by Robert B. Townsend
Main Duck Island, twelve miles from the nearest mainland, at 1005 acres in size, is the largest of a series of Islands at the easterly end of Lake Ontario known collectively as the Ducks. A quarter of a mile off its shore is a little duckling called Yorkshire Island. Farther west, and nearer Point Traverse, are the False Ducks, comprising of False Duck, Timber, the Duckling islands, and a wicked layout of duck eggs in the form of reefs and boulders.
Main Duck Island, which the French called “Isle au Couis” is an outstanding entity of temperamental, but beautiful, Lake Ontario. It is synonymous with raw, stark happenings. Two hundred years ago and more, Main Duck was as isolated as Robinson Crusoe’s island.
In 1760, when both the British and French had a fleet on Lake Ontario, two French ships came to grief on Charity Shoal, eight miles north east of the Main Duck. One got off badly damaged, and with the survivors of the other wrecked vessel, drifted across to the Main Duck. They tried to drive her over the bar, into the little boat harbour, but she fetched up to leeward of it, being unmanageable after her mauling on Charity Shoal, and pounded her bottom out at Gravely Point.
The survivors salvaged what they could of provisions, war stores and treasure, including the pay chest, before their vessel went to pieces. They made it to the island on rafts and with no other recourse prepared to winter there. It is said that they buried their French gold just in case their rescuers turned out to be British. Then they buried the dead from the wreck, washed up on the shore by the waves. Then they buried each other, one by one, as they perished of cold, exposure and short rations of spoiled provisions. At length there was only one man left. He had buried all his companions. His skeleton was found many years afterwards.
Early French historical records indicate references to many shipwrecks on Isle au Couris, and subsequent records in the mid to late nineteenth century indicate that the sand bars of the Main Duck claimed a couple of wrecks yearly.
During the war of 1812 -1814 Main Duck Island is where Sir James Lucas Yeo pulled in for shelter after a running battle with the American Commodore, Chauncey, on September 11, 1813. It was also past this Island that the mightiest sailing ship of the western world at the time, HMS St. Lawrence, built in Kingston Ontario in 1814, first worked her way into the lake.
Under British rule Main Duck was originally held in trust for the Allenwick tribe of Indians, but was regularly used by local fishermen and farmers.
Captain Walters, a farmer from Point Traverse, rented the Main Duck Island to pasture his sheep and cattle and reigned supreme on the Island as the major landlord from 1848 to 1892. He and his brothers Dyer and William had as many as 400 sheep, 200 cattle, 60 hogs and 30 horses. Twelve boats then fished the Ducks and a good day’s haul was four tons of lake trout and whitefish. The fishermen lived ashore in shacks with their families and their wives milked the cows and churned the butter which was shipped to Kingston in the little schooners that could wiggle between Yorkshire and the Main Duck.
About the year 1892, the island was deeded to private ownership. Claude W. Cole owned the land from the early 1890s until his death in 1938. The land was farmed with animal stock being sailed over from the mainland and brought back in the fall, along with the farmers and fishermen and their families who lived on the island in the summer time. Schoolhouse Bay on the island commemorates the little log school for children although the school has long since disappeared.
In 1941, attracted by the low lying expanse, heavily wooded with tall fine trees, redolent with a certain quaint charm; the glorious swish of fresh water; the exciting sound of the fog horn; and the fire of the beacon, the island was purchased from Claude Cole’s widow by a Mr. Delly, a wealthy New York City property owner. After WWII the island was purchased by John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State of the United States.