This Week in Peterborough: 1880


Couples skating in Ottawa, 1880 (via the Ottawa Citizen).


In late November of 1880, winter had taken full grip of the town of Peterborough.  The newspapers reported that Lake Scugog was frozen over, with the ice seven inches thick.  The roads were suffering too – the butcher’s sleigh overturned at the corner of Simcoe and George, tipping out the boy driving it.  Fortunately, he was unhurt, and the horses stopped to wait for him to climb back in.

But what else was going on, at home and abroad?  Click on, for more trouble in Ireland, a waterway, and a quick note about winter recreation!

“The approach of another session of Parliament brings this important scheme to the front again,” wrote the Peterborough Examiner on November 25th, 1880.  “This important scheme,” one with major local ramifications, was the Trent-Severn Waterway.  Although construction of the waterway, connecting Georgian Bay with Lake Ontario, had begun nearly a half-century earlier, it had progressed only in fits and starts, and the Examiner‘s editors, among others, wanted to see things stepped up.  The commercial benefits of the waterway were self-evident; among other things, it would provide a direct, not to mention relatively short and safe, route between Chicago and Montreal, and would thus put Peterborough right in the middle of the booming shipping trade from the upper Midwest of the United States.  In fact, by the Examiner‘s figures, the Trent-Severn Waterway would save Chicago shipping concerns 36 hours per one-way trip, compared to the Welland Canal route, and about $1,000,000 a year in total.


Canal works at Frankford, Ontario, on the Trent-Severn Waterway. Year unknown. (via Trent University).


Sadly, it was not to be.  The slow nature of the construction work lingered on.  By the time the Waterway could be traveled by boat from end to end, in about 1920, railways and larger cargo ships had rendered the canal system unusable for major commercial transport.

Complicating matters somewhat, in terms of getting Parliament to commit money to the Trent-Severn project in 1880, was the looming need to deal with another national transportation issue, namely the construction of the Pacific Railway.  That was a project of a different magnitude; the November 25th Examiner referred to it, with immense sarcasm, as “that tremendous bargain,” and gave figures of 25,000,000 acres of public land and $20,000,000 (borrowed from Britain) that would need to be given to the Pacific Railway Company to make the transcontinental route a reality.  In the end, the paper left now doubt about what it felt to be the best course of action:

“…we venture to say the expenditure of $3,000,000 on the Trent Valley, will return a more immediate and a greater interest to the Government, than they will get for the $20,000,000 to be handed over to the curiously impecunious “millionaires from Great Britain, Germany, France, the United States and Canada.”


Sir Sandford Fleming, portrait by John W.L. Forster, 1892 (via Library & Archives Canada, MIKAN #2895065)


There was, of course, a local reason for the Examiner to be so hot about the construction of the railway.  Under the previous, Liberal, government of Alexander MacKenzie, the construction of the transcontinental railroad had been a public venture, run by the Department of Public Works.  More importantly from the newspaper’s point of view, the chief engineer had been Sandford Fleming, long-time resident of Peterborough, married to a Peterborough girl, and the son-in-law of the town’s former Sheriff and Member of Parliament.  With the re-election of John A. MacDonald’s Conservatives in 1878, however, the project was turned over to a consortium of the “curiously impecunious millionaires” mentioned above, and Fleming found himself out of a job.  That dismissal, combined with the Examiner‘s long-standing dislike of the Conservatives on other grounds, goes far towards explaining the bitter tone adopted by the paper.


Peterborough Times, November 27th, 1880.


The other major bit of Canadian news in the Peterborough papers at this time was dreadful.  On November 12th, an explosion had occurred in the coal mine at Stellarton, Nova Scotia, killing 50 miners, not to mention all of the horses in the mine.  The Peterborough Times, on November 27th, soberly urged Peterborians to start raising funds “towards relieving the wants of the 130 orphans and widows at Stellarton.”  It was not, sadly, the last mining disaster to hit the Stellarton area; 88 minors died in an explosion there in 1918, and the next-door community of Plymouth lost 46 in a similar accident in 1992.

Overseas meanwhile, the tension between Irish tenant farmers and land-owners, as discussed in the last post, was still simmering away, and still receiving a great deal of coverage from the Peterborough papers.  The November 27th Times noted at least one positive development, however; the tenant farmers seemed to be moving away from lethal violence against their oppressors:

“Formerly the method was to shoot a landlord or agent who made himself obnoxious by acts which the people considered unjust and oppressive.  Now they have introduced a milder method… They tar and feather them.  The commencement in this new departure was made last week, when Mr. Gairdner, a landlord in County Galway, was tarred and feathered by a party of armed men.  We approve of the change.  It is a much better plan than to commit murder.”

Another method of resistance adopted by the tenant farmers against unpopular landowners was merely to have nothing to do with them: not pay them rent, not work for them, and in fact forcibly prevent others from working for or with them.  The November 27th Times described the result of one successful application of this tactic:

“The result was that towards harvest time [the landlord] found himself in a difficult fix.  His servants and laborers all left him.  He had no one to look after his cattle and horses, no one to make his hay or reap his oats, nor would they let him get laborers from without… Even the shop keepers in the towns around feared to have any  business dealings with him or his.”

The landlord involved in that situation was Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, and that, my friends, is where we get that particular word from!


Caricature of Charles Boycott by Leslie Ward, from Vanity Fair, January 1881 (via Wikimedia Commons).


We will close off here with an ill wind blowing some good.  Nastily cold it may have been in Peterborough in late November of 1880, but the November 27th Times found a silver lining:

“The cold snap of the past week has frozen the bay* and river over, and any afternoon or evening one can see crowds of merry skaters enjoying this invigorating amusement.”

The paper also noted that the skating and curling rink had been flooded, and that “we may expect to have good skating there soon.”

Next time out, we will look at early December in 1881!

*The “bay” referred to here is presumably the one formed, on the West side of George Street, by the mouth of Jackson Creek, which was then between Wolfe and Dalhousie Streets.  The bay extended South from there, before swinging East and opening into the river and Little Lake roughly between Townsend and Rink Streets.


Anybody need a bull? Peterborough Examiner, November 25th, 1880.


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