By Mike Rainone – For the Review
Whether we are toddlers, teens, parents or grandparents, just about each and every one of us who have made this area our home has countless fond memories of swimming, fishing, camping, boating and other great adventures of fun and frolic in and around the sandy beaches of Gull Lake.
This tranquil body of water and the lush rolling hills and landscape surrounding it have developed slowly over many centuries, and along the way have painted a colorful history full of vivid changes and a great deal of pleasure for thousands of visitors from near and far.
History books claim that in the late 18th century Gull Lake once covered an area of 47 square miles reaching as far north as the present Highway 53 but started to recede in the late 1920s, and would drop at a rate of six inches a year. The late 1920s also marked the beginning of lots of oil and gas well drilling, both on and around the lake. By the 1970s the over-all depth had gone down 10 feet and the water now filled an overall area of just 35 square miles, and has continued to recede over the years to present day.
In the early days there were two small channels at the north end of the lake between two islands located to the east and west but continuous sand storms and debris blown in by strong winds from the south would eventually fill in the channels. In many areas around the lake the sand storms would create piles and ridges of sand as high as 15 feet, which slowly created a steady growth of weeds and trees and left some 200 acres of swamps and sloughs in the surrounding areas where the lake use to be.
Pioneers recall as the forest and foliage would completely transform the pristine shoreline of Gull Lake forever, the area became an early haven for beaver dams, rat houses, and all species of birds and wildlife, then later a hot spot for the ongoing development by hardy families of settlers. To this day, if you went out there and dug deep enough into the sloughs and sand you would likely find numerous small shells left by the lake many decades before, as well as the skulls and bones of the large herds of buffalo that once roamed this vast expanse of land.
The exciting early history of Gull Lake
Peter Adams (fondly known as Uncle Sam) came to scout out the Gull Lake area in 1890 from Michigan, and so much liked what he saw that he went back home and eventually brought his entire family back in 1894 to settle on the east side of the lake. Over the years Adams built many of the roads around Gull Lake, while he and his boys cut posts and rails to sell, as well as establishing several kilns, from which they would produce and sell the lime that plastered most of the buildings around the countryside for many years.
He later took up a homestead near Wolf Creek west of Rimbey in 1925, raising a family of 10 children, and also setting up a community saw mill. The always congenial Peter Adams would became a proficient axe man, making sturdy but exquisite sleighs for countless settler families, all fashioned completely out of wood by hand, and selling for $5. He died at the age of 82 in 1935 while working on his house, and his wife passed away in Rimbey in 1954 at the age of 93.
Harry Brownlow was born in 1869 in Bristol, England, came to Canada in 1885, and arrived in Alberta to establish a homestead near Gull Lake in 1900. This energetic entrepreneur was not cut out to be a farmer, so he sold his magnificent lakefront property as lots for summer cottages and then developed the posh summer resort of Brownlow’s Landing. This would later include a store for the convenience of the cottage owners and homesteaders, as well as the growing crowds of tourists from near and far. Harry’s busy life also became wrapped Gull Lake has been a tourist hot spot since 1880 up in politics at the municipal, county, and provincial level, serving as a staunch Conservative for over 40 years.
Brownlow also had some experience with river boats, so in 1911 he teamed with Mr. Walker and Mr. Ross to bring a small steam boat to Gull Lake. The fancy double decker 36 by 40 foot vessel was called the Sea Gull, was powered by a wood burning boiler and under the direction of engineer Norman Ross hosted countless pleasure tours and picnic charters out on the lake. One could only imagine what it might be like coming back from a long night of dancing and carousing and then having to walk the single plank of Brownlow’s pier back to the shore.
Thomas and Jane Cummings emigrated from Ireland in 1898, and arrived in Gull Lake in 1900 with their family of four. Son George acquired sawmills on the west side of the Lake at Sucker Creek and at Cook’s Point (now Birch Bay). To help keep up with the lucrative lumber trade in the area the family built a massive (84 by 19 foot) sailing craft called The Kangaroo, which hauled huge booms of lumber across the lake to the mills, delivered lumber to customers, and was occasionally used as a pleasure craft. The Cummings family also had a lumber yard in Lacombe, where they built the town’s first covered curling, hockey, skating rink in 1903 but it unfortunately later burned down.
Over the years thousands of visitors and residents of all ages have enjoyed countless hours in and around Gull Lake, tanning and swimming in all sorts of modest, dashing and later daring swimwear, testing their newfound wild and always faster water toys and crafts, as well as trying their luck against many species of freshwater fish, year-round. Along the way many new subdivisions, resorts and campgrounds have popped up around the popular lake. Wise old-timers still claim that some of those original old jackfish from many decades ago are still lurking around the waters of Gull Lake (just ask John Witvoet). They also encourage all generations to always keep on enjoying the gentle amenities of this tourist gem of central Alberta, but please treat it with the respect that our precious and long-standing wonders of nature deserve.