A Guide to the History and Architectural Heritage of Cobourg

Courtesy of Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO) - Cobourg Branch

The following is the introduction to a brochure titled Interesting people and Places and published by ACO in 2008. It included a Guide to a Cobourg Walking Tour which you can see here.


Permanent settlement of the north shore of Lake Ontario began in the 1780s with the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists who had been driven from their homes in the American colonies by war and revolution. These early Loyalists located in the Kingston, Quinte and Niagara regions. The Cobourg area was settled only after the Constitution Act of 1791 divided the Royal Province of Quebec into the separate Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. Shortly thereafter, Upper Canada's newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor, John Graves Simcoe, who gained considerable renown as commander of the Queen's Rangers during the American revolutionary war, established administrative districts and townships between the Trent and Humber Rivers.

Cobourg's first settler was Eliud Nickerson, a New Englander by origin, who is reputed to have built a cabin near the King and Division Street intersection sometime in 1798. Significant numbers of "late Loyalists" soon arrived in the area, including disbanded British soldiers and frontier settlers from the American republic in search of better land. By the early 1800s, villages had sprung up both in what is now downtown Cobourg, then known as Hamilton, and around the Newcastle District Court House on the high ground at the Burnham and William Streets intersection, known as Amherst.

During the first half of the 19th century, the town quickly developed into a thriving centre of administration, education, commerce, and immigration, with a population by mid-century approaching 5,000. The name "Cobourg" was adopted in 1819, albeit with a French flavour, in honour of the British Royal connection with Coburg, Germany. In 1818, Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent and eldest son of King George III married Princess Victoire of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg. Then on May 24th, 1819 came the happy news of the birth of their only child and the Royal heir, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, who in 1837 ascended to the throne as Queen Victoria and reigned over the British Empire for the rest of the century.

After such rapid early growth, ambitious civic leaders of the 1850s began entertaining thoughts that, if the town's flourishing harbour could be linked by railway to the resources of the North, Cobourg might come to economically dominate the entire region. However, by the 1860's, these dreams had disappeared with the burden of the failure of the Cobourg & Peterborough Railway and its precarious bridge across Rice Lake, heavy municipal debt from the construction of Victoria Hall, and a province-wide economic depression.

For most of the next century, Cobourg quietly slumbered by the lakeshore, although the town enjoyed a brief heyday in the early 1900s as a fashionable summer resort for wealthy Americans, many of whom built palatial summer 'cottages' in the Newport Style.

Contemporary brochures proclaimed Cobourg's summer climate excelled for evenness of temperature and cool, bracing air ... famous for its ozone, quantity of sunshine, and freedom from fog, dampness, or winds. During the summers, these rich and sometimes famous visitors amused themselves with gala balls, garden parties and polo matches and, in August, the renowned Cobourg Horse Show. As recently as the 1960s these relics of a bygone era, or their ruins in some cases, could be found scattered around the town. The few still remaining provide a glimpse of the extravagant lifestyles of Cobourg's "Belle Epoque", including:

"Sidbrook", 411 King East, 1857. Designed by Kivas Tully, and remodelled in the 1860s for Major David Campbell. In 1900 remodelled again as the summer residence of William Abbott of Pittsburgh, an associate of industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

"Strathmore", 390 King East, 1878. Originally the home of Judge George Clark, solicitor for the Canadian Pacific Railway, whose wife was the daughter of William Weller, stage coach proprietor and Mayor of Cobourg. In 1904, it became the summer home of Charles Donnelly of Pittsburgh and was renovated by Power & Son, architects. In 1914, it was bought by the Haas family. Its grounds once stretched down to the lakeshore.

"Midfield", 427 King East.1877. Built by Roderick Pringle, a prominent member of the Conservative Party and friend of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. In 1905, it was remodelled by George Howe, of Pittsburgh for a summer residence. The west facade contains the finest example of a Palladian window in Cobourg.

"Logwood Hall" 757 King West, 1899. Built by Daniel Bell of St. Louis, Missouri. It is of authentic log construction, and represents an idea of grand rusticity, blending nicely into its lakeside setting with surrounding groves of cedar trees. It was later owned by the Allen family founders of the Famous Players Theatre chain and Cobourg's Park Theatre.

While the town's population scarcely grew at all in the century between 1850 and 1950, after World War II, social change and economic expansion resulted in Cobourg nearly tripling its population by the end of the century. However, the development of the new and the demolition of the old threatened to irrevocably alter the historic "small town" atmosphere of Cobourg. In response, Cobourg Council in 1992 acted to designate the downtown business district and significant parts of the adjacent residential streets as Heritage Conservation Districts, centred on the magnificent Victoria Hall, a National Historic site since 1959.

Points of Interest

Victoria Hall Square "Victoria Hall", 1860. The heart of Cobourg, this extravagant public edifice has been the political, legal and cultural centre of civic life for more than 150 years. Its size and opulence reflect the outsized ambitions of the mid-19th century Cobourg, when the town aspired to rival if not surpass, the larger centres of Toronto and Kingston. The corner stone was laid in 1856 by Sir Allan McNab, Prime Minister of the Province of Canada, and was officially opened in 1860 by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. After many years of neglect and indifferent maintenance, a public fundraising campaign was put in place which led to its complete restoration in 1983. The architectural style is a Palladian neo-classicism and is the masterwork of Irish architect Kivas Tully who won a public design contest for this commission. Of particular interest are the superb Corinthian capitals on the fluted columns and pilasters decorating the facade, and the massive Corinthian -columned clock tower, visible throughout the downtown. A clever set-back of the building from the street makes the clock tower the focal point for travellers approaching along King Street from both east and west.

The interior is of equal grandeur to the exterior, particularly the first floor Courtroom, a replica of London's famous "Old Bailey" and the Grand Concert Hall on the second floor with its elaborate "trompe l'oeil" wall and ceiling frescoes. On the first floor, the office of the Honourable James Cockburn, Member of Parliament for Northumberland, has been reproduced in period style. Cockburn during his political career (1861-1881) served as Solicitor-General for Canada West, was a delegate to the Quebec and Charlottetown conferences leading to Confederation, and finally in 1867 was chosen Speaker of the House of Commons, in the new Federal Parliament. Tours of Victoria Hall are offered throughout the summer months.

Market Building, 1850. This building, also designed by Kivas Tully, has ample windows retaining the original twelve over eight glass panes, pedimented pilasters and a traditional roof with wide overhanging eaves. A seasonal farmers' market is still located around the building.

Fire Hall, 1883. Constructed in the Second Empire style. Note the mansard roof, pierced chimney, arched dormer windows, and graceful eave brackets. Now renovated as a community theatre.

Cobourg Harbour. Since the town had no natural harbour, extensive efforts were undertaken, beginning in the 1830s, to construct artificial breakwaters and piers. By the mid-19th century, Cobourg was a major shipping port, crowded with commercial vessels, and a regular stop for Lake Ontario steamships. The town was also a centre for ship-building, including the steamboat "Cobourg", and the 101' sloop-rigged racing yacht "Countess of Dufferin", which competed in the America's Cup Race of 1876. As recently as the 1950s, a year-round passenger ferry service also linked Cobourg with Rochester, on the American shore. Today, the harbour's excellent marina and superb location adjacent to the downtown, make it a favoured port of call for Great Lakes sailors.

Continued in Cobourg Walking Tour