Island History

A sales brochure from the late 60’s

The first cottages were built in 1969 and the first meeting of the Association (originally Birch Island Property Owners’ Association) was in early 1970.

The battle of the bridge that once joined Birch Island to the main land

Gamble vs Birch Island


[The following is a partly updated verson of “Birch Island Information”, Orv Marshall, 1994]


Birch Island is the largest island in Sand Lake which is a part of the historic Rideau Canal System. The current size of the lake is due to the large horseshoe dam erected at Jones Falls over 170 years ago under the supervision of Colonel By. At the time of its construction it was considered to be one of the major engineering accomplishments in North America.

Four locks were constructed to permit boat traffic to proceed around the dam. They also are very impressive considering the primitive construction methods available at the time. Whitefish Lake is entered from the bottom lock for travel towards Kingston. Exit from Sand Lake in the other direction towards Ottawa is via the single Davis Lock.

The type of stone needed for the dam and locks is not very common in the area. Fortunately, a source of sandstone was found east of Elgin and a quarry was established. The huge stones were cut by hand, hauled by oxen over a trail through the forest to the lake, loaded on to scows and floated down to the construction site.

The early settlers of Leeds and Grenville counties were mainly United Empire Loyalists from the U.S.A. Many of them settled near the St. Lawrence River which offered good transportation. Other land was given to former British army personnel in recognition of their service. Additional immigrants, mainly from England, Scotland and Ireland, came in search of a new and hopefully better life.

The influx of these new immigrants to Canada required that additional land be surveyed. This was done for South Crosby about 1800 and thus additional land was made available to settlers. The Rideau area became attractive after the canal was opened in 1832 because of the transportation opportunities which it provided.

Birch Island, also known at various times in the past as Morton Island and Muldoon Island, is comprised of part of 3 lots in 2 concessions in the Township of South Crosby (part of lot 9, concession 6 and part of lots 9 and 10, conces. 7). The eastern part of what is now Birch Island was obtained by an early settler from the Crown in 1807 in the name of Betsey Tozer. At that time Sand Lake was known as Davis Lake. The western part was obtained by James Muldoon from the Crown in 1876 which was after the construction of the dam at Jones Falls which flooded considerable land.

Of course, Birch Island was not always an island. Before the construction of the Jones Falls dam it was a peninsula and a part of the mainland on the south shore of Davis Lake. Before the arrival of the early settlers native people lived here, at least temporarily. Indian artifacts have been found on the island which archaeologists have estimated to be more than one thousand years old.

It is interesting to imagine the appearance of Sand (Davis) Lake before the dam was built. It was certainly a fairly large lake draining into the Cataraqui River over the rapids in the area known as “The Quarters”. It has been estimated that the dam raised the level of the lake by about 10 feet to flood these rapids and to provide sufficient depth of water at the outlet of Davis Lock. Most of Eel Bay was created by this flooding.

Birch Island was part of several farms most of the time since the first settlers arrived. An unusual activity in the early part of this century was the production of lime from limestone on the island by the Jackson Brothers. Part of a lime kiln still exists on the south side of the island. It is believed that originally there were 2 additional kilns.

The basis for seasonal living on the island after the area was settled occurred in 1890. Mr. and Mrs. James Brown, who then owned the eastern part of the island, sold a lot to George Cairns as a trustee for a group of 6 people from Smiths Falls. It is believed to have been used by them as a fishing and hunting site. The cottage known as Saints Rest is located on this lot and is the oldest building on the island.

The previous year Mr. and Mrs. Brown sold the nearby island known as Cordwood to Mr. David Freed of Philadelphia who developed it into an elegant summer estate. It remained in the Freed family until 1983 when it was purchased by the Marshalls who expended considerable effort to restore it. The name Cordwood refers to its early function as a place to refuel steamships. Nearby is Chicken Island which derives its name from its previous use as a source of chickens to feed the Freed family.

The properties which included Birch Island were owned by several people before Lotan Burtch purchased the west part of the island in 1898 and the remainder in 1902 as an extension of his nearby farm on the mainland. It provided a source of hay for winter feed and a place for sheep and cattle to graze during the summer. The sheep were brought over by boat in the spring and returned the same way in the fall. The cattle were less fortunate; they had to swim.

Howard Burtch became the owner of the property in 1950 after the death of his father, Lotan. Howard lived on about 10 acres on the north side most of the year. The basic cabin where he lived was built about 1932.

Most of the remainder of the island was purchased from Howard by Birch Island Estates in 1968. The island was surveyed dividing it into lots as sites for cottages. A system of roads was planned since the island at that time was connected to the mainland by a causeway and bridge. Electrical power and telephone service were brought over by underwater cables from the mainland to the east end of the island.

Lots were sold to eager buyers and soon a number of cottages were being constructed. A number of the original purchasers continue to enjoy life on the island. Currently, there are approximately 60 cottages on Birch Island.

Jones Falls Lock

Sand Lake, on the Rideau Canal Elgin, Ontario