A Viceregal Kettle Of Fish

March 1, 1999 by James M. Whalen

Tourists visiting the New Richmond area in Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula may come upon Stanley House, a spacious summer residence nestled among the trees just west of the village. Located near the mouth of the Grande-Cascapédia–a premier salmon fishing river renowned for its annual run of large fish–Stanley House is a reminder of a time over a century ago when successive governors general enjoyed free fishing privileges in the river’s famous pools.

In 1879, the Canadian government granted the fishing rights to His Excellency, the Marquess of Lorne–the Duke of Argyll–who occupied the viceregal position from 1878 to 1883. According to Stewart McNutt, one of Lord Lorne’s biographers, “his patronage and that of his successors, established the reputation of the stream as queen of all Canadian salmon fisheries with the record for the heaviest weight of fish.”

When there was no summer session of Parliament, and their excellencies were not on tour, they often left their comfortable surroundings at Rideau Hall–the viceregal residence at Ottawa–to relax and escape the hot summer. Leaving Ottawa about mid-June, they usually spent part of the time at the governor general’s residence in Quebec City, but continued on to the Grande-Cascapédia for a few weeks of salmon fishing.

Sport fishing, especially angling for salmon, had long been a tradition among the British aristocracy and certain stretches of water in Great Britain were set aside exclusively for the use of some aristocrats. In the Gaspé Peninsula, the governor general was fortunate to obtain free fishing rights to the Grande-Cascapédia. Whereas, elsewhere in Eastern Canada, British elites, as well as wealthy Canadians and Americans, had to purchase costly angling leases from the government to fish in waters running through Crown land.

Lord Lorne first went to the Gaspé region in 1879, just as improved service by steamer and railway were making northeastern New Brunswick and eastern Quebec more accessible to tourists. From Quebec City, it was convenient for the viceregal party to go down the St. Lawrence River to the Grande-Cascapédia–a river located on the north shore of the Chaleur Bay in Bonaventure County. The fast flowing water, which empties into Chaleur Bay, is approximately 120 kilometres long with its headwaters in the Chic-Chocs Mountains.

Because the Grande-Cascapédia is difficult to navigate, the governor general often hired aboriginal peoples from the nearby Maria reserve who were skilled in poling the canoes up the winding stream against the strong current. The superiority of aboriginal guides was noted by historian Bill Parenteau in an article in the Canadian Historical Review: “By virtue of their skills with the birch bark canoe and their knowledge of rivers and forests, native people served as guides from the earliest days of recreational sporting in the North American colonies.”

Although the Grande-Cascapédia flows swiftly, it also has a number of quiet pools where the salmon lie. One of these, which is called Lazy Bogan, is known for the drowsy stillness of its waters. By contrast, there are some excellent fishing holes located in more treacherous spots. Jack the Sailor, for example, is situated at a place where the river narrows and where the water moves swiftly around a chain of rocks and almost reverses direction.

“The nature of the water, a stream running with tremendous force between steep banks covered to the river’s edge by an impenetrable forest, made it impossible to cast from the land and it was invariably necessary to gaff the fish from the canoe, a difficulty every angler will realize, and not unattended by the danger of capsizing,” wrote Lord Newton, a biographer of Lord Lansdowne who was governor general from 1883 to 1888.

Lord Newton might have added that a fish improperly gaffed could easily escape.

Besides salmon fishing, Lord Lorne and his wife, Princess Louise–a daughter of Queen Victoria–were greatly interested in nature. In this respect, they were just like many other late 19th-century sporting enthusiasts. Both were fond of sketching the landscape along the Grande-Cascapédia. His Excellency regarded the river as one of the most beautiful rivers he had seen.

In the summer of 1880, the viceregal party, which included Princess Louise’s brother, Prince Leopold, and 11 others, caught 80 salmon with an average weight of almost 23 pounds. Sometimes, Lord Lorne and his party went fishing as early as 3 a.m. On sunny days, it was important to start early because the fish will not rise with the bright light shining on the pools. In his memoir Passages From The Past, Lord Lorne described one of his successful pre-dawn outings. Before sunrise on one day in July 1883, he caught five salmon with an average weight of more than 22 pounds. He also caught five trout.

Lord Lorne often gave away part of his catch to his Canadian neighbours, as well as to Queen Victoria and to other members of her family. According to Joseph Edmund Collins, another of Lord Lorne’s biographers, the salmon selected for overseas were carefully packed in ice for shipment and reached their destination “cold, pink and perfect.”

This was remarkable, because shipping fresh salmon to Europe was rare in those days.

Lord Lorne’s successor, Lord Lansdowne, who became governor general in 1883, was also a keen fisherman. Lord Newton, his biographer, says that during four fishing seasons on the Grande-Cascapédia, Lord Lansdowne’s party caught 1,245 Atlantic salmon, averaging nearly 24 pounds each. His Excellency told Lord Newton that one day he started fishing after six a.m. and in less than two hours caught four salmon with an average weight of just over 34 pounds. According to Lord Lansdowne, this was his best performance as a fisherman. Just like any other angler, it seems that the governor general may have exaggerated the size of his catch because the average weight of a salmon in the Grande-Cascapédia was at least 10 pounds less.

Lord Stanley–the Earl of Derby–governor general of Canada from 1888 to 1893, liked the Gaspé so much that he purchased 68 acres of land near the mouth of the Grande-Cascapédia. He built a summer residence for himself and his family overlooking Chaleur Bay. The large, but unpretentious wood-frame dwelling, called Stanley House, was in an isolated, wooded site. It was roughly 15 kilometres from the salmon fishing grounds. With 21 rooms, there was ample space for Lord Stanley’s staff, his friends and guests which in 1890, and again in 1891, included His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales. But, Stanley House was not entirely a holiday resort because some government business was conducted from this location. Although the residence is associated with Lord Stanley, it was the viceregal summer retreat of his immediate successors, Lord Aberdeen and Lord Minto. The immediate predecessors to Lord Stanley built Lorne Cottage and New Derreen, respectively. Both of these were rather modest fishing camps. They were located in an area infested with blackflies, sandflies, mosquitos and mooseflies. Lord Lorne penned a rather humorous and greatly exaggerated account of the moosefly. “It seemed so big that when one came into the canoe at one end, he felt he must get out the other, as there could not be room for both.” But because of the excellent fishing, Lord Lorne tolerated the discomfort without much complaint.

Lady Lansdowne’s brother arrived in the Gaspé from Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the summer of 1884 and tried his luck at salmon fishing. He was particularly bothered by the sandflies, but found a partial remedy by burning damp fir bark. Although effective, it perhaps created a greater problem. “We dined every night in an atmosphere denser than a thick London fog, and the coughing was such that a chance visitor would have imagined that he had strayed into the sanatorium for tuberculosis,” Lord Hamilton explained.

Around Stanley House, the cool breezes from Chaleur Bay kept the insects away. Stanley House was equipped with both telephone and telegraph lines so that His Excellency could contact politicians and friends in Ottawa. For Lord Stanley, the telephone had another benefit. From his residence, he could call up river to learn how the salmon were rising. Judging from the meticulous records he kept of his catches in the Grande-Cascapédia, which included the number of days fished, the number of fish caught, the weight of each fish, as well as the average weight of the total catch for the season, the salmon rose very well. Over a five-year period, 1888-1893, Lord Stanley’s fishing parties, which often included both men and women, caught 894 salmon with an average weight of 23.7 pounds, although fish over 40 pounds were landed on occasion. In 1888, his best season, Lord Stanley and his entourage, reported an impressive total of 300 salmon taken with an average weight of more than 25 pounds.

But the fishing privileges the governor general enjoyed were not to last forever. Resulting from a judgment in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1882, the leasing of rights on several rivers in Eastern Canada, including the Grande-Cascapédia, passed from federal to provincial control. The very next year–in 1883–J.A. Mousseau, the premier of Quebec, wrote to Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald: “It is cruel to deprive us of the income for the sake of furnishing a few days of fishing to the governor general.”

Even though Quebec stood to benefit economically, it took no immediate action to end the free fishing privileges on the Grande-Cascapédia. However, the gradual change in the government’s attitude coincided with the growing interest of Americans in salmon fishing in Eastern Canada. By the 1890s, as individuals, or as members of sport fishing clubs, wealthy Americans in search of a healthy environment and good fishing, purchased a large number of leases especially in Quebec and New Brunswick.

The governor general continued to have exclusive rights to fish the river until 1893 when the Province of Quebec finally auctioned off the lease of the river. By then, Lord Aberdeen, who served as governor general until 1898, had replaced Lord Stanley. According to Lady Aberdeen, her husband’s representative at the auction was instructed to bid up to $5,000 per year. This was not enough because an American syndicate obtained the lease for 10 years for $6,000 per year. Once in control, the Americans, who formed the Cascapédia Salmon Club, held on to the lease for decades.

How did the governor general lose control of the salmon fishing rights? One might say that Lord Aberdeen didn’t understand the value of the rights and consequently his representative was outbid by the Americans. However, his successor, Lord Minto, in a letter to a relative, inferred that Lord Stanley lost the rights because he did not take any steps to secure them.

Despite the loss of the fishing rights, Lord Aberdeen continued to go to Stanley House for a few more summers. Lady Aberdeen, in particular, felt at home there because the majority of her neighbours were of Scottish origin and her children enjoyed outdoor activities such as fishing, swimming and horseback riding. However, when the governor general wanted to go salmon fishing, he went as a guest of a private owner or of an American sport fishing club.

Americans also held the leases to most of the other salmon rivers nearby, and although the Americans were very hospitable, it was not the same as when the Queen’s representative to Canada held some of the fishing rights. Consequently, Lord Aberdeen sometimes went trout fishing in the New Richmond area, but did very little salmon fishing.

Further, Lord Minto, the governor general of Canada from 1898 to 1904, hardly spent any time salmon fishing in the Grande-Cascapédia at all even though as military secretary to Lord Lansdowne he had greatly enjoyed fishing there in the 1880s. For example, the parliamentary session of 1899 kept Lord Minto in Ottawa and he went to the Gaspé area only briefly. But, in a day and a half of fishing, as a guest of the American owners of the Cascapédia Fishing Club, he caught five salmon with an average weight of just over 25 pounds. Nonetheless, Lord Minto abandoned Chaleur Bay as the main summer holiday retreat of the viceregal party and was the last governor general to live in Stanley House. “It was great grief to Minto that the fishing on the Cascapédia was no longer the perquisite of the Governor General,” wrote his biographer, the noted author John Buchan.

Besides Stanley House and a few sport fishing souvenirs, there is little to show for the days when the Queen’s representative to Canada held exclusive rights to fish in the Grande-Cascapédia, one of the best salmon rivers in North America.

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