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James Dickson Founds Algonquin Park

February 5, 2022

In the late nineteenth century, most Canadians were farmers and there was an expectation that practically all land would ultimately become farmland. The conversion to farmland happened quickly in much of southern Ontario, but stalled on the fringe of the Canadian Shield. Ontario was not dissuaded, and created Colonization Roads to open up the region for agriculture. It laid out townships well into northern Ontario, far beyond what had any hope of becoming family farms.

James Dickson of Fenelon Falls was one of the surveyors hired to lay out the Nipissing District. He also served as the village’s reeve and was an articulate gentleman, who also happened to be really interested in outdoor recreation. While he was slogging his way through the bush, trying to lay out straight lines through the forests of Algonquin Park, it was immediately evident to him that the region could never support farm families, but was a place he would love to go hunting and fishing.

Dickson wrote a book, Camping in the Muskoka Region, that explained how wonderful the region was for outdoor recreation. Other advocates pushed the Ontario government to set aside land for conservation. When the Royal Commission on Game and Fish found that Ontario’s fish and wildlife were in imminent peril, Ontario scrambled to create a provincial game park. Perceiving that, just because a lot of people would enjoy a park, was not a justification that would fly in provincial politics, the cause was buttressed by the claim that it was necessary to set aside the forests at the headwaters of Ontario’s major rivers so that they could be maintained for commercial navigation.

The idea of creating a public nature park was not entirely new, Yellowstone had opened in 1872 and Banff (being Canada’s National Park) fifteen years later. The Commissioner of Crown Lands then wrote to Dickson for his opinion, who was of course enthusiastic. Dickson was given a seat on the committee that oversaw the park’s founding.

Given the chance to help create the Ontario’s Provincial Park, James Dickson had many ideas of how to make it succeed. He proposed a guide book, maps and marked trails. He suggested banning hunting in the park, reducing the wolf population to increase the number of deer, and stocking animals such as beavers. His ideas laid out what Algonquin Park would be when it opened in 1893.

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