175 Years of Environmental Change
In 1833, when the first deeded settlers began taking up lots around the upper Kawartha Lakes, they encountered towering maple, basswood and pine forests - sometimes topping 150 feet. About one third of the region was cedar and tamarack swamp. A few beaver meadows wound their way through the forests, and local Mississaugas had campsites at Rosedale, Fenelon Falls, Bobcaygeon, Goose Lake and Hickory Beach. The tame rapids at Rosedale could be ascended by skilled canoeists. Fenelon Falls, on the other hand, was a cascade above a twenty foot ledge. At Bobcaygeon, the rapids in the Big Bob Channel precluded navigation, while Little Bob was an intermittent stream.
The immigrants immediately set about recreating the landscape, imitating the British Isles and certain enlightenment ideals. Surveys organized these townships into grids of rectangular lots and concessions. The first generation began the Herculean task of transforming dense forest into ploughed fields in these arrays, one tree at a time, by axe and flame. Introducing scores of exotic plants and animals, they recreated the ecology of the region around an economy centred on domesticates from the steppes of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. By encouraging such imports, they remade the Kawarthas to more closely resemble those distant locales. What had been forests became a patchwork countryside, with grassland its largest constituent.
At the same time, the waterway became subject to increasing regulation. The 1833 groundbreaking for the Bobcaygeon Lock began nine decades of work to unite the Trent and Severn watersheds and render them navigable for steamboats. In the process, the engineers suppressed seasonal fluctuations of water levels so steamships and millers were guaranteed enough water to operate through the summer. The management of hydrology on land was nearly as pervasive, as farmers and municipal governments oversaw the construction of ditches along township grid lines, ensuring that most land would be well-drained in summer, suited to grassland plants.
On their way to becoming an agricultural landscape, the Kawarthas experienced a golden age of lumbering as hundreds of choppers attacked the virgin forests. Thomas Need and James Wallis built sawmills at Bobcaygeon and Fenelon Falls in the first years of resettlement, then in the second half of the century their operations grew to process lumber by the millions of board feet. By the time these businesses reached their apex, however, lumbermen were floating in timber from further and further north, and it was apparent that the end was in sight. As these ventures waned, new forest industries such as pulp, wood chemicals and barrel making emerged to exploit a greater variety of tree species.
Within two generations of the 1830s migrations, settlers established a markedly different world than the one they had found. The majestic trees were already so scarce that specimens their parents would have burnt as a nuisance were sold for half a month's wages. Beaver meadows were no longer common along local creeks as trapping for fur caused the population to collapse. The long awaited system of locks started to take shape, but the forest industries that had driven nineteenth century shipping diminished in scale after the region was cut over.
In the 1830s, the Kawarthas had been admired for their rugged, natural beauty, and some migrants with artistic sensibilities mourned that progress was tarnishing this treasure. As local residents laboured for generations to remake their world, however, they created a tamer, yet still picturesque, countryside sculpted along softer lines, with charm enough to attract thousands of visitors annually.