January 8, 2023
Founder of Sturgeon Point, Convicted Gangster, Transportation Pioneer, Street Brawler and Long-Standing Lindsay Councillor
George Crandell was born in Borelia, near Port Perry in 1828. His family were the first deeded settlers there and also members of the Markham Gang, a society of thieves who had agreed to be mutual alibis. Though the gangsters were initially contented just to rob their neighbours, their crimes escalated to grisly murders. In once case, the weapon was a hammer. Though they got away with their escapades for a while, it became noticeable that the same group of people were either the suspects or alibis in a rash of crimes.
Four gang members were executed, but the Crandells escaped with lighter punishment. In 1845, George’s father, Reuben and his brothers Stephen Elmore and Benjamin, were all acquitted of a murder committed fourteen years earlier, because of a lack of evidence, though Stephen was in possession of the deceased’s clothing. His sisters Lucy Anne and Eleanor also narrowly evaded larceny charges. Seventeen-year-old George was caught red handed stealing his neighbour’s gun, and sentenced to five years of hard labour in the Kingston Penitentiary. His brother Benjamin joined him on similar charges.
Penitentiaries, as the name implied, were places where the convicts were expected to pay penance for their sins and come to God through years of hard, physical labour. For any teenager, it certainly would have been a life changing experience. Incarceration certainly did not soften George at all, but when he was released in 1850, he set out in a new direction from the life of crime that he had known as a child.
He returned to Borelia and approached Hugh Chisholm for work. Chisholm had recently been commissioned by Whitby merchants Rowe & Cotton to build the first steamer on Lake Scugog, the Woodman. Making its maiden voyage on April 25, 1851, the Woodman lasted only three years before catching fire and was badly damaged. At that point Rowe & Cotton gave up on the venture and sold the ship to George Crandell, who recognized the opportunity that presented itself.
In the 1850s, the forest industries in the Trent Valley were rapidly expanding. Just as he was purchasing the burnt out steamer, Canada was signing a reciprocity treaty with the United States, which made the export of lumber practical by vastly reducing tariffs. Previously, the square timber trade to Britain had dominated local exports, but the difficulties of moving timbers from the upper Trent Watershed to Britain using wind and muscle power severely limited what could be profitably sold.
Once Crandell had fixed the Woodman, it was hard at work, true to its name, towing timber on Scugog and Sturgeon Lakes to Port Perry, which then was the most convenient route to reach Lake Ontario from the Upper Trent Valley. From the beginning, Crandell also carried some passengers, and gradually expanded his business. He admired Cornelius “the Commodore” Vanderbilt, who was by then likely the richest man in the world. From New York, Vanderbilt had risen through inland shipping, then invested in railways. He was a polarizing figure, “often hated or feared,” called “an unmannered brute,” who could be “a rascal, combative and cunning.” George would not find any of that off-putting.
Like his hero, Crandell would expand his line, launching the Lady Ida in 1861, then six years later the Commodore announced that like Vanderbilt, he too commanded a fleet. He added the Champion two years later. Even as the western world was entering a great depression in 1873, Crandell christened the Vanderbilt, the largest and most comfortable passenger ship in the area, running regular service on Scugog and Sturgeon Lakes. He had become the most successful steamship operator in the region.
Owning a fleet of ships made it possible to offer passenger service that co-ordinated with the rapidly expanding rail networks to make recreational travel practical. He recognized the natural beauty of Sturgeon Point, and opened the luxurious, three-storey Sturgeon Point Hotel three years later. It soon boasted a dance hall, bowling alley, shuffleboard courts and bath houses. He operated another hotel in Fenelon Falls, until the Great Fire of April 21, 1884 started in its kitchen.
Crandell did not dabble in the hotel business long, selling the Sturgeon Point Hotel to E.H. Dunham of Cobourg in 1883. But he recognized the potential of Sturgeon Point for cottaging, subdividing the property he retained into building lots. By taking a trip on one of his steamers, prosperous Lindsay business owners could enjoy summers on Sturgeon Lake, without neglecting their enterprise. With transportation companies promoting the regatta, it soon became an annual event that attracted thousands of guests from near and far. Since there were no other rapid long-distance transportation networks serving Sturgeon Point, other than his hated rival, the Trent Valley Navigation Company in subsequent years. So, initially at least, practically all would have a buy a ticket on one of his steamers. Before long, Sturgeon Point had become a much loved cottage community.
The Commodore returned his focus to his steamship line, launching the Stranger in1880, then bought the Eva from Bobcaygeon’s Elijah Bottum in 1885 to cover for the Vanderbilt, which had burned four years earlier. But a steamship excursion was the pinnacle of conspicuous Victorian consumption (at least locally) and with the hulk of his finest ship resting in the mud of the Scugog River, Crandell no longer had the finest ship on Sturgeon Lake. The Trent Valley Navigation Company’s Esturion boasted black ash and bird’s eye maple woodwork, with red plush upholstery. Owned by the rival Boyd family, it was little surprise that in 1891 he launched the Crandella.
The Crandella could carry 450 passengers, running a regular schedule between Bobcaygeon, Lindsay and Sturgeon Point and also carried excursions—competing directly with the Esturion. Excursions were much more economical than regular steamship travel. Often communities would join together to travel to a different local destination, and these trips could be a fundraiser if they sold enough tickets. Unfortunately, its steam engine showered the deck with sparks, which led to many complaints because fashionable Victorian ladies would wear elegant gowns, hats and umbrellas when travelling on a steamer. Before long the ship had a roof over the upper deck. Crandell retired at the end of the 1901, fifty years after the Woodman was launched at Port Perry, and died three years later.
To the end, he was remembered as one of the feistiest characters on the back lakes. In 1876, he punched out the Lindsay lockmaster, Robert Douglas, who refused to put his boat through after the locks had closed and he had gone to bed. Crandell feuded with the Boyd family, and boiled over when their log drives blocked navigation in the Fenelon River. Throughout his life, Crandell would not back down from any adversary. As a 56-year-old, he singlehandedly took on a group of roughs on the streets of Lindsay, including the notorious outlaw Paddy Bain. Though he had his skull fractured and ribs broken, Crandell lived to tell the tale, being as strong willed as ever. He may not have won the fight, but there was no doubting he had guts.
The no-nonsense George Crandell, having been raised in the Markham gang, reinvented himself emulating Cornelius Vanderbilt. Like his hero, he was feared and often despised. Many members of the local elite were put off by his combative nature and brutish manners. But at the same time it was hard not to respect George Crandell, he could be quite blunt and was undeniably clever. Despite (or perhaps because of) all of the transgressions he committed relating to genteel Victorian propriety, he was one of the leading figures of late nineteenth century Lindsay. Beginning in 1866, George Crandell served on Town Council for 32 of 33 years. As in all his pursuits, no one on Council would ever forget the unique experience of working with Lindsay’s Commodore.