Snake Island Fish Hatchery

While I have highlighted a few of my relatives with the help of 52 Ancestors I thought I would do something different this week. This week, instead of a person, I am going to focus on a government institution that employed a number of local men from Mowat and beyond, including my great-grandfather, who lived along the shores of Lake Winnipegosis.

This week I will be looking at the Snake Island Hatchery.

Now what exactly is a fish hatchery you may ask? Well, as Wikipedia has neatly written a fish hatchery is a place where artificial breeding, hatching, and rearing of fish occurs and is typically done to support the aquaculture industry.

Much of the information below can be found in the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Branch 1984 report The Past, Present and Projected Demands on Manitoba’s Freshwater Fish Resources. The first records of commercial fishing in Manitoba date back to 1872 when a few men from Winnipeg established a fishing station on the Little Saskatchewan River, now called the Dauphin River. This early venture failed due to a number of factors such as poor transportation, the abundance of fish, and heavy competition with the Great Lake fisheries. Only in the following decade, with the introduction of efficient freight and fishing boats and the expanding market, did the industry became more commercially successful.

The success found on Lake Winnipeg opened up opportunities for commercial fishing on Manitoba’s other lakes including Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipegosis. Growth in the industry can be attributed to the development of the railway as well as other modes of transportation. The commercial fishing industry on Lake Winnipegosis developed rapidly when the rail-line to the town was completed in 1897.

Lake Winnipeg, Lake Winnipegosis, and Lake Manitoba have been the three most important fisheries in the province while Whitefish was the most important species caught until their decline in the 1920s and 1930s. Advancements in equipment such as gasoline powered boats and stronger gill-nets made fishing quicker and easier than ever before and consequently with all the success there were also concerns of sustainability and depletion.

As early as 1892 a number of regulations were enacted in order to restrict and confine commercial fishing, some of these regulations include the size and limit of fish, the type of nets and boats used, as well as the start and close of the fishing season. The first fish hatchery in Manitoba was built at Selkirk and was constructed in 1894. This hatchery, however, was closed in 1914 and replaced by another at Gull Harbour that was later moved to the mouth of the Dauphin River. A number of different hatcheries were built to support the fishing industry on the three major lakes but I will only be taking a closer look at one of them.

The Snake Island fish hatchery was the first to be built on Lake Winnipegosis, 1909, and was located on the south end of the lake. In fact, Snake Island is one of the closer islands on the lake to the town of Winnipegosis, it was only five miles away. I can only speculate why it is called Snake Island but a note in a 2001 letter to the editor of the Dauphin Herald mentions little red Garter Snakes swimming out to the island on Lake Winnipegosis. While snakes might not be afraid to swim, five miles seem like a long way from the mainland, but I suppose the island could have made a good nesting ground for the snakes away from predators.

Below is a picture taken of Snake Island and what is suppose to be the hatchery however I believe the building in the photograph might actually be the building for the department of forestry that was also on the island.

c. 1916

c. 1916

The first mention of the fish hatchery is in the Winnipeg Free Press in 1907. This small article writes that the building and its equipment have been put into place and they now wait for a dock to be built but it would be some time before the buildings would see any proper use. Two whole years would pass before the fish hatchery would officially open its doors and even then it was a rocky start.

Winnipeg Free Press – 22 Oct 1907
Fishing Season Wound
Winnipegosis, Oct. 19. – Fishing operations are wound up for the season and all are preparing for the winter’s work.
P. Wagner, of the department of the interior, is looking into matters connected with the department this week.
The fish hatchery is completed and the glass jars for the fry will at once be placed in position.
Work is expected to commence at once on the dock at Snake Island. The Island will assume its proper importance when it is made a port.

In 1911 a large scale report of recommendations was published by the Manitoba Fisheries Commission. Commissioners J.B. Hugg, D.F. Reid, and Edward E. Prince traveled all across Manitoba in 1909 and 1910 in order to examine the fishing policies and procedures of the day as well as to speak with fishermen in order to determine how to sustain the commercial fishing industry.

Winnipeg Free Press – 21 Oct 1909
Lake Winnipegosis Fishermen Place Their Opinions Before Commissioners

Fish Are Now Plentiful

Closed Summer Seasons Have Good Effect – Hatchery Would Be a Benefit

Winnipegosis, Man., Oct. 20 – The fishery commission continued its meeting here today, many of the oldest fishermen expressing opinions resection the fishing industry. Commissioner Prof. E.E. Prince gave the fish dealers and the fishermen to understand that they were there to investigate the fishing industry from every standpoint. The principal matter discussed today was as to what part of the lake the fishermen wished to be open for summer fishing, and it was learned that they wished the north end of Lake Winnipegosis to be kept open. Prof. Prince stated that the object of the inquiry was to make fishing regulations and to find out to what extent fishing should be allowed so as not to exhaust the lakes of fish, but to make the fishing industry a permanent livelihood for the fishermen and settlers of this vicinity and to arrange the matter so that the fishermen can get the best price possible for their fish.

Fish Do Not Migrate

The fishermen stated that they require to be allowed to use about two thousand wards of net for each man for winter fishing and about half the amount for summer fishing.

They also claimed that the fish do not migrate from one portion of the lake to the other, but each band of fish has its own home and there live and die. It was claimed that the fish are not now as plentiful as when fishing first began, but that the fish are of a better quality than when they were overcrowded, as then they were half starved. The opinion of the fishermen was that a hatchery would be a benefit, but they thought there should be the usual close season to allow nature to follow its course for keeping up the supply of fish in the lakes. It was sworn by the fishermen that the law regarding summer fishing can be observed.

The commission suggested that the amount of net for each fisherman should be five hundred yards, but this was objected to by the fishermen, who stated that a man could not make a living if this was enforced. It was also shown by the fish dealers and fishermen that the industry could not be carried on without exportation to the United States. The fishermen thought a good protection to the whitefish would be that nothing less than a five and a quarter mesh be allowed.

It was stated during the taking of evidence that the fish had increased considerably during the past three years, as the lake had been closed for summer fishing and the fishermen would like not to see the lake open again, but restrictions would be necessary to prevent the lake from being depleted.

The evidence given by the witnesses today was much the same as yesterday. The commission has not made any statements as to what changes will be made in the fishing laws, but they are in favour of putting the fish industry on a permanent basis so as to have it satisfactory to the fishermen and, at the same time, not to exhaust the lakes of fish. The commission will go to Snake Island tomorrow, where the fish hatchery is located, and will leave here Friday evening, which is the first train out of here. The prospects are good for the lake being opened for next summer fishing.

Two whole years would pass before the fish hatchery would open and even after it was a rocky beginning with the commissioners coming to inspect the building and its workings as part of their inquiry.

Winnipeg Free Press – 23 Oct 1909
Commissioners Inspect Hatchery
Plant at Snake Island, in Lake Winnipegosis, Ready to Commence Operations
Winnipegosis, Man., Oct. 22 – The Fisheries commissioners visited the fish hatchery at Snake Island, about five miles east of town, today. The attempt made in the forenoon failed. The commissioners embarked in a gasoline launch, but as it was turning into the Mossey River, leaving the landing place a rod broke, necessitating an hour’s work by a blacksmith in welding it. In the second attempt the party traveled a couple of miles out into the lake and there the machinery stopped and nothing could be done. Capt. Silton came out with his tug and towed the party back in time for dinner. A steam launch was later obtained and the trip made successfully in the afternoon, starting at 2:30 and returning at 4:30. Snake Island is said to be an ideal place for a whitefish hatchery. It is some two miles and a half in length, and narrow, comprising between 200 and 300 acres. Substantial buildings and up-to-date equipment for hatching purposes on a scale of considerable magnitude, have been provided, and everything is in readiness for operation as soon as the spawn can be brought in.

The Process of Hatching

Mr. Finlayson, superintendent of hatcheries, of which there are thirty-give in the Dominion, is one on the lake making preparations for hatching the spawn, which is obtained at this time of year. Allowing for differences of a week or two between the different points on the lake, north and south, as this hatchery is now it is impossible to say even approximately how many whitefish can be hatched in a season, but if the spawn can be obtained in sufficient quantities to fill all the receptacles, there may be perhaps twenty to forty millions hatched each year. The spawn is placed in glass jars, in the centre of each is a glass tube, he top of which is connected by means of a rubber tube with a water tap, and water is pumped up from the lake and kept continually flowing through the jars, the spawn being thereby kept as nearly as possible in the condition in which it would be in the lake.In about six months the fish are hatched out then they are kept for some further time in large tanks through which, as in the glass hank previously, fresh water is kept constantly running. The final operation is the taking of young fish out and depositing them in the lake. Care must be exercised that the temperature of the water be as nearly as possible the same as that in the jars. What proportion of these grew to replenish the lake it is not easy to estimate.

The commissioners proceed to Dauphin tonight to take evidence there tomorrow.

In their interim report the commissioners indicated that more attention needed to be given towards hatchery operations to increase their efficiency. A starting note is that the commissioners found that the Winnipegosis scheme was a serious failure.

“We referred to the prevalent feeling in the province respecting the serious mismanagement which happened in certain seasons formerly, whereby some hatcheries practically were not in operation for one or two seasons…The evidence brought before the Commission clearly provided that on Lake Winnipegosis this was emphatically the case and that there was a serious lack of proper management, and that the system adopted for securing spawn was an altogether unreliable and undesirable one. We are aware that the department, when the matter came to its attention, had a special officer sent to Lake Winnipegosis and we have every reason to believe hat recently a great improvement has taken place and that matters have been put on a more workable basis (p. 15).”

Here is a picture take from the inside of the fish hatchery. My best guess is that it was taken sometime around 1916 as the individual with the X is my great-grandfather who worked at the hatchery. It is interesting to see the inside the of the building given the description of a hatchery from the article above that described the process of hatching.

c. 1916

c. 1916

Dauphin Herald – 20 Feb 1916
Fork River
W.J. Johnston arrived home and intends putting in a few months on the homestead. Johnny has been at the fish hatchery in at Snake Island all winter and says they have they best lot of spawn since the hatchery started.
Dauphin Herald – 17 Apr 1924
Winnipegosis
The government are starting to gather pickerel spawn in the Mossey River, and they have also a number of men destroying suckers in the creeks and small rivers. There is a one cent bounty paid for each sucker destroyed. The reason of destroying these suckers is to prevent them from eating the spawn of the better fish.
The Snake Island fish hatchery is turning out a larger production of fish than it has for years.
Dauphin Herald – 8 May 1924
Commendable Conservation Work
The Fish Cultural Branch of the Department of Marine and Fisheries at Ottawa, last year started a cur safe on the coarse fish in Lake Winnipegosis, particularly on the suckers, which play such havoc by devouring the eggs of the finer and more edible species such as whitefish, for which Lake Winnipegosis is internationally known.Last season upwards of 40 000 suckers were destroyed and a number of the parent fish were distributed to alkaline lakes throughout Manitoba and Saskatchewan, free of all charge.Suckers, being of practically no commercial value, but very prolific, are not fished for, whereas the Whitefish ave been fished very extensively for a great many years and to assist nature to maintain her balance the Department of Marine and Fisheries, some few years ago, established a whitefish hatchery on Snake Island which has proven most effective but it is obvious if the sucker is allowed to multiply unmolested it must eventually predominate.The Department has, therefore, launched a well organized campaign under the supervision of Inspector of Hatcheries S.J. Walker, of Ottawa, and H.J. Reid, Superintendent of the Snake Island Hatchery, and a bounty has been placed on the head of Mr. Sucker with the result that this year approximately 200,000 will be destroyed.To appreciate the result and the ultimate beneficial effect that this commendable action of the Department of Marine and Fisheries will have on the Lake it must be realized that each female sucker will produce, on a conservative estimate, 25,000 eggs, taking 50 percent of the above number destroyed to be females the destruction in eggs will reach the enormous total of 2,500,000,000.While the parent sucker is destroyed, a great number of their eggs are taken and fertilized by officers of the Department and distributed, free of charge, to applicants desiring this species; the sucker being of a hardier variety than most fish found in the Western waters, have a better chance of surviving in alkaline lakes than any other species.

Persons desiring a shipment of these eggs should make application to the Department of Marine and Fisheries at Ottawa, Ont.

Snake Island was not without accident or tragedy as seen in the following articles which mention destruction of property and even death.

Dauphin Herald – 9 Mar 1922
Winnipegosis
The dwelling house at the hatchery on Snake Island was burned to the ground Monday 27th. The maid, who was out milking, on returning to the house found it in flames, and quickly aroused the inmates, who all got safely out. Practically nothing was saved.The fishery overseer from Selkirk was here on behalf of marine and fisheries. He was investigating the need of nouns in the channels. He reports that it is necessary to have buoys, and also one buoy light at a dangerous spot further north.
Dauphin Herald – 30 Nov 1922
Drowned at Winnipegosis
A tragedy occurred at Winnipegosis on Monday evening, in which young Billy McNicol lost his life. Employed at the fish hatchery on Snake Island, he started to skate back the five miles from Winnipegosis just about dark on Monday evening, but never reached there. Being missed the next morning a search part started out, following his tracks, and found his hat on the ice where he had broken through, and the body was recovered about noon.
Mr. Martin, at other employee of the fish hatchery, started to skate across in the opposite direction on the same night, towards Winnipegosis town, and broke through the ice, but was eventually able to crawl back up on the ice, and return to Snake Island.
Dauphin Herald – 14 Jul 1927
Winnipegosis
It was with feelings of deep regret that we learned of the fate of the seaplane which left Snake Island base, Lake Winnipegosis, Monday morning for Victoria Beach, Lake Winnipeg, and met with such fatal results when flying over the Fairford district in which three lives were lost. Aviator Weaver, Mechanic Eardley, and Photograher Wrong, D.L.S. Aviator Weaver has made frequent visit to Winnipegosis in the last few years and all who have been here for some time completing some portions of the air maps. During their brief stay here they had made many friends at Winnipegosis and the Campers at Snake island and members of the hatchery crew all of whom extend their deep sympathy to the relatives in their sad bereavement.
Dauphin Herald – 24 Jul 1930
Cyclone at Snake Island, Lake Winnipegosis
On Thursday evening about nine o’clock a regular cyclone passed over Snake Island. It uprooted dozens of elm and maple trees. The Forestry plane moored at the station there was a complete wreck. The wind tore it from its moorings, breaking both the 1 inch manilla rope and 3-8 inch steel mooring cable with which it was secured to its buoy, turning it over several times smashing both wings and wreaking it in general. Flight Officer H.A. Foley has hone to Winnipeg for another plane. The Provincial Government buildings, where the Hatchery is situated, were undamaged.

Between 1914 and 1918 there was an increase in commercial fishing in Canada due to the demands of the first world war, however with the removal of these demands at the end of the war there was also a decrease in fish production. Another increase in production would be felt again in the 1920s when the international market opened up, however this did not last long as there was another decrease in production at the beginning of the 1930s. This dip proved to be the breaking point of the Snake Island hatchery. The Great Depression also effected how the government managed its budget and the tight purse strings can be seen in the following articles that make mention of debt.

Winnipeg Free Press – 28 Feb 1930
Dominion Government Reduces
Expenditures by Nearly $5 000 000

Harbours and Rivers

In regard to harbours and rivers, the estimate deal generously with the Red River and Lake Winnipeg areas.
A sum of $96500 is provided for Manitoba, to be used as follows:
Arnes wharf repairs … $6000
Habours and rivers, generally, repairs and improvements … $15 000
Hnausa wharf extension … #13 000
Hecla wharf extension … $24 000
Red River renew of jetty … $9500
Roseau River improvements … $10 000
Schist Creek improvements … $2000
Selkirk wharf reconstruction … $3000
Snake Island … $4000

Arnes is a fishing town on Lake Winnipeg, and, in reality, a new wharf will be built, the old one being hopelessly out of repair. The wharf at Hnausa, also a fishing village on Lake Winnipeg, was built two years ago, but offered little, if any, protection against storms. The government, this year, will build an extension to it in the form of an L, thereby providing shelter from high seas. The Snake Island fishing community, also on Lake Winnipeg, is to be given a wharf. The item for the Red River jetty includes the pair of the navigation channel to the north of Selkirk where the river passes through a vast swamp, an also at the outlet to Lake Winnipeg.

Dauphin Herald – 9 Mar 1932
$110,651 Deficit in Natural Resources

Fisheries

Three fish hatcheries are maintained and operated, at Gull Harbour, Lake Winnipeg; Snake Island, Lake Winnipegosis; and Swan Creek, Lake Manitoba. According to Dominion statistics during 1930 the output of these Manitoba hatcheries was equal to the total output of all the other hatcheries in the Dominion.

The hatcheries at Gull Harbour and Snake Island are each capable of handling one hundred million whitefish eggs or a smiler quantity of pickerel eggs, while the hatchery at Swan Creek has handled over two hundred million pickerel eggs. These eggs are distributed in various parts of lake Winnipeg, Winnipegosis and Manitoba, and pickerel eggs are also distributed to numerous small lakes throughout the province.

The Annual Report of the Department of Mines and Natural Resources for the Fiscal Year Ending April 30th, 1933 reported it was found necessary in the interest of economy to close down the Winnipegosis (Snake Island) Hatchery. The Superintendent was placed in charge of the Hatchery at Gull Harbour on Lake Winnipeg (p. 150).

It wasn’t till more than a decade later, after the second world war, that the buildings on the island were put up for sale.

Winnipeg Free Press – 22 Jan 1947
MISC. PROP. FOR SALE 91A
OFFERS TO PURCHASE will be received by the undersigned up until 12 o’clock noon, February 15, 1947, for the following Provincially owned buildings and contents located on Snake Island in Lake Winnipegosis:One double storey frame dwelling, approximately 24’ x 24’ and lean-to.
One Fish Hatchery Building, frame, approximately, 76’ x 36’ and lean-to.
One Frame building approximately 12’ x 16’.
The purchaser to remove the buildings before May 1st, 1947 and leave the site in a work-man-like condition.

HON. ERRICK F. WILLIS.
Minister of Public Works (Man.)
203 Legislative Building, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

In the 1970s and 1980s various youth groups such as the Boy Scouts and the Cubs would visit Snake Island just like those who had taken pleasure trips to the island in the early years. These pleasure seekers would walk and camp among the interesting flora and fauna that made the two mile island their home.

Dauphin Herald – 21 Jul 1910
Winnipegosis
Mrs. H.M. Park and children, are spending the summer holidays at Snake Island, Winnipegosis.
Dauphin Herald – 7 Aug 1913
C.N.R. Employees Excursion August 21st
Three launches have been engaged to play between Winnipegosis and Snake Island which will afford much interest to many, it being a very good picnic ground and also has a large fish hatchery.
Dauphin Herald – 25 Sep 1919
Winnipegosis
A quartette of duck hunters, composed of J.L. Bowman, E.N. McGirr, Dr. Harrington and Dr. Walker returned on Tuesday from a duck hunt at Snake Island on Lake Winnipegosis. They found the bird numerous and got good sized bags. Since their return the hunters have been busy distributing the water-fowl among their friends.
Dauphin Herald – 24 Jun 1920
Winnipegosis
The senior pupils of the Winnipegosis School with principal A.V.B. Lamont and wife and a number of the parents, spent a pleasant afternoon Sunday on board the S.S. Odinak, which sailed to Snake Island hatchery. After touching at the dock they went on south to McArthur point, where a landing was made on the beach. After a pleasant hour’s ramble and swim, lunch was served. A threatening wind and rain storm caused a hurried embarkation. The Odinak touched at Snake Island on the homeward trip, taking off a Dauphin party, who alarmed at the rising storm, were glad of the safety of the larger vessel. About seventy-five were landed safely by Captain J. Denby, who was in charge. All enjoyed themselves, especially the excitement of the trip home.
Dauphin Herald – 13 Jun 1946
Winnipegosis
A large group enjoyed a picnic on the lake last Sunday, visiting Snake Island. Oscar and Sternie Fredrickson obligingly used their gas boats to accommodate the crowds.

In the 1984 report on the department of Manitoba fisheries there is mention of rebuilding the Snake Island fish hatchery. Furthermore, in the late 1980s there is also mention of developing Snake Island into a sheltered picnic area to be marketed first to the local people in the Parkland and then to all of Manitoba and beyond. To the best of my knowledge nothing came about on the development of Snake Island though I am interested in visiting the place one day. It would be interesting to walk along the shoreline and see where this institution stood as it had such an impact on the area just over 100 years ago.

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