The Contrarian: Last Spike At Feist Lake

A railway track is held in place by spikes – large, square nails with a large head that overlaps the rail flange so the rail can expand and contract but not be displaced sideways. 

There are lots of spikes, and in pioneer times they were driven in one at a time like putting nails in the floor, but with a big heavy hammer, lots of hand labour. The spikes are the last stage in constructing a new rail line so driving the Last Spike is symbolic of completing the railway, done in a ceremony usually involving the owners and the government.  The Last Spike ceremony celebrating the completion of the CPR transcontinental line took place at Rogers pass in BC on November 7, 1885. 

The section of the CPR between Montreal and Winnipeg was completed when crews working from the east and west met at Feist Lake, near the proposed whistle stop of Parrywood, between Vermilion Bay and Kenora.  There was no ceremony with high level dignitaries present, but they had a bit of a ceremony locally, with Jennie Fowler driving the ceremonial ‘Last Spike’ on June 19, 1882.  The General Contractor was a family named Fowler; a son was superintending the work, and his sister Jennie was visiting at the time.

About 110 years later, Dryden was approached by the Ontario Heritage Foundation.   Apparently some rising star among the powers-that-be had noticed that hey, the Last Spike east of Winnipeg ought to also have been recognized as an important milestone in CPR history.  They had decided that as there is no road anywhere near Feist Lake, they should hold a belated ‘Last Spike ceremony’ in Dryden, with appropriate dignitaries unveiling a commemorative plaque, to be transported to Feist Lake afterward.  They wanted us to set it up for them, and we said ‘OK’, privately wondering why Dryden and not Kenora or Vermilion Bay.

So we set up a bit of railway track in the Fair Grounds, now Dingwall Ford parking lot, with a bit of a grandstand and some decoration.  Some city types came and conducted a ceremony and a relative of Jennie Fowler drove a spike; a plaque was unveiled with some speeches, we all had cookies and lemonade, and that was that.  There is no road anywhere near Feist Lake nor any community at Parrywood, a ghost town which never was, so the plaque was installed at the roadside park at Little Joe Lake on highway 17, half way from Vermilion Bay to Kenora. 

Since then the family of Jennie Fowler became aware of the ‘Last Spike at Feist Lake’ plaque, and upon their initiative another plaque explaining that the Last Spike was actually driven by Jennie was added to the roadside park along highway 17, adding to its significance as a turning point in our history.

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