“There’s gold out there in the bay, black gold”Roy Cockburn, 1946
This is the first part of a two part series. You can find part 2 here.
You’re out for dinner with a new friend, let’s say someone you’re just getting to know. Imagine this acquaintance were to order caviar. Realistically, you might take their order as a clue as to the type of person they are:
- You might guess that they’re doing quite well financially.
- You could assume that they have exotic tastes.
- You might consider their order an attempt to impress you, perceiving their hopes that the prestige associated with the dish might rub off on them.
And although these impressions are based off of a relatively small amount of data, their order, you might even be right.
Caviar is pretty damn expensive after all. Currently, Caviar costs the consumer between $50 and $75 per ounce (a two person serving), although of course the price varies by type and quality, with some of the most expensive caviar, from Iranian Beluga for example, selling for upwards of $400 dollars an ounce. So yeah, your new friend might have expensive tastes, fair guess I’d say.
Most caviar now actually comes from aquaculture endeavours in China, and there is not much of market in Canada relative to elsewhere. Given a luke-warm market for the product domestically, it’s not surprising Canadian’s might consider it exotic.
Caviar is also certainly portrayed in a way which gives the impression of prestige.
The cost prohibits most people from enjoying the dish with any sort of regularity, and with that comes the allure of exclusivity. I personally have never tried the dish, and I imagine many residents of Northern Ontario are right with me on that. While a recent surge in production of caviar by China, increasing supply and reducing price has threatened the exclusivity of the dish, from a popular culture perspective, the dish is still considered a delicacy enjoyed by the wealthy and influential.
Honestly, the word caviar basically makes me picture either posh Hollywood parties, or some super old guy with a monocle and top-hat speaking with some played up billionaire’s drawl. Caviar, conceptually at least, is a dish for elites. It is expensive, exclusive, and presumably it tastes fantastic (I wouldn’t know).
“Myths are one of the key ingredients in caviar. Stripped of its shroud of legend and tradition, caviar would just be fish eggs.”Igna Saffron – Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy
So, what does Caviar have to do with North Bay and the surrounding communities?
Well that takes us back in history, to the story a founding father of Sturgeon Falls, the caviar king, and Lake Nipissing’s “Black Gold” . There’s a lot more to this story than a local caviar producer.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Jeremiah Daniel (J.D) Cockburn arrived in Sturgeon Falls in the 1880’s, crossing the ice of Lake Nipissing with his horse and his limited worldly possessions. J.D left from Muskoka, and quickly found his place in the economy of Sturgeon Falls as the owner of a fur post which became a general store. J.D expanded his local empire over the following years, with both his lumber and fishery endeavours underway prior to the towns official establishment (Unknown Author1,n.d) (Lebelle, 1995).
When Sturgeon Falls officially became a municipality in 1895, J.D was credited as one of the town’s founding fathers, and a historical plaque commemorating the founding of the town on Front Street (Hwy 17) lists his name specifically. As time went on, Cockburn’s local commerce activity became pretty impressive, with his endeavours expanding further to include an Opera-house theatre, a pulp mill, and a local hotel, in addition to his thriving store, fishery and lumber harvesting businesses (Unknown Author1,n.d) (Lebelle, 1995).
In addition to his role as the head of his company directing its various activities, J.D had other official roles locally and was truly a cornerstone to the town. He acted as the regions Crown Land agent during the settlement period, the post-master, as the towns sole election poll clerk in 1913, as well as a stint as Lodge Master at the local Masonic Temple on John Street between 1914-15 (Castilloux, n.d)(Author Uknown2, n.d). He continued his crucial involvement in the temple in the following decades and was a prominent member of the masonic community in the region.
With the local prominence of the Cockburn name established, the stage was set for Cockburn’s sons to make it a dynasty.
A use for Lake Sturgeon
Coincidently, right around the time J.D Cockburn was making a name for himself on the shores of Lake Nipissing, the stage was being set for his son, Roy Cockburn, to make a legacy of his own.
While sturgeon of North America were plentiful in the colonial era, they were not sought after by settlers, and it was often considered a pest that would find its way into nets intended for a more profitable catch. American colonies took notice of the way the Indigenous peoples enjoyed smoked sturgeon, but there was very little demand for the fish as anything but food to give to slaves (Saffron, 2002). In Canada, the sturgeon were left to the First Nations peoples as well.
Essentially, colonists felt the meat from the shark-like fish was really only suitable for ‘inferior peoples’, and did not bother with commercial harvesting of sturgeon for the first few hundred years of occupation (Ontario Rivers Alliance, 2009).
That all changed when in the middle of the 19th century, when a Russian immigrant living in Philadelphia purchased live sturgeon from fishermen, and rather than throwing the roe away, he cured the eggs delicately to produce fine caviar. The man packaged the product, and shipped it to France, Germany, and back home to Russia, and an industry was born (Saffron, 2002).
This one, unknown immigrant had set in motion a black gold rush.
The North American Caviar Boom
After the discovery that North American Lake Sturgeon could produce a high quality caviar, an intense boom in the industry followed. The second half of the 1800’s saw numerous Caviar businesses all over the United States and Canada (Saffron, 2002). By 1870 the price of the sturgeon meat, in addition to the realization the fish could be exploited for their roe, justified mass-scale commercial fishing of sturgeon throughout the continent, especially in the Great Lakes (Ontario Rivers Alliance, 2009).
An interesting irony emerges when one considers the change in consumer of the sturgeon in North America in such a short period of time. Literally, from rags to riches, the meat was once considered only suitable for incredibly ignorantly deemed “lesser races”, and now it was being harvested for the purpose of producing the finest delicacy for the wealthiest nobility and royalty all over Europe.
History provides all kinds of weird irony for us to consider in hindsight, and that’s just one reason I love to study the past.
While the initial increase in supply of caviar that came with the new production in North America may have caused the price of the commodity to drop somewhat, caviar’s reputation and myth as a delicacy only grew. Consistently, year after year, there were less fish in the nets. As supply decreased, the price of caviar continued to rise, further justifying the exploitation of the resources (Ontario Rivers Alliance, 2009).
By the mid to late 1880’s, Sturgeon stocks had depleted in the Great Lakes, and opportunists turned their sights to smaller lakes to fill the insatiable demand for the product in Europe.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, Lake Nipissing was one of these lakes.
This has been the first part of a two part series on the Lake Nipissing caviar industry.
If you want to wake up with the latest Gateway content in your inbox, be sure to subscribe!
Castilloux (n.d) 1913 Sturgeon Falls Election.
Lebelle (1995) Sturgeon Falls.
Ontario Rivers Alliance (2009). The Lake Sturgeon in Ontario.
Saffron (2002). Caviar: The strange history and uncertain future of the world’s most coveted delicacy.
Unknown Author1 (n.d). Remember Sturgeon Falls Yesterday.
Unknown Author2 (n.d). The history of the town of Sturgeon Falls and its Masonic Lodge.
Special Thanks to Nikki Commanda. While I don’t know her, her research paper: Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser Fulvescens) Management and Status Update for the Lake Nipissing Watershed, served as the inspiration for this me to tell this story.