The Amazing History of Victoria County - Part 1


By Watson Kirkconnell, M.A.,


There are hoary pioneers in Lindsay and the surrounding townships who can remember a time when the countryside wore an aspect vastly different from that of today. A swamp once rotted where the Town Hall now stands. In 1845, a mill and a few log huts were all that foretold a town. Yet the inconceivably great epochs of time, which lie in the geological past of the world, saw stranger sights yet, and we must know this earlier history of the county if we are to understand some of the commonest features of the landscape of our own day.


Norland on the Pacific Coast of Greenland.

Some fifty millions of years ago, in the Ordovician Period of the world, there were only three great continents, non of which corresponded to the great land masses of today. An "Indo-African" continent comprised modern Africa, Asia Minor, Arabia, India, the East Indies and the whole vast intervening bed of the Indian Ocean. A "Brazilian" continent included the northern half of South America, the West Indies, and the Appalachian system of the United States. And a third or "Greenland" continent stretched from Quebec on the west and Greenland on the north over the whole of the North Atlantic to Scotland, where a lofty range of "Caledonian Mountains" was washed on the east by the Pacific Ocean (for most of modern Europe and Asia was still under water). At the southwestern end of the Greenland continent, and "Algonkian Peninsula" ran across Northern Ontario and up west of Hudson Bay as far as Coronation Gulf. From this peninsula, a projection ran south into the "highlands" of Old Ontario. The central and western parts of North America were not yet in existence and the waves of an even greater Pacific than that of today rolled over South Victoria to break on the stern granite shores of the continent near Uphill, Norland, Dongola, and Burnt River. Had modern man lived at that time, he could have sailed straight west from Norland to Edinburgh, Scotland, without changing his course. And had he sailed eastward, he would have witnessed tremendous volcanic eruptions in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, then at the extreme north of the Brazilian continent. However, man was not yet on the earth. The highest forms of life were still only mollusks, which, in some cases, had shells fifteen feet long.

Practically all land at this time was granite rock, formed by the original cooling of the earth's surface and now emerged from beneath the oceans as three great mountainous continents. The sterile hills of North Victoria and Haliburton are thus part of one of the oldest mountain systems in the world, beside which the Rockies and Alps are only healthy babies of yesterday. Rivers among these hills brought down great quantities of silt and mud which were deposited in the ocean depths in South Victoria. Here pressure and heat transformed this sediment into very hard limestone, chiefly of the varieties known as "Black River" and "Trenton."

By the advent of a somewhat later epoch, the Carboniferous, in which most of the important coal beds of the world were formed, southern Ontario and most of the western provinces had risen above the sea, thus joining themselves to the Greenland continent. Lindsay and the limestones of its district were now inland instead of beneath the ocean, and the waves beat on a new coast somewhere in Ohio and New York State. Never again was Victoria County submerged, and, as a result, we have no coal beds and no fossils except those of the very earliest times. Districts, however, which were submerged in the Carboniferous epoch who wonderful vegetation. There were no flowering plants, but ferns were sixty feet in height, horse-tails were ninety feet, and clubmosses actually grew to be five feet in diameter and one hundred feet high. Some forms of fish and some insects were abundant, but the higher classes were still missing.

Two further epochs, each a million or so years in length, brought little change, but in the Jurassic Period huge reptiles ruled the world. In the lakes and seas swam the Plesiosaurs, ravenous, long-necked, forth-foot lizards with fins and a fish-like tail. On land waddled the monstrous Dinosaur, one hundred scaly feet in length. And the sky was darkened by hideous flying lizards. It was an age of nightmares, and its chimnerical forms of life would stagger belief were it not for the unanswerable fossil records laid bare in Wyoming and other parts of the Middle West. There is no doubt that these monsters roamed hungrily abroad in the fern forests of Omemee and Lorneville, but there erosion had its own way during the fifteen million years that came after, and swept away all traces of this early life which different conditions have preserved elsewhere.

In the next period, Cretaceous, real sea-serpents, seventy-five feet long, swam along the ocean shore not far south of Ontario. The Eocene period, following that again, was marked by a complete disappearance of all the great reptiles. At this time, Europe, America and Asia were all joined together.

The Great Limestone Cliff

Later periods, the Oligocene, Miocene and Pilocene, saw North America gradually take on its present shape. During all these epochs, commencing in Carboniferous times, the forces of erosion had been busy in Ontario. In South Victoria, some of the limestones were harder than others. Those within twenty miles of the old granite continent were the softest, and south of these lay a wide plateau of very hard limestone. As water, frost and air carried out their slow work of destruction, the soft rocks were eaten away more rapidly than the others, and so left the northern edge of the hard plateau exposed as a precipitous cliff, ranging from 15 to 150 feet in height. This cliff, known technically as a "cuesta," is still quite distinct today, although obscured in places by later glacial drift.

It can be traced best by starting just at the left of the Grand Trunk Railway at Mackenzie's Crossing, four miles north of Lindsay. Here it appears on the Dark farm, crosses the Fenelon Township boundary and then turns west, paralleling McLaren's Creek as far as the 2nd concession of Fenelon. The so-called "Fenelon Hill" north of Lindsay, is chiselled down the face of this cliff, which is some millions of years in age. On Concession 11, Fenelon, McLaren's Creek passes out through a wide valley on the escarpment. The latter turns north here and is easily traced as far north as Lot 10, Concession III, where it strikes west until due north of Cambray village. Here great glacial deposits of sand and gravel obliterate it, but it is found again just west of Islay. From Lot 15, Concession 1, Fenelon, it cuts across to Lot 7, Concession XI, Eldon, just west of the township boundary, where it shadows the Glenarm road quite prominently. Thence it runs north till a little past Glenarm, then bends around to the west as far as Lot 10, Concession VIII, Eldon, where the C.P.R. passes through it. On Lot 10, Concession VII, a creek, tributary to Balsam Lake, passes out through a swampy valley. The cliff next proceeds up the 7th of Eldon as far as Balsam Lake Station, where it forms a very bold bluff before turning on a southwestern stretch towards Argyle. At Argyle is another stream valley; but on Lot 11, Concession II, Eldon, the cuesta appears again and runs west into Ontario County on the 5th Concession of Thorah.

Every foot of this thirty-five miles of the "Pliocene escarpment," west from the Scugog River to Ontario County, I have explored personally, on foot or by bicycle. East of the Scugog, I have not yet followed it up so carefully; but I have located it at several points as far east as Pigeon Lake, and have no doubt that it is practically continuous across the county. The Scugog flows out through a wide valley; but the cliff reappears on the Brien farm, just north of "Tillytown," and runs northeast behind Pleasant Point. It is steep here, but not precipitous. Following Sturgeon Lake for some distance, it turns down steeply west of Emily Lake; reappears to the east of Emily Creek; and after circling north somewhat, runs down the west shore of Pigeon Lake. Here on Lot 18, Concession X, Emily, is the last outcropping which I have mapped personally.

Scugog River Once Flowed South

In the Pliocene Period, all rivers in this party of the country ran south or southwest, passing through the escarpment, and the plateau which it borders, by wide, steep-sided rocky valleys. None of the present local lakes were in existence. Two small streams, which rose northeast of Fenelon Falls and near Bobcaygeon, respectively, flowed southwards down the centre of the two modern arms of Sturgeon Lake and joined their waters two miles south of Sturgeon Point to form the Scugog River. The Scugog then proceeded south, a little to the west of its present course. The business section of Lindsay was directly in the river bed. The river reentered its present water channels about the Scugog Lake shore boundary of Mariposa Township, and then flowed south, to the east of Scugog Island, and out by Myrtle on the C.P.R. The modern Scugog Lake was then not in existence.

Another river, the modern Burnt River, had the same upper course as today, with its Gelert and Irondale branches. There was no Cameron Lake, and the old river crossed its present bed from the northeast to the southwest corners. Fenelon Falls was a low limestone ridge, over which no water passed; for the river flowed southwest through a great gap in the escarpment three miles north of Cambray village and on through Goose Lake on the Mariposa-Eldon-Fenelon boundary. About four miles straight north of Oakwood, it was joined by another river whose main stream was the Gull River flowing down through Coboconk. This latter river was augmented, in what is now the bed of Balsam Lake, by tributary streams from Northwest Bay and Corben Creek. It then flowed south, penetrating the great cliff by a steep gorge a mile and a half straight south of Glenarm. The combined waters of the ancient Gull and Burnt Rivers proceeded southwest along the upper valley of Mariposa Brook and left the county near Manilla Junction.

Still another river began in twin streams which rose in Head Lake and Deer Lake, Laxton Township, and flowed down the upper water courses of Perch Creek and Talbot Creek respectively; then formed a junction near Kirkfield, and passed to the southwest near Argyle and Lorneville.

All these rivers were of very long duration, and had worn wide, permanent channels through the hard limestone plateau, which sloped gently towards the south. At many points the edges of their valleys are still discernible; and the ancient drainage system was mapped out by scientists nearly a score of years ago.

Lindsay Under a Mile of Ice

At the close of the Pliocene Period, about a million years ago, there came a time when the northern half of the continent, as far south as Ohio, was covered by an immense glacier. The cause of this glaciation is sometimes ascribed to a diminution of carbon dioxide in the air and sometimes to a great periodic wobble in the earth's axis which, so they say, shifted the earth's zones for a time. Whatever may have been to blame, Lindsay was crushed under an almost imperceptibly moving sheet of ice, a mile in depth. Several of these Ice Ages followed one another, with temperate periods in between.

The chief result of the glaciers was the smothering up of the older drainage systems. Clay, sand, gravel and boulders were scoured from off the land farther north and deposited over the countryside. Almost the whole aspect of this area today, apart from the limestone outcroppings already described, is the result of these glacial deposits. Typical sand and gravel ridges are found on Lot 10, Concession IX, Eldon, when the Port McNicholl line drew ballast in construction days; on Lot 11, Concession II, Fenelon, two miles north of Cambray; on Lot 23, Concession VII, Fenelon, on the southwest shore of Cameron Lake; and at the Lindsay sandpits. Much more important was the formation of a great range of morainic hills running east and west a few miles north of Lake Ontario. This range is nearly twenty miles across, from Mt. Horeb and Omemee to Orono and Rossmount, and extends from Orangeville as far east as Trenton. It blocked the old river systems completely and today all the drainage waters of Victoria, Haliburton and Peterboro counties must push far to the east until nearly north of Trenton, before they can slip past this great barrier. But some blockage took place farther north even than the Durham hills. The river channels straight south past Glenarm and Cambray were choked up. The Gull River filled the broad, shallow basin of Balsam Lake and slopped over to the lowest point, at Rosedale, into the next river basin. As this, too, had been blocked, the water spread out to form Cameron Lake until it spilled for the first time over the limestone ridge at Fenelon Falls into the next valley. Here again, the Scugog channel was so clogged up with glacial rubbish that the water had to form Sturgeon Lake and overflow across a limestone ridge at Bobcaygeon. More than this, the valley of the Scugog was so filled in that a shallow puddle at its southern end, the present Scugog Lake, is actually eight feet above Sturgeon Lake, which lies in the higher levels of the old preglacial valley. It is just possible, however, that before the Bobcaygeon channel wore down to its present level the Scugog valley was flooded and the two lakes joined for a time.

Ancient Niagara River at Fenelon

However, before the drainage system took on permanently its modern form, there intervened a short period when this region assumed considerable importance. It was just at the close of the last glacial epoch. A great barrier of ice, slowly melting northward, lay across the granite highlands from the Adirondacks to North Bay and Lake Superior. Lake Iroquois, larger than the Lake Ontario of today, occupied its present basin and much adjoining territory as well and had its outlet near Rome, New York. Lake Algonquin, a much larger lake still, took in most of the basins of Huron and Michigan and covered considerable more land to boot, for the pressure of the great ice sheet just to the north had pushed the surface of the earth here abouts much lower than before or after. A broad bay of this lake ran down from the northwest into what is now Lake Simcoe. Another bay ran east from near Rohallion. This bay had a very irregular outline. It formed narrows between Kirkfield and Victoria Road, then expanded into a larger Balsam Lake, and spread out into the Cameron Lake basin as well. Deep embayments ran up all the old preglacial river channels to north and south. Just south of Rosedale was an island two miles long. As the shore of Lake Algonquin lay just east of Bolsover, Horncastle, Carden and Uphill, this Roballion bay was thus about sixteen miles in length, terminating at Fenelon Falls.

Through it, for a long time, passed all the waters of this upper lake system which, at this period, emptied down through the Kawartha Lakes into Rice Lake, then a bay of Lake Iroquois, The first fall was at Fenelon, where this "Algonquin River," a mile in width, roared down thirty feet (instead of the present twenty-three) into Sturgeon Lake. The bared rock floor and undercut banks of this great river may still be traced in the neighborhood. Sturgeon Lake was a little larger than at present, but very similar in shape. At Pleasant Point, the first slight rise on the road to Lindsay, just at the edge of the swamp behind the summer cottages, marks the older shore of the lake. Gravel beaches and bars have been located near all the shores of the present lake, in no case more than a mile from the water. At Bobcaygeon came a second fall, this time of only six feet, instead of the seven of today. The wide, strongly scoured, rock-floored channel, grown up here and there with juniper, is even clearer here than at Fenelon Falls.

Even at this late period, some 30,000 years ago, the mammoth, a huge, woolly elephant with curved tusks ten feet long, trumpeted defiance through the subarctic spruce forests of Woodville and Coboconk, and herds of caribou ranged from Omemee to Kirkfield. Nor were human hunters lacking for such tremendous game; for along with their bones in deep Iroquois beach deposits north of Toronto have been found the flint weapons of Indians.

But change came, gradually and inevitably. As the great ice barrier to the north melted away and removed its weight, this whole region tilted up towards the north, so that Fenelon Falls, which was formerly lower than Sarnia, is now 260 feet above it. As a result, Lake Algonquin was poured back into the present Georgian Bay shoreline and found a new, lower outlet by way of St. Clair, Erie and the Niagara River.

Strange, True Geological Wonders

Men in these latter days seem to have lost their capacity for wonder. The unseeing eye was probably never so common as in these times of supposed enlightenment. Yet surely we can force a momentary thrill by remembering that Norland and Burnt River were once on the Pacific coast of a great Greenland continent, that the Scugog River once flowed south, that Lindsay was once buried under a mile of ice, and that the Niagara River of a former age foamed down through Fenelon Falls and Bobcaygeon.


Next - History of the County of Victoria Part 2


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