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Arthur Pullaw: River Rat Extraordinaire

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Gananoque Boat Line, this  is the second article to pay tribute to ‘celebrity river rats of GBL’ no longer with us. Arthur Pullaw worked as a tool and die maker for most of his life but always found time for the river during his many summers. Arthur passed away Feb. 16, 2002 at 101 years of age.

  The first tribute was to Captain Charlie Brooks and appeared in Tribute to Cap’t Charlie, February 2011.

 These people set the pace for the rest of us...

The village of Rockport had a huge sign spanning the entrance. It read: “Welcome to Rockport, The Heart of the Thousand Islands.” It was still there in 1973.

Feeling on top of the world with a brand-new captain’s certificate, I drove from Kingston to a new job, in a new area. Parking my heavily waxed ’69 Dodge Monaco between two large elm trees, I shut her off, got out and started to wander down to the dock and my new job, piloting one of the boats for Rockport Boat line.

The still air was broken by a ‘beep beep’ almost directly behind me. A little blue Ford Pinto had pulled up near my car and looked like it was going to shove mine out of the way. The driver rolled down his window as I approached his car.

“You’re in my spot!” he said, not loud, just matter of factly, while pointing at my car. “I always park here!”

“OK, OK... hold on... I’ll move it,” I replied, noting the man was impeccably dressed in a white shirt and dark necktie. He probably works here too, I thought. Maybe he’s my boss! So, climbing back in I moved my car to the other side of the tree while he motored into “his spot.”

Getting out of his car, the distinguished gentleman had some grey in his hair, wore horn-rimmed eyeglasses and stood a little shorter than me. He asked, “You the new fella?”

“Yes sir,” I replied, “I’m from Kingston. My name is...”

“Ever take a boat through here?”

“Well, no, I haven’t...”

“Great,” he muttered, walking away. “Another one I gotta train.”

I didn’t know it then, but from that moment on, I was apprenticed to the legendary ‘River Rat’ Captain Arthur Pullaw.

I would later learn that Art was a former champion paddler for the Gananoque Canoe Club and the American Canoe Association, starting his membership in 1916. The former Rear Commodore of the A.C.A. paddled his way into history on August 9, 1921, when he won the one mile race against all Canadian and American double blade paddlers. “I was the last Canadian to win that, too,” he told me. He became a charter member of the local golf club in 1928 and was eventually recognized as the oldest active curler in Canada.


What I also didn’t know, on that early summer morning in 1973, was that Art, as he jumped from the deck of the Miss Rockport II onto the wooden dock, was 73 years of age.

“What’s the secret to a long life,?” Kate Coyle asked her grandfather one day.

Art replied, “The key to staying young, is to surround yourself with youth.” It must have worked. Arthur lived to be 101 years young.

On February 16, 2002, at four minutes to 8 pm, Arthur Frederick Pullaw, his tenacious spirit determined to stay, reluctantly bid farewell to his loving family. “He fought all the way,” said daughter Sharon Carmichael. “He loved his life and wanted to stay.” Arthur’s wife Frances Monica passed away in 1977. They were married at St. Mary’s Cathedral in 1938. Among his cherished souvenirs, Art kept the key to the honeymoon suite they shared in Havana, Cuba.

. . . .

It’s raining outside St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Gananoque the day of Arthur’s funeral. Dark, dreary and dismal in the center of the otherwise sunny, blue-watered Thousand Islands. Inside, delivering a special eulogy for his lifelong friend, Hal McCarney celebrated Arthur as a unique Gananoquean.

“Art was born in Gananoque on December 3, 1900. His mother Eliza died when he was only 11 years old. He often said how much he missed her, especially all the picnics that she arranged on his beloved St. Lawrence River. This started a romance between Art and the St. Lawrence that lasted a lifetime,” said McCarney.

“When Art finished his schooling, his first job was making saddles for the Russian Cossacks in World War I at the Gipson Harness shop in Gananoque. The shop had 300 workers and they made harnesses for the horses of the allies. 

“On January 1, 1916, he started working at Parmenter and Bullock Manufacturing, fabricating rivets for airplanes and other machinery as a tool and die maker. He retired from P&B in 1966 as a foreman after 50 years. 

“To say that Art was an athlete and in love with the St. Lawrence River is certainly an understatement. He was unique in this also. In paddling, his record stands with the best. He paddled always for the Gananoque Canoe Club in many regattas, winning often in the double blade events... he was also Commodore of the Gananoque Canoe Club in 1934 when they won the Dominion Champion Burgee at Lachine, Quebec.

“The culmination of his paddling career was during the Festival of the Islands 2000 Paddle Past when he was one of the coxswains in one of the war canoes. Art was 100 years old at the time. His name appears on the Festival of the islands Plaque symbolic of this event. A very unique ending to a great paddling career.”

Sitting to the side, I start to reflect on my own memories of Art. It’s 1973 and we’re back aboard the Miss Rockport II. I’m at the wheel while Art points out the names of different islands to the people on the P.A. system which shorts out every now and then. His dry wit entertains everyone while at the same time he points me in a new direction every so often. He’s in the middle of a story when he looks out, turns to me and says, flatly, “Turn left, young fella, we’ll be aground in a minute.” The microphone was still on, working perfectly, and everyone heard. Totally unfazed, Art continued with his story. 

Another time, the two of us are aboard the Ida M. The ol’ wooden Ida M. A bus from Quebec has a charter group wishing to see the islands. Neither of us speak French – no one on the bus can speak English. What do we do now, I thought, getting underway. Turning around, I see a boatload of people staring back with blank looks on their faces. Great.

As we head into the maze of islands, Art, again totally unfazed, takes the mike, turns to the people and begins to sing:

Sometimes I live in the country,

Sometimes I live in town,

Sometimes I take a great notion,

To jump in the river an’...

By now, the whole boat has launched into song, the universal language:

Good night, Irene, good night Irene

I’ll see you in my dreams...

We sold every souvenir book we had aboard. In English, no less.

Next, I see him at age 95, in his full captain’s uniform, being escorted by three or four lovely female tour guides aboard Gananoque boat line’s Thousand Islander IV for a luncheon cruise. Meeting them at the gangway is old friend and fellow river rat Captain Charles Brooks. “Well,” he asks, “are you going to behave this trip?”

“We promise,” reply the ladies in unison.

I hope no one sees me grinning as I think about this here in church.

Next to speak at the service is granddaughter Kate Coyle. “Most people only dream of living to the age of 100,” she begins. “Our Gramp planned on it. His determination to live each day to the fullest is an inspiration to us all.” 

Indeed, diagnosed with leukemia at age 13 in 1985, Kate has proven herself a chip off the ol’ block. With a bone marrow transplant from her sister Kerry, both young girls can’t deny their bonds with Gramp with their high motivation and optimistic outlook on life. Chosen at 17 to be Gananoque’s teenaged co-coordinator of the annual Terry Fox Run, Kate was joined with her mother Sharon and well, who else? Ol’ Gramp was there too, completing the run at 89 years of age.

“From the day my Mom, my sister and I moved into his home, his life changed,” Kate continued. “He was surrounded by two very youthful girls who wanted all the attention he could muster up. I have fond memories of long walks, boat rides, hunting for dew worms, story time and learning the basics of Hockey Night in Canada and curling bonspiels.

“As time moved forward, and we moved next door to expand our family, Gramp was given back some of his space – but not for long – the grandchildren kept coming. There are eight of us in total: four grandkids from each of his children, Sharon Rose and Robert. The source of his pride and joy.”

As I listened, I couldn’t help but feel my old buddy beaming with pride, surrounded as he was by son Robert, his wife Jean and grandchildren: Lisa, Amy, Kevin and Julie. His daughter Sharon and her husband Joe and grandchildren: Kate, Kerry, Donny and Robert. As the procession leaves the church, Arthur is escorted by his ‘girls,’ Brandy, Melanie and Adrianne Beckstead on one side with Shelley Crowe, Avril Grice and ol’ buddy Capt. Chris McCarney on the other. The rain has stopped as we head away from the river.


Later, in Joe and Sharon Carmichael’s kitchen, which is right next door to Arthur’s, we share a few stories which bring smiles and laughter all around. Joe Carmichael, himself a former Gananoque Boat Line skipper, remarked, “Oh, Art knew where the shoals were all right... Oh yeah, but I’ll tell ya, he was one heck of a guide when it came to shore dinners. He didn’t care if we caught any fish, but boy, could he cook.”


Sharon added, “I can feel Dad’s presence everywhere and I guess I always will. For instance, let me show you something.” We walk over to Arthur’s and there on the living room wall is a chime clock stopped at exactly four minutes to eight. “I asked Robert just what time did the report say that Dad passed away?”

Lining the rest of the walls are awards and certificates and the memories that go with them. From my pocket I show both Sharon and Joe a recommendation letter written in the back of my ‘blue book’ in 1974. It’s from her Dad and it’s about me: “... I have no hesitation in highly recommending him.” I was accepted into that great fraternity of Thousand Islands river rats by the Great One himself.

The last word goes to Hal McCarney: “he will be missed sitting on the waterfront this summer, missed by all those who stopped to speak to him. Missed by all the girls at Island Memories Restaurant, missed most by his family members. I’m sure the St. Lawrence River will miss him too.”

We certainly have.

By Brian Johnson, a former RBL and GBL skipper, who now captains the ferry Wolfe Islander III.

This story first appeared in the Kingston Whig Standard as: “The St. Lawrence River will miss him” on March 2, 2002. Captain Brian Johnson’s tribute to  Charles Brooks passed away December 17, 2010, appeared in TI Life’s February 2011’s Tribute to Cap’t Charlie.  Please check back next month for another special tribute to the Gananoque Boat Line.

Editor’s note:  Arthur Pullaw was my guide on several occasions when he related the history of the Gananoque River’s waterfront.  He was a fine gentleman who took pride in his story-telling and mentoring young writers!   There are many a young man and woman who can remember his tales and how is words of wisdom ring true.  do you remember Arthur Pullaw – if so, tell us about it.

Posted in: History, People
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peter brooks
Comment by: peter brooks ( )
Left at: 1:58 AM Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Brian, Keep up the good work. Hope you will consider Lorne "Porky"Younge, Curly Brewster and Leland Earle for other consideration. All great guys that I worked with. But please also acknowledge the work of Bob Beckstead. One of the great innovators, son of the founder Walden Beckstead. He brought the Mc Carneys from Main St. to the river.
peter brooks
Comment by: peter brooks ( )
Left at: 2:03 AM Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Great work Brian. I am sure you will consider Lorne"Porky"Younge, Curly Brewster and Leland Earle, all guys I worked with for their contributions, Also Bob Beckstead, son of Walden Beckstead. He brought the McCarney's from Main St to the river.
Tom King
Comment by: Tom King ( )
Left at: 10:24 AM Thursday, August 18, 2011
Another great article on a fascinating gentleman. If anyone had river water running through their veins it was surely Art! I look forward to your next "subject" with great anticipation.
Jack Patterson
Comment by: Jack Patterson ( )
Left at: 11:38 AM Sunday, August 21, 2011
Joe Pulaw worked many years for my grandparents on Axeman Island. Joe also owned Fort Wallace Island there just close to Grindstone (Island) and Canoe Point State Park. His son, Walter, who I though before reading the caption was perhaps the party shown in the wedding photo of Arthur Pulaw and Francis Monica displayed above, was manager/caretaker of Niagara Island for Sherman and Ethel Pratt. I wonder what the relationship was amongst these men. Perhaps someone could educate me. I never- that I recall, met Arthur but have many, many fond memories of Walter and his father. Walter could, in my mind, be classified as a 'River Rat'- perhaps foremost among such. He, however, might prefer being known as premier boatman and the local person that we from the U. S. found as knowledgeable about the T I area as anyone on the river. His Dad, however, was to me as a boy growing up all summer every summer on an island, the person in our boathouse I usually went to when others couldn't provide a boy's needed information. And he was the first of several.
Charles Kidd
Comment by: Charles Kidd ( )
Left at: 8:48 PM Friday, August 26, 2011
Thanks for an insightful and inspiring article on Art Pulaw, Brian. I worked with Art at the GBL in 1971 and always found him to be the happiest guy one would meet. Maybe THAT'S what it take to reach 100! I moved to the RBL in 1972 and 1973 and worked on the Miss Rockport II, after being trained by Roscoe Williams, another famous River Rat. One of the most gratious captains on the river was Leland Earle, who introduced me to my best job ever, working on the Thousand Islands tour boats. Others included Charlie Brooks and Lorne Young. Thank you, gentlemen, for enriching my life.
Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson ( )
Left at: 9:03 PM Saturday, August 27, 2011
Charles, Bill Colles spoke of you many times when I joined him on the Rockport II shortly after you left. I certainly remember Roscoe Williams and also trained under Leland Earle and the late, great Charles Brooks. Great hearing from you!