This Week in Peterborough: 1873


The U.S.S. Polaris, from an engraving in Harper’s Weekly, May 1873 (via Wikimedia Commons)

With discovery of what is now known to be the H.M.S. Erebus lying on the seabed off King William Island, the history of Arctic exploration is once again very much in the news.  That fact fits very nicely with what we have to talk about this week, as in early October of 1873, the people of Peterborough were reading of the near-miraculous end to an early attempt to reach the North Pole itself.

Click on for that story, railways both national and local, and the visit of a famous performer to our fair ‘burg!

There were a few international stories kicking around in the Peterborough newspapers in early October of 1873, but few that seem to have particularly gripped the public imagination.  The Peterborough Times, in its October 18th issue, lamented the October 3rd executions that marked the end of the Modoc War in the Pacific Northwest (“…there was something sad and humiliating in the spectacle,” wrote the paper).  The Peterborough Examiner, meanwhile, devoted some column space to the ongoing Third Carlist War, and particularly to the bombardment of the city of Alicante.  However, neither of these conflicts seem to have merited the sort of coverage given the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.

There was, however, one dramatic tale that was getting a fair amount of attention, namely the attempt by the crew of the U.S.S. Polaris to reach the North Pole via the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay.  That expedition, under the leadership of Charles F. Hall, had set out in 1871, and managed to reach roughly 82 degrees North, a new record at the time, before things went hideously wrong.  Hall died — very possibly deliberately poisoned, although nothing was ever proven — in October of 1871, and further disaster followed.  As the Polaris tried to return home a year later, some of the crew became stranded on a ice floe, and were left to drift southward for six months before being rescued by a whaling ship off the coast of Newfoundland.  The Polaris herself, meanwhile, was deliberately run aground in the Fall of 1872, and the remaining crew overwintered there before building boats and heading south themselves.  They too were rescued by whalers, finally arriving in Scotland in September of 1873, and it was the news of that arrival that was attracting press attention in Peterborough in early October.


From the Peterborough Examiner, October 9th, 1873.

As one might imagine, Inuit aid was vital to the survival of both groups of men (some Inuit who had actually been part of the expedition were among those stranded on the floe, while locals supplied the men on the beached ship).  The Wikipedia article on the expedition, however, notes that “scarcely a word was written about the Inuit in either the official reports of the expedition, or the press.”  In this regard, the Peterborough Examiner at least provides a bit of an exception, if only as far as the men who stayed on the ship are concerned.  From the October 9th edition of the paper:

“Some help was received from three Esquimaux, who discovered the wrecked ship and agreed, for a few paltry presents, to convey provisions over the ice to the vessel.  They gave still more valuable aid by supplying skins for clothing, of which the crew were greatly in need…”

On to Canadian matters, and here we find a clue as to why international news stories were being given a somewhat cursory treatment.  The nation, at this time, was embroiled in a serious political scandal, and it had all to do with the railway, namely the immense trans-continental route which was in the planning stages at that time.  Given the scope of the project, it is little wonder that the bidding for the contract was fierce, primarily involving Sir Hugh Allen’s Canada Pacific Railway Company and the Inter-Oceanic Railway Company of David L. MacPherson.  And it should also come as no surprise that the process was thoroughly corrupt.

Gérard Dicks Pellerin  a-1640xl pc065135

Sir Hugh Allen. (Notman Photographic Archives, via Library & Archives Canada, NLC-4855)

At the root of the scandal was the simple fact that Allen, who won the bidding, had not only been shoveling vast amounts of money (the figure of $350,000 is mentioned) into the coffers of Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald’s Conservative Party, but may have been involved in outright bribery of voters during the 1872 election.  “Did Sir John Sell the Charter?” roared the October 2nd Examiner, and the answer to that rhetorical question is almost certainly “yes.”  There were other complications as well; probably unbeknownst to MacDonald, there was a considerable amount of American money involved in the CPR.  In those days of Manifest Destiny, and genuine wariness in relations between the two countries, that bit of news caused a certain amount of alarm, and ratcheted up the pressure on the beleaguered Prime Minister.

In the short term, the Pacific Scandal proved disastrous to MacDonald.  A month after the Examiner asked its rhetorical question, he stepped down as Prime Minister although not as leader of the Conservatives.  In 1874, his party would be trounced by the Liberals under Alexander MacKenzie.  In light of the scandal, it is no coincidence at all that that particular election saw the introduction of the secret ballot to Canada.  In the end, however, things worked out just fine for both MacDonald and the CPR.  The former was re-elected as PM in 1878, and the latter did in fact end up building the trans-continental railway, with the last spike driven on November 7th, 1885.

Railways were much on the agenda around Peterborough herself as well, although that is nothing new for this era.  The particular question, too, was a familiar one: how best to channel the produce of the back country through Peterborough and Cobourg, rather than Lindsay and Port Hope.  Toronto was also now a player in this particular game, looking to ship timber and minerals straight out of the area north of Peterborough.  Under these circumstances, there was some urgency in the town’s desire to build a railway north to Fenelon Falls and Bobcaygeon.  From the October 2nd Examiner:

“There are no two opinions of the necessity of going northward as far as possible, and the Town Council should not be remiss in securing extension as soon as possible.  The Victoria Road is seeking new legislation to compel the County to pay $60,000 to build a road to Lindsay and Toronto.  Would it not be better to give the money to build a road from the Town of Peterboro to Haliburton?  Action ought to be taken immediately in this matter, as, if the people of Peterboro are asleep, railway men are not.  Their personal interests won’t allow them to neglect opportunities.”

Sadly, the extension did not happen.  The money simply was not there, and by 1876 Fenelon Falls was connected not to Peterborough, but to Lindsay and Haliburton through the work of the Victoria Railway mentioned in the Examiner editorial.

pump house

The 1893 Pump House on Water Street, the second such facility built in Peterborough. (photo via Canada’s Historic Places)

In addition to the railway, waterworks were under discussion in Peterborough in October of 1873.  Wells, tanks, and the river — the town’s sources of water at the time — were dreadfully inefficient especially when it came to the vital issue of fighting fires.  The Peterborough Times, in its October 11th edition, summed up the urgency:

“The health of the town would be promoted by the introduction of a good system of Water Works, insurance would be less, and certainly when any did occur, would be of much less magnitude.  In addition to these good reasons for having water works, the mere fact that every family could obtain a plentiful supply of good water should more than outweigh any consideration of cost.”

The water-works would indeed be built, but not until 1882.

We will finish off here with an entertainment note!  On October 13th, 1873, the Concert Hall saw two performances by Charles Sherwood Stratton, who stood about 3’4″ tall and was better known by the stage name “General Tom Thumb.”  Stratton and his troupe (his wife Lavinia Warren Stratton, her sister Minnie Warren, and “Commodore” George W.S. Nutt) had all come to prominence as “little people” in P.T. Barnum’s organization, but were also world-famous touring artists in their own right.  Their performance in Peterborough, a mixture of music and comedy, was received rapturously by the public and reviewed positively by press, although the October 16th Examiner did remark that “the omission of some of [Commodore Nutt’s] frolics would not have marred the pleasure of the ev’ng.”

Next time, we’re on to 1874, with a new Prime Minister and everything!


From the Peterborough Examiner, October 16th, 1873.

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2 Responses to This Week in Peterborough: 1873

  1. Pingback: This Week in Peterborough: 1874 | Peterboriana

  2. Pingback: This Week in Peterborough: 1925 | Peterboriana

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