Peterborough & the Kawarthas

by Johnny Lucas

Water, water everywhere

If you stole a horse you might get transported to Australia, but in 1825, if you were a poor but honest victim of the Irish potato famine you might get your passage paid to Peterborough.

The last 15 miles of your emigration, a meander from Rice Lake up the Otonabee River is today a placid run on a houseboat or a canoe though rolling farming country. In 1825, the uncontrolled watercourse was one of the most hazardous parts of the long journey.

But it was the final part. A wide and lovely flood plain spread out at the rapids that marked the end of river navigation. A little lake (now called Little Lake) made a good focal point for a town. The original name of the site was Nogojiwanong "the place at the end of the rapids."

Nogojiwanong was re-named Peterborough. There are Peterboroughs in the UK, in New England, and in Australia, but this one was named not out of nostalgia but for the New Brunswick-born United Empire Loyalist who led the settlers to the site: Peter Robinson.

To the north lie more lakes: The Kawarthas. Throughout the 1800s immigrants scattered among them. Today's cottagers drive over roads and through towns and townships named by homesick Irish settlers: Tara Road, Monaghan Township, Ennismore. Peterborough is still centered on the water. It's the lucky vacationer who enters town along Robinson's route. The Otonabee River is part of the 386 kilometre Trent-Severn Waterway connecting Lake Ontario with Georgian Bay. You can still sail your boat or paddle your canoe right into the centre of the city.

The rapids that enforced an end to river navigation were harnessed in the early 19th century for mills. The Quaker Oats Company has its Canadian head office and factory on the site of one of the earliest water-powered mills.

Dams and locks installed early this century have tamed the rapids of the Otonabee. The native and fur-trading portage that passed up what is now Peterborough's main street is no longer needed.

But a miracle of Edwardian engineering was needed to overcome the huge drop in elevation. In the 10 miles north of the Peterborough the Otonabee's descent is equal to 2/3 that of Niagara Falls. The solution was the Peterborough Lift Locks. Today it's one of the city's major tourist attractions. When it was completed in 1904 it was a feat of modern science and the fulfillment of a 1891 campaign promise made by Sir John A. MacDonald to create a waterway through the region in case the Americans attacked.

These days, invading Americans are welcome, although stories of vacationers from Ohio arriving in Peterborough in August with skis are still part of the local folklore.

One of the great surprises of going over the Lift Lock is the view. As your boat rises 65 feet to the tops of the cottonwood trees, the countryside spreads out before you and makes you think very fondly of the 90 year old contraption that's keeping the great tub of water airborne.

The lift of the Lift Lock is powered exclusively by the flow of the water. One large tank (130' x 33') rises while another of the same size (but slightly more full to tip the balance in its favour) falls. The process takes 20 minutes and does the work of 8 conventional locks.

Despite Sir John A. MacDonald's intention, the Trent-Severn Waterway was never important for defense. Only briefly has it been important for commercial transportation. It is perfect for recreation. Boaters come from far and wide, houseboat rentals are available at many places along its length.

The Kawartha Lakes offer some of the best summer accommodation in Ontario. The lakes are no longer lost in the virginal forests as they were in the early 1800s, but their natural beauty is enjoyed and jealously protected by year-round and summer residents.

Stony Lake, Crystal Lake, Clear Lake - the waters are well-named. Kawartha is variously translated as "land of shining waters" and "bright waters and happy lands."

Even before there were roads in the Kawarthas there were cottages. Peterborough is just a 1½ hour or 2 hour drive from Toronto (except Friday evenings when the roads clog with refugees from the city). During the last century and early in this one, the normal way to get from Toronto to your Kawartha cottage was by rail and steam boat. It was a festive atmosphere at the station (now the Liquor Store on Yonge Street near Summerhill Avenue) as households made the move for the season. The "cottages" they were heading for were huge rambling piles suited to the lifestyles of the pre-income tax wealthy.

The boats that met the trains at Lakefield have long since been scuttled. The skeletons of their hulls lie in "Skeleton Bay" on the canal between the Lift Locks and Trent University. The passenger trains to Peterborough were killed by the last federal government, but a few of the original cottages still dot the banks of the lakes. They are now Bed & Breakfast places or occasionally privately owned by families whose fortunes were refreshed often enough to survive time and taxes.

Much of the development of the Peterborough area has the anonymous look of Suburban Anywhere: subdivisions spread over the farms of pioneers, shopping malls and fast food strips obscure portage routes and traditional market sites.

But not all is paved over. George Street, the main street of Peterborough, still has its share of pre-Confederation buildings, the farmers' market has been bumped around town fleeing shopping mall development but still bursts into life every Saturday morning with fresh breads, vegetables, handicrafts and local maple syrup.

In one of the oldest parts of the city, Hutchison House still stands, fitting inconspicuously into its neighbourhood. If it were not for an historical plaque on the fence or the woman in period costume who may be sitting on the front steps, you might think it was just a nice stone house.

Hutchison House is one of Peterborough's oldest structures. It was built in 1838, largely by volunteer labour from the community which wanted to entice Dr. John Hutchison to remain in town. He did. Hutchison's young brother-in-law also lived in the house, he would later pioneer standard time and become the famous Sir Sandford Fleming.

Today Dr. Hutchison's house is restored to approximate life in the 1840s. It is operated as a museum by the Peterborough Historical Society (again with volunteer labour). The house is a good resource for visitors to the region who would like to see Peterborough and the Kawarthas through the eyes of those who first settled these lands.

Peterborough today can make a good case for being the quintessentially Canadian city. The city almost always elects MPs and MPPs of the winning party, and along with Sherbrooke, Québec and Kamloops, B.C., Peterborough is used by market researchers to test their products before they are unleashed on the rest of the country. The settlers have long since mixed with their United Empire Loyalist masters and welcomed new Peterburians from all over the globe. (Yes, a few local residents do call themselves Peterburgers). The Peterborough region, like Canada, is still a small urban area with some farms, lots of lakes and the wilderness always present not far to the north. On balance, Peter Robinson's settlers would probably be pleased.

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Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: January 19, 1997