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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“Brighter hopes shall greet them
Amidst the pathles wild,
Than e’r on Britain’s cultured soil
For British peasants smiled.”

Agnes Strickland.

THE fifteen townships of Peterboro’ County, which takes its name from its chief town, are somewhat sparsely settled. It is a country of lakes and woods, and in some districts the camps of the aboriginal red men are still occasionally to be seen. The county seat is, how ever, a flourishing city of about 16,000 inhabitants; and in the agricultural country surrounding it are many pleasant farms and a few villages. Some sixty years ago the present county was known as the North Riding of Northumberland, and for a time after its separation from its southern neighbour it comprised what is now Victoria County.

Before the beginning of its history as a white man’s town, the place where Peterboro’ now stands was known as Indian Plain. In the earlier decades of last century, a chief, remarkable for his great stature, claimed a kind of ownership of Stony' and other lakes, and though he permitted the white men to fish and to shoot deer and partridges, he jealously guarded the privilege of trapping fur-bearing animals. He was called "Handsome Jack,” a name commemorated in those of Jack’s Lake and Jack’s Creek, whilst the Polly Cow Islands in Clear Lake dimly' recall the traditionary account of his daughter, a lovely Indian girl, who died of fever at the age of sixteen, and was buried by his heart-broken father under a balsam tree on one of the islands. So that the spirit of his child might be able to wander at will down to the water’s edge, the chief cleared the forest trees from the shore. He could not tear himself away from his darling’s grave, and was still watching over it when death came at last to release him from his sad task.

The first settlers in this Canadian Lake District came in 1818 from the more famous English "Lake District,” and in the same year a little party of young men. headed by one Adam Scott, crossed the treacherous Rice Lake, and made its way up the Otonabee River to the site of the future city. Arriving late on a day in May, one of them struck a spark from his gun flint into a heap of dry leaves, and so kindled the precursor of all Petcrboro’s "household fires.” After cooking and eating their supper, the young fellows lay down to sleep under the oaks and chestnuts.. On the morrow some of the party went by the "blazed” trails to seek out earlier settlers, and Scott explored the neighbourhood to find a suitable site for a mill he was planning.

He was successful in finding a creek which answered his purpose, and before two years had gone by he had erected a combined grist and saw-mill. For years this was the most important building in the neighbourhood, serving as a kind of social centre, where the settlers exchanged the news of the day in addition to obtaining supplies of flour and lumber. Soon after it was built something went wrong with the crank of the mill, and Scott set off on a March day to trudge through the snow, all the way to Smith's Creek (now Port Hope), with the broken crank upon his shoulders. It weighed 250 pounds, and, though the round trip took several days, Scott returned home in triumph with the crank again in working order.

Some little time later, when a state-aided band of over two thousand immigrants arrived from Ireland, Scott displayed his customary enterprise in less commendable fashion. Having a superfluity of Government rations, the new arrivals turned an honest penny by selling the food they could not eat. They had, however, a craving for whisky, which was difficult to satisfy till Scott contrived a rude still, in which he made a quantity of a coarse spirit to sell at the rate of ten or fifteen cents a gallon!

Meanwhile, the Hon. Peter Robinson (a member of the well-known Loyalist family), who had undertaken to settle the immigrants near Peterboro’, had a difficult task. On the voyage from Ireland fifteen of the emigrants had died, and before a twelvemonth in the new land had rolled its course eighty-seven more found graves in the forest, dying chiefly of malarial fevers.

The task of marshalling the host of new-comers to their destination had cost their leader endless toil and thought. On the way they had had to camp at Kingston, from which place they were brought up in detachments by boat to Cobourg. Before they could proceed farther Robinson had had to make passable a twelve-mile road to Rice Lake, and to carry the settlers and their goods up the Otonabee he had built a huge flat-bottomed boat sixty feet long by eight feet wide. When at last they reached Scott’s Landing (as Peterboro’ was then called) there were neither houses to shelter them nor roads by which they could proceed to their destined homes.

Happily, Robinson found an able second in a naval officer named Charles Rubidge, who had had the experience of settling with his wife and child in a log-house without doors or windows, and knew what it was to be almost eaten by mosquitoes and blackflies. Afterwards he was able to boast that he had “ made ” a farm in the country and had worked hard on it for twent-y-two years. It was he who cut the road, now called Keene road, from Peterboro’ to Rice Lake, and was rewarded for this service by Governor Maitland with the grant of a town and park lot. Later he was the first postmaster of Otonabee, and, for convenience of distributing the letters to people whom he might chance to meet, was accustomed, it is said, to carry “the mail” about with him in his hat. Under his directions the older settlers were employed to put up cabins for the newcomers at the price of ten dollars a house.

The name of Peterboro’ was chosen at a dinner, given by Robinson in his tent, in honour of the host. In the following year, when the village of log cabins, “sown broadcast,” with blackened stumps sticking up in its streets, was in the roughest condition imaginable, the lieutenant-governor, Sir Peregrine Maitland, visited the settlement. Not popular with some of the people, here he won golden opinions. cedar-boughs were strewn in his honour along the sleigh-track, and a triumphal arch of evergreens was erected. He held a reception in the biggest log-house in the place, which was, perhaps, that used by the Roman Catholic father for service in days when the present cathedral was undreamed of.

In 1831 a second large body of immigrants was sent by the British Government to the neighbourhood of Peterboro'. Meantime a few colonists of a higher class were struggling with the hardships of "Roughing it in the Bush.’ as Mrs. Moodie, one of the Strickland family —almost all of whom seem to have wielded the pen of the ready-writer—phrased it. Her brother, Major Strickland, gives a graphic account of a journey through eleven miles of bush to seek land he had bought at Lakefield, and also to find the free grant of a poor English blacksmith who had been sent out to him from his home village in Suffolk. The man, on reaching his journey’s end, with a wife and child, had one halfpenny in his pocket. But he lived to own a comfortable little homestead. lie was at first so dismayed, however, by the trackless woods that he positively shed tears. The Major describes with zest his own achievements as a joiner, stone-mason, and wagon-builder, but some English gentlemen, after wasting money in "fancy log-houses,” speedily disappeared from the scene.

It was the lumber trade which gave to Peterboro’ its first impetus towards prosperity. Now many of its people find employment in factories, some of which make the noted “Peterboro' canoe.” Peterboro’s great claim to distinction, however, rests on its "Lift Lock,” in connection with the Trent Valley Canal. This is the largest lock of its type in the world. It was designed bj7 Mr. R. B. Rogers, and the engineer in immediate charge of the work was Mr. W. J. Francis. The lock was formally opened on July 9, 1901.

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