Rideau Ferry’s Dark Legend

The legend of the notorious John Oliver begins in 1816 when he and his family settled on the south shore, on Lot 21, Conc. 5 of Elmsley Township, and John began to operate a ferry service on the Rideau Lakes. Over the years there were stories of travellers who went missing, of bones found under a house, tales of fighting among neighbours, and of a grisly murder.

Oliver’s Ferry

Back then, early surveyors reported a distance of about 450-500 feet, at the narrowist section for crossing the Rideau Lake, so anyone traveling to Perth had to pay Oliver to cross from one side to the other if they didn’t own a boat. This community today is known as Rideau Ferry, but at that time, because of John’s thriving business, it was known as Oliver’s Ferry.

Oliver’s Ferry, August 20, 1830, by James Pattison Cockburn, Library and Archives Canada

Travellers Disappeared

John Oliver’s ferry, a rough wooden raft, was a link to the roads leading from Brockville and Perth. John had a most unusual habit. He refused to transport travellers across Rideau Lake to the other side after dark, and always offered to accommodate them at his home overnight and then transport them the following morning.

His neighbours claimed that they seldom saw the travellers the next day. When people in the area asked about the travellers John stated that, “They went on their way at first light. You must have been asleep”. It was said that a number of these travellers who stayed overnight at John’s house never arrived at their destination.

John’s Suicide

When local minister, Rev. William Bell visited Oliver’s Ferry on his way to Perth in 1817, he later noted in his diary, that John Oliver, “appeared to have a somewhat unstable personality”. This observation proved to be true when news came of John’s death by suicide, after he shot himself in 1821.

William Oliver

Takes Over

After his father’s sudden death, William took over the ferry business.

Did John in fact take his own life, or did his son, William, who was said to be both violent and ambitious, cause his father’s death?

Stories of William’s temper were well known in the area and stories suggested that he continued his father’s ghastly habit of killing travellers, stealing their possessions, dismembing their bodies and hiding the remains under the floorboards of the Oliver house.

William was also known to have frequent and violent arguments with his neighbours, and it was said that almost everyone disliked him. He often had disagreements with his neighbours, some of which turned violent. He was also known to pursue other men’s wives, an in particular the wife of William McLean who lived across the river. His habit of being a womanizer did not increase his popularity in the community around the Rideau Lakes.

On a hot summer’s day in July of 1842, his violent nature rose to the surface again when the neighbour’s cattle, from the Toomy farm, were found trespassing on Oliver’s property. William headed straight to the Toomy’s place, confronted the two Toomy brothers, and punched one of them.

“The Perth Courier”, in its July 26, 1842 edition reported that the Toomys retreated to their house and that Oliver followed them there. One of the Toomys grabbed a loaded gun and told Oliver to get off their property. As Oliver tried to wrestle the gun from Toomy, the gun discharged, shooting Oliver through the heart. He was killed instantly.

Rev. William Bell of Perth stated, “The tragical death of William Oliver, at the Rideau Ferry on the 19th, creating at this time a universal thrill of horror. It was dreadful to think of a man so profanely wicked as he was, being sent into eternity in a moment.”

Word spread quickly through the county, and on July 20, Peter Sweeney, Lockmaster at Jones Falls, noted in his diary “I heard that Mr. Oliver was shot by a neighbour at Oliver’s Ferry.”

“On Wednesday morning, July 20, 1842, an inquest was held upon the body, before W.P. Loucke, Esq., Coroner, when the Jury returned a verdict of Manslaughter against William and John Toomy, the evidence being contradictory as to which of the brothers had committed the deed.  We understand they were sent to Brockville jail, to await their trial.”

“The Perth Courier”, July 26, 1842, p. 2

The Toomy brothers were jailed and both later convicted of manslaughter.

Oliver’s Ferry – Rideau Lake, 1834 – Archives of Ontario

One local legend passed down through the generations states that when the Oliver family’s buildings were torn down to make way for the new bridge built across the narrows in 1874, human bones were found both inside of the walls and under the floor boards.

Oliver’s Ferry 1828 looking south This shows the south shore where the Oliver family’s house was located (in red)

The bottom shows the north shore and the road to Perth. from: 1828, Scottish Records Office

“The Perth Courier”, October 17, 1873, p. 4

Human Skeleton


In 1873, when bids were being submitted on the contract to build a bridge to replace the ferry there was an alarming article in the local newspapers stating that there was:

“a discovery of a human skeleton under the platform of a house

near the wharf that was undergoing repairs.”

After the bridge was completed in 1874, there was no longer a need for a ferry service.

Both the original ferryman, John Oliver, and his son, William were gone – the father, by a self-inflicted gunshot, and the son, shot through the heart by his neighbour.

The legend of Oliver’s Ferry is one that’s been passed along for over 200 years, since 1821, and the unsettling death of John Oliver. His son William’s tragic demise adds to the mystery and intrigue of this fascinating tale!

Who were the travellers staying overnight at the Oliver’s home, and were they ever seen again?

Did authorities identify the human skeletons found under the wharf when they were building the Rideau Ferry bridge?

This fascinating story of the Oliver family remains one of Rideau Ferry’s dark legends!

Arlene Stafford-Wilson

“Revelry and Rogues on the Rideau”, a story in “Lanark County Chronicle”, tells the tales of John Oliver, and of Coutts House and the Rideau Ferry Inn, and of Al Capone’s rum-running days, and a secret tunnel built so he and his men could escape from their hideaway and cleverly evade the local police.

Available at, The Book Nook in Perth, Mill Street Books in Almonte, and Spark Books in Perth

contact: lanarkcountybooks@gmail.com


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