THE LEGEND OF WHITE OTTER CASTLE
by Cliff Jacobson
The Castle: White Otter Lake, Ontario
My friend, Chic Sheridan and I discovered "White Otter Castle" by accident in 1984 while canoeing the Turtle River, near Ignace, Ontario. We'd been pinned for hours in a rocky cove of White Otter Lake by a fierce east wind which kicked up man sized rollers. We knew our tiny solo canoes were no match for the pounding sea, so we agreed to strike out after dark when the wind was down. So just after midnight, we paddled out into knee high waves and set course for a protected spot on the leeward shore of a peninsula where we would be safe from the morning wind.
View from the Castle
Twenty minutes later we were across the mile expanse of open water and cruising down the moonlit shoreline when, in the distance, we saw what appeared to be a huge log tower. Whatever it was, it was worth investigating, if for no other reason than there was probably a flat place to camp nearby.
As the tower grew closer, it materialized into a full blown log mansion. The main building had three levels and was twice as long as my 14-1/2 foot canoe. The "lookout" tower was four stories high and had windows all around. A long porch sheltered the main building and cabin-sized attached room which we later learned was the kitchen. The entire dwelling was artfully assembled from giant red pine logs which must have weighed nearly a ton a piece. "I'd like to meet the Knight who lived in this castle," said Chic dryly.
We set our sleeping bags beneath the overhang of the sagging porch and settled in for the night. In the morning we'd have a closer look at this "castle" in the wilderness.
Interior: It's huge!
After breakfast, we spent several hours probing the structure, which might best be described as a cross between a sprawling ranch house and horse barn. The logs were so huge we naturally assumed that horses, winches, and skids were used to move and raise them. Meticulous detail work suggested there was a resident carpenter on hand. For example, corner logs were masterfully dovetailed into place--a far cry from the typical axe-notched fit of the typical bush cabin. And each log was hewn square on three sides for a perfect fit before it was chinked with a mixture of lime and sand. There were 26 carefully fitted windows, all secured in store-bought sashes. How on earth did they get here? No roads led to the castle, so everything must have been brought in by canoe from Ignace and packed over a dozen or more portages--an impossible feat for a single man. For a long time, Chic and I just stood on the beach and marveled at this mansion in the wilderness. When we finished our canoe trip, we'd stop in Ignace and check out the history of the place. There was enough graffiti on the walls to suggest that the "castle" was not a well-kept secret.
Legend has it that Jimmy McQuat, a Scotch immigrant, built the castle for a Scotch noblewoman whom he loved. Evidently she agreed to marry him if he would build for her a "proper house" in the wilderness.
Fact or fiction, Jimmy McQuat never married his lady love, though, at 31, he advertised for a mail order bride who would share the wilderness life. His letter dated July 22, 1887 stated that he neither drank, smoke nor swore. "I have not much learning, but I have morality and character to make up. I would like a girl under 27 years, not to thundering big, brought up on a farm.... Her hair may be any colour but fiery red. "
Within the year, Jane Gibson of Clifford, Ontario agreed to marry Jimmy, providing he'd come to Clifford and meet her family. But Jimmy refused to go and the wedding never took place. Jane was Jimmy's last attempt to find a wife.
Though Jimmy McQuat lived a solitary life, he was not a hermit as some might expect. He was a good conversationalist and he enjoyed entertaining friends. For a while, he even served on the school board. Unlike most of his friends, Jimmy was able to make a good living, even during the depression. He came from a long line of proud Scottish farmers who knew how to work the land and invest money. A prudent businessman, Jimmy once owned two farms and a half section of prime Ontario land. Then, when the gold rush peaked in 1899, he got gold fever and sold everything to follow his dream. A year later he had lost it all and started all over again.
In 1903, Jimmy staked out a new homestead on the north shore of White Otter Lake, the present site of the "castle". He built a small cabin, trapped and grew a vegetable garden, and took odd jobs to make ends meet. But as the years wore on, Jimmy was plagued by the childhood memory of an angry blacksmith who told him he'd "die in a shack". By God, he'd show him: he'd build a castle in the wilderness!
We discovered the castle (which was in need of repair) many years before the Ontario government did needed repairs and erected this sign.
He did. Jimmy McQuat began work on his dream home in 1914, at the age of 59. The huge red pine logs, which averaged 37 feet when cut, were fell within 300 yards of the site and dragged to position with a homemade winch. Jimmy cut, trimmed, and fit every log into place without the help of machines, horses, or friends. I remember marveling at the precise fit of the huge pine beams. Even with a winch, tower, and counterpoise, it seems impossible he could have raised the logs and fitted the dovetails alone.
Jimmy McQuat died as he had lived, quietly and alone. Evidently, he drowned while netting fish off his dock in the ice melt of early spring. Several months later, forest rangers found his body and buried it beside the tower.
As the years passed, weather took its toll on the castle. The porch began to sag, chinking fell out and rain got in. By the late 1940's the place was a mess and quick action was needed to save what was left. In the 1950's the Ministry of Natural Resources allocated some money to repair the structure, but it wasn't enough. Much needed to be done. Then, in 1983, the castle became part of the "Turtle river Waterway Park" and Jimmy McQuat's dream was restored to its original grandeur.
Inquires about the Castle should be directed to:
Ministry of Natural Resources
108 Saturn Avenue
Atikokan, Ontario, Canada POT 1CO
From White Otter Castle: the legacy of Jimmy McQuat, by Elinor Barr. A Northwestern Ontario heritage publication.
*From my out-of-print book, CAMPSITE MEMORIES, available as an e-book, on my website.
*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on "how to safely canoe difficult rivers."
*My teen book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL! mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type. Adults love it too!
My 90 minute video, THE FORGOTTEN SKILLS details the most important camping skills. If you can do them all you'll be a hero to your friends!