Seeley’s Bay owes its existence directly to the construction of the Rideau Canal. The dams at Upper Brewers and Whitefish Falls flooded the 18 mile cranberry marsh as well as a ‘ravine’ on land owned by the Seeley family, thus creating a bay that lay within sight of the main road to Kingston. This road was little more than a track, suitable for sleighs in the winter, but often impassable for wheeled vehicles during the rest of the year. The Canal afforded a more convenient means of travel for personal reasons or for trade by canoe or boat. The proximity of these two essential means of transportation encouraged the beginning at a settlement. Where the concession road met the bay was the site of the first business, an ‘ashery’; the steamboat wharf was built there with the brickworks and mills situated nearby.
By 1841 there were six houses and a school along the road near the bay. However steamboat captains would not enter the bay because of sunken logs and stumps, preferring instead to dock at Haskin’s Point where they discharged cargo and took on fuel wood. Early steamboats on the Canal burned wood, a bulky fuel which took up valuable cargo space. Peter Sweeney, the lockmaster at Jones Falls, arranged for fuel wood to be stockpiled at accessible locations along the Canal route. The surrounding countryside was still being cleared and forest products – timber, cordwood and potash, were an important source of cash for local settlers.
By the late 1850s the village had begun to take shape. George Morton had cleared the obstacles in the bay so that steamboats could bring barges to be moored right at his new ashery located near where the public dock is today. The Kingston and Philipsville Road Company had built a new section of road which became the main street; the town plan had been surveyed and a post office established.
An 1864 trade directory estimated the population at 150 with regular mail service and a range of the trades which one would expect in a village of that size – blacksmiths, carpenters, general merchants, a hotelkeeper, a brick maker, a doctor and two lumber merchants, William Bracken and John Chapman (two family names still present in Seeley’s Bay to this day).
These two men bought logs and cordwood; the logs were squared and made into rafts on the ice of the bay in preparation for the opening of canal traffic in the spring. William Campbell who grew up near the village during this period recalled that the shores of the bay were piled high with cordwood waiting to be loaded on barges.
A Reputation for Rowdiness
Seeley’s Bay during this period was still a frontier village frequented by lumbermen, farmers and canal men. The National Hotel, a small country inn owned by William Coleman, was the only officially licensed outlet for liquor, but illicit alcohol was readily available elsewhere in the village. Seeley’s Bay’s reputation for rowdiness and drunkenness was lamented by the young Methodist missionaries from Kingston who laboured to establish a congregation in the village. They did achieve some success and a brick church was built on the hill south of the village. But the Devil must have had a hand in the workmanship; within a few years the building developed structural problems and eventually fell down.
Dairies, Mills and Hats
The importance of farming to the village must be mentioned here. In the 1860s there were upwards of thirty farms within a mile of the village. One of the earliest and most successful dairy farmers was John Chapman whose stone house still stands at the north end of the village. In 1871 his farm produced 800 pounds of butter and 300 pounds of cheese. The introduction of the factory system of cheese making and the rise of dairy farming displaced lumbering as the major source of income; prosperity brought new businesses to the village.
In 1870 Delorma Philips built a steam powered sawmill which drew other tradesmen to the village – carpenters, a cooper, a pump maker and a shingle maker. When Philips’ mill was destroyed by fire, David Collinson built a new mill that continued in operation under a succession of owners for ninety years. Fire destroyed this mill in the 1960s but the old mill office, located directly opposite the public dock, still stands and is now a private residence.
One of the earliest and most enduring businesses was that of milliner; Miss E. Herron first appeared in 1864 to be succeeded over the next three decades by Miss Anglin, Miss Innes, Miss Huffman and Miss Williams – a testament to a certain level of social evolution in that the ladies must have their hats.
Miss Anglin later married W. W. Williams the school teacher; together this couple operated a general store and telegraph office in the village for two decades. Williams was instrumental in having a new school built in 1876 and he led the committee that built the Methodist church the following year.
The first cheese factory was built by Robert Gardiner south of the village; it was succeeded by the Gilt Edge Cheese Factory which operated on the main street until the 1960s.
Although the Canal was built for military reasons and used for commercial traffic, for those who lived close to its shores it was also a venue for recreational activities; fishing, boating and swimming in the summer months, skating, hockey and horse racing on the ice in the winter. These simple pass-times were viewed with envy by urban dwellers as the appeal of the lakes and their sylvan shores spread beyond the local communities.
By the 1870s steamboats were bringing families to spend summers at rustic camps along the Canal. Village merchants and local farmers happily catered to their needs providing fresh produce and other staples. Of course, not everyone could afford to own a camp on the Canal and enterprising locals provided an alternative. In 1884 there were three hotels in Seeley’s Bay to serve the growing tourist trade. The advent of the automobile made the summer vacation a fixture of social life. After a disastrous fire in 1908 the Metcalf family built a new hotel on the main street which catered to the growing numbers of Americans who came to the area to fish and enjoy the unspoiled beauty of the lakes.
In 1925 Bob Coleman bought the McKinley family store and remodeled it into a hotel with the addition of four tourist cabins. Over the years many resorts have served the vacationing public – Dean’s Rideauview Cabins, the Maple Lodge, Terry’s Terrace, Rideau Breeze and Sunny Acres.
Seeley’s Bay Today
The Rideau Canal is now recognized as an engineering marvel, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, and the residents of the Seeley’s Bay area are very proud to help preserve this unique heritage. Dairy farms still thrive in the area, although modern dairy management is very different than in the early days. Some villagers still commute to Kingston and nearby towns for work; others operate home-based business, although sadly no millinery is in operation today. Above all, tourists are still welcomed year after year, and the fishing is still fine.