about 1913 Guy Rogers visited Chapleau and wrote in a report that while there he made a friendship with "the real leader of life in Chapleau, a Mr. G.B. Nicholson, a fine Christian, and able man of affairs."

Rogers had been sent to Canada from England by the Archbishop of Canterbury of the Church of England to travel on the Canadian Pacific Railway to observe the work being done by the church as well as the lifestyle. He gives a glimpse into life in Chapleau at the time in the following statement: "How the early settlers stood the monotony and hardship of life is known only to them and God."

However, G.B. Nicholson, who was born on Prince Edward Island in 1868, and came to northern Ontario to work for the CPR with whom he worked for 17 years, where he also served as general secretary or general chairman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers on the CPR eastern lines for 10 years. He turned down promotions as the man who came to be called "the father of Chapleau" had other plans for his life and the community.

In 1901, largely because of efforts by Mr. Nicholson, Chapleau became incorporated as a municipality in Ontario, and he became its first Reeve -- serving until 1913, and being returned by acclamation in the elections then held yearly for council. Chapleau experienced a remarkable period of growth during his time in office. A water works system was built with hydrants throughout the community. Two schools had been built and the high school was being planned. A town hall, described as 'a most moden building for the times' complete with theatre opened in 1913. Sidewalks were laid throughout the town, something that always amazed me as a kid seeing how early in Chapleau's history they were built. Go for a walk and take a look!

In 1910, the very efficient Chapleau Fire Department was created.

The railway YMCA with rooms and a restaurant received compliments and in 1914 the Lady Minto Hospital opened under the gudiance of the Victorian Order of Nurses. The business section contained a number of special, general and department stores and the population had reached about 2,500 people -- about the same as in the last census numbers in 2006.

In 1917 he was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative member for Algoma East, lost in 1921, then won in 1925 but lost in 1926, but regained his seat in 1930. While the House of Commons was sitting, Mr. Nicholson, a staunch member of St. John's Anglican Church in Chapleau would travel home from Ottawa on weekends to teach his Adult Bible Class. He conducted the class for 25 years, assisted by P. J. Collins.

While Mr. Nicholson was busy building Chapleau he entered the lumber business with J. McNiece Austin of Chapleau in 1901 with Mr. Nicholson as the operating head of the company. In Chapleau Trails, edited by Dr. W.R. Pellow, A. MacNiece Austin wrote that his grandfather entered into partnership with Mr. Nicholson and "...(they) carried on a substantial operation which grew to include not only tie cutting but logging and timber milling..." He adds that mills were built and operated for varying lengths of time at Sultan, Devon, Nicholson, Dalton Station, Dalton Mills, and Bertrand.

After Mr. Austin died in 1922 a company was formed with Mr. Nicholson as president, Allan Austin as first vice president, Bill Austin as second vice president and Reg Thrush as secretary.

Busy as he was, Mr. Nicholson and Chapleau residents also took time for an active social life. In a family history written by Michael McMullen, about his grandparents William and May (Mulligan) McMullen and their families, he includes an article from the The Chapleau Headlight of April 21, 1916. His grandparents hosted "a delightful progressive military euchre party" at their home attended by many Chapleauites including Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson. The report says in part: "After a superb luncheon had been served the rooms were cleared and dancing indulged in. the party breaking up about 2 a.m., a most delightful and entertaining time being spent by all."

The end of World War I did not come soon enough for Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson as tragedy befell them on November 4, 1918 when their only son Lorne was killed in action. As a result Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson built St. John's Parish House, which is now the Chapleau Royal Canadian Legion Hall, in memory of their son and and all his son's comrades who had fallen in the war. You will not even find their names on a plaque saying that they built Chapleau's historic landmark building.

You will find tributes to Mr. Nicholson, and his wife Charlotte in St. John's Anglican Church. At Easter 1918, a letter was presented to Mr. Nicholson which shows the esteem in which he was held, and it remains on a wall in the church. Mr. Nicholson had not only taught his adult Bible class but had been a church warden for 22 years, and had helped immensely to build the present St. John's opened in 1908. There were windows dedicated in his memory in 1938 and there is a plaque honouring Mrs. Nicholson for her work.

George Brecken Nicholson died on January 1, 1935, and of course the people of Chapleau mourned his loss, cancelling all New Year's celebrations. St. John's was packed for his funeral. He is buried in the Protestant Burying Grounds.

From the day of his arrival in Chapleau, it seems he set out to make a difference in Chapleau and as his obituary notes, "he did not allow his business interests prevent him from doing his part in the general, social and industrial life of the community.

Email me at mj.morris@live.ca

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Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
MJ with Buckwheat (1989-2009) Photo by Leo Ouimet


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