Definitive book on Michael’s Bay hits the shelves

TORONTO—It was a journey that took up the better part of two years, but librarian Derek Russell’s definitive book on Manitoulin’s first major economic centre is now available. ‘Michael’s Bay: The Rise and Fall of Manitoulin Island’s Forgotten Town’ has arrived in The Expositor bookstore in Little Current, and for those interested in learning about the important role that community played in the development and settlement of the Island we know today, it will prove to be an invaluable resource.

“It was a bigger job than I thought it would be,” said Mr. Russell. No stranger to the art and science of authorship, he has published a number of tomes before, including a two volume history of Tehkummah and a very well-researched book on the Little Current Swing Bridge, Mr. Russell discovered a wealth of information that he admits he “didn’t know before.”

Mr. Russell’s accomplishment is even more amazing when one considers that he penned the 222-page book while holding down a fulltime job as a librarian at the august Great Library of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Although his experience as an archivist played a major role in his ability to research and organize the information contained within those pages. “It is something I do on a daily basis,” he said of research.

‘Michael’s Bay: The Rise and Fall of Manitoulin Island’s Forgotten Town’ chronicles a community that essentially vanished nearly a century past and winnowing the apocryphal from fact proved no easy challenge, even for someone of Mr. Russell’s sleuthing skills. Recording the history of the community was not the first priority of those who came to seek out a livelihood at the mouth of the Manitou River. As Mr. Russell notes in his preface “even the memories of it have been taken to the grave.”

Mr. Russell, whose antecedents on both sides had settled on Manitoulin Island in the 1870s (all 16 of his great great grandparents in fact, with four settling in Tehkummah), grew up listening to stories of Michael’s Bay. By the time Mr. Russell came into the picture in his youth, however, Michael’s Bay had taken on the skeletal demeanor familiar to a visitor today. “Its past was mysterious and always featured prominently in my imagination,” he said.

The book begins, appropriately, at the beginning, or at least close to it, harkening back to the heady days of 1884 and a reference to Robert Adam Lyon, the protagonist who features large throughout the book and serves as a binding agent for much of the narrative. As Mr. Russell puts it in his preface, “first and foremost, however, it is the story of one man who not only built the mill on the Manitou River but the town itself, a town that once bustled and hummed with activity, powered by not only the roar of the falls, but a Lyon.”

Mr. Russell’s writing style is easy on the eyes and mind, flowing smoothly despite the dry potential of its timber, as he lays out the machinations of the 19th century Canadian politics of lumber, for which Mr. Lyon is anything but apologetic.

For those whose Manitoulin roots stretch back to the beginning of settlement in the area, ‘Michael’s Bay: The Rise and Fall of Manitoulin Island’s Forgotten Town’ can be an invaluable resource, listing as it does (to the best of archival authority) those who settled, boarded, lived and died during the town’s 50 years of existence.

“I tried to verify all of the information in the book to the best of my ability,” noted Mr. Russell, who cited the public archives and the Little Current Public Library as “probably some of the best sources,” but that proved problematic. “The biggest obstacle was that when I was researching an event, there was more than one date given in different sources.” Births, deaths, even tombstones have proven to be inaccurate in their turn. “So many of them were put in place long after the fact,” he said. “Whenever I was in doubt, I put in a footnote.”

‘Michael’s Bay: The Rise and Fall of Manitoulin Island’s Forgotten Town’ is available in The Expositor bookstore and retails for $40 plus HST.