July 4, 2023
Bridgenorth from the Air, 2021
By Guy Scott
The village of Bridgenorth is located on the south shore of Chemong (or Mud) Lake about 6 miles north of Peterborough. The site was a portage place on the Trent River system. Natives canoeing through the Kawartha Lakes could save 55 miles off their journey by portaging from Bridgenorth to Peterborough. Champlain recorded the Bridgenorth portage in his 1615 expedition to make war on the Iroquois. Even carrying canoes overland for 6 miles was easier than paddling the longer route through Burleigh Falls and Lakefield! A site at Bridgenorth is named “Champlain’s Rest” in honour of the explorer. Local legend maintains Champlain and the Huron war party camped here for a month until the lakes froze over and they could snowshoe back to Huronia on the ice. But this legend does not make sense: Bridgenorth is too close to Huronia to halt the war party for a whole month. They could easily walk to Orillia in 3 or 4 days from here!
The village site was purchased by a speculator by the name of Ward in 1822. Ward, a prominent resident of Cobourg, smelled profit for the old portage site. He surveyed the village site into 129 lots and put them up for sale. Big things were expected of Bridgenorth. It was still a major ‘port’ for traffic until the section from Burleigh Falls to Peterborough was completed in the 1890s. Steamboats could reach Bobcaygeon, Lindsay and Fenelon Falls by lock from Bridgenorth. Early settlers poured into Ennismore, Harvey and points further north through Bridgenorth. A ferry was built to service to Ennismore. This ferry was later replaced with a floating bridge and later causeway, further cementing Bridgenorth as a travel hub. Optimistic citizens dubbed Bridgenorth as the ‘Centre of the Universe.’
Chemong Lake was originally called Mud Lake for obvious reasons. It was shallow and muddy, until the dam at Buckhorn raised the water level as much as 10 feet in the 1830s. Local Mississaugas frequented Bridgenorth, likely because of the portage, until they moved to the other side of the lake and formed the Curve Lake reserve in the 1830s. The old Portage Road was improved for wheeled transport and renamed Communication Road. The plan to continue the Road on to Bobcaygeon and points north would require some sort of bridge over Chemong Lake and thus the name Bridge North was coined.
But geography dealt the community some bad cards. The situation on the Kawartha Lakes meant travel flowed around Bridgenorth: through Lindsay and Bobcaygeon to the west and Lakefield and Burleigh Falls to the east. That darn Mud (Chemong) Lake kept getting in the way. Early plans to build a road and a railway from Bridgenorth north failed to materialize because better routes were available including the railway through Kinmount to the destination of Haliburton Village. When the steamboat age ended in the early 1900s, Bridgenorth stagnated as a transportation centre.
But the village did continue to exploit its water advantages. Lumbering became the mainstay of the village with sawmills dotting the waterfront. Logs could easily be floated into the village. And the tranquil shores of Chemong Lake began to attract summer tourists. Lodges chequered the shoreline, and eventually individual cottages were built along the waterfront. The Chemong Regatta became locally famous. Fishermen and hunters raved about the area. From a slow start, Bridgenorth began to flourish as a tourism destination. In 1838, the disappointed Ward tried to sell his Bridgenorth holdings to no avail. As late as 1855, 98 of the 129 lots were still unsold. But as tourism developed, so did the village. A business section grew up. The completion of the Causeway helped as well: no more death-defying trips over the old floating causeway! The village gradually developed as a bedroom community for the growing City of Peterborough and then a retirement community on the valuable Trent Canal. Today, Bridgenorth boasts over 2,000 residents, strung out in a narrow band along the shore of Chemong Lake.