HISTORY of VICTORIA COUNTY - PART 15


ROMANTIC SETTLEMENT OF BEXLEY---DETAILS OF EARLY VILLAGE LIFE

(By WATSON KIRKCONNELL, M.A.)

Note: --The author wished to record his debt to Col. Geo. E. Laidlaw, of Balsam Lake, for many facts anent early Bexley.)

The seven townships, Somerville, Laxton, Carden, Digby, Dalton, and Longford, which lie to the north of the Kawartha water system, may be conveniently referred to as "North Victoria." Like the six southern townships, they constitute a geographical unity, but their past development and future problems are in marked contrast to those of South Victoria. What these peculiar characteristics of North Victoria are may best be ascertained by sketching briefly the histories of the individual townships and then drawing broad conclusions from our survey.

The Beginnings of Bexley

The township of Bexley is named after the Right Honorable Nicholas Vansittart, Baron Bexley (1766-1851), who was Chancellor of the Exchequer (and thus a colleague of Eldon) during the Liverpool administration.

Bexley is small in area and very irregular in outline. To the west and north it is bounded by straight survey lines separating it from Eldon, Carden, and Laxton, but on the east and south it is delimited by the Gull River and by Balsam Lake, whose deep bays carve up its borders fantastically. The most salient feature of Balsam Lake is Indian Point, a long blunt tongue of land, a mile in width, which is marked out by Northwest Bay and the Gull River estuary. Just southeast of this point are several small islands, of which Ghost Island, fifteen acres in extent, is the most important. This long, narrow, forest-clad island is shrouded in legend. It has two Indian mound graves of unknown antiquity. Tradition has also endowed it with buried treasure. According to pioneer lore, certain Jesuit priests had been stationed among the Indians in this part of Ontario and farther west prior to the British conquest of Canada in 1759. When the armies from the south began to close in on Canada, these priests gathere d all the church plate together and prepared to paddle with it to Quebec. However, in passing through Balsam Lake they buried it, for some reason, on Ghost Island. The tale is apocryphal and hard to verify, but was given such local credence that several large excavations and dozens of smaller ones were to be found fifty years ago where optimists had been digging for the legendary treasure. The continual interference of Jesuitical ghosts (whence the name of the island) was supposed to have thwarted all efforts to locate the buried silver.

Let us return, however, from legend to physiography. Two small streams, Perch Creek and Talbot Creek, enter Bexley from the north and unite before passing out across the western boundary. Raven Lake is a small expansion of Talbot Creek about two miles above its junction with Perch Creek.

The township is still within the limestone region but not far from the frontier of the granite country. The land surface has been severely glaciated and the rocks are usually either exposed or covered with a layer of soil so thin that a forest fire destroys it. Even where the soil is deep, as in occasional pockets of drift, huge boulders are scattered throughout it.

The government survey was made in the early thirties. All land adjoining Balsam Lake and the Gull River was divided into lots with a narrow frontage on the water and a depth of about two miles. The area to the north and west behind these front ranges was divided into eight orthodox concessions, numbered from west to east, and a varying number of 200-acre lots, numbered from south to north.

The western boundary of the township was a colonization highway known as the "Victoria Road," built about 1863 and running from Goose Lake on the Mariposa boundary north to join the Peterson Road in the peak of Longford township. The Portage Road, which followed the line of the old Indian trail from Lake Simcoe to Balsam Lake, ran out its last four miles in Bexley. Here, as in Eldon, the land adjacent to the road was divided into deep, narrow lots. From the Balsam Lake terminus of the Portage Road, the "Lake Shore Road," runs up along Northwest Bay to Coboconk. This is a forced road. The regular road allowance lay at the rear of the thirty-eight deep lots along the bay; the settlers had their homes near the waterfront; and to have put through the road as surveyed would have meant the maintaining of thirty-eight private lanes, each two miles in length. Accordingly all agreed to cut through this Lake Shore Road from lot to lot. Still another prominent highway is the Cameron Road, w hich follows a winding course west of the Mud Turtle lakes from Coboconk to Norland.

An Admiral and Others.

The first settler in Bexley was Admiral Vansittart, a cousin of Baron Bexley, who came to Canada in 1834 and was given a grant of one thousand acres on the shore of West Bay, Balsam Lake. He came in with ox-wagons over the old Indian trail from Lake Simcoe and often had to stop and chop out trees and logs from the path. His new property, at the head of the portage, had had an earlier history. Indian villages had flourished here in the sixteenth century: Champlain had traversed the spot in September of the year 1615; Jesuits, coureurs de bois, Hurons, Iroquois and Mississagas, all passed and repassed up to 1760; then came English fur-traders, and towards the end of the eighteenth century a trading post, comprising three main buildings, was established near the shore. The stone chimneys of this post were still in existence in 1871, but were demolished not long after.

The old admiral was not without character. Even in his wilderness home he insisted on dressing for formal dinner every evening and was never without his champagne. He was twice married. His second wife was a Miss Stephenson, the daughter of one of his own servants, and to her he left the entire Balsam Lake estate. In later times, about 1871, the property passed into the hands of the late George Laidlaw "the Laird of Bexley," who named it "The Fort Ranch.". The name does not refer to any fort on the premises, but to the customary question of a frequent guest, the late Hon. Rupert Wells, who, as the times were hard and money tight, would ask his host on each visit if he were still "holding the fort." One of his sons, Colonel George E. Laidlaw, now occupies the estate.

PRESENT ISSUE BEGINS SKETCH OF SEVEN NORTHERN TOWNSHIPS

At the time of the government survey, Indian Point was set aside as a reserve for a mixed band of Mississaga and Ojibway Indians, who were then in occupation. In 1836 Samuel Cottingham of Omemee received a government contract to build twelve houses here for those of the Indians who were Christians. Their pagan kinsfolk lived in wigwams on the island near by. In 1847 the Indians put in a claim to the government for all islands points, and broken points of land, but met with no success. At last, about 1860, a Peterborough lumberman named Denniston secured control of the forest on Indian Point and along the north shore of the lake and the Indians moved away, the Ojibways to the Rama reserve, north of Orillia, and the Mississagas to Seagog Island. After all timber had been removed from the point, small narrow lots were platted running from a central road survey to the water on each side. This road was never opened; only a winding lumber trail wandered up the point towards Coboconk.

As a result of these lumbering operations a number of French Canadian lumber-jacks, the Bradimores, Grozelles, Breauws, Demoes, and Augiers, settled in a body north of Balsam Lake near the Laxton boundary. Old Joe Demoe had been foreman of the square timber raft gangs who went in the old days from Bexley to Quebec with their rafts.

In the southwest corner of Bexley along the last four miles of the Portage Road, the old Indian trail, the earliest settlers were the Kings, Lytles, Ballams, Herons, and Drakes, all from the north of Ireland. Most of the pioneers along the west shore of Northwest Bay were Highland Scotch, whose only tongue was Gaelic. Amongst these were the families of Bell, Brown, Cameron, Gillepsie, Graham, Macdonald, McFadyen, McLeod, Mcinnis, McMullen and Murchison. Several Irish-Canadian Protestants, Joseph and George Staples, Henry Southern, and Henry, George and William Peel, came from Cavan township, Durham county, in 1864-65, and settled in the north and northwest of Bexley. This area is still known as "The Peel Settlement." There are a few Irish Catholics near the Carden boundary.

While the earliest pioneering was largely done by Scotch and Irish, the predominant element in later immigration, especially in the villages, has been English. The census figures for 1911 are illustrative of the point:---English, 337; Irish, 257; Scotch, 117; Dutch and German, 64; French, 42. The chief church affiliations are as follows: --Methodists, 317; Anglicans, 195; Presbyterians, 121; Roman Catholics, 110.

A Phantom Village

The first village in Bexley never became a village. At the time of the government survey Block C, on the west shore of West Bay, where the Trent Canal now leaves Balsam Lake, was reserved as a town site. The name "St. Maryís" was given it on the official plans, it turned out, however, that the surveyors had chosen a tract of flat rock with about two inches of soil. No ditches or cellars could be dug and the site was abandoned. It was long known as "the government reserve," but now forms part of the Laidlaw estate.

Just adjacent to this tract but on the north side of the terminus of the Portage Road there was once a post office named Aros, serving the Highland Scotch settlers along the Northwest Bay. The office was in the right hand front room of the old Vansittart log mansion. The postmaster was a Charles McInnis, who had succeeded in having the little post office named after his Scottish birthplace. The mail was brought in from Kirkfield once or twice a week. This service was only discontinued in 1872, when the Toronto and Nipissing Railway was built and a post office was established at Victoria Road Station.

Where the Sea Gulls Nested

The village of Coboconk dates from 1851, when the first sawmill north of Cameron Lake was built here. The name is a contraction of the Indian "Quash-qua-be-conk," meaning "where the gulls nest." It is interesting to note that the "Gull River" flows through the village and that its largest expansion, twenty miles farther north, is known as "Gull Lake." The common herring gulls are still quite plentiful near this lake.

Coboconk developed in an era of lumbering. In the fifties, sixties and seventies, enormous quantities of pine were taken out. The prevailing occupation around the Balsam Lake was the preparation of squared timber for the Quebec trade. At first, large square punts, rowed with sweeps, were used for "kedging" timber rafts across the lakes; later alligator tugs came into general use.

Game fish were remarkably abundant. In the spring of 1886 over five thousand maskalunge were speared at Coboconk during the running season. One man alone disposed of fifty on the 24th of May. This wanton wholesale killing has left a much scantier harvest for the conscientious sportsman of today.

Modern Coboconk is a village of about four hundred inhabitants. It is the terminus of a railway division which was formerly the narrow-gauge Toronto and Nipissing Railway, completed in 1872.

For many years Coboconk was known as "The University City," for an itinerant humorist name Thompson (otherwise Jimuel Briggs, D.B.) used to tell of a fictionary college which he himself had founded there. The site of the "Jimuel Briggs University" was long a matter of dispute, but certain of the villagers came to identify the institution with an old shingle mill, which, so the story ran, small boys set on fire while Jimuel lay within, deep in a alcoholic nap.

A really serious fire visited Coboconk on May 16, 1877. The blaze began in the rear of Keyís hotel and did not die out until half the village (all of the section on Main Street north of the bridge) lay in ashes.

At the present day Coboconkís chief industries are the Gull River Lumber Company, managed by James Peel, and the lime plants of the Canada Lime Company and the Toronto Brick Company. The village has also a grist mill, one hotel (The Jackson House), three churches, and five stores.

"The City of Peace."

Victoria Road is a village which has sprung up around a station established in 1872 by the T. and N. Railway at the point where it crossed the Victoria Colonization Road. It was long known as "The Road" and as "The City of Peace." The village is not incorporated, and as it lies partly in Eldon, partly in Carden, and partly in Bexley, each of these townships levies taxes on those villagers who live within its borders.

In 1879, seven years after founding, Victoria Road comprised the following business establishments: --The general stores of Staples and Shields and of H. Wilson; Alfred Taylorís grocery store; Heaphyís grocery store, which included the post office; William Bodenís smithy and wagon shop; G. L. Callisís smithy; Feeís livery; Midgeleyís tin shop; and William Taylorís tailor shop. The chief industries were Thomas Thompsonís three-storey grist mill, built in 1876, and containing three run of stones, and a sawmill owned by Dr. McTaggart. There were three hotels, the Commercial Hotel, run by Patrick Fox, the Victoria Hotel, run by a Mr. Wismer, and a temperance house, managed by Mr. Shields. Two red brick churches housed Roman Catholic and Presbyterian congregations respectively. The former were under the care of Father Fitzpatrick and the latter led by the Rev. D. D. McLennan.

At the present day the population of Victoria Road is about two hundred. It has no outstanding industries, but serves the surrounding country with its general stores, bakery, butcher shop, hotel, doctor, undertaker and clergyman. Peat fuel has in times past been prepared commercially in bogs not far from the village.

"Hells Half Acre."

Corsonís Siding is a small railway village about six miles north east of Victoria Road. At one time the Toronto distillers, Gooderham and Wort, owned a large timber limit adjacent to the Siding. This timber they shipped to Toronto as cordwood. A lake captain named Corson, after whom the village is named, was sent up to take charge of their interests. For the winterís cut of cordwood he would import a gang of lake sailors from Toronto. The latter would bring with them an abundance of whiskey and an auxiliary corps of prostitutes, and the limits were so aflame with drunkenness and hot uncleanness that the Siding was known throughout the north country as "Hellís half acre." The timber was all cleared out by 1890: the scandalous visitors ceased to come; and the slashed limits were sold as ranch-land. Gooderham and Wort had also operated lime kilns at Corsonís Siding. These were carried on for a few years longer and were then sold to a lime combine, who abandoned them.

Raven Lake is a railway station beside the body of water so named. Bexley is a rural post office on Lot 9, Concession lll, serving the "Peel Settlement" area.

Bexley township has developed very slowly owing to the poverty of its soil. In 1871 its population was 489, and less than four square miles were under cultivation. In recent years ranching has begun to take the place of farming throughout much of the township.

Next - History of the County of Victoria Part 16


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