Cemetery Road Trip – Chasing Tom Thomson

Summertime is meant for road trips! In July, I went on a two-week vacation full of adventures. One of the trips I was looking forward to most on my vacation was visiting Algonquin Provincial Park. Algonquin is Canada’s first Provincial Park, having been founded in 1893.1 It’s a large and beautiful piece of wilderness, that also holds a mystery.

My 80-year-old mother joined me on this camping trip. It had been about 40 years since she last went camping, so I made sure we did all the fun camping things; sleeping in a tent, cooking on a fire, and making s’mores. There were a couple of other things on our to-do lists: visit Canoe Lake, search for Mowat Cemetery, and find the grave of Tom Thomson.

The story of Tom Thomson is an interesting one. Today, he is often referred to as the Canadian Van Gogh.2 And rightly so, his use of color and thick strokes vividly bring the northern landscapes to life. Thomson spent a lot of time painting and fishing in beautiful Algonquin Park. His love of the area must have been contagious as he soon had other painters joining him on his painting excursions. They even had a name for themselves, the “Algonquin Park School of painters”.3 You might recognize them more now as the Group of Seven. Unfortunately, Tom wouldn’t live long enough to see that recognition as he died mysteriously, two years prior. I would consider him a founding member, of the now famous group of painters.

There have been many things written about what happened to Tom Thomson on that fateful day in July. But to this day, no one knows for sure what happened. With so many varying accounts over the years, speculating what may have happened, the details of the events don’t seem to add up. We do know that Tom’s canoe was found on July 8th, but he was not. His body was found in Canoe lake, 8 days later on July 16th.4 He was found with bad bruising on his face and head, with a fishing line wrapped around his left or right ankle, depending on which account you read. In most accounts, the fishing line is seen as an indication of foul play. I don’t agree. I have been doing a lot of reading about this mystery and one thing that always stands out to me is the fishing line.

Tom’s body was found floating in the lake. Many people speculate that something heavy was tied to the fishing line to weigh the body down, that he was purposely drowned. BUT all the accounts mention that the body was tethered to the shore, and not removed immediately from the water. I think it would make sense that they would have used a fishing line to tether the body to the shore, which would account for the fishing line. One blog post I found corroborates this thought, but for some reason has not been looked at more closely. The blog post comes from a professional journalist, Robert Reid. In his blog post, Epistles from the Grave, Robert talks about letters that were written in the 1970s by Jack Wilkinson. He would have been six years old at the time of Tom’s death. These letters were written to correct some inaccuracies in the accounts that were circulating, most notably the fishing line. In the letters, Wilkinson confirmed that the fishing line was merely used to tether the body to the shore, so it would not float away until the coroner could be alerted and come collect the body.5 This would mean the fishing line had nothing to do with Tom’s death. Still, the questions persist—was it murder? Or was his death an accident? These details we may never know.

Tom was hastily buried at Mowat cemetery, sometimes referred to as Canoe Lake cemetery. This is not what his family wanted. They wanted him brought home. So his remains were exhumed the next day and transported to Leith, Ontario, near Owen Sound. There his remains were buried once again, and a proper headstone was erected.1 Here lies another facet of the mystery—many people claim his body was never moved.

Is that why people also claim to see a ghost in the early morning fog on Canoe lake? Over the years, many people have reported seeing a man slowly paddling a distinctive grey canoe through the still waters of the early morning.6 What’s interesting about these sightings is that in life Tom Thomson had painted his canoe a unique dove-grey color, that he had mixed himself from his paints. This dove-grey canoe stood out among the identically colored canoes of the local lodges.1 Unfortunately, I was not able to find anyone in the park who had experienced any sightings firsthand. 

Our search for his grave began on the morning of July 17th, which just so happened to be the 105th anniversary of Tom’s burial at Mowat Cemetery. We drove into Algonquin Park that morning, and after stopping in to check on our campsite at Tea lake, we decided to try and find the cemetery. I had been planning this trip since the early spring of this year and had been researching how to find the hidden cemetery. In early June, Back Road’s Bill, a local adventure/nature writer, published an article about the two graves of Tom Thomson, so I reached out to him about directions for reaching the cemetery. He was very helpful. With the coordinates locked into my Google Maps, I felt pretty confident that we could reach the cemetery. 

That confidence wavered a little though when we visited the Canoe Lake Access Point Permit Office. We stopped in, after taking in the view of the infamous Canoe Lake, to buy some firewood and talk to the staff. The clerk was a young man, who had just started working at the permit office. He didn’t have any personal stories to share about the haunting of canoe lake but did have some interesting ideas about where Thomson may actually rest. He shared an interesting theory that the gravedigger that was hired to move the body had sent a coffin filled with dirt and rocks to the family, to approximate the weight of a body. He also told me that the cemetery can only be accessed by canoe and that the back roads I had pointed out are actually the train line, not a road. I was a little dismayed, but I had faith in Back Roads Bill and his map, so we continued on.

And good thing we did! The rail line the Permit office staff talked about was now a camp road. We followed it as far as we could, safely by car. At one turn-off the road became quite rough so we decided to park the car on the side of the road and continue on foot. This would turn out to be our hike for the day. It was a very nice walk in the lush woods of Algonquin Park. After walking for a time, we came upon some cottages on the lakefront. One cottage had a large family gathering outside, so we stopped and asked them for directions to make sure we were on the right path. They assured us we were and gave us some landmarks to go by, as there is no sign marking the cemetery. We continued on our way, trying to align ourselves with Canoe lake, and picture what it would look like to travel the route by canoe. We couldn’t easily see the lake. Unfortunately, the landmarks the cottagers gave were not the most helpful and we got a little turned around.

For an area that seems incredibly remote, there are a fair number of family cottages out there. We happened upon another cottage where it looked like they were packing up to go home. We asked again for directions. The gentleman we had asked was kind enough to walk with us to the entrance of the cemetery trail. We had gone a bit too far, having stayed to the left when we should have taken a right at the fork in the trail. His german shorthaired pointer puppy joined us, zooming back and forth past us as we walked. He told us how that day was the anniversary of Tom’s burial and how his family sometimes walked up to the cemetery to pay their respects. He didn’t have any ghost stories to share though. He brought us to the start of the cemetery trail, a small almost hidden trail that veers again to the right off of the bigger trail. We thanked him and continued on our way. This part of the trail was more rugged, with felled trees and a faint trail that was sometimes hard to distinguish in the wild forest. My mother said she was starting to have doubts at this point in our adventure, but those doubts faded when we came to a hill. 

Sitting at the top of the hill we could see an old weathered fence and the supposedly 500 year old birch tree. It’s the largest birch tree I have ever seen! We happily climbed to the top and walked into Mowat cemetery. This small pioneer cemetery is a small remnant of the town of Mowat. This mill town was the largest in Algonquin Park and had about 500 residents in its heyday. The town included a hospital and school, as well as recreational lodges. Tom Thomson often frequented Mowat Lodge. The town began to dwindle, after the lumber recession.7 Today, all that remains of Mowat is the cemetery and a few cement foundations. 

The cemetery is very small, with only a handful of grave markers. There is one field stone, and two engraved headstones within the picket fence. There is also a white wooden Latin cross, that marks the grave of Tom Thomson. It is thought that the cross was placed by the CBC in the 1960s for a documentary. There also seems to be a depression in the ground at his grave. There were a few grave goods left for Tom; a small electric tea light, some paint brushes and a fishing lure. There was no one at the cemetery when we visited, but I think Tom still receives his fair share of visitors. 

Within the cemetery fence, there is a small grave marker for Alexander B Hayhurst, a child who died of diphtheria in 1915. 

There is also a large flat gravestone for Ja’s Watson who is thought to be the first person buried at Mowat Cemetery. His stone is hardly legible now, but records say that the epitaph reads:

“In Memory of Ja’s Watson / The First White Person Buried / at / Canoe Lake / Died May 25 1897 being one of / about 500 employed at this Camp by / the Gilmour Lumbering Co. Aged 21 yrs / Remember Comrades (when passing by) / As you are now so once was I / As I am now so you shall be / Prepare thyself to follow me.”8

We spent a lot of time in the cemetery, trying to decipher the stones and admiring the enormous birch tree, and paying our respects to Tom Thomson. We tried to imagine what the cemetery would have looked like in 1917 when he was laid to rest. After a time we decided to head back down the hill and retrace our steps back to the car. It was a bit of a long journey, but it was incredibly rewarding. Back at our campsite we had a nice campfire supper of burgers and corn on the cob and talked about our visit to Mowat cemetery. We speculated on what might have happened to Tom and whether or not he was still laid to rest on that hill. My mother was very adamant that he was still there. After supper, we made some s’mores for dessert and enjoyed the campfire as it lit up the darkness of the night.

The next morning we decided to explore the park a little more before heading home. We stopped in at the Algonquin Art Centre to look around. This world-class art gallery showcases some of Canada’s foremost wilderness and wildlife artists.9 Outside, on the Centre grounds, we took a look at a set of plaques celebrating Tom Thomson. They told the story of Thomson as a painter, his attraction to Algonquin Park, his body of work, and his legacy as an artist. We also viewed an outdoor exhibit of painted canoes, called Tom Thomson’s Canoe Murals. We spent some time inside the gallery as well, taking some time to admire the gorgeous art gallery and browsing the gift shop. This is where I purchased my copy of Northern Light by Roy MacGregor.

Northern light: The enduring mystery of Tom Thomson and the woman who loved him by Roy MacGregor is a very good read. It presents some really interesting theories as to what may have happened to Thomson, and also suggests that his body never left Mowat Cemetery. In the 1950s, a small group of men took it upon themselves to prove whether Tom was still buried in the cemetery on Canoe lake. They took some shovels, went up to the cemetery, and started digging. I think to even their surprise, they did find human remains. They took a few bone samples, including the skull, and sent them for analysis. The results were not what they expected and seemed to raise more questions.1 More recently, a facial reconstruction was attempted using photographs of the unearthed skull. The face that emerged was pretty uncanny, but does that mean the mystery is solved?10

I don’t think the mystery will ever truly be solved. I believe the truth of what happened to Tom Thomson went to the grave a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean people will stop trying to solve it. Stories will continue to be told about his tragic life, cut short. As much as Algonquin Park was a part of Tom’s life, his artwork is now a part of it as well. You can find his artwork at the Art Centre. You can see the inspiration for his art in the beauty of the wilderness. You can learn more about his life in the Visitor Centre, alongside the history of the land and the evolution of the communities within the park. Tom Thomson, whether it be his artwork, his story, or his ghost will continue to be a big part of Algonquin Park. 

I really enjoyed my time exploring the park and searching for the grave of Tom Thomson. It was a rewarding trip, that let me explore nature while also learning more about art and Canadian history. It was one of the more challenging cemeteries to find, but it was a beautiful place to visit and photograph. My mother enjoyed this trip immensely. She was a bit leery at first, but the history drew her in. She talks about our trip often. Coincidentally, I started writing this blog post on what would have been Tom’s 145th birthday, August 5th, 2022. My mother shares his birthday. 

Have you ever been to Algonquin Park? Have you seen the ghost of Tom Thomson? I would love to read your stories in the comments. If you are interested in reading more about the mysterious death of Tom Thomson, check out the links below. 

Thanks for reading! 


References:

  1. MacGregor, R. (2010). Northern light: The enduring mystery of Tom Thomson and the woman who loved him. Vintage Canada. 
  2. A break in the mysterious case of Tom Thomson, Canada’s Van Gogh | The Globe and Mail
  3. Algonquin Art Centre 
  4. Tom Thomson | The Canadian Encyclopedia
  5. Epistles from the Grave | Reid between the lines
  6. Is Tom Thomson Haunting Algonquin Park? | Haunted Walk
  7. Mowat (Tom Thomson murder) | OAP Urban Database
  8. Ja’s Watson headstone, Mowat cemetery | Canadian Mysteries.ca
  9. The Algonquin Art Centre – About
  10. Skull recreation attempts to solve ‘perfect mystery’ behind untimely death of artist Tom Thomson | National Post

More interesting links:

  1. 100 years of haunting by Tom Thomson’s ghost | Toronto Star
  2. Death on a painted lake: The Tom Thomson tragedy | Canadian Mysteries.ca
  3. What REALLY Happened to Tom Thomson? | The Country Connection Magazine
  4. Why the 100-year-old mystery of Tom Thomson’s death lives on | CBC
  5. Tom Thomson’s mysterious death just won’t die | The Globe and Mail

Stone Stories: Visiting the Dionne Quintuplets

On my vacation, my Mother and I took a road trip to North Bay, Callander, and Corbeil Ontario to explore and experience the story of Canadian folk figures, the Dionne Quintuplets.

“On May 28, 1934, five identical girls were born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne, a Franco-Ontario family in the tiny community of Corbeil, Ontario. Their births were a miracle of its time during the difficult Depression, the only quintuplets to survive more than a few days. Midwives Douilda (Donalda) Legros and Mary-Jeanne Lebel delivered the first 3 of the quintuplets, and Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe assisted with the final 2 births. The five girls – Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie – became a “good news” story in this challenging time, drawing worldwide attention to the area, and attracting 3 million people to “Quintland” to see and hear the girls at play. Hollywood told their story in 3 movies, while endorsements for commercial products became commonplace.” – Dionne Quints Heritage Board website

In North Bay, we visited the Quint House Museum. This was the actual family home where the quintuplets were born. It houses a lot of original artifacts; such as the bed where they were born, cribs, children’s beds, children’s clothing, and their baby carriages. It also contains a lot of original photos of when the children were born, while they were growing up at Quintland, and also a lot of the advertising that was created using their image. Everything from baby food to GM motors was advertised using the Dionne Quintuplets. Dr. Dafoe profited from the twin’s fame. At the Quint house museum, we were given a tour of the house and memorabilia by an actual relative of the quintuplets, their nephew. His mother was one of the siblings of the quintuplets, making Elzire Dionne his grandmother. He spoke about the quintuplets and what happened to them as a tragedy and preferred to not mention the doctor, as he sees him as a villain in their story.

The Dionne Quintuplets were separated from their family and exploited by the “good” Doctor. As well as extensive advertising using the girl’s image, Quintland was built. A large building complex where people from all over the world came to see the quintuplet girls. The courtyard of Quintland was encircled by two-way mirrors, where visitors could pay a fee to watch the girls as they played. After about 9 years, the girls left Quintland and returned to live with their parents. They had other siblings, as the Dionne’s had had 14 children in total. The quints were essentially strangers to their own family, after having been separated from them for so long. It must have been just as strange for their siblings, hearing about their famous sisters, but not knowing them at all. I can only imagine the strain that would put on the family.

After visiting the Quint House Museum, we traveled a little bit down the road to Callander to visit the Callander Bay Heritage Museum and Alex Dufresne Gallery. This museum is housed in what was once the office of Dr. Alan Roy Dafoe. A turnstile that was used to admit and count attendees to Quintland sits outside. The Quint House Museum also has one of these turnstiles. The house is very rustic and feels like a home office. It would be really interesting if they had a floor plan of what the office looked like when it was in use. This museum also contains a lot of memorabilia of the quintuplets. Some of the more interesting items include lead sculptures of the quintuplet’s faces that were mounted on a clock tower. The sculptures are quite terrifying. There are other exhibits at this museum as well, such as a 1920s barbershop, some military items, as well as logging and mining history.

Visiting the Quint House Museum first made walking around Dr. Dafoe’s office a little awkward. Knowing the pain and strife he had put the family through, made the experience a tad unpleasant. The Callander Bay Heritage Museum also holds an art gallery. We took a little detour from the quintuplet exploration and looked at the beautiful artwork they had on display. We also visited the gift shop and purchased a few things; in particular a recent book on the history of the quintuplets called The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets by Sara Miller.

After grabbing some lunch at a delicious little chip stand in Callander, we made our way to Corbeil to visit the Sacred Heart cemetery. As we traveled down a little dirt road and came to the entrance of what looked like the driveway to a farm, I started to realize something.

I had been to this cemetery before!

The cemetery is on farm land. Next to the chicken coops and tractors is a fenced-in cemetery with a bright orange diamond sign that says “cemetery entrance”. As we drove up, a man was outside working on his tractor. I rolled down my window and asked if it would be OK if we visited the cemetery. He smiled and nodded, saying that it was fine, so we proceeded to go in. It’s a medium-sized cemetery with a mix of older and newer stones. It looks like it is still an active cemetery as well. The Dionne’s have a small family plot. Oliva and Elzire, the Father and Mother of the quintuplets are buried there. Along with four of their children, one of which is one of the quintuplets Emilie. FindaGrave.com lists two of the quintuplets as being buried here, but I was only able to find the headstone of Emilie.

I have photographed this cemetery before. In 2019 some friends and I did a road trip to North Bay and the area, where we visited the local cemeteries. I’ve even taken pictures of Emilie’s stone. At the time, I recognized the name Dionne, which is why I took the photo. But I never made the connection between the two.

This time I had a postcard with me from the Callander Bay Heritage Museum that showed the quintuplets with Dr. Dafoe. I took photos of the postcard with Emilie’s stone, with no issue. I attempted to take a photo with the postcard on the tombstone for Oliva and Elzire Dionne. The wind was not cooperating and blew the postcard away. After several attempts of trying to get a shot with the postcard, I put it away. Maybe it was the wind, whipping up at an in-opportune moment, or maybe it was the spirit of Oliva and Elzire, refusing to take a photo with an image of the man who took their children away.

There are only two of the quintuplets still living, Annette and Cécile. Emilie and (supposedly) Yvonne are the only quintuplets buried in Corbeil, their home town. The rest of the quintuplets are buried in Montreal. I was curious as to where Dr. Dafoe was laid to rest—he is buried in Toronto.

This was a very educational trip. It was interesting to dive a little deeper into the true story of the Dionne quintuplets. Being able to speak to a blood relative and learn how the family was affected by what happened was truly heart-wrenching and eye opening. The Dionne Quintuplets still draw a crowd, but now for a different reason. In the 1930s it was seen as a miracle and amazing, and no one batted an eye at the fact that these children were taken away from their parents. Today, people are still interested in the Dionne Quintuplets, but the narrative is much different.

If you are interested in learning more about the story of the Dionne Quintuplets, you can visit these links below:

Stone Stories: A life cut short

A couple of weekends ago I visited the grave of Renée Sweeney. 

While planning out a hike that weekend, I checked which cemeteries would be along the way. One of them just so happened to be her resting place. 

I usually don’t spend as much time in newer cemeteries because the stones and symbolism are much more modern and not as nuanced. This cemetery is full of some very interesting stones and stories. Because I was searching for one grave in particular, I took my time walking through the rows, examining every stone. I came across some lovely stones and epitaphs, as well as some heartbreaking ones.

But none as heartbreaking as the family plot of Renée Sweeney. 

Her grave marker is small, laying flat to the earth, but it tells a story of a life cut short, that had a lot of love yet to give. The epitaph reads “Loving Daughter and Sister, Life is fleeting Love is forever” A trombone is engraved on her stone, as well as a treble clef and an angel. She is buried beside her mother.

What happened to Renée is terrifying and heart-wrenching. She was 23 years old when she was brutally murdered in 1998. She was stabbed at least 30 times while working at Adults Only Video. 

Her murder went unsolved for 20 years.

In 2018, Robert Steven Wright was arrested. He faces a second-degree murder charge. Due to the pandemic, he is still awaiting trial. His new trial date as of this writing is October 25th, 2021. The trial is expected to last 5 weeks.

If you are interested in learning more about this tragic history, you can read more about it at the links below.

Renée’s story can also be found in more detail in Unsolved Sudbury: Missing. Murdered. Unexplained. by Sarah May. Books are available locally at Bay Used Books, Jan Browning Boutique, and Sudbury Paint and Custom Framing.