July 14, 2023
A postcard of Lindsay Grand Trunk Railway Station, postmark 1910
By Guy Scott
Lindsay is the county seat for Victoria County and the closest shopping centre or ‘big town’ for the Kinmount area. The town of Lindsay grew up around a small rapid on the Scugog River just before it joined Sturgeon Lake. The local Mississaugas called the site Onigahning, translating to the portage. In 1821, the paper township of Ops was surveyed and opened for settlement. The surveyor was paid in land, and since he got to pick his property, took 1800 acres of choice farmland. Settlement was slow due to its isolation and the first settler didn’t arrive until 1825. To ‘encourage’ settlement, the Government of Upper Canada contracted with the Purdy Family to build a mill at the ‘portage’ on the Scugog. (The Scugog River is so flat or level, this was the only rapids on the whole river.) The Purdys built a 10’ dam (more about this dam later) and a combined saw/grist mill by 1827 and Purdy’s Mills was founded.
Purdy’s Mills was a success. Settlers came from all over the area to get their grain ground into flour. The cost was 1/12 of the total grist. Since there were not real roads, settlers came by boat or simply carried their grain on their backs. Pioneer women (some as young as 15 years old) often carried sacks of grain 15 miles or more from Eldon Township to Purdy’s Mills. So popular was the mill, the patrons often waited 2-3 days for their turn. Of course this created a demand for inns and hotels as well as stores, and a small village grew up around the mills.
In 1834, another surveyor was brought in to block out the street grid for the growing settlement. The modern village core of 800 acres was surveyed into lots. Kent, Lindsay, Angeline and Victoria Streets were laid out. Many streets were named after English Royalty or politicians of the day. Of course, the town has grown quite a bit in area since 1834. The government clearly believed Purdy’s Mills was destined for bigger things, because they reserved 6 acres in the downtown core as the Queen’s Square for public buildings. Today this includes the armoury, library, old tall hall, etc. During the survey, one of the crew named Lindsay was accidentally wounded by a gun shot. Infection set in, the surveyor died and was buried on the river bank near the present Legion. The new village was named Lindsay in his memory.
The new village did not grow very fast. Kent Street was a swamp for years. Most settlement clustered along the Scugog River in the old Purdy Tract. The population was a mere 300 in the 1851 census. The biggest industries revolved around lumbering and the outlet to the Trent Canal was a big advantage. And then Ontario entered the Railway Age. Cobourg and Port Hope, two ports on Lake Ontario, began to eye the hinterland as a source of economic wealth. Cobourg commissioned a line to Peterborough and Port Hope to Lindsay. Unfortunately, the barrier of Rice Lake ruined the Cobourg-Peterborough plan. Port Hope on the other hand, had a clear path north to Lindsay and by 1857 the first of many railways reached the sleepy little hamlet. Lindsay boomed after the railway arrived. The population soared to 1,000 and in 1857 the village was incorporated as the Town of Lindsay. When Victoria County formed in 1861, Lindsay was the obvious spot for the County Seat, with its courts, gaol, county buildings, etc. Within a decade Lindsay was the largest local urban centre, and for a few decades even outgrew its eastern rival, Peterborough. Both centres had water access via the Trent Canal. But Lindsay enjoyed an advantage in railway links. By 1921, Lindsay had 8 lines entering the town with 27 trains per day. One of these lines was the Victoria Railway, serving the back townships of Victoria and Haliburton County. Rural residents could catch the train to Lindsay and thence make connections with the outside world. You could leave Kinmount in the morning and be in Toronto by dark, not to bad, even by today’s standards.
This transportation hub kick-started an industrial sector in the town. Relying on the twin pillars of lumbering and farming, Lindsay became an industrial centre in the late 1800s. The town boasted at least 16 wood-based industries, running the gamut from sawn lumber to ax handles. Local farmers found a steady market in the town. The old Purdy Grist Mill was enlarged to produce 600 bags of flour an hour. Kent Street was lined with prosperous three storey stores that attracted shoppers from the surrounding townships. Elaborate town mansions lined the surrounding streets. Lindsay became a shopping hub for the local communities, and still fulfills that role today.
Over the years, the lumber and farm industries declined. Thanks to its railway link, the town still managed to attract industry such as Union Carbide, and textile and metal working factories. But over the years, the manufacturing centre declined and the growth stagnated. Peterborough outgrew its western rival. In a final trick of fate, the railways began to disappear as road travel grew. By 2000, Lindsay, once the Railway Capital of Central Ontario, didn’t have a single railway line.
Today’s Lindsay still serves as a centre for the surrounding area. It has local government services (including the jail), a hospital, a community college, and a large retail sector. Lindsay is still the county seat for the new City of Kawartha Lakes (old Victoria County under a new name). It current population is approximately 20,000, which still makes it the largest community in the area by far.