Roads By Any Other Name

Originally Published in Our Homes Southern Georgian Bay, Spring 2007


Balsam, Elm, Spruce, Hickory, Walnut, Cedar, Oak, Birch, Beech, Maple and Pine: the street names from High St., east to Hurontario Street. My curiosity is piqued. What stories lie beneath the street names of Collingwood?


This town is not shy about its history, and as the dig begins, information abounds. So much so, in fact, that paring to the central question proves a monumental task. In order to fully appreciate the significance of the naming of Collingwood’s streets, a little of its early history must be told.


Until the early 1850s, the route to the shores of Lake Huron was little more than a foot-worn portage path between waterways. Originally Native trails, these portage routes were adopted by lumbermen and traders carrying canoes and supplies from river to lake. In fact, until well into the middle of the 19th century, waterways remained the chief travel routes for the largely unsettled lands of Upper Canada.


In the early days, roadways were just packed mud tracks, flooded in places where marshland persisted, and pocked with huge tree stumps, boulders and any other natural protrusion that blocked the road in zig zag fashion. Road building itself makes for incredible reading—the crudest of equipment was employed: axes and wooden levers made from saplings or tree branches, teams of oxen and the brute strength of many determined men. In spite of such efforts, the state of roadways of the day was sorry indeed. Overland travel was reserved mainly for mid-winter, when the long blades of a sleigh could traverse the snow-packed pathways, or mid-summer, when travelling was done on horseback.


By 1832, while Collingwood was still submerged in swamp, the thriving centre of commerce and local government for Simcoe County had been established at Scotch Corners (today’s Duntroon).


In 1845, five families settled in a place they named Hurontario Mills, after Hurontario Street, the major trade route to the colonized south, which pre-existed the settlement. This in itself was remarkable since most roads were opened up as a result of settlement and not in advance of it.


Hurontario Mills started as a clutch of homes huddled around a grist mill and sawmill built by two enterprising pioneers, McGlashan and Connell, at the mouth of the Pretty River. The “new village”, distinguished from the bustling “old village” of Nottawa, lay east of Hurontario Street, and its central thoroughfare was Raglan Street. This is where the first shops and businesses were established. The major highways to the east and west were Lake Shore Road (now Hwy. 26) and Mountain Rd.; both were originally mail roads, following the course of old portage trails.


Around 1853, an American lumberman by the name of Joel Underwood purchased the sawmill and built his home west of Hurontario Mills, beside the creek between Oak and Birch streets. Underwood was an astute businessman, and when Collingwood became the terminus of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway in 1853, he purchased most of the land that lay west of Hurontario Street, which he subsequently sold off in lots when the town began to fill up with eager settlers.


Established de facto by the arrival of the railway, the incorporation of the Town of Collingwood followed its settlement, becoming official on January 1, 1858.


The grid of First to Tenth Streets, west of Hurontario, and many of today’s streets between Raglan and High Street can be seen on the earliest map of the town, printed in 1871 by John Hogg, founder of the town’s first newspaper, the Enterprise. Hurontario Street had usurped Raglan as the new central street of downtown. At 100 feet wide, Hurontario Street was exceptional for its time, and soon became populated by stores, hotels and businesses. It is still considered one of the finest main streets in the county. For this we owe a debt to the foresighted William Gibbard, Collingwood’s first land surveyor.


Huron Street, originally a portage trail, predates settlement. Some of the earliest streets east of Hurontario have names of British origin: Victoria, Albert and Wellington Streets. St. Vincent, Simcoe and Ontario Streets also appear on Hogg’s map, and though Erie and Hume Streets are not named on the map, they are shown to be among Collingwood’s oldest streets. West of Hurontario, the lumbermen built their homes, opening up new streets with names that paid homage to the source of their bounty — hence we have the “tree” streets crossing the numbered streets in a neatly ordered pattern on Hogg’s map.


In spite of Mr. Hogg’s impressive map, one new arrival in 1857, Mr. John Nettleton, was shocked to find “no traces of the fine streets…shown on the map…Hurontario street was dotted with stumps, and the houses seemed to be located in a swamp…”. It was not until 1863 that Council ordered removal of rotted stumps that blocked the entrance to the Town Hall, and established a bylaw prohibiting wagons from using the slightly off-kilter boardwalks in front of the main street shops.


Street improvements finally became a priority when the haulage of goods made better roadways a commercial necessity. In 1863, Council appealed to the people in an attempt to raise the enormous sum of $1,000 to effect improvements that would bring the streets of Collingwood, especially Hurontario Street, into a state of repair in keeping with the town’s reputation as a bustling metropolis. Their appeal was voted down.


But in 1864 Council was authorized, by popular vote, to borrow the sum of $1,600 from the County coffers, and long overdue road repairs began. Soon after, the first streetlights appeared, in the form of coal oil lanterns fixed atop wooden posts; these were eventually replaced by incandescent lighting. Spending was approved for a new market square and town offices, and by the late 1880s, a municipally owned waterworks and electricity supply were the pride of Collingwood.


Little by little, privately owned land holdings were subdivided and new streets were created with each expansion. In 1881, the Town of Collingwood occupied a total area of 4,000 acres, with a population estimated at the same number. Truly remarkable for a town barely 25 years old.


Though road building became a chief concern of governments, even into the early 1900s the condition of roads and highways was, by today’s standards, abysmal. Spring flooding made provincial highways impassable. Paved roads were not a consideration until the mid-20th century, when motorized travel made improved road construction a necessity.


Nick Hodson, an artist and Collingwood historian, still recalls when, in the late 40s, Highway 26 to Barrie was only half-paved. The trip from Collingwood to Barrie was a breeze, with solid paving under your car tires, but the trip back was unpaved — just a rough dirt road, with stones and gravel kicked up as you bounced all the way home. It became a habit to drive on the wrong side until a car could be seen ahead coming in the opposite direction. The driver in the wrong lane pulled over to the dirt track while the oncoming car drove on toward Barrie, then resumed driving in the left lane where it was paved.


The next big boom in street development in Collingwood was documented in wartime, when a 1941 federal government project – Wartime Housing Limited – financed the building of 200 new homes between 7th and 9th Streets, extending east to Hurontario and west to Birch Street. The new development was dubbed Victory Village, and the government-financed homes were offered preferentially to returning servicemen and their families.


With increasing development and automobiles becoming commonplace, the first traffic lights in Collingwood were installed in the late 1940s.


In the 1950s, another building boom occurred on 60 acres southwest of town on acreage formerly owned in part by the Smart Bros., starting at Tenth and Oak Streets. About 250 homes were built including a prestigious “24-unit ultra modern apartment building”, and government-assisted and seniors’ residences, all of which were occupied by 1965.


Home mail delivery started in 1950, but even into the 60s, street signage had not been consistently undertaken and even into the 60s, street signs were non-existent or barely legible, making mail delivery and navigation for the fire brigade a challenge. The little-known story of how the streets were decked out with new signs in 1962 is especially intriguing.


Ronald Brock (former School Board Chairman and former VP of the Chamber of Commerce) heard about a heap of new street signs that had been sitting idle in one of the Works buildings; no one seemed to know where they’d come from or what was to be done with them. In typical pioneering fashion, Brock, with his sons Doug, aged 12 and Bill, aged 9, set to work. The signs needed a good cleaning and paint touch-ups before they could go up. Ron spent half the winter of 1961 getting them ready. Town Council agreed to cover the purchase price of wooden posts, and Ron himself paid the boys 10 cents apiece to paint them, “just to keep their interest up.” After sorting out the correct locations for each sign and marking them on maps he’d copied, Ron ran a newspaper announcement for three weeks, calling all able bodies to come out, “bring your round-mouth shovel” and help raise the new signs.


To Ron’s surprise, nearly 40 volunteers showed up on the appointed day. By 6 p.m. every sign on the map was erected, with only one mistake — the sign marking the corner of Minnesota and Hume proved particularly embarrassing for Ron; he lived on Minnesota!

Those street signs have since been replaced several times, but the story remains one of Collingwood’s tastiest historical tidbits.


During the 60s, the names of notable citizens were adopted for new streets, among them Gibbard, Campbell, and Telfer to name just a few. Today, naming of the streets is done by a committee of town staff. For private roads, developers may submit suggestions for township approval. Currently, municipal roads are being named in honour of past mayors; once this list is exhausted, the names of prominent citizens from the town’s history may once again provide inspiration.


So we return to the first musings that led to this jaunt through history, to the names of the trees that now inhabit everyday speech in Collingwood. The Board of Trade’s Annual Report of 1894, written by retiring President John J. Long, Esq, contains an impressive compilation of the early history of the town and its commerce, trade, and cultural life as it existed at the time. In its inspired pages we find this venerate passage, an ode to the industrious pioneers who built this town and to: “…the lofty elm…the vigorous maple, the Beau Brummel beech, the dainty balsam, the fragrant cedar, the birdie decked birch and the occasional giant pine, with its crown of emerald. Stood side by side in unconscious dignity…when the pioneers of “The Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway” first arrived to “spy” out the land and see [about] making this point the Northern terminus of their road.”


Thanks to the lumbermen, thanks to the railway, thanks to hardy men and women of vision, we are proud to call Collingwood home.



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