Parry Sound pioneer Duncan Fraser Macdonald has been a cornerstone of my 30 years of writing stories dredged from obscure corners of Parry Sound’s past. This colourful Parry Sound pioneer and hardy woodsman crops up repeatedly in my books and newspaper columns. As well as exploiting the resource for my writing, I’ve enjoyed just reading his pointed commentary on the Parry Sound scene of a century and more ago, and examining the detail captured in his carefully composed photographs.
Never, while working with those photos, did it occur to me that the camera that captured the images might still exist. However, I’ve just learned that it does, away down in the United States.
The camera came to light after Rachel Brown, of Warsaw, Illinois, read a recent newspaper column of mine dealing with exploring for a railway line that, in the 1870s, was projected to cross northern Parry Sound District but was never built. The story drew heavily on the daily diary of Duncan Macdonald, the explorer for one of the survey parties and Rachel’s great-grandfather. Evidently Rachel cast her ancestor’s name into the bottomless pool of the Internet and reeled in the story from the Parry Sound North Star’s website.
She then contacted me seeking information about her Parry Sound roots. Her grandmother, Duncan Macdonald’s daughter Jessie, died while Rachel’s father, James Brown, was still a child, weakening the ancestral link. James moved to the United States before Rachel was born, taking with him little in the way of family history other than the camera.
Rachel has already learned a good deal about Duncan Macdonald, and knows where to find much more. The Parry Sound Public Library Archives of Ontario have nearly 40 years worth of his daily diary (on microfilm in Parry Sound), plus numerous letters and documents, and a small collection of Macdonald’s glass-plate negatives. Rachel has now enriched the collection with detailed photographs of Macdonald’s time- and travel-worn camera, copies of which I am providing to the Ontario Archives and the Parry Sound Library.
Born in Wentworth County in 1842, Duncan Macdonald began working at various jobs on Ontario’s northern frontier, Georgian Bay and the north shore of Lake Huron, in his twenties. In 1870, he photographed the encampment of the Wolseley expedition troops while they paused at Sault Ste. Marie en route to Manitoba. Soon after that, he returned to Parry Sound (he had lived here earlier) to stay, making it his base of operations for nearly 50 years. Macdonald supervised the building of colonization roads and cruised timber limits for lumbermen, eventually securing an appointment as Crown Timber Agent for Parry Sound. Later, his familiarity with “the local Indian language and their habits” earned him the post of local Indian Agent. All the while, he played an active role in Liberal Party affairs both within and outside the district.
All of this kept Macdonald on the go constantly. Luckily for us, he sometimes took his unwieldy camera along, capturing some of the first images of Parry Sound District’s roads and sideroads. In the summer of 1875, Macdonald was appointed as first postmaster at Copananing, where the main channel of the French River empties into Georgian Bay. The Liberal government in Ottawa had chosen the location as a terminus of the projected Canadian Pacific Railway (steamboats would bridge the gap to Thunder Bay), but so far “the future city,” as Macdonald wryly described the barren expanse of bedrock, consisted only of a storehouse and office connected with the railway survey, and there was nothing for a postmaster to do.
However, Macdonald arrived prepared for idle time. He brought along his prized target rifle and a supply of reading material, and, as revealed in his diary, quickly worked his way through Eugene Aram, the story of a controversial 18th-century murder trial, and a 400-page novel titled The Interpreter.
He also brought his camera and the glass plate negatives and chemicals necessary to operate it. On October 5, a week after arriving at the lonely outpost, he wrote: “finished my dark tent and will get ready to work.” The next day finds him “cleaning glass for views and getting photo stock ready.”
A week later, Macdonald tried to photograph a survey crew “levelling the cut at the [Dalles] Rapids, “ but was frustrated by “poor light for photoing.” The following week, he penned: “Packed up my photo stock and got ready to go out on the sailboat in the morning,” thus ending his brief postmaster’s posting.
Macdonald’s attempt to document the birth of a hub in the nation’s transportation network seems to have produced no finished photographs. But no matter, for Copananing was fated never to become more than a briefly busy sawmill village.
Macdonald’s multi-faceted career kept him on the go constantly, and whenever possible his camera went along — even as far as Newfoundland, when, around 1907, he went there to cruise a timber limit that his employer, J. B. Miller, owner of the Parry Sound Lumber Company, ultimately declined to purchase. Long before this he had
acquired a better camera, the one referred to at the beginning of this story. We know he got it no earlier than 1887, for that is the year in which the Canadian Camera Company, situated on Adelaide Street in Toronto, patented the model. But many of Macdonald’s better negatives appear to date back that far, so his camera must have been one of the first off the assembly line.
It has been suggested that many of the pictures contained in the Parry Sound Public Library’s extensive “J. B. Miller Photographic Collection” were actually the work of Macdonald. (Perhaps Miller, a well-to-do Torontonian, purchased the state-of-the-art camera for Macdonald to use in his capacity as official photographer to the family.) The pictures that can be positively credited to Macdonald are relatively few in number, two dozen or so glass-plate negatives acquired from a family member many years ago. However, there are a number of other, uncredited, 19th century scenes of rural Parry Sound District in existence that are believed to be his handiwork.