Cobourg harbour's early days had booms and busts
by Vince Versace, Staff Writer, Northumberland News
COBOURG - Stand at the end of the Division Street pier, close your eyes and listen closely. The serene waterfront sounds of today are a far cry from the rumble of rolling coal cars, ship whistle shrieks and train engine roars which once defined golden ages of activity in Cobourg's waterfront.
"It was always a busy place down there. You had the trains going back and forth, the ferries and ships blowing their whistles, as they came and went and the fog horn also," recalls Bud Barr, 83, a lifelong Cobourg resident whose great-grandfather settled in Cobourg in 1844. Mr. Barr is a former member [and still a member in 2008 - Ed] of Cobourg's historical society and architectural advisory committee.
Another common sound in the waterfront during the summers of Mr. Barr's youth were the screams of children hurtling down a wooden slide in a toboggan on wheels. The slide stretched out over the water and into the harbour.
"The slide was in the area between the east pier and where the beach ended," says Mr. Barr. "It was run by the Lavis family who had fishing boats and a fish house on the east pier."
The slide is now a thing of the past, as are some other waterfront features which helped popularize Cobourg's harbour. However, one of today's most prized waterfront features was also popular as far back as the early 1800s. Cobourg's main beach was used as a stopover location for travellers along the Lake Ontario 's north shore well before Cobourg's incorporation in 1837, reports Percy Climo in his book 'I Cover the Waterfront'.
"The beach was a place of stopover and encampment, especially at the west end of the beach where the large stream entered the lake," wrote Mr. Climo. "The estuary provided a harbour for small boats and good supply of fresh water fish."
After 1837, immigrants to the Newcastle District, which included the areas of Oshawa, Peterborough and Belleville, used Cobourg's main beach as a camping and recreation location, added Mr. Climo. Before Cobourg's first harbour was built, Midtown Creek, which is now covered south of University Street and runs through the centre of town, was large enough to allow boats to float as far north as James Street. Lake Ontario's shoreline was further north than it is now and it created a bay where it met Midtown Creek. This bay stretched south of Albert Street from Division to George streets, notes Rob Mikel, local historian.
In the late 1820s schooners with cargo and passengers had to anchor well off shore because Cobourg's harbour was nothing more than a landing wharf, note various Cobourg historical texts. Passengers and freights could only be transported to shore after being transferred to smaller boats. To eliminate this problem and capitalize on commercial activity in the harbour, the Cobourg Harbour Company was established by a group of prominent Cobourg businessmen on March 20, 1829.
"The early settlers in the area were zealous in their ambitions," says Mr. Mikel "In 1830 they had the main pier built, which was a remarkable feat."
The harbour company's earliest accomplishment was building the wooden Eastern Pier, at the foot of Division Street , which stretched 500 feet into the lake and was 30-feet wide. The pier was completed in 1832 and a storehouse, which extended across Division Street soon followed, notes Mr. Mikel. Cobourg's harbour now had two options for vessels because it still had the old George Street wharf where steamboats like the Frontenac and Niagara docked.
To pay for all these harbour improvements and future upgrades, the harbour company charged tolls for use of the harbour. Pot and pearl ash carried a toll of nine pence per barrel, flour four pence per barrel, wheat and grain one cent for 60 lbs. and any boat under 12 tonnes was charged one shilling and three pence.
Cobourg's population by 1832 was over 1,350 and the harbour was a continuous centre of import and exports. Some directors of the harbour company formed a new company in 1833 to build the steamship 'Cobourg' which was to be used specifically for Cobourg trade. However, according to Charles Taws in 'The Harbours of Cobourg and Port Hope,' the harbour company's directors had begun to misspend harbour revenues and both control of the harbour and the steamship Cobourg went to " Toronto speculators." The harbour began to deteriorate because it was managed by people over 100 kilometres away. The 'Cobourg' never operated from her home port but did make a weekly stop during its Prescott to Niagara run. The trade boat was sold in 1841.
Cobourg "Harbour Mouth" ~ 1880
Reproduction of an engraving from
Picturesque Canada, volume 2, published 1882.
Original by artists Schell and Hogan; engraver F. Geyer.
However, in 1861, the railway's bridge, which spanned over Rice Lake, collapsed during the winter. A competing railway line from Port Hope to Peterborough soon opened and Cobourg lost a lot of its freight and passenger business.
"By the early 1860s, Cobourg's harbour was not of much importance," says Mr. Mikel.
In 1874 the Canadian government built the Langevin Pier, a long breakwater which extends from the foot of Hibernia Street , to help control the problem of sand filling the harbour. The breakwater would be the last pier added to the harbour, giving it the shape it still has today.
The founding of the Cobourg, Peterborough and Marmora Railway and Mining Corporation in 1866 helped revitalize commercial activity in the waterfront. The railway had steamships on Rice Lake which carried iron ore from Marmora across the lake to connect with trains on Rice Lake 's south shore. The trains then ran their route south, through what is today Hamilton Township, into Cobourg along Spring Street and to the waterfront. The ore was then transferred to ships and sent to Rochester.
The railway attracted American industrialists and eventually led to a new chapter in the Town's history known as the American Summer Colony (see our section on this) because of the large number of tourists from the United States. The summer visitors created a wave of new grand hotels to be built in the areas just north of the shoreline and around Victoria Park. Hotels like the Arlington, on King Street at the top of Victoria Park, the Columbian, on McGill Street and the Cedamere Hotel, at the south end of Ontario Street, were examples of Cobourg trying to meet the demands of its newest boom industry, tourism.
"The Arlington was right at the top of Victoria Park and was a perfect setting. The park then was just one long lawn which belonged to the hotel," says Mr. Mikel. "The grass just eventually connected to the beach."
What is now Victoria Park and considered "the crown jewel" of Cobourg, along with Victoria Hall, by Mayor Peter Delanty, was actually privately owned in 1874 but still accessible to the public.
"It is amazing that what is the park has remained as open space for as long as it has," notes Mr. Mikel. "It is right in the middle of town and was never developed."
A proposed project for the summer colony era, which never was developed, was a boulevard which stretched along Cobourg's shoreline from west to east.
"The summer colony brought in tremendous amounts of money into Cobourg. They wanted a boulevard so they could have carriages rolling along the waterfront," explains Mr. Mikel. "It never happened because too many parts of the harbour were owned privately."
Cobourg became renowned for its sailing regattas and yachting as the summer colony grew in popularity.
"Cobourg was always the third point in a race between Toronto, Rochester and Cobourg, it (yachting) has quite the history in this area," says Mr. Mikel.
One of Cobourg's most famous yachts which cruised the waterfront was the Gorilla, described as, "ugly as sin and swift as Satan," a three-time winner of the Prince of Wales Cup, notes Mr. Taws.
The Countess of Dufferin was the other notable yacht because it was built in Cobourg and competed in the America 's Cup.
Click to enlarge
By the early 1900s it was not only steamships and yachts which captured the imaginations of harbour onlookers.
The Ontario Car Ferry Company era dominated activity in Cobourg's waterfront after it was formed in 1905 as a joint venture between the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) and the Buffalo, Rochester and Pennsylvania Railroad. The company was formed for the primary purpose of transporting coal from Pennsylvania to Ontario to be ultimately used to power GTR trains.
During this early period of growth in Cobourg, immigrants from Europe and the United States first touched land in Cobourg at its waterfront. As early as 1824, Irishman Peter Robinson brought immigrants to the Peterborough area through Cobourg. The immigrants disembarked in Cobourg and made their way through the wilderness to their new homes north of Rice Lake, writes Mr. Taws.
The waterfront also proved to be the stage for early Cobourg citizen benevolence and generosity. As cholera ravaged Europe in 1847, 25,000 Irish immigrants died of cholera en route to America or after their arrival. In 1847, 5,393 immigrants landed in Cobourg in poor health. Approximately half of them moved northward to Peterborough but over 500 remained in and around Cobourg. Local citizens sent 300 pounds in financial relief to Ireland that year.
"Apparently the people of Cobourg really took them in, giving them food and caring for them," says Mr. Mikel
Steamers running between Kingston and Toronto dropped off many sick immigrants at Cobourg's wharf in July 1849, even though they had cities like Toronto and Hamilton listed as their destination. Earlier Irish settlers in Cobourg eventually called Corktown and Kerrytown home. Corktown was in the east end of Cobourg, from Victoria Park over to Darcy Street and Kerrytown was located near Fourth Street, notes Mr. Mikel.
Cobourg council purchased control of the harbour in 1850 and began repairs to the existing piers and enlarged the harbour mouth. This widening of the shipping channel allowed larger ships to dock at the Eastern Pier. A new breakwater was built as was a new warehouse and lighthouse in the harbour.
The harbour could now support 100 vessels and four steamships and several schooners arrived in town daily, note Peter Greathead and Don Dawson in the 'Cobourg and District Historical Society Historical Review' of 1980 to 1982. Cobourg had 5,000 citizens by 1850 and its waterfront was the catalyst for the town's economic boom.
The Cobourg and Peterborough Railway helped ship massive quantities of lumber and grain through the harbour after opening in 1854. In 1856, 14 million feet of lumber and 200,000 baskets of wheat were shipped from Cobourg's waterfront thanks to the railway.
Two ferries were built; the Ontario No.1 was launched in 1907 and Ontario No.2 was launched in 1915. The ferries could hold between 28-32 cars of coal, automobiles and approximately 1,000 people per trip. The Rochester to Cobourg run took five hours to complete from port to port. Unloading a ferry took two hours and passengers used to stroll into downtown Cobourg to shop and spend the day, recalls Mr. Barr.
"As a kid we used to go stand on the pier and watch the ferries," says Mr. Barr. "The Americans would throw money into the water and we would dive in it after it."
Five sets of railway tracks used to cut through the heart of what are now public waterfront lands. The ferries would back up to the dock and the coal cars would roll off them on to a set of tracks, explains Mr. Barr. The ferries moved 70,000 passengers and 12,800 railroad cars of coal yearly.
Above is the Cobourg to Rochester Ferry Number one - presumably in the Rochester harbour.
Click the photo to enlarge
Once the depression and the Second World War hit, business slowed. In 1945 the ferries transported over 43,000 passengers and almost 855,000 tonnes of cargo but by 1949 they only transported 22,000 passengers and just over 425,000 tons of cargo, notes Mr. Greathead and Mr. Dawson. Ontario No.1 set sail for the last time in 1949 and Ontario No.2 in 1950 and both ferries were scrapped by 1952. [More on the Ferries]
Commercial activity would never be the same again in Cobourg's waterfront. A majority of activity which was to come in the waterfront area would be from trains and deep sea ships. Land-based industry, with the famed oil drums and massive coal piles, would slowly begin to take hold of the waterfront, silencing ferry and steamship whistles forever.