Molly Cox Colson
Another anchor for the Canoe Lake community for most of the first half of the 20th century was Molly Cox Colson. She first came to Algonquin Park in May 1900 to visit with her good friends Dr. and Mrs. William Bell at Cache Lake. Dr. Bell had just joined the Algonquin Park ranger staff and was in the process of drafting the first Algonquin Park canoe route map. Molly was a nurse from Ottawa and her doctors said she needed a well-deserved rest. She liked the Park enough that she decided to stay on. Her first job was as the housekeeper at the Park rangers' boarding house at Cache Lake and later she managed a tent city, which housed overflow Highland Inn guests. With a strong personality, Molly soon had everyone under her thumb. As the superintendent of the Park at the time said,
"The rangers had never been so well looked after as they were under Miss Cox's direction."
Molly was a wonderful healer and became the local mid-wife, prenatal counselor, setter of broken bones and even pulled teeth upon occasion. As there wasn't a doctor anywhere around the local area, she would always make house calls when anyone was sick, even in the winter. She gained local fame when she walked more than a mile from the Algonquin Hotel on Joe Lake to the Farley house on Potter Creek using two canes. There she promptly delivered one of the Farley daughters, who arrived prematurely. In another incident, a man at a local lumbering camp had fractured his leg and needed a splint before he could be moved. Molly set the bone and bound the leg using a splint that Ed made out of a piece of board. He was eventually taken off to the doctor at Whitney who said later that he hadn't needed to reset the leg at all. It had been set perfectly.
In 1907, she married Ed Colson who had joined the park ranger staff in 1905. And together they took over the management of the Highland Inn on Cache Lake in 1908. In 1917 they decided to buy the Algonquin Hotel at Joe Lake Station. The Algonquin Hotel was considered by most to be a bit more rustic than the Highland Inn and was a favourite place to launch fishing trips into the interior of the Park.
Molly Colson's reputation as a lifesaver took on a new aura in the spring of 1918. The ice had gone out early and two of the local handymen and part time guides, George Rowe and Lawrie Dickson were paddling up Joe Creek on a stormy April night. According to Mark Robinson there was 'heavy rain and storm with a high wind from the south'. The canoe hit a deadhead and dumped. Lawrie landed on a stump that had a sharp point on it that pierced his lung. George clung to another and started shouting. The Colsons were a good half-mile away upstream up at the Algonquin Hotel. Whether or not it was intuition, good hearing or just plain luck, Molly was convinced that she had heard someone yelling and cajoled Ed to go out into the storm and investigate. He reached the struggling men just in time and took them both back to the hotel. George recovered but after resting for several days at the hotel Lawrie was rushed down to Toronto General Hospital where he died on May 4, 1918. George was so grateful to Molly for saving his life that he wanted her to have 'power of attorney' over his affairs, so that he couldn't draw any money from his war pension without her signature. He later signed on as a guide at the hotel, leased a cabin near Joe Lake Dam and allegedly never drank again.
In 1935, in anticipation of the completion of Highway 60 through the Park, Molly realized that the days of the railway as the main access point were numbered and that there would likely be demand for services closer to the highway. She applied for a 'license of occupation' to operate a canoe livery and store on a five-acre parcel of land at the south end of Canoe Lake in what was then called Portage Bay. It was given this name due to its easy access to the portage that led to Smoke Lake to the south. It took awhile to sort out the specific dimensions of the parcel and it's use, so that business that first year was likely conducted from a tent. Eventually the license was granted and a small log cabin on stilts was built in late 1937 or early 1938. The Portage Store came into being.
The two continued to run both the Algonquin Hotel and the Portage Store until 1943, when they sold the hotel to George Merrydew, owner of a tavern in Toronto and settled in an empty Omanique Lumber Company office near the northwest side of the trestle bridge at Potter Creek Bridge. In 1945 she took ill and died peacefully in her bed. As a tribute to her, the Canoe Lake and District Leaseholders Association placed a memorial brass plaque on the big island in Smoke Lake, which was her favourite picnicking and camping spot. From then on it became known as Molly's Island. Over 100 people came to pay their respects in July 1946 at the unveiling. Molly had been a major anchor of the local Algonquin Park community for nearly 50 years. The plaque contained the following inscription:
"Her spirit was one with the lakes and forests she loved – her heart and hands, ever at the service of those who called to her." Canoe Lake resident 1900 – 1945
For more details on the life of Molly and other Canoe Lake women, check out Algonquin Voices: Selected Stories of Canoe Lake Women.
1 The Algonquin Story pg. 125
2Mark Robinson Diaries April 1918