Around 1938, the pioneers of Ootsa Lake embarked on a project remembered for its scale, physical presence, and sheer impracticality.
Setting aside any thought of what would be useful in the Lakes District, three members of the Harrison family – Clifford, John, and Bill – began constructing a huge boat with help from some of the area’s most skilled craftsmen. Christened the Lady Tweedsmuir in honour of Susan Buchan, who had toured the area a year earlier with her husband and Governor General, Lord Tweedsmuir, the vessel was a testament to the ability of the area’s settlers.
An estimated 30 to 50 feet in length, the single-decked Lady Tweedsmuir was equipped with a long, enclosed canopy pierced at regular intervals by small rectangular windows. An old aircraft engine, complete with open-air propeller, provided the initial means of propulsion, but the vessel’s lackluster performance (it could barely keep up with a rowboat) and perhaps the attendant noise convinced its builders to replace the original power plant with a 25-horsepower Johnson boat motor.
No one knows why the Harrisons created this monstrosity. Although they were accomplished freighters who transported men and materials by boat to remote operations throughout the great circle of lakes that now encloses Tweedsmuir Park, the Lady Tweedsmuir was too large and ungainly for this purpose. Some old timers believe the vessel was designed merely for pleasure cruises and the occasional boat tour. As Donna Harrison, wife of Cliff Harrison’s son Montie, said in a 2021 interview, it was likely the Lady Tweedsmuir was built just for “fishing and travelling around Ootsa Lake.”
The vessel’s limited practicality did not seem to bother the Harrisons. They loved the Lady Tweedsmuir. Perhaps, as some residents have suggested, it was more a symbol of their ingenuity and early success than a tool designed for everyday use.
The flooding of Ootsa Lake in the early 1950s displaced many of the area’s early pioneers. Several members of Harrison family, including the Lady Tweedsmuir’s owner, Cliff, moved to Tchesinkut Lake. Instead of selling the boat to someone who planned to remain at Ootsa Lake, or even mooring it there for use when visiting, the well-known pioneer family transported it nearly 50 kilometers, largely by land over roads that were narrow and winding, to their new home. The Lady Tweedsmuir was launched for a second time in 1952, this time on Tchesinkut Bay.
At Tchesinkut, the Lady Tweedsmuir became what it was perhaps intended to be: a party boat. According to Donna Harrison, locals would pile into the vessel to play poker. Sometimes, they arranged for a teenager named Bob Nutter to steer them around the lake as they gambled.
All good things must end, however. By the 1960s, the Lady Tweedsmuir was nearly thirty years old and had outlived its usefulness as a party boat. The vessel fell into disrepair, and Cliff sold it to Burns Lake’s Sea Cadets, who hauled it across the country yet again, this time to Burns Lake, where it became a training vessel. For several years, it was part of a fleet of pleasure craft owned by the RCSCC Mackenzie, Burns Lake’s cadet corps, and young men from around the region clambered aboard it to learn practical skills like knot tying, seamanship, and navigation.
Time finally caught up to the Lady Tweedsmuir, just as it did her namesake, and it was beached along Cadet Bay at the east end of Burns Lake sometime in the early 1970s. The great hulk is still there today, and while decrepit, crumbling, and no longer seaworthy, it remains a monument to a bygone era and a reminder of what a small group of determined men can achieve in the face of great adversity.
© 2021 Lakes District Museum Society