From Cobourg District Collegiate Institute West

The Early History of Cobourg written by students from the CDCI West and published on their web site.

The first settlers in 1798 found this area swampy and drained by more creeks than it is today. Asa Danforth brought 7 families to the area. These settlers established two small villages:

Amherst that was mainly established by the Burnhams near the corner of Burnham and Elgin streets and Hamilton that was established by the Nickersons near the present downtown.

The Burnham and Bates families opened the earliest stores in Amherst while Elias Jones opened the first store in Hamilton. By 1812, Hamilton could also boast two grain mills, a sawmill, a tannery, and a distillery along the banks of Cobourg/Factory Creek. Another mill stood near the 401 as Amherst's only mill. Roads rounded out the local improvements though they were quite primitive. King, Division, and Elgin streets were probably the earliest streets. The Danforth road was the local highway and witnessed the marching of British soldiers and the local militia off to the War of 1812. The Barracks is the sole survivor of this time of turmoil, though the area quickly expanded after the war ended. Amherst had the brightest start with 10 houses, a tavern, inn, and, more importantly, a courthouse and jail.

Victoria UniversityVictoria College University ~ 1860The Burnhams managed to also have their hamlet declared the capital of the Newcastle district (from Belleville to Oshawa). However, Hamilton had more businesses and services than its rival. Included in its services was the first St. Peter's Anglican Church and its minister, Rev. William Macaulay. Macaulay is the man credited with suggesting the name "Coburg" to honour the 1819 royal wedding (the prince was from Saxe_Coburg). Over time the spelling changed to Cobourg.

Two factors favoured rapid growth of the new community:  2,000,000 acres north of Hamilton township were purchased from the Mississauga and the harbour went through steady improvements from the late 1820's onwards. The result was a steady flow of immigrants and goods into Cobourg harbour and flour, potash, and whiskey outwards. By the 1830's Cobourg had become a booming town.

Much of Cobourg's early success came from a number of men who established new industries and businesses in Cobourg. It was at this time that James Calcutt purchased the area around the Barracks and it became part of a large distillery and brewery complex. Services were improved including rebuilt churches and the Upper Canada Academy that became a University in 1841, Victoria College. (photo top of page, right). See this page for more.

William Weller operated a famed stage coach service out of Cobourg that ran from Belleville to York and north to Peterborough.

In 1824 there were approximately 350 people in Cobourg; a population that increased almost 10 times over by the early 1840's. Part of that growth included the absorbing of Amherst. The Burnhams had been overtaken by Cobourg's new leading men.

By 1850 Cobourg was a leading town in Upper Canada. It was the fifth largest centre in the province with a very busy port and links reaching out to the hinterland to the north. The most ambitious of these links was the Cobourg Peterborough railway.

It was popular, busy, and doomed. Its owners never managed to find a satisfactory way over Rice Lake. Though, during its operation, combined with free trade with the United States and the arrival of the Grand Trunk railway link in 1857; Cobourg felt its future was bright. This optimism inspired the building of Victoria Hall. However, by then, Cobourg had hit its zenith. By the 1860's it was becoming obvious that Cobourg was fast losing its momentum. (More on railway).

The 1860's marked the beginning of a period of inertia for Cobourg. The population topped out at around 5,000 - a figure that changed little until after World War II. The Grand Trunk railway made the harbour largely unnecessary. Even Victoria College left in 1892 and joined the University of Toronto. Industry went through a period of change. Established businesses, like Calcutt's distillery, closed down or were destroyed. However, other industries did take their place but the effect was to maintain a balance rather than to expand Cobourg's industrial base.

It was also at this time period that Cobourg became a favourite summer destination of wealthy Americans. Some of their summer mansions may still be seen around town. Thus, as the 19th century closed Cobourg found itself in a state of stasis. The dreams of an expanding town and economy that were kindled after the War of 1812 had to wait for the end of another war in 1945.