Will the Real William Murdoch Please Stand Up

Will the Real William Murdoch Please stand Up | Alex Inspired

May I have your attention please?
May I have your attention please?
Will the real Will Murdoch please stand up?

I don’t know about you, but I love the show “Murdoch Mysteries” on CBC. If you haven’t watched it – you should, it’s on Netflix – so you have no excuses.

William Murdoch is a fictional detective played by Yannick Bisson. The series takes place during the dawn of the 20th century, in Toronto. Murdoch is a pioneer in forensic techniques and has a knack for inventing gadgets to help him solve chrome.

Did you know Port Arthur had its very own William Murdoch?

My dad was reading an old book from 1883, and showed me a page where it mentions William Murdoch Esquire. I thought it was pretty cool, knowing me, I decided to do some digging.

Several different sources have various spellings: Murdoch and Murdock, it’s been interesting to have to sort through various sources to make sure I had the right Murdoch.

In 1870, General Wolseley headed to Manitoba on the steamship, Chicora, he was on his way to define the lines of the new Canadian Pacific Railway. His entourage included his staff along with Thomas Marks (The very first Mayor of Port Arthur) and William Murdoch.  At this time, Port Arthur was called “The Station”. Upon reaching The Station, Wolseley jousted Marks and asked him what this place was called. Marks replied with: “we will call it Prince Arthur’s Landing”.

This name stuck until 1883 when the Canadian Pacific Rail was ramping up, the name Port Arthur was born.

Port Arthur Ontario Canada


In 1872 William Murdoch and his crew ventured out on a horrendous expedition working for the Canadian Pacific as a surveying team. Their mission: to survey the land, from the beginning to the end where the last spike was driven and stake out a line west from Prince Arthur’s Landing.

At this point in time, the government Railway Policy was still undetermined and Ottawa continued to stall on Murdoch’s expedition. This delayed them greatly, leaving them no choice but to fight against mother nature. During a cold November, Murdoch and his crew setoff for the Landing prior to Lake Superior freezing.

They boarded the Steamer “Mary Ward” and set out. However their journey was short lived, with the captain refusing to go any further, he turned the steamer back towards Georgian Bay. This decision cost the crew greatly, heading them straight into a blizzard. The Mary Ward hit a reef – mistaken for land and a lighthouse by the Captain. This mistake left the men swimming in icy waters, abandoning ship – with three of them losing their lives.

“I guess that the captain mistook a light on shore for a lighthouse – anyway we struck a reef. Some of us managed to get ashore, two miles away, in an open boat, the rest were drowned.” – Charles Shaw, crew member

Murdoch was determined to arrive on the job site that winter and he and his crew made their way to Duluth, where he offered $2,500 (over $60k today) for a tugboat to take him and his men up Lake Superior. The winter conditions were so incredibly awful, no seasoned Skipper would attempt Murdoch’s crossing.

Still determined, Murdoch purchased a small fishing boat where he and his crew rowed and sailed towards Prince Arthur’s Landing on December 10th, 1872.

This insanity left Murdoch and his crew battling 52 below zero weather; having to sleep in the snow at night to stay warm, continually chipping accumulated ice on the blades of their oars while rowing. Not only were he and his men freezing, they were starving – using only what rations they had left, mainly frozen pork and hardtack.

” We had to beach her and camp each night. We had been cheated on our blankets and they weren’t much good. It got as low as 52 below zero and each night half the party stayed up to keep the fires going. We reached Prince Arthur’s Landing after an awful trip of exactly 30 days.” – Charles Shaw, crew member

On New Year’s Day, when Superior had finally froze over, Murdoch and his men abandoned their boat and built toboggans out of the strips of hand sawn frozen birch logs. They gathered their supplies and tramped through the shoreline (50 miles) to Prince Arthur’s Landing.

I dunno about you, but I’d pretty much hate Murdoch at this point.

This was truly, the infancy of Canadian railway construction. 

William Murdoch was a pioneer and established what we take for granted: access to the rest of the provinces, and the world. We’re lucky – even if I do believe his exploitation was crazy.

There’s a very cool document from the Senate of Canada where William is interviewed, regarding the new CPR Terminal proposed for Fort William on the Kam River. It gives a very detailed look into the lay of the land at the time, and what was located there. You can read it in its entirety here for free!

Although I couldn’t find too much more about William Murdoch, I did discover the following:

  • In 1883, William Murdoch was appointed City Engineer of Port Arthur
  • In 1887, William Murdoch formed the first Rifle Association in Port Arthur. He was president, and his organization was affiliated with the Dominion Rifle Association.

I believe William eventually moved to Manitoba and ran for the Conservative Party. My research has left me a bit stumped, however I am sure I will eventually come across something.

Anyone out there have any information about our very own William Murdoch? Leave a comment!

Which prominent Port Arthur Man shall I research next?

Town officials of Port Arthur 1880s | Alex Inspired

1. J.E. Johnston 2. J. Mc Teigue 3. C.H. Shera 4. W.J. Bawif 5. Jas. A. Fraser 6. T.A. Gorham, Mayor 7. H.L. Elliot 8. P. Nicholson 9. R. Nichol  (Chief of Police) 10. G.M. Francis Accessor 11. W.G. Brown 12. J.H. Woodside (Chief Fire Dept) 13. W. Murdoch (C.E. City Engineer) 14. J.F. Ruttan

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1 Comment

  • Reply alex April 1, 2017 at 10:13 pm

    Thanks Pat! Always the best set of eyes! Xo

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