If you’ve grown up near Ontario’s Great Lakes you likely know the famous port towns that dot the shorelines: Colborne, Dover, Stanley, Grand Bend, Saugeen, Tobermory … to name a few. These port towns grew out of 19th century demands for produce and products, which were transported by sail, steamship and planked roads before a network of mid-century railways linked them to larger centres.
Port Stanley on Lake Erie’s north shore, is an example of the necessity for early supply lines for 19th Century settlers, and the eventual transitioning of these towns to famous lakeside playgrounds. From the bridge overlooking Kettle Creek near the harbour, you see handsome stores, restaurants and art galleries. Old and new cottages rim deep sandy shores. New housing developments peer over the lake from the top of high bluffs.
Recently, I read Port Stanley, The First Hundred Years, 1804 – 1904, co-authored by Robert J. Burns and Craig Cole.
The importance of being selected as a “railway town” cannot be exaggerated in Ontario’s settlement in the 1900s. Port Stanley’s railway links from the shores at Kettle Creek developed into a staging harbour for moving stock and passengers through Southern Ontario and the USA.
There was a genteel late 19th Century passion to temporarily holiday away from more populated commercial cities like St. Thomas, London, Buffalo and Cleveland. Churches and organizations arranged massive excursions by steam ships and rail cars for the “fresh air” picnics beside Erie’s breezy shores. Port Stanley, with it’s natural escarpment set back from the town, and having a wide creek and harbour, and road and rail links to the interior was a desirable location for investing in resort hotels, cottages and popular amusements for entertaining large crowds.
The ambitious scale of constructing the recreational facilities that came after the railways in the 1870s (to a town with a population of 600) is unimaginable today: hundreds of pleasure-seekers arrived by steamship and rail on the same day. They headed to many of the famous resorts, such as Fraser’s parklands on a bluff overlooking the lake. Large hotels with 150-ft verandas and a 2-car incline railway between Fraser’s Heights and the beach, led visitors to boating excursions, bicycling, diving towers at the end of long piers, recreational fishing, and taverns enough to satisfy all … captured in photographs in the book.
As the publication indicates, the heyday of growth did not come without setbacks: fires destroyed early wooden buildings, and shifting silt and sandbanks blocked the harbour. There were long appeals for government help to develop a fishery, which became a successful enterprise after 1900. Maritime disasters lost steamships as they crossed the lake in all directions.
The authors, beginning with a Phase A report for a proposed Heritage Conservation District in Port Stanley, ended up publishing an entertaining account of a specific 100-year period of Port Stanley’s early development. They received much support from Heritage Port. Port Stanley’s Historical Society funded the publication, and all proceeds for sales of the book return to them to continue their good work.
If you are a history buff, and appreciate learning how our famous Great Lakes port towns developed and added much to the romantic remembrances of visitors who flocked to their sandy shores, I recommend this book.
The book is available locally in stores and venues in Port Stanley, or through the Port Stanley Historical Society.