Cobourg Peterborough Railway
By Colin Caldwell
Originally published in the Cobourg Star - most recently in October 2002.
Part 1: Peter Robinson’s Dream
The most decisive event in Cobourg's history was probably the building of its own north-bound railway. Almost every amateur historian in Ontario has heard, at some point, of its failed attempt to bridge Rice Lake and thus make itself the port for the inland water-ways.
Although the story has an epic quality about it, not diminished by a spectacular lack of success, it begins with the major life-long achievement of a remarkably likable young man.
Peter was born in the United States in 1785, but left there with the rest of his family to settle in the British colonies, ultimately arriving in York in about 1798. His father became a minor official in the relatively new government, who got him a position as clerk of the Court of Requests. During the War of 1812 he served with distinction at the capture of Detroit and in the north-west frontier.
After a few tries at owning water-mills and running a store in York with D'Arcy Jr., he decided to accompany his brother John and his family on a pleasure trip to England. John was a very important figure in the colony, being at various times Solicitor and later Attorney General, so Peter was introduced to several important figures in the Colonial Office, including Robert John Wilmot-Horton the under secretary of state for the colonies.
Wilmot-Horton was an enthusiastic Malthusian, an economic theory which held that the poor, in good times, would have more children than they or their employers could afford, and would then starve until the population was back to normal. This is why economics was known as the dismal science throughout the nineteenth century.
Wilmot-Horton liked Peter and interested him in a scheme to reduce the poverty in Ireland by removing the poorer but still useful peasants to new lands in Upper Canada. Peter was inspired by the idea. He began interviewing prospective settlers in the Blackwater river valley in the south of Ireland in 1822.
At first the locals, mostly tenant farmers who had been turned off their land for non-payment of rent, equated his proposal with transportation, a policy reserved for criminals who were forced into hard labour in such places as Australia.
Gradually he won them over to his scheme and soon thousands were applying for the few positions he could offer. His first migration came in 1823, when he brought some 568 Catholic settlers to the Lanark area of Upper Canada.
There they were homesteaded among Protestants who resented this and there was occasional trouble. So for his next venture he decided to seek out some fertile but more remote district where the Catholics could form a community of their own. Here his family connections came into play. At the instigation of George S. Boulton - that indefatigable booster of the Newcastle District - he decided to explore the area north of Cobourg. Apparently, some time in 1824, he set out with his eleven year old nephew, D'Arcy Edward Boulton, to look over the lands around the Kawartha Lakes.
There is a delightful foreboding in the story of the young D'Arcy, on
what must have been a first exciting adventure, helping his uncle to
choose the location for a future town which would later dominate his
Robinson soon found what he was looking for at the fledgling settlement of Scott's Mills on the Otonabee River. He then began the process of arranging for parliamentary land grants for the new-comers and returned to Ireland.
Again trying the Blackwater area of County Cork, he quickly was swamped with applicants. Some 50,000 applied for only 2,000 places, and Robinson had to resort to demanding sponsorships on behalf of would-be emigrants. Eventually he weeded them down to 2,024 whom he described as "a better description of people than in '23 altho' they are wretchedly poor" - which was just what Wilmot-Horton wanted.
The land-grants were delayed, however, so it was relatively late in 1825 when the expedition finally left Ireland. In August of 1825 they finally reached Kingston, terribly under equipped, as few resources had been provided by the government for the scheme. Robinson had them housed in a tent city which evoked fierce opposition from the inhabitants who probably feared they would never leave.
It says much for Peter that, in those days of ferocious debate over Catholic Emancipation, he should come to have so great a tolerance and kindness for these Irishman, whom most English-men looked upon as sub-human.
Finally they were able to move off in bateaux, coasting along the lake until they reached Cobourg. There the Methodist Reverend Anson Greene records in his diary that he saw them housed in rows of white tents along the shore west of the main landing area. But the hard part of founding what would later become Peterborough had just begun.