By Sue Tiffin
For 20 or so years, Gwen Sigrid Morgan has been visiting a cottage on the Burnt River, but it was in Toronto during the pandemic that she learned of a deeper connection to Kinmount.
Morgan is the president of the Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto, a group founded in 1959 to connect together over Iceland’s culture, history and language. During the pandemic, the group worked to stay connected despite isolation, and in doing so began sharing stories.
“We gather strength from our stories, that’s how we gather resilience,” said Morgan. “That’s how we all do it and how the Icelanders did it back then, they happened to write down their saga.”
Morgan said the pause in busy lives caused people to reach out to their elders, and learn of hardships of the past, and in doing so, the group learned more of those who came before them – including a group of Icelanders who, in attempting to escape economic distress in Iceland in the 1870s, became part of Kinmount’s history.
“That’s where I learned the story of Kinmount and I’ve been going there for years,” said Morgan.
Last month, members of the Icelandic Canadian Club visited Kinmount to celebrate their annual national day, coming together to learn more about the Icelandic settlement that resulted in disaster, and exploring the area where it happened.
Near the end of September, 1874, a group of almost 400 Icelanders emigrated from Iceland to Canada on a ship called the St. Patrick that left from Scotland to Quebec, and then a train to emigration sheds in Toronto. From there, many from the group travelled to Kinmount to work on the railway line – arriving by wagon pulled by the great-grandfather of Kinmount’s Guy Scott – and attempted to live life in log shanties nearby. While in this area, they worked on constructing the railway trestle bridge over Crego Creek, about two kilometres outside of Kinmount, that still stands today.
“When you walk it, think of our ancestors who walked along that path to come to town for supplies, carrying what they needed over the snow and who lived in crowded shanties,” Morgan told the group gathered on June 18.
The group suffered through a hard winter, dealing with the poor ventilation and sanitation of the shanties, malnutrition and illness, and though there are stories of the small group of settlers in Kinmount helping the larger group of Icelanders, more than a dozen children and a teenager had died in the group’s first weeks in the area, and by spring of 1875 the death toll had doubled. In total, about 40 people of the group of 185 had died within months.
“Many of those who had died were buried along the shores of the Burnt River and the location of their graves were lost, and the memory of the Kinmount tragedy faded into distant memory,” Morgan said.
While the shanties are gone, and the grave locations lost, during millennium celebrations in Canada, Don Gislason spent months working through the Ontario archives to locate the names of the people who had arrived in Canada at that time, and sculpture artist Gudrun Sigursteinsdottir Girgis created the In the Presence of a Soul monument erected in Austin Sawmill Heritage Park to honour those who came and died.
“From one view, we see a ship with sails; from another perspective, a mother cradling a child; and from a third angle, a father’s strong arm and face looking back to the land left behind,” said Morgan.
The group of remaining Icelanders, living in grief, were offered a tract of land in Manitoba.
“They were the group from Kinmount that founded Gimli, and Gimli means in the Icelandic language, their heaven, or their paradise, so they were leaving to go to something that was more hopeful,” said Morgan. “I think this is part of a pioneer spirit, it’s actually, I think, part of the human spirit: that when you face these really hard times, you also come out with resiliences about having hope again. I think that’s what we’re seeing, I think that’s what was in our village.”
Morgan said the town of Kinmount came together to welcome the Icelandic group last month, putting efforts into beautifying the town after the winter, setting up displays and giving tours and thanked villagers including Janice Stange and Ron Claridge and Guy Scott.
“We don’t want this hardship but in so many ways it allows for good to come from it,” she said. “I loved my Icelandic background but I never really took the time to connect with that story.”
For more information visit www.icct.info/saga3ondemand.