Munn Lake (local name for Wilmer Lake)
You won’t likely find Munn Lake on a map: it’s a local name that many locals don’t even know is local. I certainly didn’t. If you want driving directions on your phone type in Wilmer Lake, but if you ask a local there’s a chance they won’t what you’re talking about.
Munn Lake was named after an Englishman, Henry Toke Munn, who led a somewhat eventful life. Munn was born in West Ashford, Kent, England in 1864. At the age of twenty-two, Munn decided on the toss of a coin to travel to Canada in search of adventure.
As an Englishman of some means, Munn did not come to Canada with the intention of settling down. He spent much of his early years in Manitoba just north of Brandon at a country house built by friends called “Morley.”
In 1889 Munn went into a partnership based out of Manitoba in trading horses, bringing him through British Columbia, Oregon, Montana, Washington and North Dakota.1 He also spent the winter of 1890/91 in Japan on a trip to visit his sister.2 After four years in the horse trade business, a series of bad crops on the prairies and an economic collapse prompted Munn and his partner to wind up the business.
With nothing much else to do in poor economic times, Munn spent the next year in northern Canada hunting musk-ox. Of this trip, Munn writes, “My most vivid memories of the hunt were the night camps. The moment the kettle was boiled and its contents drunk and eaten, the fire was put out to save wood, and we rolled in our deer-skin blankets. If there was nothing to boil we just set up the teepee and did the same.”3
Munn also lamented the company on this trip remarking, “It had been an interesting, if hard, trip, and being alone with the Indians – for my boy did not count, conversationally – made it seem harder, for there was no one to talk to intelligently.”4
East Kootenay and the Klondike
Munn returned to England in 1896 before coming back to Canada in April 1897. Once there, an acquaintance in Ottawa suggested he go to the East Kootenay as a prospector and, “The idea appealed to me, for I had always wanted to get some practical knowledge of prospecting. It is a curious fact and encouraging for the greenhorn, that many – perhaps most of the great mines in North America – have been first discovered by beginners at the game.”5
By May 1897, Munn was in Fort Steele, where he met an “old friend” Robert Randolph Bruce. Together, they “decided that the valley about Windermere, one hundred miles north of the CPR, was hard to beat for attractiveness.”6 Munn spent the summer prospecting throughout the East Kooteany, never finding much of anything, although he apparently made the suggestion to his Ottawa acquaintance that he should buy the St Eugene silver mine in Kimberley which, at the time, “was going for a song.”7 The Ottawa man refused, and missed out on quite a fortune.
The winter of 1897/98 was a time of great excitement out west as that was the year of the Klondike Gold Rush. Munn did not have any other commitments, so in January he took a job with the Bank of British North America to bring some $225,000 in cash up to Dawson City in order to establish the first bank there.8 If we are to believe his memoir, on the journey Munn managed to outsmart notorious Skagway conman “Soapy” Smith, and once in Dawson City he passed on staking what turned out to be a very lucrative property on French Hill above Eldorado Creek.9 Munn left the Klondike in late autumn of 1899.
At that time the South African War broke out, and Munn returned to England in November 1899 to join the Leicestershire Yeomanry (a cavalry outfit) on the East Coast of Africa.10 Munn spent the next few years in Africa, recalling that in general, “I do not like South Africa. The steel blue, hard sky, the dusty veldt, the burning sun day after day, the disease in the permanent camps, all made me long for the kindlier Canadian summer.”11
In his memoir, Munn describes his first excurion in the South Africa campaign, in which he casually discusses the beheading of a local resident. Other than that, he makes only general observations about his time in Africa. His conclusion was that, “the general management of the campaign, especially the early stages, was incompetent,” however he does not dwell on the other atrocities of the war committed and witnessed by British troops.12
Back to Canada
Munn returned to Canada in June 1903 and spent the rest of the year in Brandon Manitoba, particularly at a duck shooting lodge on Lake Manitoba.13 In July 1904 Munn travelled with an old hunting partner, Johnnie Watson, back to the East Kootenay where his old friend Robert Randolph Bruce was settled and managing the silver-lead mine that Watson had helped to locate (the Paradise Mine).14
It is likely that it was Munn’s acquaintance with Bruce that encouraged Munn and his cousin, Mr W Baker-White, to purchase 2,320 acres of CPR land just west of Wilmer across the head of Wilmer Lake (or Munn Lake) stretching north over Horsethief Creek.15 Bruce was financially invested in the area and had connections with officials of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
With timing too perfect to be coincidental, less than a month after Munn’s purchase it was announced that the CPR Land Department was considering a large irrigation scheme in the vicinity of Wilmer.16 Overnight the cost of land in the area likely increased, and Munn had managed to get in on the ground floor.
It is worth noting that the size of Munn’s land purchase – over 2000 acres – is dramatically greater than even what was considered a large land sale at the time (between 600 and 700 acres). Munn later reported having purchased the land with the expectation of selling a portion for fruit land once this projected irrigation scheme came into being.17 In the months following this announcement, the CPR seemed to be moving forward with plans to sink wells in the area for water to irrigate the land, and one of those wells was projected to be made on the Munn Ranch.18
The Munn Ranch
Captain Munn had extensive plans for his ranch. Immediately after purchase he ordered it to be fenced, with the intention of bringing out Percheron horses to begin a breeding program. He also planned to bring in cattle. A dam was proposed on Horsethief Lake (Lake Enid) to get water for irrigation, as well as for a house “this side of the two mile post,” overlooking Wilmer (Munn) Lake.19
Munn left the area in December 1904 to spend the rest of the winter near Brandon, leaving behind a man in charge. The following year, 1905, Munn took energetic steps towards development. He had “a car load of effects and two fine stallions” shipped from Brandon to Wilmer, and brought in about 700 fruit trees of a number of varieties to plant there.20
Munn and his cousin ended up building “a very comfortable bungalow” on the shores of what became known as Munn Lake.21 Munn seemed keen to invest in agriculture and ranching in the area. In addition to his Wilmer ranch, he also purchased with John Watson some 225 acres on the Kootenay River near Canal Flats, as well as reportedly the old Ben Abel ranch near Brisco. Both purchases were made to provide wintering pasture.22
Munn recalls doing a fair amount of hunting in the area during his residence in the Valley, and he and his cousin also entertained a number of wealthy and influential visitors.23 Munn reflects in his memoir having, “put in three very happy years there.”24
Munn’s time in Wilmer may have been happy, but it was not exactly profitable. Munn only owned the property for two years, not three years as he recalled, and in that time he, “found that the valley was not suited for fruit-growing, and we finally got out of the place with a loss.”25 Munn sold the ranch in November 1906 for an undisclosed sum.26
It is not surprising, although it is curious, that just two months before the sale of his ranch Munn provided an article to the local newspaper The Outcrop extolling the promise and profits to be made through horse ranching in the Windermere Valley. In that article, Munn dismissed the land for agriculture, pointing out that it was, “hilly, broken by deep ravines, and incapable of irrigation,” however he argued that the land was “ideal [for] the practical horse-rancher.” With the prairie market close by an investor, “only needs enterprise and a reasonable amount of capital to exploit to great advantage.”27
Munn’s conclusion, that the area was not suitable for fruit farming but might be put to better use through practical ranching methods, proved somewhat prophetic although it was largely ignored. The CPR energetically continued to develop and promote their scheme for fruit farming on the Toby Benches. Their efforts culminated in the formation and promotion of the Columbia Valley Irrigated Fruit Lands Company, which encouraged primarily British settlers immigrate to the Valley to become “gentlemen farmers” of fruit. The scheme was not successful.
Munn Moves On
Meanwhile, with the sale of his Wilmer ranch, Henry Munn had moved on to yet another area of Canada. In 1908 he moved to the little town of Haileybury in Northern Ontario close to Cobalt (near the Quebec border).28 There he joined in a local rush of prospecting, staking, and acquiring claims. Again, Munn reported to have narrowly missed out on the big strike, this time of the Hollinger Mines near Timmins, Ontario, but he did put in a great deal of money into a claim just to the north, eventually selling it to an English syndicate for “a not very large sum of money.”29
In about 1911, Munn was put onto another venture by a friend of his, George Bartlett, namely investigating a story that gold had been discovered on the east side of Baffin’s Island near Pond Inlet off Davis Strait. After further inquiry, the two decided that the story was worth exploring, and they chartered a vessel to go north and investigate.
Munn and Bartlett left for Davis Strait in June 1912 with about twenty in their party and crew. The boat was captained by George’s father John Bartlett, who was captain on several of Robert Peary’s northern expeditions. The Munn voyage ended in something of a disaster. Once on the ground where gold was reported to have been found, Munn quickly dismissed the possibility of there being large amounts of gold due to the geography of the area.30 Meanwhile, the vessel the party had chartered was punctured by ice and sunk within twenty-five minutes, leaving the entire gold-hopeful party stranded until they could be picked up by a ship heading south.31
Opportunities in the Arctic
Munn was undeterred by this Arctic adventure, and indeed was intrigued by the potential economic benefits of the Arctic. He became, “satisf[ied] … that a Trading Station there should be profitable,” and reasoned that setting up such a post would also provide the opportunity to do further prospecting for gold.32 In the autumn of 1913 Munn went to England and organized a small syndicate, the Arctic Gold Exploration Syndicate (AGES) to establish trading posts on Baffin Island. Munn left with the syndicate’s first voyage to the Arctic just weeks before the outbreak of the First World War.33
Munn’s efforts to find gold resulted only in some iron pyrite (fools gold), but he was reasonably successful at attracting trade to his post. He became known as “Kapitaikuluk,” meaning the kind captain.34
When Munn emerged from the Arctic the following year (1915) he, “arrived back to a strange and unfamiliar England.” He seemed enthusiastic to join in fighting on the front lines, however a law had been passed meaning “that men over fifty years of age of subordinate rank were not wanted at the Front.”35 Munn apparently tried to get past this order, but was unsuccessful, and figuring that there were plenty of other men willing to work in depots on the Home Front, Munn decided to continue pursuing the goals of his Arctic syndicate. In 1916 he managed to get together supplies for another voyage and winter in the Arctic.
That one winter turned into two, and Munn had just made it back to Halifax when the German armies seemed ready to collapse, and to England in time for the Armistice.36
Munn was not finished with the Arctic yet, returning in subsequent years until his final voyage in 1922.37 Munn was convinced to sell out after that 1922 voyage as the Hudson’s Bay Company had moved into the area and he could not compete. Munn remained resentful against the Company and their treatment of the local people.38
Munn lived in Canada and England for the next ten years before arthritis prompted him to move to the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. He passed away there in 1952 and his body was committed to sea (twice, as his body drifted ashore the first time).39
The Munn Lake Property
It is unknown who bought the property near Wilmer when Munn sold it. Some portion of the ranch was later rented in the 1920s to the Simon Olson family who raised cows and sold butter and milk, then the Barbour brothers (Bert and Ed) in 1935.40
Although Munn only owned the property near Wilmer for two years, and lived there for less time than that, the lake there is nonetheless known locally as Munn Lake. You won’t likely find Munn Lake on a map: it is a local name that many locals don’t even know is local. I certainly didn’t. If you want driving directions on your phone type in Wilmer Lake, but if you ask a local there’s a chance they won’t what you’re talking about.
As for the man the lake is named after, Henry Toke Munn is a somewhat complicated character. He seems to be the quintessential wealthy and adventurous Englishman of his time, always in search of another escapade and means to make money. He very much believed in the superiority of the English, an attitude that comes out quite clearly in his memoir. He was also not above using his personal connections to try and get out ahead, as is shown by the fortunate timing of his purchase of the ranch in Wilmer right before demand for that land would have increased. Munn’s memoir, Prairie Trails and Arctic By-Ways, is entertaining and quite readable, and I recommend it to anyone who is curious to know more and make their own judgements.