From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
When we look back at the lives of some of our earliest residents, we are often surprised to realize the extent of their adventures - and that they lived to tell others about these adventures!
One of those with an exciting past was Francois Xavier Daigle who eventually made his home in Gros Cap. In a series of interviews given to a Sault Star reporter in the early 1930’s we get a glimpse of some of the adventures that F.X. Daigle experienced during his lifetime. Born in Quebec City around 1852, he joined the garrison of the Citadel at the age of 16 and did sentry duty at the historic fortress.
He recounted later that soldiers were paid one copper per day - it took 20 coppers to make a cent, so the wages were very low. He explained that “when we wanted to get a pot of beer, we would pass a little tin pail, and the soldiers would each toss a copper into it, clink, clink, until we had enough to get that beer, so we would all have a drink. It took four coppers for each pot of beer, and when we all clubbed together we could get all the beer we needed.”
As part of the Ninth Battalion, he was sent to the southern part of France to fight in the Franco-Prussian War, often referred to as the 1870 War, since it began on July 19, 1870, and continued until May 10, 1871. Prussia defeated France resulting in the unification of the German states. All of the members of the Regiment received medals for their participation in this war.
His military service did not always place him at the forefront of a battle - he had a small part in the Fenian Raid. He explained that as a regular soldier they knew that there was trouble brewing and there was a sense of excitement around the Citadel but they didn’t know any details.
From the Citadel walls, they watched a schooner preparing to leave the Quebec City harbour one day. At midnight, bugles began to sound in the Citadel and the garrison lined up in full marching order in the great barracks yard. Muskets were inspected and each soldier ensured that he had a good supply of
They were given the order to march down to the waterfront under the cover of darkness. The soldiers made their way onto the schooner, the anchor was lifted and the sails were raised.
They found out they were on their way to St. John, New Brunswick. They remained there for a short period of time before getting back on a schooner and returning to Quebec City. This was Daigle’s contribution to the Fenian Raid, however he still received the Fenian Raid medal for his service!
It was shortly after this that Mr. Perry of the Perry Lumber Company was visiting in Quebec City and persuaded four young men including, F. X. Daigle, Joe Lafford, J. Piche and A. Brule to travel from Quebec to Sault Ste. Marie to take a chance on new adventures in the wilds of Algoma. The four men arrived in the Sault in 1877.
Daigle described the Sault of those days as “a few log cabins on this side of the river. I could have visited everyone in the Sault in half a day.” Queen Street didn’t
exist at this time - there was simply a road running partly through the woods. It was very muddy and wet in spots.
In later years, the Pulp Mill put in a sidewalk and Mr. Daigle helped to lay the sidewalk. It was just two planks wide and led to the Pulp Mill. He explained that you didn’t want to fall off the planks in the dark because you could end up in a bog hole.
At the time of their arrival the four men found Whitefish Island occupied by a number of Indigenous families, including old Chief Cogeosh of the Sault band who had several daughters. Joe Lafford and F.X. Daigle each married one of the Chief’s daughters and settled down on the island.
Daigle spent his time developing a fishing trade based on Whitefish Island. He described the rapids as “full of whitefish. I have seen them there by the thousands and it was very easy to spear them or take out with a scoop net.”
They generally fished the rapids from light canoes and thought nothing of swimming in the rapids. Much later, when the paper mill had been built, Mr. Daigle was working for Francis H. Clergue and was responsible for ensuring that the logs were brought down the river to the mill.
On one particular day, the logs jammed up on the CPR railway bridge creating a giant log jam in the rapids. Finding no one who was willing to go out and try to clear the jam, Mr. Daigle took his peavey (a tool for separating for logs) and made his way into the middle of the log jam.
As he released the key log causing the jam, the logs that had piled up behind surged forward before he could leap free and get back to safety. It became a case of ride the logs or die. If he had fallen into the rapids at this point he would have been crushed by the logs, smashed up against the rocks or at best, knocked out and drowned.
He recounted afterwards, “I had two logs, and I rode them right through the rapids riding right in the foremost line of the log jam. The river drivers thought I was
gone, but I came through safely and can say that I am the only man who rode the St. Mary’s Rapids on a log!”
The Indigenous People owned most of the land in the vicinity of Sault Ste. Marie in the early days and because of his intermarriage with them, Mr. Daigle was held in high regard by the Indigenous People, he was able to secure quite a few grants of land from them throughout the area.
Unfortunately, it appears that he was not the best businessman when it came to real estate deals. He owned all of the land which later became the site of the Pulp & Paper Mill. He paid for the land with a barrel of pork, some sugar, and a little flour. The cash value would have been about $10.
He later sold the land to Mr. W.H. Plummer for $500, who in turn sold it to Francis H. Clergue in later years for $14,000!
Mr. Daigle said, “I would have been rich if I had hung onto it until later.” This was not his only missed opportunity in land deals. He also owned 160 acres of land on Davieux Point, the site of the steel plant. On the American side of the river, he owned another 160 acres of land. This land would eventually become the site where the American locks were built.
In each of these land deals, he sold the property too soon and was not able to get the highest price that he might have done by holding on to it longer.
Francois Daigle owned over 25 lots of land throughout the city.
Francis H. Clergue was interested in the culture of the Indigenous People that lived in the area and was anxious to see one of their tribal dances so those living on Whitefish Island arranged a Pow-wow for him.
They brought out their feathered headdresses, beaded suits and tribal drums. With fires burning, they danced to the beat of the drums and chanting. They served a meal featuring the foods that their forefathers would have eaten.
According to Mr. Daigle, it was a memorable evening for all who were in attendance.
Although he had settled in Sault Ste. Marie he continued to participate in military actions when needed. He joined the Red River Rebellion campaign and was awarded a medal for this military action as well. He remarked that he went through this dispute in 1885 without hearing a shot or experiencing any action.
Colonel Baker, the commander of their unit took the soldiers out to Dawson Road and assigned them to the task of building a road into the west to get the troops through. Joe Bussineau from the Sault was also a member of this expedition. The dispute settled down and the soldiers returned to their homes without seeing any action.
In 1897-1898, Daigle was a member of the 65th Battalion in the Indian War on the Punjab frontier. He had the rank of Sergeant during this war.
When the First World War began in 1914, he was considered too old for active duty so he had a commission in the Guard Dollarde. Francois Xavier Daigle was ultimately awarded the rank of Colonel for his long military service around the world.
In addition to his fishing trade and military service, he worked with the engineers on the shipping canal plus working in various industries and businesses in the Sault, but surprisingly his abilities didn’t end here, he was also a chef. In between his many different business enterprises, he also spent some time working as a chef in some of Montreal’s most exclusive clubs and hotels including being the chef at the St. James Club in Montreal.
With the rise of the industrial development in the area, the Indigenous families from Whitefish Island eventually moved from the island. Daigle settled his family in Gros Cap. He had 16 children and was known to comment that he had so many grandchildren and great grandchildren that he couldn’t count them all.
Despite all his travels around the country and overseas he continued to speak in broken English, considering himself to be a ‘Frenchman at heart and in voice’. It was observed that he walked with a soldier’s gait right up until his death in 1933 – he walked straight as a rod with no sign of a limp, despite having three wounds in his left leg and one in his left arm.
During his lifetime, he witnessed (and was part of) many changes in Sault Ste. Marie, reflecting that, “The Sault has grown greatly since I first saw it, and I’m sure it will continue to advance in the years to come, just as much as it has in the past.”
He was definitely a man who was always ready for the next great adventure!
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.