Published in Our Homes Southern Georgian Bay, Fall/Winter 2006
“I don’t believe there was a man in Collingwood, if his debts were paid, would have a dollar he could call his own.”
So wrote the first mayor of Collingwood, William Basil Hamilton in a journal entry describing Collingwood’s first financial “crash”—150 years ago. It had come without warning, an abrupt collapse in the real estate market, ending a frenzy of land sales that had peaked and tumbled in 1857.
W. B. Hamilton was born in Charlestown, England in 1812, one of eight children of Captain James Mathew Hamilton—an Irish-born son of a rector—and an English mother. William left England to make his fortune in the frontier land of the colonies, arriving in Canada in 1829. It was 25 years before Hamilton finally struck on a golden opportunity.
In 1853, the lumber business was booming. Mills had sprung up all along the shores of Lake Huron and timber was the new gold. Hamilton jumped in with his life savings, securing logging rights to 50 square miles of pine forest bordering the Muskoka River. In the midst of it, near Penetanguishene, he built a mill for production and full-scale operations were soon underway. When he later applied to purchase the land on which the mill stood, he was refused; an official at the Crown Land Department deemed it imprudent to sell riverfront acreage which might later be deemed a prime site for future settlement.
Hamilton was confounded by the decision. “This, where there was nothing but rock,” he recorded years later, “was not a very likely thing to happen...I only asked for a few acres and there would have been plenty of room [remaining] for a city.”
To add to his woes, the market for lumber suddenly plunged. Hamilton was left with no choice but to sell the mill and his timber rights to a group of American businessmen. Paying Hamilton twenty-five per cent of the purchase price as a down-payment, the new buyers began funnelling the remainder of their capital into costly improvements to the mill, aimed at increasing profits. But with the market barely recovering, the result was losses all round. Hamilton never received the remaining unpaid purchase price of the mill.
Around this same time the railway industry serving Upper and Lower Canada was rapidly expanding. Two businessmen, McMaster and Patterson, had purchased 350 acres of land in Simcoe County, surrounding a small settlement known as Hen and Chickens Harbour. They approached Hamilton with an offer: in exchange for managing the division and sale of their holdings as parceled lots, he would receive the deed to about 90 acres, valued at a generous $8,000. He gladly accepted.
The profitable sale of a number of town lots, severed from his share of acreage, enabled Hamilton to soon set himself on the right foot again. With his financial stability recovered, he obtained a loan to set up another mill, this time a flour mill. He chose a site near the mouth of the Pretty River and purchased his first inventory—10,000 bushels of wheat. Though it was a risky purchase, it turned out very well—the price of flour leaped with the start of the Crimean War, in 1855. Once again, Hamilton was able to turn a potential disaster into healthy profit. He settled into the tiny hamlet with his young wife, Jessie, and their growing family (ten children, in all), taking up residence amongst the collection of rough frame homes just east of what is still known as Hurontario Street.
Named by the First Nations people “Qua-sah-qua-ning” [loosely: “ice driven in-shore and piled in a heap”] the settlement had been renamed “Hen and Chickens Harbour” by the early white settlers, a nod to the small string of islets surrounding the shore.
By 1852, the settlement had developed into a hamlet and was called Hurontario Mills after its main street. The first homes were barely more than sheds built up on cedar posts, to keep out the driving surf of the Bay. But only three years later, while still too sparsely developed to be deemed a village, Hen and Chickens Harbour met its destiny. This ragged cluster of homes and businesses was about to undergo a radical transformation.
A grand scheme was unfolding to connect the thriving industrial markets of the south, including Toronto and Chicago, to the vast resource-rich lands north of Lake Huron. With its seven miles of waterfront access, and a thriving shipping industry already established with the north, the renamed Collingwood Harbour was strategically positioned to become the gateway to a vast market expansion.
In 1855, the Northern Railway arrived in Collingwood and a period of tremendous prosperity ensued. Frame cabins gave way to more permanent, comfortable residences constructed of brick and stone. Collingwood had become a thriving port, connecting the developed cities and towns of the south and east with the lakes to the north and west. New settlers arrived by railway, stage-coach and horse-and-buggy, seeking their fortunes in ‘boom town’. Work was plentiful, with every able-bodied man needed for the burgeoning construction industry. Property values rose rapidly and settlers with land claims became wealthy beyond their dreams.
With so much success at their doorstep, how did Collingwood’s pioneers suddenly find themselves, in 1857, “without a dollar” they could call their own?
The fever for land was sweeping the country and Collingwood was caught up in the frenzy. Speculators, eager to cash in on overblown predictions of the community’s imminent commercial success, purchased huge tracts, subdividing these into town lots. Before long, the market was flooded; though the sale of land remained robust, the sheer number of available building lots being unleashed on the Collingwood market caused the local land bubble to burst. Hamilton was left with unsold lots that he had refused to sell a year earlier for the outrageous price of $1,000, that “could not have been sold for $5.” he writes.
Hamilton found himself burdened with debt—this time he would not recover so neatly as he had in the past. He declared bankruptcy, emerging “as clean as the day I was born.” Many years later, in considering the consequences of his risk-taking, Hamilton adopted a philosophical regard of his losses, saying “the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.”
In spite of financial hardships, or perhaps because of them, Collingwood Harbour broke away from Simcoe County, claiming unfair tax assessments only added to the crippling effects of the fallen market. W. B. Hamilton was named first Reeve of the newly independent municipality. (After a protracted battle, the Town was brought back within the Simcoe County fold.)
Then on January 1, 1858, by an Act of Legislature of Upper and Lower Canada, the Town of Collingwood was formally incorporated. With its official status as a town, its nine councillors met on January 18, 1858, to elect from among their number a new Mayor—the first Mayor of Collingwood.
As Reeve, Mr. Hamilton was voted Chairman of the meeting and subsequently, his name was put forward as a logical choice for Mayor. But on vote, the Council was split, with four members favouring the motion and four dissenting. The Chairman then cast his own vote, and by this opportune event, Hamilton was officially declared Mayor.
Politics was nearly a contact sport in those early days of Collingwood’s government. Many reports survive of vociferous battles between councillors and ensuing long-standing feuds. It was even commented that the nine members could never unanimously pass any motion, including adjournment of Council meetings. After a stormy year in office, the position of Mayor was put to public vote, and Councillor John McWatt (who held the office of Mayor until 1866) supplanted Hamilton at the helm.
The Mayor’s office was only a beginning for Hamilton and following his one year tenure, he remained on Council for many years. He threw himself into the community with gusto. Records show Hamilton as a member of numerous community organizations, including several athletics clubs, the Masonic Lodge and the Mechanics Institute, who founded the town’s first library.
Hamilton was able to finally put his feet on firm financial ground when he was appointed Postmaster of the Town of Collingwood. By the mid-1870s he was able to build a modest but well-appointed brick home on Minnesota Street, which he named “The Rocks”.
Planted firmly at the heart of a generous town lot, the Georgian Revival-styled home reflected balance and grace; its symmetrical plan, sunny bay windows and sensible brick construction served as a testament to family values and stability. Classical proportions provided ample space for the large Hamilton clan, while embellishments such as the pilaster entry, pediment porch and contrasting keystone brick facade hinted at modest luxury.
Hamilton died in 1891, at the age of 79. His wife Jessie, considerably younger, lived in the house until 1903, when she moved to the corner of St. Paul and Ontario Streets. “The Rocks”, however, remained in the hands of the Hamilton family until 1930, when it was sold for $1,000.
In 1961, the home was purchased by the McGillivray family. “I wanted a home large enough for each of the children to have their own bedroom. I think that’s very important,” says Greta McGillivray, recalling the decision to purchase “The Rocks”. With seven children to accommodate, the home required some modifications in order to achieve Greta’s mandate for personal space. “With all the renovations and the new furnishings included, the house cost us about $23,000. Even in 1961, it was a bargain.”
One of the most intriguing additions to the house is a recreation room [re-creation room, Greta stresses] created from the restored components of an old log barn. “I had a great interest at the time in old log buildings and we found this one in Peterborough. I contacted a farmer from Markdale—Bill Smith—who had put up log buildings before, and asked if he could help us.” The building was dismantled log by log, then reassembled and restored on-site. It now serves as a unique addition to the original house.
Greta points out the trestle table and benches tucked into a sun-soaked bay window in the kitchen, “where many a crisis has been solved,” she laughs. I catch an illusory glimpse of myself at Greta’s sunlit table, my hands hugging a steaming cup of cocoa. We are solving the problems of the world: threats to the environment, endangered trees and Collingwood’s imminent population explosion. From a long-ago place, a sage and a satisfied W. B. Hamilton gives us a knowing wink.