Everyone knows the two questions at the heart of the mystery surrounding famous artist Tom Thomson’s death: Who did him in and where is he buried? But there are eerie stories within those mysteries, and none so spine tingling as what became of Winifred Trainor’s old home.

Tom Thomson, whose death is subject of much mystery, stands in a canoe along a shore holding a fishing lure
Feature photo: Franklin Carmichael / Library and Archives Canada / E007914169

Tom Thomson’s canvas-covered mystery

Winnie Trainor, a Canoe Lake cottager, had been one of Tom’s many girlfriends, but one so special he was said to have arranged a honeymoon cabin at Billy Bear Lodge just before he went missing on July 8, 1917.

Thomson had often stayed with the Trainors in the nearby town of Huntsville, and the day-by-day paintings he created that spring had been left to dry in the Trainors’ cabin on the northeast shore of the Algonquin Park lake where he drowned—or more likely was murdered.

What was behind Winifred’s message?

Winnie never recovered from the shock of his death. She and her mother spent the winter and spring staying with relatives in Philadelphia, raising local suspicions that she had really gone there to give birth to Tom’s child.

She tried desperately to see the Thomson family to tell them things she felt uncomfortable putting down on paper, but they refused to see her, claiming she was unstable.

In perhaps the only thing she ever wrote of her time with Tom, she told the head of Canada’s National Gallery in 1954 that, “Tom Thomson was the man that made me happy, then vanished. If I saw you I could say things that I will never write.”

Tom Thomson painting, The Canoe, 1912, oil on canvas on wood
Tom Thomson, The Canoe, 1912, oil on canvas on wood, 17.3 x 25.3 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

She lived out her life in her parents’ ramshackle wood-frame house on Huntsville’s Minerva Street. She had no running hot water and no central heating, yet kept a dozen or more Tom Thomson originals wrapped in newspaper and stuffed in a six-quart basket. She never married. Eight years after she wrote that mysterious note she died at age 77.

A mural appears on Minerva

Forty years after her death the town of Huntsville launched a beautification project, painting Tom Thomson and Group of Seven murals on the walls of several downtown buildings.

By happenstance, a mural was painted on the wall of a red brick building that stands in the same place where Winnie lived out her long and lonely years. The painting chosen was a Tom Thomson—his empty canoe.

Roy MacGregor is a columnist with The Globe and Mail and author of Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him.

Canoeroots Summer/Fall 2014 issue coverThis article originally appeared in the Summer/Fall 2014 issue of Canoeroots. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine and get 25 years of digital magazine archives including our legacy titles: Rapid, Adventure Kayak and Canoeroots.

Feature photo: Franklin Carmichael / Library and Archives Canada / E007914169



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