National Park Status and its Effects
At first, National Park status probably had little effect on the day-to-day lives of the naval reserve residents. Eventually it dramatically altered all the pre-Park use of the area, setting the stage for what Point Pelee has become today.
For example, by the 1960s, several commercial fisheries still operated from the Park. But the government's decision to acquire private land within the Park partly to "... improve the scenic drive" drove all but the Girardin and Krause fisheries out.
In 1962, the Girardin fishery moved north of the Park.
Seven years later, the Krause fishery's lease expired, and they too left. The demise of this, the last commercial fishery in the Park brought an end to an era which had lasted more than 100 years.
The designation of Point Pelee as a national park also meant that all hunting and trapping now came under federal regulations, similar to those governing Crown Forest Reserves.
Technically, this made the lands within the Park a game sanctuary. In actual fact, provisions for "the destruction of noxious and dangerous animals" ensured that hunting and trapping continued much as they always had.
Rustic log gates welcomed early visitors to the new National Park.
© Parks Canada/CD-0277-87
For example, Forest Conover, the first Park superintendent, noted in 1921:
...a rabbit drive was concluded within Point Pelee with 200 of the little pests destroyed.
At first muskrats fared well. National park status prohibited their trapping. However, this brought about immediate complaints from both residents and the farmers directly north of the Park. They argued that muskrats were destructive. Soon muskrats were added to the list of noxious animals and a special trapping zone was established along the Park's north boundary where "rats" were reported to be "undermining the dike." This satisfied the farmers, but residents continued to pressure the government to allow trapping throughout the entire marsh, citing: "loss of income, the destructive nature of the creature, its overabundance and long-standing tradition" as valid reasons. Eventually, the government gave in. In 1920, muskrat trapping was once again allowed throughout the marsh, but only to "bona fide" Park residents.
Muskrat trapping continued until the late 1950s. Then, low pelt prices caused residents to lose interest and muskrat trapping petered out of its own accord.
Likewise, the duck hunting that first brought W.E. Saunders and some of his ornithological friends to the Park continued under the new regime.
In fact, the 1918 Order-in-Council that established the Park provided as well for an annual duck hunt.
For many years Point Pelee was the only national park in Canada where sport hunting of this sort was allowed. In 1942, the legal obligation for the government to hold an annual duck hunt was revoked when the regulations were consolidated in another Order-in-Council. The controversy over sport hunting in a national park continued for many years until duck hunting in Point Pelee was ended in 1989.
The Recreational Era
As early as the turn of the century, the attractions of Point Pelee drew pleasure seekers who made the trip a special outing, arriving with horses and buggies, or even elegant carriages.
© Parks Canada
What national park status didn't change was the continuing private ownership of much of the land within the Park boundary. Of this, most was farmed; what wasn't farmed was put to a variety of other uses. Some was set aside as pasture. Other sections were used for woodlots. But increasingly, much of this land was used instead for recreation.
Recreational use of Point Pelee had begun long before it had been declared a national park. "Pleasure seekers" travelling to Point Pelee by horse and buggy were reported as early as this century. Point Pelee's first cottage was built in 1910. As local populations, salaries, leisure time, and the number of automobiles increased, so did this type of use. Visitors could swim, picnic, boat, and camp, or pursue a variety of other recreational activities.
Camping was one of the more popular activities with visitors setting up their tents or portable shacks wherever they wanted. One Park official reported: "People put tents anywhere they could find space and left them up all season, coming and going on weekends and holidays. They took personal pride in cleaning up the plots and its surroundings. All dead or dying trees were removed; all small stuff was cut out and the earth raked over to clean up all debris. The appearance of each tent site was a matter of social prestige. During the depression and up to the time of the Second World War, the core forest in general was heavily used this way and became known as 'Little City.'"
For their part, Park officials set about to provide facilities for these visitors. In 1922, roadways were improved, and parking lots, bath houses, pavilions, picnic grounds and other structures were added.
Vacationers cleared tent sites in the forests and proceeded to tidy them like summer cottage lots.
© Parks Canada/CD-0277-75
By the mid 1930s, 250 000 visitors came to the Park annually. With so many visitors problems were inevitable. In 1939, H.F. Lewis, a Parks bureau official, visited Point Pelee. He noted that in many areas the Park was taking on the look of "a neat, carefully manicured, urban landscape."
But not only camping and brushing were damaging the natural landscape. Lewis also reported that unregulated automobile traffic was creating its own problem. He pointed out that: "... on the west side, trails leading to the beach were being used by cars and, as they came out to the beach, they opened up into fan-shaped areas of exposed sand."
Wealthier families built large, permanent residences. This, the first "cottage" in the Park, was built by the Jacksons and the Cullens.
© Parks Canada/CD-0277-57
Adding to these problems was the pressure being put on the government to lease or sell the former naval reserves, now crown land, within the Park for cottage development. Fortunately, the government resisted these pressures, even when offered $11 million by several Detroit businessmen to sell the West Beach.
However, private landowners were more easily tempted. Residents began subdividing unusable portions of land into cottage sites which they sold, both to individuals and to commercial land development companies.
Between 1929 and 1958, there were 11 registered cottage and subdivision sites within the Park. Few of these developers were successful in finding buyers.
Like many other national parks of the day, Point Pelee had its own hotels. They could not be compared with the Banff Springs Hotel or Chateau Lake Louise, but then they were not operated by the Canadian Pacific Railroad either.
Advertisements for the Aviation Inn, one of the Park's two hotels, promised sleeping accommodations, chicken, fish and frog dinners, and private dressing rooms for bathers.
© Parcs Canada
There was sufficient demand to keep two hotels in the Park open. The most southerly of these was a two-storey crinkle black building known as the Post Hotel after its original owners. It dominated the landscape immediately west of what is now known as the Sparrow Field.
The second and perhaps the better known hotel was called the Aviation Inn. It was located in what is today the parking lot of the Visitor Centre, It operated from the late 1930s until 1963. Known for its steak dinners and the hospitality of the owner, Mrs. Wolfe, it became a popular destination. Each spring, the guest registry read like a "who's who" of early birdwatchers.
Canada's early national parks were looked upon as playgrounds. At first, they were used mostly by the wealthy. But then with increased prosperity, leisure time and the development of roads and affordable automobiles, many other Canadians were able to enjoy their park too. Townsites, hotels, campgrounds, golf courses, and swimming pools sprang up in the parks. Even Point Pelee, which had been set aside especially because of its importance to migratory birds and its unusual natural communities, was subject to heavy recreational demands.
From the earliest days of the Park, various people expressed concerns about the amount of recreational use. In 1918, E. Kerr, secretary of the Essex County Wildlife Protection Association, commented: " ... an attractive ear is being accorded the guerrillas of destruction instead of those keenly interested in the maintenance of wild areas and landscapes for future generations. Do you think it possible for the 'Park' to look favourably upon the conservationists' and marshland and parkland protectionists' viewpoint? "
Twenty-one years later, H.F. Lewis in somewhat less harsh terms, concluded: " not much had changed... . The land area of the Park is small, and the number of visitors is large; these contrasting facts intensify the problem of balancing what are virtually two opposing interests, namely preservation of natural conditions and extensive use by man. Emphasis should be placed on the quality rather than on the number of visitors using the Park. "
Point Pelee's many attractions and increased access for cars meant more uncontrolled traffic within the Park's boundaries..
© Parks Canada/CD-0277-56
Reports like this brought about only minor changes. For example, restrictions were placed on camping, with some other areas being fenced to allow for regeneration of trees, shrubs and other plants.
During the Second World War, visitor numbers declined dramatically, relieving the stress for a period. In post-war Canada, it was back to business as usual and attendance was once again on the increase. Again, Point Pelee became the subject of a variety of management studies.
One researcher, J. Tenor of the Canadian Wildlife Service, spelled out the dilemma: " Point Pelee National Park was set aside as a National Park primarily because of its unique fauna and flora and not because of its suitability as a picnic and bathing ground for local inhabitants. The forces of conservation and recreation are diametrically opposed because of the small area involved and the large number of visitors to the Park. The time has been reached where a decision must be made as to whether the purpose of the Park shall be for recreation or for the preservation of the fauna and flora. " The time for such decisions may have been reached in Tenor's mind, but obviously not in those of Park officials.
Instead, the late 1940s and early 1950s marked a period of expansion of facilities designed to increase park use rather than limit it. In 1949, the main road was paved, and in the following years large parking lots were added at Northwest Beach, East Beach, and on both sides of the Tip. This meant that by the mid-1950s, the Park could accommodate more than 6 000 vehicles. Annual visits rose to 600 000.
Visitors peaked in 1963 at 781 000, making Point Pelee, the smallest of the Canadian National Parks, the most heavily used. This was also the same year in which the Glassco Royal Commission on Government Organization recommended that Point Pelee be deleted from the National Parks System because of the problems with high use and landscape impairment.
However, there were strong feelings among many others that Point Pelee was an important component of the national parks system. They argued that its national significance warranted its continued status as a national park. Some way had to be found whereby a balance could be struck, so that visitors use would not jeopardize preservation.
Reproduced with permission of The Friends of Point Pelee, from Where Canada Begins by James Robertson Graham.