This Week in Peterborough: 1931


The swing bridge over the Trent Canal on the old CNR line between Peterborough and Lakefield. (photo by Patrick Conway)

It was tough times, around Peterborough and elsewhere, this week 84 years ago.  War in the Far East, with ominous possibilities of escalation, and potential British Empire difficulties regarding India were the stories from abroad, while at home the Great Depression continued to wreak its various forms of havoc.  Read on, for those stories and other items, including the beginning of the end of the railway era in Peterborough…

The big foreign news at this time in 1931 was the ongoing war in Manchuria (northern China), where Japan was in the process of setting up an occupation that would last through the Second World War.  The big fear for Western powers, and for the League of Nations, was that “Soviet Russia might be drawn into the Manchurian dispute,” as the Peterborough Examiner reported on November 18th.  These worries kept the League from taking as hard a line with Japan as it would have liked, but in the end they proved groundless.  It would be August of 1945 before the USSR invaded Manchuria, when they expelled the Japanese army after a campaign of only 11 days.


The 1931 Round Table Conference in London. (Image Source)

Elsewhere, the Indian independence movement, under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi, was also getting headlines at this time, particularly as Gandhi himself was leading the Indian delegation at a series of high-level round-table meetings with the British government in London.  The main issue at this time, reported the November 16th Examiner, was control of the Indian army, with Gandhi arguing very forcefully that responsible government without control of the military was not responsible government at all.  Gandhi was equally blunt on the subject of the lengths to which India was willing to go to achieve its goals:

“We will go through fire and storm and distress, he said, and if it be God’s will, through a shower of bullets to obtain our independence.”

In the end, the 1931 Round Table Conference failed to make any substantive progress on the subject of Indian independence; its negotiations failed on the tricky topic of rights for non-Hindu minorities in the country.

We return now to Canada, where the Great Depression was in full swing as winter of 1931 approached.  However, this particular week that year found people in something of an optimistic mood, at least to judge by the newspapers.  “Of all the countries in the world,” editorialized the Examiner on November 17th, “it is doubtful if a single one is in better condition, from every standpoint, than our own Canada.”  Western Canadians, reported the Examiner’s S.A. Maguire on the same day, were “optimistic in their outlook” despite severe drought.  The newspaper cited a rise in the prices of some commodities, particularly wheat, and an upcoming bond issue from the government, as reasons to believe that things were looking up, and stated that “[a]ll through the land a much better feeling prevails.”


Men in a in a British Columbia work camp in 1934. (Image Source)

However, there was also plenty of evidence that the situation was still very bad.  Part of the reason for the high price of wheat was that the crops in much of western Canada had failed completely that year due to the afore-mentioned dry conditions.  Closer to home, the November 18th Examiner reported that the Red Cross was desperately seeking funds, and “need[ed] assistance more this year than in any year since the war.”  On November 20th, the newspaper noted ominously that “[n]o definite word has been received… concerning another allotment of Peterborough men to the Government work camps.  But there is reason to hope that more will be taken in the near future.”  Given that the work camps were run under all but prison conditions, and paid a pittance, the fact that men were hoping to be sent to them indicates that things were still very bad indeed.

Those who have been reading this from the beginning may recall how much time we spent on railways in the early posts — the mid- and late-19th century in Ontario was a time of rapid expansion of rail networks, and Peterborough had its place in that phenomenon.  By 1931 however, the pendulum was swinging back the other way.  On November 16th, the Examiner reported that the last scheduled passenger service to and from Lakefield was to be cancelled by the CNR, beginning on the 22nd (occasional combined freight-and-passenger trains did continue on the line from some time).  At its height, CN had run three trains per day between Peterborough and Lakefield, but use of the service had declined drastically even before the Depression, and the newspaper cited “the growth of automobile travel of late years, and… the closing of various lumber mills” as reasons.


Part of the CN railway line to Lakefield — now part of the regional trail system. (Image Source)

The automobile was having a baleful influence not just on the railways.  In a November 18th editorial on the closing of the Lakefield passenger service, the Examiner lamented:

“The general use of motor cars by summer visitors to the Kawartha Lakes has not only completely killed the railway service, but has cut deeply into steamboat revenues as well, and it seems an unfortunate development that those who have played such a prominent part in building up the popularity of our lake resorts should now, when the influx of visitors is the greatest on record, be deprived of the revenue that at one time they had a right to confidently expect.”

Still on the subject of rail, and public transport thereupon, the city of Peterborough’s radial railway system — the streetcars — had ceased operation in 1927, to be replaced by more economical and versatile busses.  Now the question was what to with the remains of the streetcar infrastructure.  On November 18th, the Examiner reported that the city was seeking money to turn the northern extremity of the line, just north of the junction of Water and George Streets, into riverside parkland.  The work, which was to include “eliminating bullrushes and transforming the waterfront beyond the expectations of those who have hoped it might be improved,” was indeed eventually completed.


Peterborough Examiner, November 17th, 1931.

Whatever the sadnesses of the time (or not, in the case of the planned park), Peterborians still had sports to look forward to, although even here it was not a triumphant week for local athletes.  The Peterborough Collegiate Institute football team, whom we have seen in previous posts sweeping all before them, met their match this week in 1931 in the form of St. Michael’s College, Toronto.  It was, as usual for the football playoffs, a two-game total points series, and while the Peterborough kids won the home leg 12-7, they were defeated 12-5 in Toronto, to lose out by two points in the final summation.  And as local hockey players geared up for their season, the November 17th Examiner noted “a general disappointment throughout the district” in terms of the city’s organization and efforts in that sport, and said that “Peterborough… seems to neglect its young athletes especially in hockey.”  Tough times all ’round.

That will do for this week, I think.  Next time, we will check in with late November of 1932, and see if things had improved any.  In the meantime, however, you can check out what was going on around Peterborough at this time of year back in 1879!


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