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Tom Thomson, buried in two places

Back Roads Bill takes us on a journey through a mystery with the help of Roy McGregor

It is not often someone is buried in two places, Tom Thomson may very well be.

On a back road, the signs lead to the Leith United Cemetery just about 8 km NNE of Owen Sound to the iconic artist’s grave or you can make your way to another Tom Thomson burial site in the back shore of Canoe Lake within Algonquin Provincial Park.

He was an influential Canadian artist of the early 20th century famous for his landscapes of abstract expressionism (August 5, 1877 – July 8, 1917). Thomson directly influenced a group of Canadian painters that would come to be known as the Group of Seven, and though he died before they formally formed, he is sometimes incorrectly credited as being a member of the group itself.

Thomson died under unusual circumstances; it is a century-old mystery of what really happened. These include suicide and murder. Proponents of these theories suggest that Thomson may have committed suicide over a woman who holidayed at Canoe Lake being pregnant with his child, or out of despondence over his lack of artistic recognition.

Others have suggested that Thomson was in a fatal fight with one of two men who were living at Canoe Lake, or killed by poachers in the park. His untimely demise complements his masterpieces.

Admiring visitors from around the world visit his two grave sites; often after seeing some of his landscape paintings displayed at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound or prints for sale at the Park’s Visitor Interpretation Centre along the Highway 60 corridor east of Huntsville. Numerous examples of his work are also on display at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, north of Toronto.

At 39, the landscape painter drowned in Canoe Lake, his Owen Sound headstone reads. More than one hundred years later, the man and his paintings and the myths and speculation surrounding his work, his life and especially his death are legend.

The background

Thomson first visited Algonquin Park in the spring of 1912.

He often travelled around Ontario with his colleagues, especially to the wilderness areas, which was to be a major source of inspiration for him. In 1912 he began working, as a graphic artist along with other artists who would go on to form the Group of Seven after his death but left the following year to work as a full-time artist.

He first exhibited with the Ontario Society of Artists in 1913 and became a member the following year. He would continue to exhibit with the Ontario Society until his death.

In 1914 the National Gallery of Canada began acquiring his paintings, which signalled a turning point in Thomson's career. For several years he shared a studio and living quarters with fellow artists.

Beginning in 1914 he worked intermittently as a fire fighter, ranger, and guide in Algonquin Park, but found that such work did not allow enough time for painting. During the next three years, he produced many of his most famous works, including The Jack PineThe West Wind and The Northern River.

Northern light

But is Thomson really resting in Owen Sound? Did the wilderness painter accidentally fall from his canoe and drown in 1917?

“Not at all,” says award-winning journalist Roy MacGregor in his book Northern Light. He was contacted by Back Roads Bill

“The artist was killed, possibly murdered, quickly buried at Canoe Lake where he remains today while friends, family, park officers, politicians and medical officials have conspired over the years to hush up what really happened,” MacGregor believes.

The Thomson family and others have always insisted Tom Thomson's body came home on the train from Algonquin Park and that he was buried at Leith. On the other side of the story, MacGregor has spent a lifetime researching and writing about the Thomson story, pondering the inconsistencies, and puzzling over the mysteries.

He believes new science he reports in Northern Light – The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, leaves no doubt that bones unearthed by anglers at Canoe Lake in 1956 are Thomson's remains.

MacGregor proposes Thomson was killed, perhaps by accident, maybe over money, more likely as a consequence of his plan to run out west to avoid obligations to Winnifred Trainer.

“I believe there was a pregnancy. I can't prove anything, of course, but there's a strong case for that based on the circumstantial evidence," MacGregor writes.

The setting is well known. Algonquin Provincial Park, Canada’s first provincial park (1893) and Canoe Lake – one of the park’s best attractions, an important stop on the Grand Trunk Railway it held leaseholder cottages and the well-known Taylor Statten Camps for youth.

The characters include Winifred Trainor, a Huntsville resident and Canoe Lake cottager, believed to be engaged to Thomson, at the time of his death. She never did marry. And Martin Blecher, a summer cottager who often quarrelled with Thomson and was heard to threaten the artist at a “raucous drinking party" on the night of July 7th.

McGregor writes, “…but not before the loudmouthed Blecher is said to have threatened Thomson: 'Don’t get in my way if you know what’s good for you!' Thomson’s overturned canoe was reported by Blecher, on July 10th and he asked the park ranger “…to drag for Mr. Thomson’s body…” not knowing if it was Thomson’s canoe or if Thomson could have been somehow stranded, "as he often paddled the many lakes of the park for days on end."

McGregor has been a summer resident of the area since birth.

“The research and writing were very important, as they helped me sort out a lot regarding Winnie Trainor," he said. "I and my buddies all thought her a witch when we were kids.

"If the ball went into her yard, that was the end of the world. We were mean to her -- knicky-knicky-nine-doors, etc. -- and, of course, I had no idea then that she had once been beautiful, once had dreams, once had a lover and, I personally think, once had a child. It's why I dedicated the book to her. And why I consider there to be two tragedies here -- perhaps three, if there was, in fact, a child.”

McGregor is a gifted storyteller.

The details are all in the book, based on years of research, dozens of his own taped interviews over the years, and careful analysis of hundreds of newspaper reports, diaries, letters, earlier biographies and any other documents MacGregor could find.

Thomson was an enigmatic figure. McGregor points out the artist made great friends in the North Country and equally great enemies. He enjoyed drinking, going off alone in his canoe for days and was considered a womanizer.

When found floating on the lake, it appeared he had suffered a blow to the head and many loops of fishing line were neatly twisted around one ankle.

Visit Thomson

There are three places to visit just off of Highway 60 within Algonquin Provincial Park. There is a national plaque at the Canoe Lake access point - the Tom Thomson memorial cairn is found on the west side of the jutting peninsula at the north end of Canoe Lake.

It is from this vantage point that Thomson painted some of his most well-known masterpieces. The small grave plot is located, it is directly across or WNW of the cairn, see the map below.

You can visit all the important Tom Thomson locations, including Owen Sound where there is a downtown gallery and the Leith headstone and accompanying blue-bronzed provincial plaque. There are also two Tom Thomson parks, one is in South River on the way to the Kawawaymog. Round Lake access points are on the west side of Algonquin Provincial Park.

One of my Thomson pieces is The Waterfall/Woodland Waterfall because I have been to the site within the Park (Barron River - South Branch of the Petawawa River - between St. Andrews Lake and High Falls Lake).

"It's my Rubik's Cube," Roy says, "I grew up with the story."

"I think one of the most important things to take out of the Tom Thomson story is that no one knows what happened and no one ever will. It's all speculation and interpretation and if someone else's ideas on Tom don't match yours, that's just fine.

"No one 'owns' this story and it should be one that is tied forever to his art and helps Canadians appreciate what a brilliant artist he was. If they also learn a bit about Winnie Trainor, then so much the better, as she was obviously important to Tom.”

This myth is one of those perplexing love stories that make us appreciate even more the painter’s penchant for the wild beauty of Algonquin Park on the back roads.