January 7, 1985
We have mentioned before that our historical battery gets charged anew when we discover something or someone that knows things that we do not. That may not be very good English but it conveys the right kind of meaning.
Sixty-five years ago - 1920 to be exact, Corporal William Oram of the Royal Canadian Mounted police arrived in Nipigon in response to a cry for help from the town. They were being plagued by a horde of migrants all looking for work or food or both. And there were the usual grifters among them.
1920 was an unusual year for Nipigon. There was a lot of construction going on and men were pouring in. Elsewhere in Canada a depression was setting in but it hadn't quite got to Nipigon.
The Little Mill was in the process of construction and start-up. Don Clark was cutting for the Little Mill. Ontario Hydro was still building at Cameron Falls and employing a considerable number of men. The Canadian Northern Railway ( now C.N. ) had not finished their building program but were close to wrap-up.
With all these men coming and going, and some of them not being any better than they should have been, the Nipigon police force was having a hard time to maintain law and order. Since the town's force at that time consisted of one constable, the poor guy probably was run off his feet. Ollie Steen was that man and it was probably at his insistence that someone give him a hand.
As noted above William showed up in the fall of 1920 and stayed until the summer of 1921.
How do we know all this? Easy. 86 year old Bill Oram is alive (1985) and living comfortably in Fort William - sorry, Thunder Bay. Not only that but he has a clear memory of his Nipigon Days.
The story of Oram's life is a tale of continued adventure, but we are concerned at this time with his Nipigon experiences only.
Oram volunteered to come to Nipigon. He arrived in the fall of 1920 and took up residence in the Mounted Police headquarters. This was a small shack that was situated about where the Legion is now; just below the brow of the hill. It seems to have had but two very small rooms - one for Oram to sleep in and the other for a sort of lock-up if same was required. He did his own cooking with groceries that were supplied because he was on detached duty. It was just as well because his pay was $0.25 per hour and he was on call twenty-four hours a day. He didn't get paid for 24 hours - he was just on call. Good thing he wasn't married.
The first thing that Oram did after he got to town and settled in was to go around and meet all the main men in town. There was of course, William McKirdy and his sons Jack and Stewart. There was a Jack Fisher as station agent (C.P.R.) with Elmer McLaughlin as his helper. The game warden was Jack Cummings ( father of Hugh, if you have a long memory). Harold Atwill was a councillor; so was Frank DeFazio. Bert Cummings, brother of Jack was a fire warden but he would not have been working there in the winter.
At this time, Oram says, there were scarcely 300 people as permanent residents in Nipigon. The business section was from the Hudson's Bay store along Front Street down to about where the Normandy Hotel is now (Ed. was -as it has since burned). Oram also says that the Hudson's Bay store was not open while he was there. This seems odd, but Oram was there and we were not.
Oram's social life was almost nil because there were no people there that he could have a social life with. Each Saturday night he would go over to McKirdy's where in an upstairs room, he would sit around and talk with Jack and Stewart McKirdy; Jack and Bert Cummings, and Harold Atwill among others. Their repast was tinned sardines and soda biscuits as supplied by McKirdy. They also had a few drinks but Oram says they did not play cards - they merely sat around, talked and enjoyed each other's company.
Oram was also a musician and at this time he was playing trumpet. He undertook to teach Nestor Manilla who was and accomplished accordion player, to play the trumpet but he wasn't in Nipigon long enough to see it though. He played in a trio that consisted of Shorty Stanley on piano, a chap named Brittan (or Burton) on drums and himself on trumpet. They played from commercial orchestrations but Oram couldn't remember any of the numbers they played at that time. Bill still has a number of instruments in his home and while we visited there, we got to blow the oldest trombone we have ever seen.
Oram's work involved mostly infractions of the liquor laws of the times, whatever they were, but liquor was the cause of almost all the ructions in town at that time.
Oram was hardly in town before he was visited by a local man who offered him $1000 if he would be out of Nipigon on a Saturday night. Oram refused and made sure that no liquor came in by train for anyone.
He was hardly in Nipigon when he got a call to go over to the White Hotel and lunchroom that was situated about where Harold Clarke had his GM Showroom and garage. (ed. now Mac's 2014).
He found an inebriated fellow sitting on a chair in the ante room with an eye hanging down on his cheek. HE stuffed it back into the socket, bandaged it and sent someone for Dr. Morrison. He then went looking for the perpetrator and found him in the hotel. The guy outs with a knife and slashes Oram across the wrist. Bill then beaned the guy with a heavy flashlight that he was carrying. It was his only weapon. HE took the culprit to Thunder Bay to Court there. Twenty-five cents an hour doesn't seem like very good pay for this kind of work.
It wasn't always good Teacher's Highland Cream Scotch or Sandy McDonald's Scotch that caused all the ructions. There were Hoffman's Drops a plenty and very easy to buy.
Another time, Oram was "making a patrol" to a place called Checog about 6 miles east of Nipigon. (Anyone know where this place was ? Not on our maps - Buzz) He intercepted a couple fellows who were going into this Checog reserve with about 100 coke bottles filled with a mixture of a lot of coke and a small amount of rum which they were going to sell to the reserve residents for $1.00 per bottle. And it wasn't the first time that they had done this.
Joe Sault was the Chief there at that time and it was at Joe's place where Oram says he was treated to the best stew that he ever tasted. It was Skunk!! Joe told him all that was necessary was that the skunk be killed quickly before it could activate its scent gun.
After Oram got back to town he searched and found two cases of brandy in a guy's room in the Ovilio Hotel. We hadn't realized that this hotel was there that early.
The guys with the fortified coke were locked up in the town jail which at that time was about where Dr. Somerleigh's Office is now . (Behind Dewhurst's building 2014 - ed.)
Since one of the main reasons why Oram was in Nipigon was the prevalence of so many guys riding the rods, he solved his problem with them by going to the Red Rock Station west of town where the freights all stopped and made the guys all get off the train. He would then march them along the track to just west of the Nipigon Railway Bridge where the freights would stop; the drifters would get on again and be whisked out of Nipigon to other locations east.
Oram is not a big man but his red tunic must have commanded a lot of respect because the fellows didn't gang up on him at all.
Another interesting event occurred when Oram was again making a "patrol" in the Spring of 1921. He discovered a moose that had been shot; its tongue and nothing else removed. He followed the tracks in the snow and found four more dead moose, again with nothing but the tongues removed. Oram tracked the culprit by following the tracks in the snow. Took the guy to court in Thunder Bay.
One of the reasons that Oram was a single man was the fact that the RCNW Police rules and regulations required that a constable had to have 1500 dollars in the bank and permission from the Commissioner. In addition, force members signed on for definite periods of time for service. As Bill says, its not easy to accumulate 1500 bucks at $2.00 per day. It was true that they received $3.00 for each arrest made and $2.00 for each attendance in the court but the reason why marriage permission was slow in coming was largely because once married, the Force had to supply an officer with a place to live and provisions to go along with it!
We think that Oram really enjoyed his stay in Nipigon because he has such clear memories of it. He lives alone now in his own house in Thunder Bay after being retired more than 20 years ago from his job as mechanical superintendent in one of Abitibi's Thunder Bay mills. Well, he is not quite alone. He has sons and daughters in town and many grand and great grandchildren.
And he shares his home with an 18 year old pigeon that thinks he is people and has free run of the house!