Saturday, May 21, 2016

John Muir in Trout Hollow

For nearly two years from April 1864 to March 1866, John Muir, the great American conservationist, lived outside Meaford, working at the Trout Hollow sawmill, about 25 minutes north of here.  Today I attended both a lecture and then a hike that helped me learn the details of his time here, and the location of the cabin where he lived, with other sawmill workers.  It's a fascinating story.

This is a picture our trusty leader had along to share with us; it's a relatively young Muir.  He was 22 when he left Wisconsin, heading to Bradford, Ontario where the family had connections to a Disciples of Christ church, and where his brother had preceded him the year before.  John Muir is known as perhaps the greatest and most influential conservationist, the 'Father of National Parks', for which he campaigned endlessly once he ended up in California.  He was especially entranced by, lived in, and always loved, Yosemite.

We headed in to the Bighead River along the Trout Hollow Trail, a group of about 15.

 It was a beautiful late May day.  I expected black flies and mosquitoes but didn't notice any.

Our leader, and morning lecturer, Robert Burcher, had a map along that showed the original locations of the river, the sawmill, and the cabin for the workers.  Fifteen years ago it was found in the bottom of a drawer, confirming what archeological work on the site of the cabin had shown.

The site of the cabin and mill overlaps with the site of a later hydro dam, quite a large one for the time, built in 1904.  It was washed out by a storm in 1923, after only 20 years of use.  We came out to the river across from one of the big concrete abutments.

The dip in the horizon on the left of this picture is where the hydro flume went, beyond the other big concrete abutment.  The trail heads around the river, and at the right hand side of the picture, comes to ....

Trout Hollow.  The sawmill would have been just to the right of centre, where some deciduous trees show up against the sky.  The cabin was among the trees by the river at that point.

The Serviceberries were in bloom in the open gravelly floodplain of the river.  It's all heavily disturbed; this is after all an old industrial site.

Beyond the old hydro dam we came to Trout Hollow.  The old map that dates from those years (the mill burned down in 1866, which resulted in Muir returning to the U.S.) shows both the mill and two cabins.  The cabin Muir lived in was the upper right of the three black rectangles.  A sketch of the cabin, a simple rectangular log cabin, does exist, drawn by Muir.  Letters, written by Muir back to the family he worked for here, also exist and have been published.

And this is the actual cabin site.  A short but careful archeological dig here found traces of the old chimney in the centre of the cabin.  We're standing about where the walls would have been.  Muir was not just a labourer at the mill, but sort of an amateur engineer.  His role appears to have been to improve the machinery and the manufacturing process (they made rake and other tool handles), and thereby he increased production significantly.

And twenty or thirty feet away, archeological work was also done to uncover some shards of what was probably garbage,  As well, the outhouse stood here (and was probably used for some garbage disposal.

One of the pottery shards found, from a broken bowl or plate.  Muir's time in Ontario has largely been ignored in the published literature by him and about him, naturally enough, since he built his later reputation so much in California.  But a more recent book by D. Worster, the historian, titled A Passion for Nature, does include a chapter on this episode of Muir's life, and has increased interest here by American Muir aficionados.

The cabin site is in the trees now, 150 years later, but would have been quite open when Muir was there.  This is the view across the river he would have had from the front of the cabin.

Among other things, Muir wrote about this place "We live in a retired and romantic hollow.  Our tall, tall, forest trees are now alive ....Freshness and beauty are very where - flowers are born every hour - living sunlight is poured over all, and every thing and creature is glad - our world is indeed a beautiful one."  Quoted from the Trout Hollow Trail Guide.

It's hard to believe today that we are standing in an old industrial site, with a sawmill 150 years ago, and a hydro plant 100 years ago.  Here we're all standing on the location of the old hydro flume, a 36" wooden pipe carrying the water from left to right here, to the power house.

The final interesting element of the story is Muir's plant collecting.  Muir disappeared for months at a time, tramping around southern Ontario, botanizing and collecting plant specimens which he sent off to various universities in the U.S.  He had been a student at Wisconsin.  This one is the Walking Fern, one of the rare and interesting ferns along the Niagara Escarpment here.  Plant specimens usually have the date and location noted on them.  An enterprising historian has now collected and published pictures of many of Muir's collected specimens (like this one), enabling us to start establishing approximately where he wandered during his botanizing.  This particular specimen was collected in the Owen Sound area.

As a former Professor of Environmental Sciences, I'm obviously interested in Muir and his message. After today, I now have some research to do, and a book or two to read.  I think I will be putting together some more detail on the story of Muir's time here, get some more pictures to illustrate it, and share it all with you at some point in the future.


It seemed particularly fitting to me to learn about all this today, while enjoying a great hike, because my image of Muir is that he was a great adventurer, not afraid to head out on his own.  Tomorrow is the anniversary of our own son William's death, and he too was an adventurer.  Perhaps not as eloquent a writer as Muir, but he too loved the mountains, and headed out west to make his life, finding his dream as a water bomber pilot.  I think of him every time I go out on the little adventures I write about here.


  1. It seems impossible that it's already been a year. What a great way to commemorate that day with a fabulous story about Muir, another adventurer. Thank you so much for sharing all of this story. :-)

  2. One year on, I'm sure some of William's fellow water bomber pilots have been over Fort McMurray. John, in one generation and William in another, true adventurers. John Muir's words are a delight to read, save and print , to read over and over again, I can see he delighted in nature, trees, plants and leaves and so much more.What a great day out for your group.

  3. Sounds like a great tour! I read one of Muir's books many years ago and it influenced me.

  4. Such a great day to be outdoors and learn about an interesting man. Nature has reclaimed everything already. She does prevail.

    Thinking about you and your family on this anniversary...

  5. I had no idea Muir lived in Ontario for awhile. Great post and interesting historical hike.

  6. A sad memory - but a great way to celebrate your son's life - spending time in nature. The story of Muir is quite interesting and I had never heard it before - what a great walk that must have been, and seeing the location of his cabin.

  7. Hello, what a great tour and post. Muir was a great man and conservationist. I think this was a great way to celebrate your son's life. Thanks for sharing, enjoy your day!

  8. That is a good way to mark a difficult anniversary for you.

    Muir was a wise and good man. I wonder what he would think of how the area looks now.

  9. Interesting story. As you noted, down here we seldom hear about Muir's time in Ontario.

    I'm sure today will be a hard day for you. Our son-in-law died 16 years ago at age 35; the memories always bring both joy and sorrow.

  10. I just found a copy of John Muir's book "My First Summer in the Sierra" at a local book store. I found some really interesting pottery shards at an old logging camp that used to be on the shore of Powell Lake. You can only access it at very low water level since it was in operation before the dam was built in the early 1900s. Most of the pieces were Japanese in origin since they made up a bulk of the work crews at the time. - Margy