Soot, sea and slime, Cobourg harbour 1950-1980
Aug 9, 2005 by Vince Versace, Staff Writer, Northumberland News
COBOURG - There are now no reminders of the coal piles and oil drums which made Cobourg's waterfront a utilitarian place from 1950 to the early 1980s but not all industrial day memories are dull and dreary.
"We used to ride our bikes up the coal piles to see who could ride up them the highest," says Bill Fraser, Victoria Hall building maintenance supervisor. "Boy, you would get so dirty after playing in them and you would hear it from your mom when you got home."
The grounding of the Ontario Ferry Car service by 1950 ended the shipping of coal across Lake Ontario and the Canadian National Railway began looking to Canadian coal sources to power its trains. Ontario No.1 set sail for the last time in 1949 and Ontario No.2 in 1950 and both ferries were scrapped by 1952. The book 'Cobourg Early Days and Modern Times' notes the termination of the ferry service meant 50 Cobourg citizens lost their jobs.
The little used ferry docks would be a source of fun for teenagers in the 1960s and 1970s, says Mr. Fraser
"We used to dive off them into the harbour, they were at least 20 feet high," says Mr. Fraser. "We used to try swimming the mouth of the harbour. The water was always warmer in there than at the beach."
Mayor Peter Delanty also recalls diving off the ferry dock and trying to swim from the centre pier to the west pier.
"Diving off that dock was a rite of passage," says Mayor Delanty, flashing a boyish grin.
Evelyn Ribble, the wife of Murray Ribble, Cobourg's last lighthouse keeper, recalls her husband scolding local teenagers who played around in the harbour diving off the docks and piers. She also remembers her son, Larry Ribble Jr., racing around the coal piles on his scooter. From April 1, 1964 to May 1, 1980, all marine activities occurred under the watchful eye of Mr. Ribble.
"It was quite the life we had living there. It was really drab in the winter but in the summer we seemed to be the summer cottage in our family," explains Ms. Ribble. "The pier was quite narrow then and the wind was horrible in the winter. Our friends used to say we lived in the coldest place in Canada during the winter."
Mr. Ribble was responsible for maintenance of the lighthouse at the end of the pier, operation of the fog horn, recording weather conditions and ensuring the long range light and Peter's Rock Light, positioned between Cobourg and Port Hope, were operational. The rock light does not exist anymore but a buoy floats in its place. A lighthouse keeper's job was a 24-hour duty, notes Ms. Ribble.
"Murray would work in 12-hour shifts with his assistant John MacIntyre. Murray would sometimes have to head to Peter's Rock in his boat, in fog and bad weather, to make sure it was operational," explained Ms. Ribble. "Murray had to do a lot of rescues and dealt with a few drownings too."
She recalls the train freight sheds which lined the north harbour wall and the coal piles. The pier was a small community unto itself and the Ribble family never felt isolated because of the activity in the harbour. During their first year in Cobourg, the Ribbles lived in a house out on the pier. The house spanned the entire width of the then narrow pier, from one edge to the other, which meant a very close eye had to be kept on the Ribble children at all times, notes Ms. Ribble. The lighthouse keeper family moved to a new home, today's Coast Guard building, after that first year and remained there for 15 years.
The only pleasure craft in the harbour the Ribbles ever encountered were usually ones in distress. Deep-sea ships from Norway and Germany were a more common sight than a small yacht.
"There would still be coal coming in too for the 'Old Depot' (Cobourg's military ordinance depot now Northam Industrial Park)," says Ms. Ribble. "It was just such an industrial place."
Steam and ferry ships may have ended their run of the harbour by 1950 but larger ships carrying industrial related products did rule Cobourg's harbour waters (see photo at below).
"There were ships of wire for General Wire and Cable and the ships with oil for the oil tank farms," says Mr. Baxter. "Between Third Street and Division Street , it was all coal piles."
The massive oil tank drums stretched east of Third Street to Hibernia Street, where Legion Village now stands, and belonged to companies like Imperial Oil, Shell and Sunoco. Del Dillon, of Cobourg, worked in the "oil tank fields", from 1950 to 1954, helping load oil tanker rail cars and eventually driving oil rigs.
"It was a dirty and smelly area but I did not mind," says Mr. Dillon who recalls oil ships docking at Cobourg's main pier, connecting into oil lines which then transferred oil to the various oil tanks. There were also lines from the tanks which ran to the railroad area for filling oil tanker cars, noted Mr. Dillon.
"I had worked those lines, it was a good job which helped me save money for university," says Mr. Dillon. "It was a place for work but those coal piles were ugly."
Rick Stinson, Town legislative services director, remembers fondly the noise and power of the trains down Spring Street in 1976. During Victoria Hall's major restoration, Cobourg council and municipal staff were relocated to today's Cobourg police station from 1972 to 1977. A crossing guard at the corner of Spring and King streets would halt traffic at the intersection to allow the trains through.
"When those trains used to shunt and come down Spring Street, to get to the harbour, I remember the walls shaking and you could not talk to anyone because it was so loud. You just had to wait for them to go by," says Mr. Stinson.
Perolin Bird Archer, an industrial water treatment company, which would eventually become the Diversey Water Treatment Technologies, called the harbour area home as well. The little railway activity which did occur until the late 1970s was for this plant, notes Mr. Baxter.
The CN Rail freight shed on Division Street, across from today's ice cream shop, would house the Town's parks equipment once rail activity disappeared.
In 1967, the first Cobourg Yacht Club clubhouse was erected. With no official coast guard stationed in Cobourg's harbour, until the late 1970s, the yacht club and its members performed numerous rescues as did Mr. Ribble. The club purchased the Red Barren in 1969 to assist with rescues, notes Councillor Dean McCaughey, Town planning coordinator.
"If one of us saw there was a problem, we just went out and helped," explains Coun. McCaughey.
As reliance on coal diminished, the coal piles disappeared by the mid 1970s and Coun. McCaughey says they are still a popular memory among long-time returning visitors to Cobourg.
"I remember the ground was still black from the coal piles even though they were gone," says Coun. McCaughey. "I still have people say to me they remember when there would be coal dust on their boats when they used to visit."
Victoria Park and Victoria Beach were still the recreational heartbeat of waterfront recreation despite the coal piles and industry west of the Division Street pier. Mrs. Ribble remembers Victoria Park's original pavilion as a bustling place with dances and big band music. Mr. Baxter also remembers the pavilion as being the place to be during the summer.
"The pavilion was an extremely active place. I remember Saturday nights being dance night for the adults," adds Mr. Baxter. "The main beach was used by locals but back then people would even use the west beach."
Victoria Park's former tennis courts were also heavily used, recall Mr. Baxter and Mr. Dillon.
"We used to play a lot of tennis at Victoria Park until Hurricane Hazel hit in 1954. The wind brought down so many trees on the courts that they were wiped out and not repaired," says Mr. Dillon.
Mr. Baxter worked for the Town of Cobourg from 1972 to 2001 and says the main waterfront area was generally viewed as an industrial location as were most harbours located on the shores of Lake Ontario .
"It was not until the early 1980s that a vision began to develop for the waterfront, particularly between Third Street and Division Street ," says Mr. Baxter. "Ultimately the idea of open space began to take shape."
Mr. Baxter remembers former Mayor Mac Lees as the one who succeeded in covering the former coal pile locations with sod to official bury this part of Cobourg's sooty past. Mayor Lees would also turn the sod for the construction of the yacht club's new clubhouse in 1985.
In 1982 the harbour received its small craft designation, officially moving it away from any future deep-sea harbour activities. The change marked the official end of Cobourg's industrial harbour and set the table for today's parade of yachts from around the lake to Cobourg's marina. Mr. Baxter recalls former councillor Bob Wilson as a councillor who helped spearhead the classification change.
"I just happened to be the public works chairman, that is all," says Mr. Wilson. "When we were elected, our council were a group of businessmen so we looked at things a certain way."
The Town received a letter in 1981, from Department of Oceans and Fisheries, which suggested Cobourg look at changing its harbour designation to a small-craft harbour. Mr. Wilson and Town staff went to Hamilton to watch a simulation of what would need to be done to convert Cobourg's harbour designation.
"There we were, in a room 50 ft. by 50 ft. and Cobourg harbour was before us, it was amazing," says Mr. Wilson.
"They had boats in the mock harbour set up. They had currents to show how the sand would move. They did quite a job. We were really impressed."
After the demonstration, council decided to start setting money aside in reserve to help pay for the necessary land site upgrades when Cobourg's turn for harbour improvements would arrive. Mr. Wilson received a call in mid 1981, from the fisheries department, explaining that another municipality could not afford to go through the designation class change. Would Cobourg be interested in going ahead that year? asked the fisheries department.
"I told them yes we were interested. They then asked how soon could we be ready to go," recalls Mr. Wilson. "I said, 'Well, today is Friday, how does Monday sound'?"
Ultimately the Town would not spend any of the money it reserved for the project because land side work had already begun with the installation of a new Town sewer main across the top of the harbour. As this sewer work was done, the necessary land upgrades were also done, all for a $160,000 price tag. The federal government paid for the water-side harbour and dock improvements.
"They were in there and done in three weeks. We were a proactive council and everything fell into place," adds Mr. Wilson.
Improvements to the harbour were not entirely intended to just improve recreation in the waterfront area, notes Mr. Wilson.
"We thought all new changes would be a benefit for the Town," says Mr. Wilson. This renewed vision that the downtown's prosperity was linked to a rejuvenated waterfront would take hold in 1982 and carried through to present day Cobourg. Public meetings would soon begin for creating Cobourg's secondary harbour plan.
A year after the change in harbour designation Mr. Wilson was out for a walk along the waterfront, near the new docks, and came across a fellow councillor who had opposed the designation change idea.
"He had said we would never see 50 boats in the marina during our debates," explains Mr. Wilson. "So I said to him, 'You better count them, there are 72'."