Although the sliding seasons may pass on
The St. Lawrence moves forever to the dawn
This river that so proudly seeks the sea
Will be endeared to me, eternally.
by Hal McCarney
He was the pulse of the community, a definite exciting era has now passed. There will never be another Hal McCarney.
John Nalon, President, Gananoque Historical Society
He was the Boss... the President... the CEO. No, actually he was ‘The godfather’!
We GBL underlings used to actually tremble as the ground literally shook when he approached the boats, back in the mid 1970’s. Delivering huge trays of cold meats and veggies from the Provincial Motel for a night cruise, he’d point and move the boats or us around like we were chess men. Pawns on a huge board painted on the bottom of the river. And you know somethin’, it worked. It really worked. Checkmate!
Hal McCarney, Queen’s football icon and a Thousand Islands legend passed away three years ago on September 16, 2008. He was 81.
It’s been exactly five years since I drove through those stone gates for our appointed meeting. It was just before Hal McCarney’s 80th birthday. Anyway, here’s how I remember it:
It’s late autumn in Gananoque. As I negotiate the twists and turns down the long, winding driveway, the music of the St. Lawrence River is playing in the background. Short, choppy waves break continuously over a rocky shoreline amidst a chorus of quacking ducks vying for position behind the shelter of a towering boathouse.
Every fall they come here, especially when the autumn wind strip the colours from the treetops. The hidden channels and bays of the Thousand Islands are full of hunters now. This small bay on the eastern edge of town is their sanctuary. They know that they are safe here.
As I stepped out of my car, Digger, a golden Lab Retriever greeted me and walked me carefully to the home of the master. We passed ornate, life-like carvings of wildlife which blended naturally among the whispering pine trees swaying in the brisk, south-westerly wind. They stared back at me, as if daring me to step further. I continued to the front door and knocked. The big man filled the doorway as it opened. Both Digger and I looked up. The ‘godfather of the Thousand Islands’ looked back, head slightly down, then frowned. “You... stay outside!”
“Which one?” I asked, nervously. Digger trotted away. I almost followed.
“Get the hell in here,” laughed Hal McCarney.
He was on the ‘eve’ of his eightieth birthday. Even so, Hal ‘Moose’ McCarney still looked like he could stop a charging linebacker in mid flight on a muddy football field. Or even intercept a spiraling forward pass with a single sweep with a huge right hand. This same hand gently pushed the door closed. Digger trotted away to continue guarding his domain.
The six foot three inch octogenarian had one regret on this milestone birthday. “I can’t play football anymore,” he said, looking at one of his displayed photos of his earlier days on the gridiron at Queen’s University’s Richardson Stadium. We were seated in his front room which offers a panoramic view of the river and nearby islands in the Admiralty group. Nearly every window faces out toward the river.
Rubbing his surgically repaired knees, Hal McCarney glanced out at the river. “I would still be paddling (at the Gananoque Canoe Club) except for my knees. I gotta be so careful now.” Those painful knee injuries earned him a spot in the Queen’s University Hall of Fame as both player and coach. He leaned back in his chair and recalled the year 1949: “After football practice I would run down to the foot of Princess Street in Kingston. Dad would be there, waiting with two fishing poles in the back of the car. We drove home to Gananoque and headed down to the river. Before supper I would catch a Muskie, clean it, run in for supper and catch the bus back to Kingston. I caught fourteen muskies my last year of playing football at Queen’s.”
Later, as the assistant coach of Queen’s Football Club, McCarney watched his players slip and slide on the muddy field sustaining painful groin injuries as a result, not to mention the risk of losing a game because of the field. Driving home to Gan, McCarney’s inventive spirit rose to the occasion. “I went to the nearby shop in the steel mill, and had the molds made for a special type of cleat,” he said. “From there, I went over to the P&B plant (Parmenter and Bullock Rivets) and had special screws designed to hold them in place.” As a result, the ‘Moose Hoofs’ were born.
Hal’s specially designed cleats were an outstanding success. Half an inch high, they ran parallel down the side of the shoe for three inches with a bar heel at the end. “The Moose Hoofs in the opinion of the players and staff played an important role in the operation of our offense and defense,” wrote Doug Hargreaves, assistant athletic director of the Royal Military College. “In two of our games we racked up scores of 62-3 and 53-0 and on several occasions, the ability to maintain balance while the opposition experienced trouble made the difference.”
. . . . . . . . . . . .
The town of Gananoque is synonymous to the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands. The Indian name Gananoque has several meanings, according to Gananoque Historical Society President John Nalon. “We’ve heard ‘Water running over rocks’ and ‘Door to the flint of the mountain’ and finally, ‘A place of good health’, he said. It was here, in 1926, at the junction of the Gananoque River and the mighty St. Lawrence, in the heart of the Thousand Islands that Harold Alexander McCarney jr. was born and raised with his older brother Neil, now also deceased. At this time, many changes were taking place in the small, growing community. A major wharf was constructed on the waterfront’s Bay road area to handle both mercantile and tourist traffic; the streets of the town were paved and Gananoque’s landmark gates were built at both the west and east end, welcoming visitors to the ‘Canadian Gateway to the Thousand Islands’. Growing up in the family owned Provincial Hotel with brother Neil and parents Harold ‘Dooley’ McCarney and Helen Feeney, Hal would learn firsthand, by example, the meaning of hospitality and customer service in the hotel business. The industrial town of Gananoque was rapidly changing into a tourist mecca and the McCarney’s hotel was right in the center of it all, just up from the river.
While coaching football, McCarney met and married Kathleen ‘Kally’ Norris from Kingston and began work constructing his own Provincial Motel at the town’s east end and later, the Thunderbird Motel at the north end. The couple would have four children: Chris, Paul, Karen and Katie. In 1970, the river’s magnetic effect beckoned him back to the waterfront. The flailing Gananoque Boat Line was up for sale.
The ‘godfather’ had a knack for finding opportunity and a partnership in the Gananoque Boat Line was the find of a lifetime. Partnering with Harry Clarke, a young lawyer in Gan, the two bought Grant Lucy’s share of GBL and joined forces with river icon Captain Robert Beckstead, who inherited his share from his father, Walden. Combining ideas, talent and a great deal of foresight, the ‘Trio’ built the triple screw/triple engine Thousand Islander in their own hometown, on their own site, in their own shipyard. Capable of carrying 350 passengers, the boat was billed as the world’s largest aluminum triple decker.
“In what you can only call a backyard operation, we did it,” Hal explained. “First, we built the track to launch her, then the building to house her, then the boat herself. We had the best facilities and the most experience anywhere. In fact, we began building the Thousand Islander while she was still being designed. That created problems, but the Federal Department of Transport gave us untold help. Its people went out of their way to expedite our requirements and aid us with the problems we created for them. The builder and his son in law had both had previous experience in welding aluminum, and were able to train another couple of men.” Gradually, the older wooden boats of GBL were replaced as four other aluminum ships followed in quick succession. Gananoque Boat Line soon became the largest excursion boat operation, not only in the Thousand Islands, but the entire region of the St. Lawrence River on both sides. “It still is,” McCarney claimed, beaming with pride.
Walking over to a shelf near a windowed alcove complete with two eighteen foot high brass intertwined dolphins swimming up to the ceiling, McCarney picks up a small, framed picture somewhat yellow with age. “This picture hung on the wall right between our kitchen and family room at the hotel,” he said. “Any idea who it might be?” he asked, holding it out toward me.
“It looks like a saint,” I replied. The figure had a somewhat angelic face, head bowed as if in prayer.
“Well... it is. It’s a print of a painted picture of Saint Laurens or ‘St. Lawrence’. My mother gave it to me shortly before she died. The image in this picture has stayed with me my whole life.”
Indeed, thanks to McCarney’s incentive, that image now towers over the steep, granite cliffs of the Canadian Palisades section of the St. Lawrence River between Ivy Lea and Rockport, Ontario. Created by Belleville sculptor James Smith, the all white statue of St. Lawrence is 21 feet tall. Standing straight, the statue holds a book in his right hand, “Signifying the vast archives of the Vatican,” Smith had said. “In his left hand is the grid iron on which he was burned.” Saint Laurens was martyred; burned on a grill for helping the poor and needy by giving the treasures of the church away instead of surrendering them to the Roman Emperor Valerian in 258 AD. Hal was instrumental gathering other members of the Thousand Islands Admiralty fraternity in this special project. Again, a success.
Truth be told, there is very little Hal McCarney hasn’t done above or below the waterline. An avid scuba diver, he has entertained the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on a diving expedition at his villa in the Caribbean. He was even planning a dive in March after his 80th birthday. And he became an accomplished novelist. ‘Chess with Violence’ a murder/mystery was penned by him during the winter of 1990, set in his Thousand Islands during the heyday of rum running. Readers will recognize nearly every island landmark portrayed. Some characters, too.
“A seasonal work force, especially students either in high school or college and university owe a great deal to Hal McCarney,” said John Nalon. “Retail outlets and motels have prospered and even survived because of him.”
Even Canadian author Farley Mowat showed up one day in Gananoque needing a place to tie up his ‘Boat who wouldn’t Float’ the Happy Adventure in the mid 1970’s. Naturally Hal was only too willing to help a fellow struggling writer. Happy Adventure wintered comfortably snuggled between Thousand Islander II and Thousand Islander III.
Standing up, Hal McCarney looked out at the ducks bobbing on the river. Checking his watch, he reminded me that he had a meeting with the ‘Festival of the Islands’ board in an hour. My granted time was just about up. “I love it here,” he said, looking out the window once more. “My kids are all here, and my grandkids are all right here. What more could you possibly want?”
For nearly 82 years, Hal ‘Moose’ McCarney, the ‘godfather’ whose persona often resembled a human dynamo, had his feet planted firmly on his playing turf, the Thousand Island section of the St. Lawrence River, right here in Gananoque. The huge footprints still exist, you know. Just look for them.
Moose Hoofs and all.
By Brian Johnson, Wolfe Islander III captain and, one time GBL ‘underling’
Former GBL skipper Brian Johnson now pilots the Wolfe Islander III and the Canadian Empress. Brian worked for and with Hal McCarney and paid tribute to him in an article for the Kingston Whig Standard on December 12, 2006 as ‘Gananoque’s Moose at 80’. This is the fifth in a series called: fond memories: GBL celebrities no longer with us. They are presented to help celebrate the Gananoque Boat Lines 60th Anniversary. Coming up soon, Captain Leland Earle: school teacher, principal, prospector and boat captain.
Editor’s Note: Hal McCarney died the week I took over as the editor of TI Life. I paid tribute to him at the time with Tribute to Hal McCarney. Often when I posted an article for TI Life during the past four years, , I would think – “Gee Hal would know about this one.” I knew Hal as I sat on the board of the Arthur Child Heritage Museum in Gananoque. He hardly ever missed a meeting, and certainly gave his opinion. He loved the River and he loved finding ways to promote the GBL, Saint Lawrence (the man), and the stories of prohibition – and not necessarily in that order. He worked hard to put Gananoque and the Thousand Islands on the map and many, many of us appreciated that. He is missed.