In the Beginning

Capreol famously celebrated its centennial just two summers back, in 2018. A great time was had by all. But if you think our little railroad town only got its start one-hundred years prior to that memorable event…you’re sadly mistaken. A bit of cursory online research reveals that there was a community called Capreol in this area as early as 1908 (though, to be fair this reference cannot be substantiated).

Further questionable resources claim that a government funded line connected Montreal–Ottawa–Capreol–Port Arthur as early as 1911. Sudbury’s newspaper, a much more trustworthy record, has several mention of tracks being laid between Capreol and Parry Sound as well as between Capreol and Ottawa in 1914—lending some doubt to the suspiciously early claim promoted online.

CNR Yards, Capreol ON, circa 1940?

Given the town’s longstanding association with Canadian National Railway it’s an understandable assumption to think these were CNR tracks. But, of course, they weren’t. The Canadian National didn’t exist then. No, it was the CNoR, Canadian Northern Railway, that first built tracks to Capreol…only they weren’t going to Capreol at all.

The Sudbury Star, March 28, 1914

Sellwood and Milnet, both now ghost towns (the former private property), were each much bigger and more important than Capreol at the time. Our community had one thing going for it however—location. Though Capreol wasn’t the railroad’s goal it became an important stop on the way to several others. Ruel and Milnet produced lumber, Sellwood housed an iron-ore mine—all resources badly needed by a nation at war—and then there were the cities: Sudbury with its nickel mines, North Bay itself home to mining and lumber and three separate railways, Winnipeg to the west and the prairie breadbasket, not to mention the more politically important population hubs of Toronto, and Ottawa. All joined by one rail line…the one passing through Capreol.

Same-day passenger service connected the city of Sudbury and points North, Sellwood and Ruel (the end of the Northward line at the time of the following advert), on Mondays and Thursday. Sudbury to North Bay travel occurred on Tuesdays and Fridays. And the Southbound train left Sudbury for Toronto every day except Sunday.

Capreol was a happening place in 1914 as the above advertisement, and the dozens of other ‘Change of Service’ updates that appeared regularly in the paper, can attest. Unfortunately for those seeking to discover the town’s origin things go back even further.

While every schoolchild knows from whom Capreol got its name, few know the roundabout way the moniker came about. Though Frederick Chase Capreol gets the credit for our town’s label the fledgling community was, in fact, named after the unincorporated Township of Capreol, surveyed by Ontario Land Surveyor James Stewart Laird in 1893. That much larger but less prestigious landmass is where Frederick “Madcap” Capreol was first honoured. The man himself was long dead by that time but his legend and devotion to the railroad and improving his adopted homeland lingered long after his burial. (Self-styled ‘a roebuck’, Capreol railed against much of society’s stodgier confines and earned himself a not-always flattering reputation. But that is, as they say, a story for another day.)

It was on April 1, 1918 that the town was officially incorporated. Though only a “lower tier municipality” it had a council (mayor and councillors) and myriad diverse responsibilities. In 1955 the Township of Capreol incorporated and over the next few years annexed several Lots (#9, 10, and 11). Sometime between 1918 and 1955 the community acquired a Coat of Arms. We can only assume it was taken (in part) from the Capreol family since, if you look carefully at the image below, you’ll note a ship on the upper-left corner of the shield…perhaps denoting their ocean-travel or even an aspect of their history (many English families have ties to the sea). An alternate theory is that it references the largest lake in our area, Wahnipatae, and the fishing industry many hoped to launch upon its waters.

Little about the shield makes sense—the sheaf of wheat is bizarre given our area never produced much of that staple (potatoes were much more common). Perhaps the design was more aspirational than factual. Or maybe the early homesteaders took a page out of viking Erik the Red’s book and, as he named the barren island he discovered “Greenland” even though it was barren snow-covered tundra, purposefully misled prospective settlers by showing them what they wanted to see—an easy ocean voyage, with fertile land waiting, and large yields of a profitable and familiar crop. The answer will require more research.

The town had its borders changed in 1973 when Sellwood and Milnet were added. Capreol, the municipality, also joined the then-newly created Regional Municipality of Sudbury. 2001 brought more change but the less said about “amalgamation” the better.

Prior to settling on the name “Capreol”, and that decision had to have taken place before 1914, there were other monikers used, albeit briefly, to identify our town. The most interesting of which was “Orefield”.

Rumour has it a gold prospector played a little trick on a one of his fellows and “salted” a stretch of the Vermillion River. “Salting” meant adding gold, or “colour”, to a piece of land to make it look more productive and thus more profitable. Unscrupulous men would sometimes do this to increase the value of land they owned prior to offloading it to a mining company. The unsuspecting prospector, assuming he’d lucked into the motherlode, boasted of the “field of ore” he’d found only to be told the truth by his contemporary…much to his disappointment.

The reason why our town thrived while its larger neighbours faded into history is best left for another day. Just know that, for a time, Northern Ontario represented the frontier of the province. So much so that the entire region was longingly called “New Ontario”. Our area held the promise of citizenship and prosperity for all those hardy enough to call her home.

Posted on: August 29, 2020, by :