The Boys’ Navy League camp at Northey’s Point, in what is now the Summer Village of Norglenwold at Sylvan Lake, circa 1920. (Photo from Provincial Archives of Alberta IR395)

Michael Dawe: Summer campers splashed in Sylvan Lake 100 years ago

Summer camps are often one of the most memorable experiences for young people when they are growing up.

Hence, there are all kinds of Hollywood movies and books about them. Sylvan Lake is one of Alberta’s most popular resorts, and summer camps are part of the rich history of that community.

One of the oldest summer camps at Sylvan Lake was started 100 years ago, in 1919. That was the Boys’ Navy League camp that was located at Northey’s Point, in what is now the Summer Village of Norglenwold.

The key person behind the creation of the camp was John Alfred Irvine. He was born in Nova Scotia.

As a young man, he took a keen interest in boating, the navy and organizations such as the YMCA.

In 1906, he moved with his wife and children to Calgary, where he established a successful real estate and insurance business.

After the end of the First World War, he helped to found the Boys’ Naval Brigade in Calgary under the sponsorship of the Navy League of Canada.

He then purchased a piece of the Jonathan Northey homestead on the shore of Sylvan Lake at First (Northey’s) Point.

In early July 1919, he brought up a group of naval brigade boys for a two-week session of training and recreational activities.

The camp was run under strict naval traditions. Each tent was named after a British battleship. The boys from each tent competed against each other in all kinds of sports, swimming, boating and other camp activities.

The camp acquired a motor launch, named the Lady Victress. It was used not only for training, but also to transport the campers back and forth from the Village of Sylvan Lake. The original Northey log cabin was used as a cookhouse.

At the end of July, after the boys’ camp was finished, the Girls’ Naval Brigade came up from Calgary and held a similar two-week-long session.

The girls’ camps only lasted for two or three years. Arrangements were then made for the YMCA to use the facility for a boys’ camp, after the navy brigade had finished its summer camp.

The YMCA camps were much less formal than the ones organized by the naval brigade. There was an emphasis on nature study, in addition to the usual sports, swimming and boating activities.

There were also programs based on what was felt to be First Nations’ lore.

Over the years, the facilities were expanded and improved. A sizable green and white hall and lodge was constructed for dining purposes and activities during inclement weather.

In 1923, the Boys’ Naval Brigades across Canada were changed into Sea Cadet Corps. The Calgary Sea Cadets adopted the name HMS Nelson. This group continues to this day as the Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps.

The cadets became a popular attraction at Sylvan Lake with their distinctive naval uniforms. They were active participants in the annual Sylvan Lake regattas.

After a music program was developed, the cadets gave public performances in the town and at the camp.

On July 18, 1928, J.A. Irvine died in the Red Deer Hospital from a cerebral hemorrhage that started while he was working on a cleanup of the camp.

After his death, the navy league took over the ownership of the camp property. The YMCA subsequently decided to move its summer camps to Camp Chief Hector at Morley.

Other groups, however, continued to rent the facility for their summer camps. These included groups of Canadian Girls in Training and youth groups from Knox Presbyterian Church in Red Deer.

During the Second World War, the navy league decided to sell the Sylvan Lake property. A new navy cadet camp was established at Lake Chestermere east of Calgary.

A private residence now stands on the old campsite in Norglenwold.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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