This Week in Peterborough: 1898


The famous photograph of prospectors crossing the Chilkoot Pass on their way to the Klondike gold fields, 1898. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Early April, and Spring is in the air!  So it was also in Peterborough in 1898, although the town’s inhabitants may have found themselves distracted somewhat by events both in Canada and abroad…

Click on, for war in Cuba, digging for gold in the Yukon, and canoes!

In an earlier post in this series, there was talk of the beginnings of a revolt in Cuba, and by early April of 1898 that situation had come to a head, with war imminent between the United States and Spain.  In January of that year, the warship U.S.S. Maine had exploded and sunk in Havana harbour under somewhat mysterious circumstances.  The American government laid the blame on Spanish sabotage, and two months later the bellicose talk was flowing freely on both sides.  William E. Mason, Senator for Illinois, was among those pushing for war.  In its March 30th issue, the Peterborough Examiner quoted a thunderous speech from Mason, in which he called for “a war to drive the oppressor from the continent [and] to wave the Cuban flag in the sky forever.”


The wreckage of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana in January of 1898. The blast cost the lives of 266 men. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Mason got his wish, despite some opposition from President William McKinley — within three weeks of his speech, formal declarations of war had been exchanged.  The Spanish-American War would be fought both in the Caribbean and in the south Pacific, and would end, three and a half months later, with the expulsion of Spain from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

In Canada, meanwhile, the focus of attention was on that part of the North-West Territories that would shortly be carved off and incorporated as the Yukon Territory.  The winter of 1897-98, and the Spring of 1898,  were the height of the Klondike gold rush, as prospectors in their thousands streamed over the Chilkoot and White Passes and into the gold fields (the latter of those two passes, by the way, is named after Thomas White, founder of the Peterborough Review newspaper).

The gold rush was also the cause of a great deal of shouting in the Canadian Parliament and press.  The only route into the Klondike at the time involved taking a boat from Vancouver to Alaska, and then crossing the passes, and the Liberal government was very concerned over the lack of an “all-Canadian” route into the territory.  And so a bill had been put forward in Parliament to fund a railway into the Yukon.  It passed, easily, in the House of Commons, but when it arrived in the Senate on March 30th, that body, dominated by Conservative Party appointees, voted it down.  The reaction from the Liberal press was one of fury.  The next day’s Examiner called for nothing less than the abolition of the Senate as an institution, snarling that “[t]he majority is composed for the most part of men whose judgement would not be accepted on the bridging of a creek,” and further denouncing the Conservative senators as “incapacitated by a blind and bigoted partisanship.”


Peterborough Examiner, March 31st, 1898.

As might be expected, the Conservative Peterborough paper, the Review, was somewhat more sanguine about the vote.  On April 1st, the newspaper came to the defense of the Senate:

“The Senate had a duty to perform and performed that duty, and it stands to-day away above the partisan rant of those who charge disloyalty and sacrifice of Canada’s interests.”

The Senate, of course, was not abolished.  As for the Yukon, it became a Territory in its own right in June of 1898.

There was a good deal of interest in the gold rush in Peterborough itself, and some of it was economic.  Peterborough was a major supplier of one particular piece of equipment seeing heavy use in the Klondike: namely, the canoe.  The town was entering the heyday of its famous canoe-building era, with several companies up and running, and there seem to have been some concerns that the defeat of the Yukon railway bill would hurt sales.  The April 1st Review sought to allay these fears:

“The slaughtering of the Yukon bill by the Senate will not affect the canoe trade in Peterborough one iota.  The factories here are turning out now all the canoes they can manufacture and are shipping them under contract as fast as they are made.  They will continue to do this just as they would have had the bill been made law.”


The first home of the Canadian Canoe Company, at 439 Water Street. (Image Source)

Some Peterborians were keen to participate in the gold rush themselves.  The April 2nd Toronto Globe contained an account of one such party setting out westward, describing them as “fashionably dressed young men, with kid gloves, light overcoats, creased trousers, and buttonaires.”  But never fear!  The Peterborough group had sent ahead of them to Vancouver a massive assemblage of equipment and supplies, including “a steam drill for boring into the frozen earth, canoes for transportation and food enough to last a year and a half.” They also took 150 pounds of tobacco.  In fact, said the Globe, the party was equipped with “six tons of supplies and seven tons of expectation.”  What became of them, and whether their expectation was met, remains unknown.

For those residents of Peterborough who were not heading off to the Klondike, early April of 1898 was a bit of a quiet period.   The main civic debate had to do with paving George Street.  In an April 1st editorial, the Examiner opined that vitrified brick was probably the ideal substance, but that even macadam would do “if sufficient care were taken of it.”  It was generally agreed that something had to be down, however, as the city’s roads were becoming “ruined and unfit for pleasant driving.”

As for entertainment, the winter’s sports were over, and summer’s not yet begun, although the Peterborough Lacrosse Club was in the process of organizing for the new season.  Nor was there much in the way theatrical excitement to be had.  However, as was nearly always the case, there a few interesting lectures going on around town on various topics, including one by a Toronto professor on the life and teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo.  The March 31st Examiner described it as “a most thoughtful and scholarly [lecture], couched in elegant English, and… delivered with a pleasing frankness and directness of address.”

Next week, we’ll have the last edition of This Week in Peterborough that deals with the 19th century, as we check in with what was happening in 1899!


A sure sign of spring! From the Peterborough Review, April 1st, 1898.


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