Bob Hamilton's canoe: Restoring a memory of a soldier's short life

A young soldier, a member of a prominent Canadian family whose mysterious disappearance that haunted the family for generations — and another family's journey to restore and remember a canoe that now bears his name.

'The connections are eerie': WW I gunner's fate never confirmed, but his boat is back on his lake

Nearly a century later, the young Canadian soldier's boat has drifted back to the lake where he spent his summers 3:44

Dana Fountain carefully slips an antique canoe into the water in Ontario's cottage country, the golden wood matching the colour of the last few maple leaves falling into the lake.

Gunner Robert Hamilton went missing in August 1918 after being wounded and was later presumed dead, despite his family's desperate efforts to locate him. He was 19. (Family archives)

The canoe is more than a century old, but now it has a new life as a tribute to the soldier who used to enjoy it.

"This is where Bob paddled the canoe," Fountain said quietly. "Fishing from it. Swimming from it. Paddling out with his friends." 

Bob Hamilton was just 17 when he enlisted in Canada's army and went to off to fight in the First World War.  

He didn't come back. Now his newly restored canoe has returned to the lake where the Hamilton family, before the war, had a cottage.

"The connections are eerie," Fountain said. 

Bob Hamilton was a member of a prominent Canadian family. His mysterious disappearance in 1918 made headlines for years as his family searched for information about his fate.

Hamilton's mysterious disappearance in 1918 made headlines for years as his family searched for information about his fate. (Family archives)

Hamilton was wounded in August 1918 in France. A shell landed near his position and he sustained what was likely a severe head injury.

But he was alive — well behind the lines, being transferred between medical facilities — when he disappeared.

'Exhaustive inquiries have failed to discover any grounds which would justify the assumption that this soldier is alive.' (Military archives)

"Gunner Hamilton disappeared as though wafted on the wings of the wind," one newspaper reported.

After the war, the family wrote letters to officials, begging for information. They appealed to the public, hoping a soldier who returned would remember seeing or hearing something about one who did not.

A newspaper clipping reports the conclusion of the official search for Hamilton. (Family archives)

Members of the Hamilton family even travelled to France in the 1920s to search for clues.

No trace of Bob Hamilton was found. He is one of about 11,000 Canadian soldiers declared missing in the First World War and presumed dead.

The canoe went on its own journey.

One of Bob's brothers took it to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where eventually it was passed to the Fountain family, close friends of the Hamiltons.

It was used for decades, surviving a fire and even being stolen. It was painted red in a hasty attempt to stop leaks before a long canoe trip.

Throughout, the Fountain family called it the "Bob Hamilton canoe."

"We knew the sorrow," said Bruce Fountain, Dana's father, who decided the deteriorating canoe had to be restored before it, too, was lost forever.

"I didn't know I was doing it for Bob," he said reflectively. "But I think we did."

The canoe moved again, this time to Toronto, where the painstaking job of stripping paint and replacing rotted ribs began. The job lasted 15 years and was completed by Dana Fountain.

Along the way, he became fascinated by Bob Hamilton and searched through military records, now available online. But he couldn't solve the mystery of the disappearance, his search leading to a sombre note written almost a century ago.

Copper nails show through the restored varnish of the Peterborough canoe. (Havard Gould/CBC)

"Exhaustive enquiries have failed to discover any evidence which would justify the assumption that this soldier is alive," read a note, written in what appears to be red ink.

Dana Fountain stands on a dock in Lake of Bays in Ontario's cottage country beside the canoe he and his family restored. (Havard Gould/CBC)

Dana Fountain stores the canoe at a cottage that is, by coincidence, on Lake of Bays, 230 kilometres north of Toronto, where the Hamilton family used to spend their summers.

"Here I find myself paddling his canoe, 100 years later on the lake he used to paddle before the war," Fountain said. He shakes his head. 

The canoe attracts attention, and Fountain enjoys showing the classic craft. But he also makes sure people hear about the lost soldier who had it first.

"To have it be back on the water is really important," he said. "It's touching."

Fountain returns Hamilton's canoe to the lake he paddled on as a young man. (Havard Gould/CBC)

About the Author

Havard Gould

CBC News

Havard Gould is an award-winning journalist based in Toronto. He has reported from across Canada and the United States with special reports from London, Paris and Buenos Aires. He has, at various times, concentrated on politics and business. Now, however, his interests are almost unlimited. He can be reached through havardgould.com