C. W. "King" Cole (1871-1938) ruled Main Ducks
Adapted from Willis Metcalfe
Twelve miles from the nearest land, Point Traverse or Prince Edward Point, the southerly tip of Prince Edward County, and twenty miles from Kingston, the Main Duck lies in Canadian waters, practically in mid-lake.
It is the largest (518 acres) of a long group of islands at the easterly end of Lake Ontario, known collectively as the Ducks. The Main Ducks nearest island is Yorkshire, a quarter mile off. Farther west, and near Pt. Traverse are the False Duck and Timber Island.
Up until May 13, 1938, the owner of the Main Duck was Claude W. Cole. Born a native of Big Island in 1871, Prince Edward County, a member of the family who had established Cole's ferry across Long Reach and Cole's Landing, he died unexpectedly from a heart attack at Cape Vincent N.Y. The island itself remained under the jurisdiction of the Department of Indian Lands until July 14, 1905, when it was patented by the Crown and sold to Claude W. Cole for twelve hundred dollars. The crown patent calls for seven hundred and forty acres, so included Yorkshire Island, but two of these were expropriated by the Marine and Fisheries Department for $200 in 1913 "for the erection of a lighthouse and suitable dwelling for the keeper and his assistant".
Claude W. "King" Cole and son Cecil. (NMA/Metcalfe fonds.)
Queried as to how or why he sought possession of the Main Duck island he replied: "I guess it was in the blood, as they say; my grandfather owned three Indian islands. The Main Ducks were originally held in trust for the Alenwick tribe. I secured the first deed ever made out for the islands. I was given the contract to clear the island of wild cattle and went there in an old sailing scow with a rifle, on my first visit".
Claude Cole was known as "King" of the Main Duck and on the island he was the sovereign. He owned and ruled the Main Duck. He was a cordial host and colourful personality who fit happily in the glamorous background of his little kingdom. If he wished he could make hours fly while he spun you stories of wrecks, or heroism or peril and romance.
He did not live at the island the year round. He had nice homes on the island and at Cape Vincent N.Y. He was at the island the great share of the time during the summer. He kept cattle, blooded stock, and race horses there. He hunted deer in the woods which he stocked himself. He granted fishing rights to a number of families who filled a snug little colony of cottages, with as many as sixty fishermen some years.
He navigated the steam tugs Surprise, C.W. Cole and C.A. Cole between the island and Cape Vincent, and many a time he made the trip when seasoned lake captains would have· hesitated to brave the weather.
This benevolent monarch ruled the place with a kindly hand.
Many are the stories of the kind deeds he did for his friends, but if he disliked anyone, the island was far to small for both of them. On the point near the graves remains the ruins of a fireplace. And about this there is a peculiar tale. Several rich Americans paid King Cole well to build a summer home there. They constructed an elaborate place, furnished in a sumptuous manner, and frequently brought their friends to visit.
But there arose a dispute with the King and he ordered them to get off the island. They tore the house down and shipped it back to Cape Vincent.
Mr. Cole was fond of relating stories connected with the island. One of them is particularly interesting. In the 18th Century a French brigantine was enroute to Fort Niagara where his Majesty's forces had a small garrison. They carried a complement of soldiers and a seaman's chest filled with gold louis. They never reached Niagara. Later, on Main Duck island, where they are believed to have been wrecked, seven graves were found. Despite extensive searches, no traces of the missing gold was ever found.
Claude Cole, probably at Cape Vincent
One might write interminably about the Main Ducks. About Claude Cole and his many successful enterprises which included the sale of timber from the island, cattle raising, horse raising and fishing. Rum running can be added to the list of the "King's" probable activites; Main Duck was the scene of the first major raid by the police, as in the early morning houts of 11 May 1921 Licence Inspector Naphan raided Claude Cole's property and found 32 cases of bourbon, a 10 gallon barrel of rye whiskey and two barrels of neat alcohol – at the time the largest haul ever made. Later, in court in Picton, Mr Cole claimed that this was his personal "cellar supply" and not destined for "export", despite being clearly labeled as "Kentucky bourbon". Magistrate Levi Williams agreed with the defendant, acquitted him and ordered the police to return the liquor to Cole's residence.
Claude Cole continued to be peripherally involved in rum and beer "running", allowing rum runners to lay over in the harbour at Main Duck to await better weather or darkness for the three hour dash to the American shore; he also allowed some of them to warehouse their goods in the fishermen's cottages. It was reported that at the height of his career he had amassed a fortune of well close to a quarter of a million dollars.
Once a herd of buffalo roamed on the island. In the early 1920s, King Cole started importing them and turned them loose to add atmosphere to his summer kingdom. In 1926, he added a prize bull from Shields’ Wild West show in Niagara. They became ill natured and gored a few of his choice cows. He took his rifle and disposed of them. And as for fishing there: on favourable days large catches of whitefish and lake trout were netted by the fishermen living there. During the fishing season the men were busy cleaning and packing thousands of fish that were taken by tug to Booth Fisheries at Cape Vincent. As many as twelve families lived there during the summer and returned to the mainland during the winter. Two men remained on the Ducks during the winter, to care for the livestock and harvest the summer's supply of ice for the fishery.
"Would you like to be in the city?", a newspaper woman once asked Captain Cole. "No, not I; its fine to visit, but folks only exist there, they don't really live", was his brief reply. "Here are wide open spaces under sunny skies, washed by sweeping waters, where contented fishermen live in small shacks; from these waters they get their livelihood; an island where a man's soul may breathe; an island overflowing with romance and mystery", said he.
The fishing tug C.W. Cole (NMA/Metcalfe fonds.)
Claude Cole had two sons, Cecil and Wilmont. It is said that Mrs. Cole moved to the island to join her husband when Cecil was six months old and she remained there for eleven summers. Cecil, who carried on operations at Cape Vincent and the Main Duck since the death of his father, passed away with heart trouble at Cape Vincent in 1941. While at the island he operated the tug C. A. Cole and fishing craft Ormond K, taking fish from the Ducks to Cape Vincent, N.Y. Wilmont died two years later at Deseronto.
International lawyer John Foster Dulles, purchased the Main Ducks from the Claude Cole estate in 1941. Under the management of Mr. Robert Hart, two fishing craft, the Ark and Main Ducks, were operated in hauling fish from the island fishery to the US mainland.
And what of the Main Ducks before the regime of the Coles? Capt. John Walters leased the island for a forty year reign from 1848 to 1890, and with his brothers, Dyer and William built several small vessels at the island, including the 45' Harriet Ann in 1865. Capt. Walters had as many as 400 sheep on the Main Duck and 200 more on Yorkshire; 36 head of cattle; 60 hogs and 30 horses. Jim Hepburn's father "The governor", rented the island from the government for many years for the nominal sum of sixteen dollars a year. He used to pasture some cattle and sheep, but mostly hogs.
Only memories remain of Claude W. Cole's thirty years of reign of the Main Ducks. Today (1975), it is a wild-life sanctuary, owned by Robert F. Hart of Chaumont, N.Y.
This article was originally posted 2002; additions and editing by P.A.