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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Robert Holding like a ghost flits through early Chapleau history after surviving shipwreck off coast of Auckland Islands as young man

Robert Holding, one of Chapleau's earliest residents, and by any measure an interesting personality, was a key mover in establishing the community's first permanent school in 1891.

Although, as J.M. Shoup noted in a report on Chapleau education the first school was established in the vestry of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic School, and then into a tent, by 1891, Holding whose own formal education was lacking as he had gone to sea at age 14, was pushing for a school.

George Evans, based on references to 'Pioneering in Northern Ontario' by Vince Crichton, shared part of  Holding's story, and I have referred to them here except where otherwise noted.

A school board was set up in February 1891 and Holding was elected first chairman of the board. By May 21, 1891 a one room school was opened on Pine Street, next to the rectory of St. John's Anglican Church. There were 19 students. Mr. Shoup's report notes that the first teacher was Miss Charlotte Weller, who later married G.B. Nicholson, a businessman and Chapleau's first reeve from 1901 to 1913.
Chapleau school circa 1891 on Pine Street

In his article George wrote that Holding "like a ghost flits through the pages" of Vince's book, "turning up here and there playing a variety of roles in Chapleau's story."

Born in England on March 17, 1840, George wrote that perhaps the most exciting event in Holding's long life came shortly after his 24th birthday when he was aboard the sailing ship Invercauld. On May 20, 1864, the ship was battered to pieces on the rocky west coast of the uninhabited Auckland Islands south of New Zealand.

Nineteen crew members made it to shore, according to one account, 24 in another, but one year and 10 days later when rescuers arrived only Holding and the captain had survived.

Sixty-one years later while living in Chapleau, Holding typed out an account of his shipwreck and survival used by his great granddaughter Madelene Ferguson Allen in her book ' Wake of the Invercauld'. 

By 1888, with his wife and children Holding arrived in Canada and made his way to Chapleau where he found work as a machinist in the Canadian Pacific Railway shops.

He built a tenement building on Beech Street which became his home and a boarding house. It came to be known as the 'Crusoe House' named after Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe's novel. This house was torn due in about 1958 when Dr. G.E. Young owned the property -- this is when Dr. Young was converting the (white) Austin house on Pine Street into the Riverside Inn.

Crusoe House on Beech Street
At one time, according to Vince, Holding served as Chapleau's "ex-officio" police officer before the municipality was incorporated in 1901.

Obviously Holding still had a sense of adventure in him as early in the 20th century on a July 1st, he organized a re-enactment of the Battle of San Juan Hill, a famous incident in the Spanish-American war of 1898. 

According to Vince/George the hill was to be the north side of the Kebsquasheshing River (maybe landing was to take place about where Dr. Young's boathouse stood)  and the attackers came from the south shore (maybe from about the beach area although there was no beach there in those days).

They used home made cannons loaded with sod and propelled with real gunpowder. Holding commanded a hospital ship and picked up "survivors" from sunk or overturned craft.

As an aside, it just struck me as I type that it is a good thing my buddies and I were not aware of this battle on the river when we were kids in the 1950s. A re-enactment would have occurred for sure --- right guys???

Becoming more intrigued with Holding all the time, I did a Google search and lucked into an article about him from 'The Toronto World' newspaper of May 12, 1919 about his mining exploits.

It said in part: "The romance of mining is perhaps not better exemplified than in the case of Robert Holding now 80 years of age, who after scouring two continents in search of the elusive gold, was at last rewarded and now bids fair to become a millionaire."

The article adds that Holding had been prospecting in the Shining Tree area and may have staked "one of the richest finds in the north country". Apparently Holding staked his claims before World War I in 1911 but waited until the end of the war to dispose "of his interest for a large cash payment and other consideration which will probably net him one million dollars."

Nonetheless, in 1928, now 88 years old, Holding bought the Algoma Hotel (later the Hublit now a parking lot) and started a  new career as a hotel owner. His son-in-law Charles Vice managed it for him.

Robert Holding died at age 93 on June 22, 1933 in Chapleau. He is buried in the old Protestant Cemetery on Birch Street. George provided directions to his grave. After entering through the main gate, "angle off to the right" and you will find his grave.

I am sure there is much, much more to be told about the fascinating life of Robert Holding and I would love to hear from you. My email is mj.morris@live.ca


2 comments:

edythe rose christie said...

Michael, is this the relative of the Holdings who ran the ice cream parlour? Remember tiny Miss Holding who had to stand on a chair to hand out the cones?Edythe Rose Christie

Michael J Morris said...

Edythe. Yes it is. Miss Lois Holding was his daughter.

Michael J Morris

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