The History of Cobourg is full of stories of rivalries with its neighbour Port Hope.  On 22 Feb 2011, Ian Montagnes presented the Cobourg and District Historical Society with more on this rivalry.

I would like to explore briefly a subject I was advised to avoid, and that is the rivalry between Port Hope and Cobourg. Today it may seem petty and annoying. For most of a century, however, it was a bitter struggle for growth and prosperity. The outcome was determined, as to some extent it still is, by a force that neither town could control: geography.

To begin at the beginning: In the summer of 1791, a Loyalist entrepreneur named Elias Smith and a ship’s captain named Jonathan Walton explored the northern shore of Lake Ontario looking for a suitable place to start a settlement. They passed by what we now call Cobourg Creek and, from among many other potential sites, they chose what would become Port Hope. In the following year, with a third partner, they obtained a land grant and promised to settle it. The prize that had grabbed their attention was the horsepower generated by the Ganaraska River. Port Hope’s harbour then was practically non-existent, blocked by a huge sandbank. But the river, they recognized, was a powerful source of energy when all other power had to be generated by muscle. On it they built a mill, the only one in those years between York (now Toronto) and Meyer’s Creek (now Trenton). The mill was essential for pioneer families with grain to turn into flour, and they made their way to it from as far as Peterborough.

The prosperity of the Ganaraska mill attracted other settlers – not just farmers but also blacksmiths, tanners, a distillery, and even a pioneer lawyer. Before long there was a thriving small town on the riverbank. In neighbouring Cobourg, such relatively concentrated settlement did not begin until later, and there was no large flour mill to attract farmers until 1817. Port Hope had a good head start.

From there, in the time available, I can only sketch the story. And it will sometimes be from Port Hope’s perspective, because I do not have comparable data for Cobourg.

Both towns developed their harbours. Cobourg’s was on a broad reach. Port Hope’s was sheltered between low hills. In bad weather, Port Hope was a harbour of refuge; Cobourg’s could never be one.

port hope harbourBoth harbours, however, could serve the export trade in timber from Peterborough county. For many years, lumber and shingles manufactured in that area were floated down the Otonabee River to Rice Lake. There the owners had to choose how to reach Lake Ontario. They could land their cargo at Gore’s Landing and go overland to Cobourg, or they could float it a little further west to Bewdley and a road that led to Port Hope. Because of a dip in the moraine, the western road was much less hilly than the one to Cobourg. That gave Port Hope a decided advantage when heavy wagons had to be hauled by horse or oxen.

Then in the 1850s came the railway, replacing animal muscle power with steam. Both towns sought to capitalize on the new technology. Each hoped the rails would secure for it the trade in timber and exports from the growing agricultural communities to the north.

Cobourg was first off the mark with a line to Peterborough. But its fate is well known. The builders decided to cross, rather than go around, Rice Lake. The three-mile wooden bridge failed under ice pressure and the enterprise foundered.

Port Hope was slower to start but had a direct and relatively easy route up the Ganaraska valley and beyond. The line reached Lindsay first, to capture the output of sawmills at Fenelon Falls, then built a branch to Peterborough. The effect on the town was immediate. As the first rails were being laid, a new suburb sprang up on the western outskirts – scores of Ontario cottages in a year. Closer to the river, the wooden shops were replaced by three- and four-storey brick commercial blocks. By 1860, Port Hope was one of only four towns along the north shore of Lake Ontario that had more than 5,000 inhabitants. The others were Toronto, Kingston, and Belleville.

Port Hope Railway BridgeEventually, the railway that started in Port Hope extended all the way to Georgian Bay, to tap the farms and timber of Ontario’s heartland. It is hard to imagine the amount of trade that funneled through Port Hope’s harbour during those years. In 1879 alone, 50 million board feet of lumber passed through the port. How much wood is that? In volume, it is almost three times the amount of concrete used to build the CN Tower in Toronto. And in the following year, timber exports through Port Hope increased still further, by more than a third. Nor should one forget the tons of barley, wheat, rye, peas, and manufactured goods that also passed through the port. For a couple of decades, Port Hope was living high off the hog. Cobourg, I would guess, must have looked on with envy.

And then of course, everything changed. As land upstream was cleared for farming, the Ganaraska’s horsepower dwindled and grew uncertain. Steam, and then electric, power took over, even alongside the river. Port Hope lost its natural advantage. It also suffered under other changes that affected all the small towns along the Lake Ontario front. They lost jobs as the new types of power freed industry to concentrate in cities like Toronto. Their retailers lost business as Eaton’s mail order catalogue reached into rural homes. New industries rose but too often disappeared: some that succeeded moved to Toronto; others failed. The gasoline engine, the motor car, and eventually the long-distance truck reduced the importance of steamships, ports, and railways. Both Cobourg and Port Hope became little more than stops on Highway 2 between Toronto and Montreal. With the creation of Highway 401, to most of the world they dwindled to names on traffic signs. Port Hope at least had the singular advantage of being coupled on signs with a hamlet called Welcome. 

During this period of great change, I sense, Cobourg proved itself more politically adept and aligned with power than Port Hope. More recently it has turned its open harbour – once a liability, no refuge in times of storm – into a peaceful asset. The broad lakeshore became an attractive beach; its level borders welcomed development of a condo community for the empty nesters of the metropolis.

Port Hope now was the one looking on as its rival grew. It had its attractive 19th century buildings and river, but its harbour was constricted, its lakeshore cut off from the town by railway viaducts, its riverside declared a floodplain. Its central lakeshore was dominated by an industry that has left a legacy of low-level contamination – one that has been blown out of all proportion in the public eye by sporadic bursts of media sensationalism and attention-seeking. The low-level waste will be cleaned up but the nuclear stigma remains, an unfounded impediment to attracting new residents. Is it any wonder, then, that some in Port Hope may be skeptical about proffered embraces from its long-time rival?

The values of the two towns differ. Port Hope has long enjoyed a reputation for eccentricity. Some residents call it “five square miles surrounded by sanity.” Cobourg has its own eccentrics undoubtedly, but seems more oriented towards what we might call progress. Any amalgamation of the two seems unlikely. But increased cooperation between them does appear to many of us as desirable as it is inevitable.

Their troubled relationship, like most such, might be easier if its history were better understood.

But we must recognize that recalcitrance has not been on one side only. So here is one more lesson from history. John Helm was one of Port Hope’s greatest 19th century industrialists, owner of a large foundry on the river bank. When he died in 1912, aged ninety-four, he left to the county the land surrounding his home plus $100,000 – the equivalent of nearly $2,000,000 today – to build a large modern hospital. At the time, the district had only a few small hospitals located in private homes. Helm’s plan was never adopted. Several parts of the county, including Cobourg, rejected the idea of cooperation. As a result the county lost both the land, which remained with Helm’s family, and 60 per cent of the cash, which went to hospitals outside the area. What was left was divided between Port Hope and Cobourg to build small hospitals of their own. It took most of a century before Helm’s ambitious hope for a regional hospital was realized.