Cobourg Peterborough Railway - 2
As we saw last time, through the heroic efforts of Peter Robinson, 2,024 desperately poor Irish Catholics had managed to emigrate from the old country in the hope of finding new lives in Upper Canada. We left them, here in Cobourg, in late August of 1825, camped in rows of white canvas tents on what must be our west beach, though it would in those days have been quite a bit further inland.
The effect on Cobourg must have been startling, as there could barely have been that many people in all the villages nearby combined. The arrival of two thousand desperate refugees today can hardly be imagined.
Nor, it must be said, had Peter done nearly enough advanced planning to prepare for their coming. The government in York had not been exactly generous with either money or supplies. Whereas the winter, in Upper Canada, provided ample opportunities for moving depots of supplies through the bush to the back country, nothing had been done.
Robinson had been delayed in England, but when he finally arrived he took everything in hand with eagerness. There followed a grueling slog through what was remembered as a particularly hot summer. Though it would seem that no one had died on the voyage — unusual since even the doctors on board ship complained of having no proper provisions or tools - the heat and the customary summer ague or flu in the district now took its toll on the newcomers. This was made worse by the illnesses they had brought with them. Robinson himself developed a fever which he claims never really left him for the rest of his life.
They probably made use of the primitive track which roughly followed Burnham Street. On the shore of Rice Lake there were already developing a few extremely small settlements at Sully (Harwood) and slightly east of present day Gore's Landing.
These were later described by individual newcomers as little more than clearings in the bush with a two or three room shack which dignified itself with the name of Hotel whenever anyone came by looking for shelter. From there they could proceed more easily by boat.
The few scattered settlers in the area apparently took well to the newcomers. As well they might, since it was their guarantee of prosperity that the back country be settled as much as it could bear. Now the government stepped in with grants for sawmills and grist mills, surveyors to mark out lots and some equipment. They also laid out a series of town sites around Scott's mill, which the grateful inhabitants immediately named Peterborough.
Robinson wrote back to Wilmot-Horton, the Colonial undersecretary, that he had settled about 2,000 people on good lands in several surrounding townships. But the undersecretary's scheme was no longer looked upon so favourably in London. Nonetheless, he got Robinson named commissioner of crown lands and surveyor general of woods.
Robinson later got more jobs with government in York, establishing regional managers of immigration to assist newly arrived people to find temporary work if destitute, or good lands if they had the means to acquire them. This led in time to Immigrant Relief Societies being set up in many of the towns along the shore of Lake Ontario, Cobourg being among the first.
The rest of his life was anticlimactic. He seems to have taken somewhat too much to heart the difficulties faced by his first pioneering Irishmen through lack of money and supplies. Now he became determined to "gain the newcomers by kindness". This took the form of liberally extending credit and outright grants to those who were in need on their arrival in the various districts under his or his agents' control. When he died, in 1838, most of his estate had to be sold off by his brother to pay Peter's debts back to the government.
His great resettlement, however, had a most profound effect on the little village of Cobourg. It is no surprise that almost immediately after it became clear that Peterborough would be a success, the Cobourgites began plans for an extensive harbour. Where for years they had stood on the shore watching anxiously for boats, they now increasingly began to look inland, certain that they were destined to be the port through which these new inland settlers would sell their produce, and receive the goods from overseas that made life bearable.
There was wealth to be gained there. All they needed was a good way to ship things overland cheaply. The idea of the railroad was born.
Written by Colin Caldwell
Part 2 is on this page and an index is below.