Frank Rourke was a man with ‘sweet waters’ in his veins

Frank Rourke at Great Duck Island. (All photos courtesy of Bonnie Rourke)

To followers of this blog, the Rourke name might ring a bell. There are posts about Juanita Rourke, and her brother-in-law Emery O’Rourke. There also are mentions in other posts of Juanita’s husband Frank Rourke. Now it’s time to do the memory of Frank justice with a post about him and his incredible affinity for Georgian Bay. If ever the sweet waters flowed through a person’s veins, they were his.

Logger, soldier, ship’s stoker, wheelsman, captain, mechanic, caretaker, boatbuilder, lighthouse keeper. Charles Edward (Frank) Rourke did them all in his 71 years. He also was spouse to a newspaper columnist and author, and raised six children with her. All that mostly at Georgian Bay.

Born in 1901 at Penetanguishene, Frank was one of nine children born to Mary and Edward Rourke, a carpenter, stone mason and tailor in that town.

Frank Rourke would grow up a “do-er”, no doubt about that. From boyhood on he loved a challenge, once roller-skating down the steep main street from top to bottom to win a bet. He also confessed to prefering riding horses at the local racetrack to attending school.

His father Edward must have been a do-er too. In summers he had worked for American tourists in the Sans Souci area. Liking the place and the opportunities it offered, in 1911 he built a house at Blackstone Harbour and moved his large family there permanently. That new life suited Frank nicely. As Juanita wrote in her book Up The Shore, “Frank gained the freedom he craved. He held onto it for the rest of his life.”

Edward did carpentry and masonry, until eventually he became caretaker for the owner of a lodge at Somerset Island and moved his family into a large year-round home there.

As a teenager Frank worked for cottagers in summer and in logging camps in winter. He and his brothers loved music (Frank taught himself to play the fiddle) and played for dances and parties in the area, going by boat or walking over the ice in winter.

He was 19 when his father died, and the family rallied around their mother to continue their caretaking employment at Somerset Island. Eventually, Frank went to work on the steamers that plied the Great Lakes in good numbers in those days.

He spent time in engine rooms stoking the boilers and around the moving parts, learning how to keep them working while developing an aptitude for mechanics. On the upper decks Frank learned shipboard routines and soon became a wheelsman in pilot houses of several ships. Eventually he earned his Minor Waters Pilot papers.

Frank returned to the shore to become caretaker at the Yankcanuck Club, also in the Sans Souci area, from 1927 to 1931. The water lured him back again and he worked on various ships, tugs and yachts, including W.E. Preston’s supply boat and the inter-island Midland City out of that port.

Frank Rourke (middle) on the Midland City.

At some point in that time, he had set eyes on his future wife. Juanita wrote, “Frank told a friend he was going to marry me seven years before I was really aware he existed….When I changed my name to Rourke it opened a door to adventure and excitement — to a way of life few others have known. A Gypsy life that made my mother shudder every time she thought about it.”

Their first child Glen was born in 1938. When World War 2 broke out the next year Frank joined the army as a tank mechanic. He served in England for two years before being injured and returned to Canada. He went back to the shore as skipper of Preston’s supply boat again.

In the early 1940s Canada’s war effort was going flat out. For the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) ships were being built and seamen trained as fast as possible. The island of Minnicognashene, north of Honey Harbour, had become a naval training camp. The Navy League of Canada was looking for a permanent resident supervisor of maintenance for that facility, Camp Princess Alice, and a smaller one on nearby Beausoleil Island, Camp Queen Elizabeth. Frank Rourke was their man. He moved his family to Minnicog in 1943.

The youngest of Frank and Juanita’s chldren Gillard John was baptised at Minnicog in 1948. Joining his parents and siblings were Royal Canadian Navy officers and members of the Navy League of Canada. In front: Glen, Gary, Gail, Garnet, Bonnie Gaye. Behind: the baby’s namesake Jack (John) Gillard beside his father Harry Gillard, secty. Navy League; LCdr. Bob Pearce; Juanita Rourke; Rev. E.G.B. Foote O.B.E., RCN chaplain; LCdr E.B. Pearce, camp commanding officer; Frank Rourke holding his son; J.H. Smith; LCdr Joe Jefferies.

Their life there is described in Juanita’s book Up The Shore and in her daughter Bonnie Rourke’s book The Sea Cadet Years On Georgian Bay.

Overseeing the mechanical wellbeing of two militarily affiliated camps was a tall otder, but Frank’s experience well suited him for the job. He knew the surroundings intimately, knew good people to hire and local sources for services. He also knew how to do most of the tasks himself. In Frank, his employers had a very good man. So good, in fact, they kept him on the job until the camps closed in the 1950s

Living year-round on a Georgian Bay island had its challenges back then. One was transportation. A dependable safe boat was essential, so one winter Frank built Bonnie Gail (named after his two daughters) a sturdy Georgian Bay inboard launch with a cabin. Winter travel over the ice in the early days was by foot or horse-drawn sleigh. Small planes with skiis that could land on the ice came later. When flying and landing conditions were good, planes could deliver mail and supplies, and take people to and from medical appointments.

One winter a ski-plane landed on soft ice and sank until only its wings precariously kept it from sinking to the bottom. Frank in his workshop nearby saw it happen and was out the door and crawling across the thin ice to rescue the pilot.

Juanita described it best in her book: “Frank…on his stomach, pushing a board in front of him…reached the plane, yanked open the door and yelled at the dazed pilot, ‘Get the hell out of there before you drown!’…they both belly crawled across the ice to safety.” Next day help arrived. The plane was hauled up, the engine dried out, fuselage patched with old sugar sacks. She started up and was flown off to Orillia for proper repairs.

Among the most useful inventions allowing year-rounders to travel in winter was the scoot. Like a Florida Everglades airboat, it used an airplane motor and propeller to push it along. The hull was flat bottomed and sheathed in metal so it could skim across ice, dip into water if the ice gave way, and slip back up onto the ice again.

In skilled hands, the scoot was able to travel almost anywhere over the Bay in winter. Boatbuilder that he was, Frank launched a few scoots from his shop at Minnicog.

Frank, right, shows his scoot to friend Cliff Paradis, lightkeeper at Brebeuf Island.

By their unusual design, scoots could be very dangerous. Some were not totally watertight and might sink if required to float for long. Some did not have protection from the propeller and could decapitate or seriously injure people. A few went so fast they took to the air and were damaged when slamming back on the ice. But for a brief time they were so popular on the shore that races were held at the annual Penetanguishene Winterama. In the Sixties the Bombardier Ski-Doo and other snowmobile makes took over motoriized winter travel.

In the early Fifties when the camps were closed permanently, Frank became a lighthouse keeper, another specialty for which he was well qualified.

Some lighthouses on the Great Lakes were on islands and were equipped with boats giving the keepers access to the nearest mainland. Frank’s first posting was the Western Islands where the light tower, fog signal, boathouse and dwelling were on a bare rock. It was a dozen miles or more out in the Bay from where the Rourkes had made their new permanent home at Midland.

Western Islands lighthouse station.

There was no protected anchorage at the Westerns. The main boat there was a heavy round-bottom inboard tender that was lifted and hauled out of the water and stored in the boathouse each time it was used. (My parents once visited the Rourkes there in the Blackduck, and Frank hauled her out of the water with that rig for the duration of the visit.) I believe many of the keepers found it easier to go to and from the distant mainland in small outboards, taking their chances in heavy weather by using quickly aquired seamanship skills, something Frank already had.

The lighthouse tender was hauled ashore at the Westerns.

The Rourke family’s experiences at the Westerns lasted two seasons, and served as an introduction to Frank’s transfer to the even more remote Great Duck Island station in northhern Lake Huron.

The Ducks were a group of islands well off the south shore of Manitoulin Island. Great Duck was the largest and farthest out and had a tall lighthouse (see title photo) and fog signal to guide traffic into Georgian Bay as well as through the northern reaches of Lake Huron.

In Frank’s six years there, members of the Rourke family made it their summer home whenever possible. Though remote and hard to reach, the 300-acre island was described by Juanita like being a separate world filled with hard work, adventures, periods of utter tranquility, and the challenges of wild weather.

One of those is described by Bonnie: “On a windy day in Lake Huron, Frank saw a fisherman in a boat a distance off the island. As the day passed he grew concerned when the wind and waves increased. Suddenly the boat was hit by a huge rogue wave and capsized.

“Urgently, Frank woke his assistant and they rushed across the island to the harbour where their boat was moored. They fought their way through the rough seas to see the fisherman clinging to the roof of his submerged boat. Frank circled numerous times trying to throw a rope to the cold desperate man. Facing into the wind made this nuch harder, but if he went with the wind and was pushed too close, they might run right over the fisherman. Finally they succeeded. Frank and his assistant were able to haul the exhausted man into their boat and take him to safety.

“The next day Frank suffered a severe heart attack.”

After his recovery, big changes were needed if Frank was to continue lightkeeping. Juanita would return to Great Duck with him to help with some of the physical aspects of the job. Her mother would take over at the home in Midland where the three youngest children still lived. Helped by their two eldest, Frank and Juanita made the long road trip to Manitoulin, crossed to Great Duck in a fish tug and cautiously settled into the next phase of their life.

The first evening back the couple took a stroll around the lightstation. “Listen,” Frank said, “hear the waves hitting the shore. Doesn’t it sound nice?”

Juanita thought to herslef: “These men of the shore, I’m certain it’s water in their veins. There is no happiness for any of them anywhere away from the restless waters of Canada’s Great Lakes.”

After seven years at Great Duck, Frank’s health was not the best. He needed to be closer to medical attention. So the authorities transferred him to Cape Croker on the Bruce Peninsula, overlooking Georgian Bay. This lightstation could be reached by road.

Cape Croker lighthouse.

Frank and Juanita moved to Cape Croker lighthouse in 1965. They were then much closer to doctors and hospitals. Being on the mainland also made a big difference in their social life. Family members and friends could now drive there for visits. As the lightkeepers got to know neighbours on Cape Croker First Nation reserve, they were able to form new relationships close by.

After three more years, Frank retired from lightkeeping in 1968. He and Jaunita went back to their home in Sunnyside, Midland. Frank died there on November 15, 1973, and is buried in Midland. Juanita had an active life for over 20 more years, close to her family for much of that time. She died on August 24, 1996. Her ashes are scattered up the shore at Moon River near where she and Frank grew up.

4 thoughts on “Frank Rourke was a man with ‘sweet waters’ in his veins

  1. he was my Grandfather I can still remember going with him at Cape Croker to Wind the springs up for the light.


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