A History by Percy Climo
The early settlers in the Cobourg area made use of water transportation for the movement of goods, chattels, products of the farm and forest and people. The crescent moon-shaped bay with sandy beaches, approximately one and quarter miles in length, attracted newcomers in season for overnight camping, and a resting place while en route to inland locations.
In calm weather, larger boats anchored in deeper water while goods and people were moved in small or jolly-boats to and from shore. Stormy weather made such landings very difficult if not impossible. The movements were cumbersome even under favourable circumstances.
From the year 1816 , the little village that finally gained the name of Cobourg, grew and prospered in proportion to the increases in the area population. The local merchants imported goods and exported products of the farm and forest. They depended mostly on water transportation in their dealings.
By the year 1828, it became apparent that some form of dock and harbour facilities were needed. The progressive forward-looking business men of the village, organized a harbour company, applied for and received a charter from the Legislature to build a harbour. In 1829,the Company started a construction programme to build two piers into the lake that would accommodate the safe docking of the larger vessels of that time. Large timber cribs were assembled, floated into position and filled with stone. The cribs were set so as to have a short gap between each and connected with heavy timber above the waterline, topped with thick planking.
The organized stock company financed the work, purchased the materials, hired labour and supervised the work. It was an ambitious project taken on by local entrepreneurs.
The severe lake storms and heavy ice conditions demanded the best and strongest of works. Pier construction continued year after year in season. By 1832 larger schooner and steam boats were able to use the facilities for loading and unloading goods and passengers. The Company introduced a schedule of tolls. From that time on, annual dividends were paid to stockholders making the investment an attractive one.
Extensions to the two converging piers became necessary in order to provide breakwater barriers in times of storms. The Company applied for and received loans from the central government in 1832 and 1935 with the provision to finish the harbour within a given time limit. In 1819 the Company received permission to increase the capital stock from 7,500 pounds to 10,000 pounds.
In the meantime, some adverse conditions affected the final development of the harbour. Drifting sand that continually washed into the harbour basin was one factor. By 1935, one of the main local planners. promoters and stock holders, Mr. James Bethune, became bankrupt. He owned much stock in the enterprise. This stock was bought up by absentee owners and the balance of control over harbour business shifted from local citizens to out-of-town people. In addition, sources of money supply dried up during the year of the Upper Canada rebellion. New construction ceased and the completion of the harbour was not achieved. Yet, at the same time the stockholders continued to enjoy the annual dividends taken from income produced by tolls.
Nicol Hugh Baird (1796-1849) , an engineer, emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1828. For four years he was employed on the construction of the Rideau canal, working under the direction of Lieut.- Col. By. In the year 1833, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada requested Baird to survey and develop estimates of costs for the Trent River waterway from Lake Ontario to Rice Lake. Later the scope of his work was extended above Rice Lake to Lake Simcoe. In 1837, Baird was placed in charge of works for the Newcastle District. In 1835 he took up residence in Cobourg, moving his young family from Montreal. He became very familiar with the conditions and problems that affected the Cobourg harbour. By the year 1841, general economic conditions improved and in April, the harbour company called for tenders to construct at least six timber cribs for the extension of the then western pier. During the winter of 1842, the Company assembled timber and materials for additional construction.
The storehouse was moved to the West side of Division Street and men were engaged in the laying out of additional cribs. The Company had every intention to complete the harbour.
At this time, the new Union Government of the two Canada provinces came to power and formed a Board of Works, under the head of the Hon. H. H. Killaly. For the next few years, this man Killaly proved to be an arbitrary egocentric, overbearing, obstinate, self-willed. pig-headed individual, who made all the decisions for the Board of Works. Even his political colleagues had to make way for his ideas at Cabinet meetings. In August of 1842 the Board of works took over all construction work at the Cobourg harbour and called for tenders to finish the piers. It turned out that the Harbour Company had no voice in the construction programme, The Company was not dissolved but continued to collect tolls and pay dividends. The Board of works took over all timber, stone and materials on hand at that time.
Baird had been asked to prepare plans for the completion of the harbour. He understood the problem of drifting sand moved by south-west storms into the harbour basin. He proposed that no further extension of the piers into the lake be made. Instead, a strong crib pier be built from the end of the East pier easterly to the rocky shore near Darcy street. thus enclosing a large basin that would provide dockage and anchorage for many ships. The proposed pier would have a suitable gap for the entry and leaving of ships. Such an enclosure, Baird claimed, would not be affected by the drifting sand. (Baird papers, Archives of Ontario). Costly annual dredging of the harbour basin would be avoided. His idea was received with scorn by Killaly. Baird was told to only follow directions from the Board of Works.
Pier extensions were finalized by the contractor employed by the Board of Works. Estimates of the work amounted to about 5.000 pounds. The contractor also repaired deteriorating parts of older cribs. Dredging was needed, and money was placed in the estimates for this purpose. For several years no dredging took place Killaly had the idea that by closing the short gaps between the west pier cribs, the drifting sand problem would disappear. This idea proved otherwise. Costs of construction were kept secret. Even the harbour company was not informed of costa. Several years later, the Company was billed for twice the amount of the original estimates. Construction material intended for the harbour had also been removed and used by the contractor on other Works. Baird left Canada East and Cobourg in 1845 to take up work near Montreal.
Cobourg Stock holders and citizens were greatly disturbed over the way the harbour works was handled by the Board of Works. Protests were made, indignation meetings were held, particularly the one held in March 1848, as reported in the Cobourg Star. At this meeting the whole piece of messy business and adverse politics was aired. No dredging had taken place, yet at the same time profits were realized on the collection of tolls.
Finally in 1850, the Harbour Company was dissolved by the Central Government. The Town of Cobourg purchased the facility by paying the government for the debt of 10,500 pound and by buying the stock from those who wished to cash in on their investment.
During the years of the Harbour Company several boats we~ built and launched. In 1833. the Steamboat "Cobourg" was assembled on the shore adjacent to the East pier. Its launching in late May of that year proved to be an exciting event for the townsfolk. The hull was towed to Toronto for machinery installation and finishing. From time to time, schooners and other vessels were built and launched at the harbour front.
The details of developments and other activities at the Cobourg harbour during the 1850's are difficult to obtain. Several years of local newspapers are now missing. Edwin Clarence Guillet had access to the files of the Cobourg Star of that decade and he reports some facts in his writings in "COBOURG 1798-1848."
When the town took over the harbour in 1850, some improvements were made, dredging was performed and at some time the esplanade or quay between the two piers was built thus providing additional wharf. Imports and exports continued to produce revenue from tolls. The building of the Cobourg-Peterborough railway, the export of forest and farm products from the north all brought additional prosperity to the harbour and the town.
Cobourg made heavy investments in the harbour, the railroad and finally the large town hall. Both the corporation and its moneyed citizens were involved. By 1859 the corporation was in deep financial troubles. The powers of the Town Council were reduced and all major financial matters were placed in the hands of & new organization, the Town Trust, composed of appointed commissioners. This two-tier form of local government lasted for forty years.
By the year 1861. the town experienced a severe economic depression. The railway bridge across Rice Lake failed cutting off much of the trade from the north. Civil war in the United states greatly hampered the export trade. Harbour revenue fell off and many unemployed townsfolk moved elsewhere. For five years Cobourg suffered very difficult times as the harbour, the railroad and the local business people were all involved and adversely affected.
In the year 1865, harbour business picked up. exports of grain, lumber and other products improved and more and more ships used the harbour facilities. Dredging the harbour basin was an ongoing problem, especially in the 1860's when the lake water was at a very low level.
The development of iron ore mines at Marmora in the late 1860' s added another export commodity. By July, l867 ore was moved to the narrows at the eastern end of Rice lake by railway, transshipped by barges, towed by steamboat to Harwood then brought to Cobourg on the railway. Schooners carried the ore to Lake Erie ports. In 1868 an elevated railway trestle was erected along the esplanade. This made it possible to dump the content of the ore cars directly into the holds of schooners by chute. Further, in 1869. two large sawmills were established at Harwood and used the railway to bring the large quantities of export lumber direct to the Cobourg harbour for shipment.
In the year 1870, the Cobourg-Harwood railway was operating to capacity moving products to the export market. The harbour again became a busy spot. Steamboats plying the north shore and across the lake to Charlotte , propeller boats, schooners and barges-in-tow all visited the port, brought in merchandise, provided a passenger trade and exported large quantities of lumber, iron ore, and a variety of other commodities. Prosperity had returned. The 187l Bird's Eye View of Cobourg, [Not available] an artist’s fine drawing well illustrates the harbour scene of that time, but with the exception of the position of the west pier which was constructed after the artist's visitation.
During the next forty years harbour activities advanced and declined with the general changes of economic conditions. Passenger-freight steamboats made regular visits in season, plying their trade both up and down the north shore and across the lake. Schooners and Lakers brought in shipments of coal and other commodities and carried away grains, lumber and other products. Dredging the harbour basin plus general repairs to piers and wharfs was an ongoing task. From time to time passenger excursions were made available and sailing vessels sported yacht races. The Cobourg waterfront often drew the interest and enjoyment of citizens.
After a few years, the iron-ore trade diminished and with the closing of the Harwood railway, the export of lumber terminated.
Proposed in the year 1873 and constructed in the seasons of 1875 and 1876. the new west pier, 30 feet wide was built some 1,550 feet directly into the lake at the foot of Hibernia Street. The Cobourg Town Trust paid for one third of the cost and the Department of Public Works paid two thirds. The work was contracted out by the Department Material was brought in from several sources, and a large number of men were employed on the construction. In later years, south-easterly extensions were added to the west pier thus enclosing a much larger basin. The new extensions did not stop the drifting of sand into the harbour.
Ship building was carried on at times. The beautiful racing schooner, Countess of Dufferin, was built on the Cobourg waterfront and launched in May of 1876. This boat took part in prominent racing events and it had quite a checkered career.
Life saving stations were first established on the Great Lakes in 1876 by the United States and by Canada in 1882. The first Canadian station to be equipped was that at Cobourg, established November 7, 1882. Daniel Rooney was the Coxswain, and employed a crew of six men. Life-boat drill was carried out twice each month during the navigation season.
The year 1907 brought a new era in the life of the Cobourg Harbour. The port was chosen as the northern terminal for the new car ferry that was to ply from the Port of Rochester on the south side of the Lake. The boat, over 300 feet long, carried railway cars laden with coal on four tracks. The coal supplied the G.T.R. locomotives. The boat was also designed to carry passengers and to operate the whole year. The Government of the day had the harbour deepened to accommodate the larger boat. Special docking facilities were installed and additions added to the outside piers to make the port a harbour of refuge. In 1916, a second ferry was built and placed on the same route. By this time schooners and passenger-freight carriers were phased out of service on most of the long established lake routes.
The two car ferries continued in service until the year 1950. New diesel locomotives rendered the coal burning locomotives obsolete and the car ferries were no longer required to haul the coal from U.S.A. During their time small lakers also visited Cobourg bringing in cargoes of coal for local use. Another change came in the 1950's. Large storage tanks for oil were erected on the waterfront and serviced by the smaller tanker fleet. Again, oil pipe lines replaced the movement of oil by vessels and the oil fuels replaced the domestic use of coal. A new lake fleet of large vessels came with the construction of the seaway. These boats now travel sea lanes located well out of sight of the Cobourg Harbour, and are far too large to use the local port.
With the aid of the Federal Government, the Cobourg Harbour has recently been converted for the use of sail and power-driven pleasure craft.
Tourists who visit the town by small boats now have very attractive facilities to accommodate their needs on both land and water. The harbour lives on.
Percy L. Climo
November 18, 1986