Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts considering the intersection between environmental history and the histories of science, technology, and medicine. Previous posts can be found here.
Stephen Bocking’s blog post “Landscapes of Science,” published here some months ago, proposes areas for further research into the environmental history of science in Canada. These include science’s material culture and historical geography, and its relation to Indigenous knowledge. In this post, I suggest a site where these approaches could be usefully tested, and briefly sketch its history. It is a site that has previously escaped scholarly attention—Canada’s first freshwater research laboratory, the Go Home Bay Biological Station.
The station was established in 1901 by University of Toronto (UT) professors, who built it on the grounds of their private summer resort, the Madawaska Club. The club was founded in 1898, when UT professors, including biologist Ramsay Wright, had come together to alienate some 1,600 acres of rocky land and islands around Go Home Bay in Ontario’s Georgian Bay. The club’s charter restricted membership to UT members; it also specified that the club was “to conduct experimental work in Forestry, Biology and other branches of Natural Science.” By 1905, the station consisted of a laboratory building, boathouse, and house to accommodate workers and visiting researchers.
Originally a private laboratory, the Go Home Bay station was incorporated into Canada’s fledgling system of marine research stations, which Jennifer Hubbard describes in A Science on the Scales. Like marine biological stations, which were first established in Europe and the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, the Go Home Bay station enabled researchers to study aquatic organisms, and their environments and interactions, in place. Researchers were mostly men from UT, but did include some women and international scientists, such as Norwegian biologist G.O. Sars, who discovered that cod eggs drifted on oceanic currents. The federal fisheries department published a volume of station research in 1915, the year after the station closed. The papers examined Georgian Bay’s aquatic and botanical life, and included a systematic list of fish and more tightly focused studies of Go Home Bay’s insect populations.
When this rugged and wind-swept site was first occupied, members camped and ate communally. Over time, the club (which still exists) became an enclave of private cottages, and cottagers enjoyed community picnics, regattas, and church services through the summer months. That the biological station was embedded in a summer resort is not surprising. Both Phillip Pauly and Helen Rozwadowski have written about “resort science” in the United States. Marine research stations, located at genteel resorts, helped foster professional scientific communities that defined biology as a discipline—and who was qualified to practice it. Recreation, like work, is another mode through which one comes to know nature, a sort of field practice. And natural history practices, especially field collecting, blurred any sharp distinctions between science and recreation. Research stations allowed scientists to escape hot noisome cities in the summer, and pursue their work and leisure at once.
The Go Home Biological Station offers opportunities to connect science, recreation, place, and privilege in finer-grained detail. The station’s placement within the late nineteenth-century colonization of Georgian Bay as a settlers’ summer place (documented in Claire Campbell’s Shaped by the West Wind) bears closer examination, for example. Treaties in the 1850s dispossessed the Chippewa of large parts of Georgian Bay, leaving them with a patchwork of small reserves, including the “Christian Islands” near Midland. These islands now constitute the present-day Beausoleil First Nation.
As part of the Madawaska Club, the Go Home Bay station sat on land purchased from the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA). The department, ostensibly acting on behalf of the Chippewa people, surveyed, numbered, and auctioned off the Bay’s complex coastline and its thousands of islands, some barely large enough for a cottage. Yet as a club publication shows, the Chippewa continued to use Go Home Bay, as they had in the past, as a camp for seasonal blueberry picking. “The Indians,” a club book recounts, “…were in general very welcome with their baskets and mats as a picturesque and vivid reminder of a vanished era” (28). But club members eventually became annoyed with the Chippewa’s annual visits to their newly privatized property and asked the DIA to intervene. Duncan Campbell Scott, DIA’s deputy minister, complied and wrote the Christian Island band in 1915, demanding that its members stop visiting Go Home Bay. This act “settled” the problem in the cottagers’ favour.
Another question is how the station’s research may have shaped, or been shaped by, other aspects of this dispossession. A charter member, physicist W.J. Loudon, was a keen angler and had successfully petitioned the Canadian government in 1903 to fund the station. Loudon proposed that the station study one particular fish, the small-mouthed black bass (Micropterus dolomieu). A North American fish categorized by sportsmen as “game,” the bass loomed large in debates about freshwater fishing regulations in nineteenth-century Ontario. Although reserved in regulation for sportsmen, bass continued to be fished for commercial and subsistence purposes. As a famous “haunt” of the black bass, Georgian Bay was a locus for contests about this fish: anglers, including those from Go Home Bay, blamed unrestrained commercial and Native fisheries for declining fish. Commercial fishermen bit back, and accused sportsmen of leaving bass to rot on shorelines, stringers, and docks.
Following Loudon’s proposal, the Go Home Bay Biological Station experimented with bass fish-culture, using a pond on one cottager’s property. It is unclear how long the station pursued this work, but it provided material for W.J. Loudon’s 1910 book The small-mouthed bass. In it Loudon recounted the station’s fish-culture experiments alongside his fishing experiences at Go Home Bay. The book exemplifies the literary style of the “scientific angler,” which interweaves close observations of natural history with authorial accounts of angling skill and masculine stamina. In the book, Loudon also insisted on more stringent regulation of eastern Georgian Bay, including more fisheries inspectors. This he framed in the language of wise-use conservation: increased regulation would both conserve bass as a “profitable resource” and Go Home’s utility as a “breathing spot, where one may obtain fresh air during the hot summer months.”
Further research into the Go Home Bay Biological Station might illuminate the growing convergence between sport fisheries interests and science in the early twentieth century. One link exists in the person of B.A. Bensley, the station’s director for most of its existence, who went on to direct the Ontario Fisheries Research Laboratory at the University of Toronto. The laboratory expanded freshwater fisheries science in the province and, as Stephen Bocking has shown, established the grounds for closer collaboration between scientific researchers and government fisheries managers after the Second World War.
This project has lain dormant for some time, until Stephen’s post reminded me of Go Home Bay. Thinking about landscapes of science helps to ground accounts of scientific activity in specific locales, among specific communities, and with competing interests—reminding us that science takes place to happen.
My thanks to Anne Riitta Janhunen for sources on nineteenth-century land surrenders in Georgian Bay.
William Knight is curator of agriculture, food, and fisheries at the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation in Ottawa. He wrote his dissertation on the Canadian Fisheries Museum.
 The club originally planned to purchase property where the Madawaska River flowed into Rock Lake, which today lies within Algonquin Park. They were opposed by logging companies and turned to Georgian Bay. The club’s name thus retains a trace of their first plan. This quote, and others in this post, are from a privately printed book of 56 pages, The Madawaska Club: Go-Home Bay 1898-1923, 34.
 W.J. Loudon, The small-mouthed bass (Toronto: Hunter & Rose, 1910), 88.
Stephen Bocking. Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
Jennifer Hubbard. A Science on the Scales: The Rise of Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Biology, 1898-1939. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.
W.J. Loudon, The small-mouthed bass. Toronto: The Hunter-Rose Co., 1910.
Phillip J. Pauly. “Summer Resort and Scientific Discipline: Woods Hole and the Structure of American Biology, 1882-1925.” The American Development of Biology. Edited by Ronald Rainger, Keith Benson, Jane Maienschein. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.
Helen Rozwadowski. “Playing By—and On and Under—the Sea: The Importance of Play for Knowing the Ocean.” Knowing Global Environments: New Historical Perspectives on the Field Sciences. Edited by Jeremy Vetter. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011.
Latest posts by William Knight (see all)
- Exploring Fish Introductions using GIS - June 13, 2016
- A Landscape of Science: The Go Home Bay Biological Station - April 20, 2015
- The Dominion Fisheries Museum: modeling fish and fisheries 1884-1918 - March 17, 2013