This Week in Peterborough: 1871


New York City, at Canal St. & Mott, about 1870. (Source: Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. The Urban Wilderness: A History of the American City. Berkeley: University of California Press, [1995] 1995.

After the carnage of 1870, with apocalyptic warfare in Europe, rebellion in Canada, and so on, 1871 provides us with a bit of a welcome respite.  Yes, the Franco-Prussian war had only come an end a few months previously, and the brief reign and brutal suppression of the Paris Commune were matters of recent history.  And in Manitoba, Lieutenant Governor Sir Adams Archibald’s attempts at post-Red River reconciliation between the various parties were facing some opposition.  However, late September of that year, in the pages the Peterborough newspapers, seems remarkably quiet.

There were some things going on, however, so click on for chaos in New York City, profane language from the Premier of Ontario, a man from Cayuga who wants to build a cheap bridge, and other doings!

The only international news of any note in early Fall of 1871 involved the nefarious goings-on in New York City, then still under the effective political control of the notorious William “Boss” Tweed and the Tammany Hall organization.  The Peterborough Examiner, on September 21st, concisely summed up the Tweed era as “a huge series of swindles.”  However, that regime was experiencing its final crisis, with public anger over the deaths of 60 people at an Orange Order parade that July having provided the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  By late September, the city’s Comptroller (a Tweed man) had barricaded himself in his office after being fired, the city’s public servants were not getting paid as a result, and the whole thing ended with a large number of people, including Tweed himself, in jail.

In Peterborough, meanwhile, there was little out of the ordinary going on.  We find the usual talk of railroads (there were plans afoot to connect Peterborough with Belleville, along with hopes for a revival of the old line between the town and Cobourg).  There was some (very) minor intrigue involving the newly-vacant position of Postmaster, which would eventually be filled by Mr. H.C. Rogers (the September 28th Examiner praised his predecessor, a Mr. Carver, as having been “obliging and attentive to the work of his office”) .  And the Council had contracted for a new bridge across the Otonabee River — possibly one of the predecessors of the current Hunter Street Bridge — with the Peterborough firm of White & Davis putting in the winning bid of $7000.  Interestingly, this was not the low bid — offering to do the job for $6650 was a mysterious figure referred to in the newspapers only as “a man from Cayuga.”  In any case, the Peterborough Council decided to go local on this one!


John Sandfield MacDonald, QC (From the Archives of Ontario (RG 4-114), via Wikimedia Commons)

Politically, the Province of Ontario was approaching an election, to be held in December of that year, that would see the coalition government of John Sandfield MacDonald defeated by the Liberals under Edward Blake.  In this matter, Peterborough’s newspapers had placed themselves on opposite sides, with the Review supporting MacDonald, and the Examiner despising him.  Among the things that raised the latter’s ire was MacDonald’s penchant for salty language, at least by the standards of the time.  In its September 21st issue, the Examiner, quoting the Fergus News Record, objected to the Premier’s use of the word “H-ll”[sic], and ended with this assessment:

“His language is such as could only come out of the mouth of a man whose tongue is controlled by a mind capable of conceiving things of the most low, mean and vulgar nature.”

As noted, MacDonald would be defeated that December, and he died very shortly thereafter.  He would remain Ontario’s only Roman Catholic Premier until the election of Dalton McGuinty in 2003.  However, it would be an error to see anything sinister in the Peterborough Examiner‘s opposition to him.  While thoroughly disliking the Fenians (who in Canada did not, at that time?), the paper was generally sympathetic to Catholics particularly when they were the targets of political abuse.  The Examiner had, through the 1860s, repeatedly given editorial space to prominent Catholics such as Thomas D’Arcy McGee, and had fiercely criticized the more bigoted members of the Orange Order.  The editors’ dislike of MacDonald was, it seems to me, on purely partisan grounds.


French woodcut by L.F. Labrousse, dated 1800, demonstrating the newly-devised metric system. Click image to see larger version. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Canada had welcomed a new province, British Columbia, into Confederation in July of 1871, and also that summer signed Treaties 1 and 2 with some of the country’s First Nations groups, but these stories had faded from the newspapers by the time in which we are interested.  There was, however, one other national matter under discussion at this time that would also have a very far-reaching impact indeed!  It was in 1871 that the Canadian Parliament, in line with what a number of European governments were doing, legalized that new-fangled French method of measuring things that has come to be known as the metric system.  A century and a half later, it still has not caught on completely (I have no idea how tall I am in cm.), but the system’s benefits were apparent even then to the editors of the Peterborough Examiner.  From the September 14th issue:

“We cannot forbear again calling attention to the confusion of the numberless old measures, and to the beauty of the metrical system, in which the cubic decimeter is the unit of measures of volumes, and the weight of water contained in the same the unit of weight; all being divided in tenth parts, they agree in their subdivisions, proving a great convenience in calculations of all sorts.”

In the last couple of articles in this series, we have dropped in on Peterborough County Sheriff James Hall, and in particular on his gardening efforts.  In 1869, he was on top of the local gardening world, while 1870 saw him sustain a severe setback.  By 1871, all was well again, and the Sheriff took top prize at the mid-September Horticultural Society show in the following floral categories: Petunias, Verbenas, Chinese Pinks, Gladiolas, Antirrhinums, and Pansies.  And while his fruit trees were no doubt still recovering from the previous year’s fire, he was also adjudged to have the best Citrons and Crab Apples.  However, Hall’s main claim to gardening fame remained his potatoes, and the September 14th Examiner printed a chart showing exactly what he had been able to grow.  Impressive, in a word!


The output of Sheriff Hall’s potato patch, from the September 14th Peterborough Examiner. Note the continued use of Imperial weights, despite the recent legalization of the metric system!

Next time out, we will take a look at what was happening in 1872, as September swung into October!


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One Response to This Week in Peterborough: 1871

  1. Pingback: This Week in Peterborough: 1923 | Peterboriana

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