This Week in Peterborough: 1881


The shooting of President James Garfield (engraving from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 16th, 1881, via Wikimedia Commons)

It must be said that in many ways (although not the one illustrated above), the latter part of 1881 in Peterborough looked somewhat the previous few years had — many of the same issues were up for discussion.  Take the parks, for example.  After having lamented Peterborough’s lack of public parkland in November of 1879, the Peterborough Examiner was still making that point in early December of 1881.  The newspaper closed a December 1st article on the opening of the Mount Pelion park in Trenton by asking, simply: “What about our Park?”

So, click on for Ireland, the Trent Severn Waterway, the Pacific Railroad, and indeed some new items as well!

There was one piece of “new news” on the minds of Peterborians of late 1881, and it came from South of the border.  Ongoing in Washington at this time was the trial of Charles Guiteau, who in July had fatally shot President James Garfield.  Guiteau’s trial was a sensational one, not least because of the defendant’s own erratic behaviour.  The Peterborough Times, in a December 3rd article on the trial, gave a little taste of that:

“When the prisoner recited in a cold-blooded manner, and with frequent laughter, his reasons for the murder of the President, the interest was more intense than at any time during the trial.  Men shuddered and women wept.”

Guiteau would be found guilty in January of 1882, and he went to the gallows in June of that year.


Charles Stewart Parnell, one of the leaders of the Land League. (Image Source)

The only other big piece of international news amounted to further updates on the situation in Ireland, where the Land War was into a new phase.  Land Courts had been established to adjudicate rent cases, and the December 1st Examiner declared that these bodies were “fast rendering unnecessary the presence of troops in Ireland, by the sweeping reductions they are making in rents.”  Unfortunately, the British Government had also moved to imprison the leaders of the tenant-supporting Land League, and this move provoked continued violence.  The whole thing was far, far, from over, and we will doubtless revisit it in posts to come.

Around Peterborough itself, the Trent Severn Waterway remained very much the major topic.  In fact, a delegation had gone from Peterborough and several neighbouring counties to lobby the Prime Minister directly, in favour of the project, at the Conservative Party convention.  These efforts, however, met with only a very little success.  First, Sir John A. MacDonald skipped out on a scheduled meeting with the group, after which its members spent a day trying to track him down.  When they did finally catch up with him, time constraints forced them to present their arguments in favour of the Waterway in writing, to be perused by the Prime Minister at a later date.  “The document was of such a character as to suggest an answer,” wrote the December 8th Peterborough Examiner, indicating that a certain amount of the delegates’ understandable frustration had crept into it.  Whatever the case, the letter obviously did not move the Conservatives to throw their full weight behind the Waterway; as we know, it was 1920 before it opened completely.


Laying track in the Fraser Valley, B.C. The photograph is dated December 1st, 1881. (via Wikimedia Commons).

And, much as had been the case in 1880, it was the Pacific Railroad that was seen by the Peterborough papers as the main obstacle to the canal route getting full due attention from the politicians.  By late 1881, the attention had moved from the high cost, in both money and land, of the trans-continental railway to the fact that the Canada Pacific Company would be the ole mover of goods into and out of what was then the North-West Territories.   “It is unnecessary,” wrote the December 8th Examiner, “to dwell on the evils of a railway monopoly.  Any one can see them at a glance.”  By this time construction on the railway had actually begun, and it would be completed in 1885.

The final issue on the minds of Peterborians in early December of 1881 was one that we have not dealt with in depth yet — namely a reform of the electoral system.  To make a long story short, the voters’ lists at this time were drawn up by the County Assessor, based on property ownership.  This meant that the County Councils had complete control over who got to vote in local, provincial, and federal elections.  Did they abuse this power?  Oh yes.  The December 1st Examiner described the problem:

“The great object [of a municipal election campaign]… is to get control of the Council of a municipality in order to receive the appointment of an assessor of the right political stripe, who will see that no one is left off [the voters’ lists] who ought to be on — from his point of view — and that no one is put on who, from the same point of view, ought to be left off.”

Basically, municipal elections had become ferociously partisan, instead of being focused on local issues as was supposed to be the case.  There was, however, some relief at hand – people who had been unjustly left off the lists could go before a judge to have their assessments re-done.  In early December of 1881, one such opportunity was on the cards for Peterborians, as advertised in the December 1st Examiner:


And that’s about all for early December of 1881.  Next time out, we will take a look at what was going on in Peterborough as Christmas approached in 1882!

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