September 13, 2022
Corson's Siding School House, 1936-37
Captain William Henry Corson was a sailing captain based out of Hamilton. He made a living carrying freight on Lake Ontario in the 1860s. But the age of sail was waning as the age of steam was advancing. Capt. Corson saw the writing on the wall, sold his sailing ship and moved to Bexley Township. In the 1860s, the lumber industry was in full swing, and this entrepreneur decided to make his fortune in the newly opened township of Bexley along the north shore of Balsam Lake.
He acquired a large block of land between the Laidlaw Estate and Coboconk. He cleared land and started a large farming operation he called ‘Plenty Full Hill.’ But the real wealth lay in timber, and Capt. Corson opened a saw mill on Raven Lake. Here he cut railway ties for the newly built Toronto-Nipissing Railway. The railway built a siding for the loading of Corson’s products, and hence the name Corson’s Siding. Corson also had a contract with Gooderham & Worts Distilleries in Toronto to supply charcoal, used to filter whiskey. The hardwood in this part of Bexley was sold as cordwood (firewood) in the Toronto market, hence Capt. Corson was nicknamed the ‘Cordwood King of Toronto.’
A number of settlers moved to Corson’s Siding to work in Corson’s businesses. A scarcity of workers seemed to be a problem for the Corson enterprises, so the former captain imported a group of lake sailors for the winter to cut cordwood. These transients worked through the off season and went back to the ships in the spring. They lived in temporary shanties and brought their ‘customs’ with them. These customs included lots of whiskey and ‘lady friends.’ Their boisterous lifestyle scandalized many of the locals and the Siding developed the nickname ‘Hell’s Half Acre.’ The name didn’t really do justice to the settlement. Most of the residents were not involved in these scandalous activities. In fact, one of the few surviving structures in the ghost hamlet is the Gospel Church!
As the hamlet prospered, a railway station was built, a post office set up, a school opened and several businesses started. The post office was located in the house of a Mrs. Decator. A large hotel-boarding house catered to locals and the railway travellers. Originally school children attended the Lakeshore School (SS # 7 Bexley). But so many new residents arrived in the 1870s, a new school section (SS # 8 Bexley) was set up (1875). The school was closed in 1941. It appears there were no students for the next year.
Captain Corson was famous as a businessman for his bad luck. In 1888 a forest fire wiped out his sawmill, 17 farm buildings and the school house. Evidently the fire started in his charcoal kiln! Corson began a lime kiln business near the hamlet. The lime was shipped to Toronto to be used in a process that involved gas lights. The arrival of electric lights ruined the business venture. It seemed everything Corson tried was a failure.
One last chapter was added to the history of Corson’s siding by the Raven Lake Cement Company. In 1902 the above company was chartered to make cement from the marl found at the bottom of Raven Lake. The marl (lime) was dredged from the bottom of the lake and mixed with clay imported (by rail) from Beaverton. There were 4 large, coal-fired kilns that produced up to 700 barrels of cement every day. Raven Lake Portland cement was in high demand on the Canadian market in the fast rising urban centres. To supply electricity to the operation, a dam and power house was built at Elliott’s Falls on the Gull River, a few miles north of Norland. Power lines were strung 13 miles form the Gull River at Norland to the Raven Lake plant. Electricity was also supplied to Norland, Victoria Road and Kirkfield. The Elliott’s Falls power plant was abandoned in the 1930s after the cement plant was long gone and Ontario Hydro took over electricity delivery. But in the 1990s, the plant was refurbished and operates to this very day.
The Raven Lake Cement plant ran for 10 years (1904-1914). Its brand name was well known all over southern Ontario. In 1914, a free trade deal was signed with the USA that included cement. Cheap American cement flooded the Canadian market and the Raven Lake Company went bankrupt. The buildings were abandoned, the equipment sold to other companies and the steel beams were sent to Haliburton for a hockey arena. Only the skeleton of the complex remained. The Raven Lake closing was the last blow to the Corson’s Siding community. Eventually it dissolved as the railway was cancelled (1960s) and the community buildings disappeared. The neighbouring communities of Bexley, Victoria Road and Head Lake also declined in the same way. All that is left today at Corson’s Siding is the Gospel Church.