I asked some family members for a history of the camp, and my cousins Kathy, April, and Aunt Willie came through with flying colors!!! I am posting the Em Kay Camp history as told by my Uncle Ben. He did a great job writing about the camp, the area, and the transition it went through during the last 150 years. With help from the next generation of family members, we will put together a history timeline from the 1970’s to present day. Enjoy Uncle Ben’s Em Kay manuscript. It’s a great read and is written as if he is telling the story in person. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear him weaving the history together…..
Em Kay Camp History
By Ben Taylor
The following is a chronicle of the history of Em Kay Camp as I have been told thru the years. Some of the dates may be off a bit but generally they are as close as I can recollect. In fact, if I were to testify in a court of law, these are the facts as I remember them, so if I’m off – well get over it – after all when most of these stories were passed down, there was usually some adult beverages involved.
All kidding aside – if any of you want to research this further, the Hudson’s Bay Company in Winnipeg has extensive archives in great detail regarding all of their trading posts and transactions dating back to when they first started trading in North America. Just Google Hudson’s Bay Archives and you’ll be amazed at the extent of the available history. I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but if you research Mattawa Post there was a post in ‘Mattawa’ Ontario (it is on the East side of Lake Superior to the north) and most of the info you’ll get will be for that post.
Ok, here we go. In the late 1800’s, early 1900’s, the site where Em Kay is presently, there was a ‘satellite’ Hudson’s Bay post known as ‘Mattawa Post’ from the main post at Gold Pines (the northerly most area of the outflow of Lac Seul just East of present day Ear falls). There is reference to the Mattawa site on the Hudson’s Bay website but it is sketchy. I was always going to go thru the actual documents at Hudson’s Bay in Winnipeg but never got to it. At the time there was a post in Gold Pines, there were also posts in Red Lake, Sioux Lookout, Hudson and many posts further to the north, mostly where there are present day Indian reservations (Pikangikum, Deer lake, Satchigo, Fort Severen, Sandy Lake, etc). Back to ‘Mattawa’. Remember, there were no ‘roads’ so the rivers and lakes served as the easiest modes of transportation. Everything was transported by boat or canoe so all the ‘posts’ were located on some sort of ‘waterway’ so goods could be brought out to posts and the furs could be returned by the same method to the main posts. At Em Kay, this satellite post was known as ‘Mattawa Post’ and as far as I could determine with talking to so of the ‘Old Timers’, it was located approximately 50’ to the west of the present day lodge. There is a faint outline of a square foundation in this area. When I first came there (early 70’s) you could see the foundation outline and the center depression was a flower garden. (just northwest of the main lodge today) Anyway, I found some square nails and a muzzle from a black powder pistol there so it confirmed in my mind that this was indeed the old site of ‘Mattawa Post. The life of ‘Mattawa’ was, however, short-lived. The best scenario for a Hudson’s Bay Post is a post that can be accessed year around. The problem with the Mattawa site was that it was only accessible during the spring, summer and fall but with the river not freezing over completely in the winter, it wasn’t accessible during the winter months and this was when they did most of their trading. So, the life of ‘Mattawa’ didn’t last long but, never the less, it is firmly etched into the archives of the official history of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
So, the Hudson’s Bay post shuts down, but by no means is this the end of Mattawa. In the 1920’s, Gold is discovered in Red Lake. Remember, there are no roads in this part of the country, so the preferred mode of transportation is — water. Once again, the ‘Mattawa’ becomes a hub of activity. The ‘jump off’ spot, if you’re heading for the ‘gold rush’ is Gold Pines. From Gold Pines, you either took a dog team (in winter) or walked to the gold fields in Red Lake (50 miles). Very similar to Dawson and the gold rush in the Klondike. Freight and passengers came across Lac Seul (winter & summer) or flew to Gold Pines via plane. (Gold Pines exploded into an overnight town and was the busiest airport, measured by freight tonnage, in the world during those next few years. In the Spring, Summer and Fall the preferred mode of travel to Red Lake was by water. There was a ‘railroad portage’ from the Lac Seul side to the ‘English River’ side and freight would be loaded on a barge and transported from Lac Seul to the English River (where the present day ‘new’ generator was installed in 2009) and transported from there down the English River and sent on it’s way to Red Lake. There were similar ‘portages’ at snake falls (north end of Pakwash) and a portage into Gull Rock called ‘Sam’s Portage”. This is how 90% of the freight and passengers got to Red lake.
So how does ‘Mattawa’ fit into all this? The Hudson’s Bay post is gone by now but new opportunities are presented by the discovery of gold in Red Lake. Well, there is still a building of some sort where the old ‘post’ was and I can only assume that it was ‘occupied’ by someone. Across the river, on the ridges on the west and to the east there are remnants of old foundations. I’ve hunted grouse on both of those points in the 70’s and found old china, granite wear pots, nails etc. Some of the old timers say there were all sorts of activity there. There were several buildings on either side of the original Mattawa post and 4 or 5 buildings on either point across the river. According to legend, there was a dry goods store, a barber, a whiskey supplier, and even a house of ill repute among other things. Must have been quite a sight.
I do know for a fact that there were 2 cabins, 1 on either side of the original ‘Mattawa’ site. One to the West was between Em Kay and the cabin to the west. It was about ½ way to ‘Paulson’s’ cabin from Em Kay. It was built by a man named Chamberlain (an Englishman). To the East, a log cabin (restored in the 80’s or 90’s at the site presently owned by Kevin Henter) was built by a man named Alf Schlopcoe (a German) (Schlopcoe Bay). Well, according to lore, they HATED each other, never visited one another, and that’s why they built their respective cabins on either side of ‘Mattawa’ using it as a buffer between them.
Well, as we all know, time doesn’t stand still and so the next chapter is a whirlwind for Ear falls. In the 30’s a hydro electric dam is constructed at ‘Ear falls’ to supply power to the mines in Red Lake but there still isn’t a road from the from the rail head at Sioux Lookout/Hudson. In fact, there won’t be a road built for almost 20 years from the Vermillion Bay area. All the materials, labor and day to day supplies to build the dam at Ear falls and supply the Red Lake mines came across Lac Seul from Hudson either by barge in the summer or by tractor train in the winter. These were tough times involving tough people. Black flies and mosquitoes in the summer and minus 40 plus in the winter. Dan Mills owned Kevin Henter’s place when I bought Em Kay. I asked Dan one day about the early days when he arrived. He arrived shortly after the dam in Ear Falls was built. Dan worked for Ontario Hydro and he chuckled and told me his first recollection of arriving in Ear Falls. (Dan was a slight Englishman, probably weighing 150 lbs. – soaking wet) Anyway, Dan reported for work after riding a tractor train from Hudson (about 90 miles) only to be told – “We have a power outage somewhere between here and Red lake” “Here’s a packsack and an Eider down sleeping bag and a set of climbing spurs” “Fix it if you can or keep walking until you find the problem”. He says “what’s the Eider down sleeping bag for” They said “Well, it’s 50 miles to Red Lake and it’s not likely you’ll find the problem right away – so, see ya next week!” Tough stuff! I asked what they did in the spring and fall – there was is a period of time during freeze-up and break-up when you couldn’t travel across Lac Seul. He told me that when Louise (his wife) was pregnant with their first born that she had to leave for Hudson when she was about 7 months pregnant because it was getting late in the fall, had the baby, and didn’t return to Ear Falls until he was a couple months old.
I digress, this is supposed to be about Em Kay, but some of these stories set the tone for the time period. I’ve read extensively about the California gold rush of ’49, about Alaska and the Klondike and maybe this is why I was drawn to this area. (who knows) I’ve always been magnetized by the lore of such things and the Red Lake rush was certainly something I could actually talk to someone about and that actually experienced the phenomenon. Amazing!
Ok, let’s get on with Em Kay. Apparently, the 30’s and the first part of the 40’s life carried on with people and freight heading north to Red Lake, right past Em Kay (brothel and all). Somewhere in the early 40’s an outfitter by the name of Joe Murray had a camp on Canyon Lake (down by Vermillion bay) and wanted to build a tourist camp at the old Mattawa site. There apparently was an obscure law at the time that crown land could only be purchased by a veteran or an Indian. Joe knew an Indian by the name of Albert Keewasin. Albert was not only an Indian but he had served in the Armed Forces during the war so Joe made Albert a partner. Thus the name Em Kay (Murray/Keewasin)
Apparently, construction on the log cabins were done over 3 years ’44, ’45, and ’46. After completion, the guests would take the train to Vermillion Bay, go to Canyon Lake, and then proceed by freighter canoe to Em Kay. Let me put this in prospective – it was probably at least 2, maybe 3 days – one way, plus many portages. Canyon Lake – Trail Lake (somehow), Jackfish Lake, Cedar Lake, Perrault lake, Waubaskang Lake, Cedar River system, into the English River (oh yeah, another portage at the present day site of our cabin) then across Camping Lake to Em Kay. Probably didn’t bring much beer in those days. Then repeat it on the way out. I’ll tell you what – the fishing had better been pretty phenomenal to go thru all that.
Well, that was life for approximately the next 10 years. In about 1955, hydro electric dam construction was started at the site at Manitou Falls, down the river from where our cabin is presently. This construction lasted approximately 3 years. During this period, lots of progressive things started to happen. A road was built from Vermillion Bay to Ear Falls and onto Red Lake in the late 40’s, early 50’s. Even though a major dam construction project was started in ‘55 at Manitou Falls there still wasn’t a road constructed to the site until almost ’57. All the materials and labor were transported from Ear Falls, down river, past Em Kay, to ‘Portage Bay’. There was a ‘road’ from the end of Portage Bay to the dam site and all the material for construction was off loaded there then taken to the construction site.
In about 1956 a ‘trail’ was cut from Ear Falls to the ‘Chutes’ (where the Bailey bridge is now). This trail is still marked as a dotted line on some of the local maps. (1 – 50,000 scale). It generally follows the present day ‘Manitou Road’ but swings in by the Cedar Rapids then came out right above our cabin. In ‘56/’57 a ‘Bailey Bridge’ was built spanning the English River in order to access and deliver materials to the dam site. Thus ended an era – freight or people being transported either to Mattawa, Red Lake or the Manitou Falls dam construction site – done. Water transportation had come to an end.
As far as I can remember, I think Dad’s (Grandpa to most of you) first year at Em Kay was 1963 (Wes Fisher, Doc Holland, Swede Pearson and Dad). It was owned by a couple brothers (Rich and Dale Lotterer) Rich owned a hardware store in Creston so that was the connection as to how they got started going up there. At the time it was managed by Bert and Mabel Harford (Lloyds mom and dad) At the time, Lloyds folks didn’t want him to get too far out of sight when he took out the boat (he was probably 12 or 13) so they told him he could only go as far as the first point south of Em Kay (thus – Lloyds Hole).
The next year, Jack, my brother and 3 of his high school buddies came up to Ear Falls. Mabel picked them up in Ear Falls, they spent the first night on the floor in cabin 5 with dad and his cronies and the next day they got ferried to ‘Scout Island’ where they spent the next 5 days.
I’m rambling again. Dad and that group went to Em Kay until 1966. That year, the camp changed ownership to a guy named John Henry. Dad and his group didn’t see eye to eye with JH so the next year he went to ‘Portage Bay’ cause he really liked the area and the fishing so that was the first year I got to go along (the rest is history) just kidding.
So things kinda go along status quo for the next few years – good fishing, great scenery, ya know – life is good. Then in 1969, I’m talking to the dock boy at Portage Bay and he proceeds to tell me – he absolutely hates his job. So I says “what you gonna do?” He says – “I’m quitting – today” So I go to the owner and let her know I’m available (It was all I could do to not tell her I would work for nothing, although as it turned out, basically that is what happened). Anyway, dad was ecstatic, that meant he’d have to come back in Aug/Sept to pick me up (another fishing trip). Well, if your not a believer in Karma, let me lay this on you. When Mom & Dad came back in the fall of ’69 to pick me up we happened to go fishing at the Cedar falls. On the way back, Dad said “ Boy, that sure is a pretty cabin there by the bridge” He made the same comment once we got back to Portage Bay and the owner says “Well, You know it’s for sale” I thought Mom was going to jump out of her skin (I think the Grandpa Miller came out in her when a good deal was present) It was bought before we left for home and there was a lot of PO’d people in town cause they didn’t even know it was for sale.
The next few years I spent as much time as possible at the cabin but I did have to graduate, after all, and think about how I’m going to survive. So in the fall of 1972, after graduating in ’71, and trying various options of survival, I ended up back at the cabin in Canada. Turns out, John Henry, the owner of Em Kay, wants to sell. Well, I let him know that I am very interested in buying the camp, but there’s only one minor stumbling block – I Don’t Have Any Money! That didn’t seem to deter him too much so I think – maybe this is do-able after all. Long story short – I Bought the camp on contract, little bit down and $100 per month (P&I) – 7 % interest.
CAMP OWNERSHIP HISTORY FROM 1972…
To be continued………