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September 10, 2023

H.R. Oakman Aerial of Peterborough Looking North

By Guy Scott

Of all the settlements in our catchment area, Peterborough City is by far the largest and the only city. From the very beginning of its existence, the site was destined to become a major centre. The city stood at the head of navigation or boat traffic on the Otonabee River and Rice Lake. There was a portage from Peterborough 8 miles overland to Bridgenorth on Mud (Chemong) Lake. This portage trail (now Chemong Road) avoided the numerous waterfalls between Peterborough and Lakefield and cut off 75 miles of paddling on the Trent Water route. The site also contained a major waterfall very suitable for a mill site and accessible from Rice Lake. The pioneer trail from Port Hope or Cobourg led overland from Lake Ontario to Gore’s Landing (Harwood) on Rice Lake: a mere 8 miles of travel. From Gore’s Landing, called Peterborough’s ‘port,’ water access was easy to Peterborough townsite.

The first settler, Adam Scott, arrived in 1819 on a scouting mission intent on setting up a mill at Peterborough. Previously, a group of English immigrants had settled along Chemong or Communication Road in 1818. Scott’s mill was operating by 1821 and was not actually on the Otonabee (too massive a job to build on this major river), but on Jackson’s Creek. This very primitive saw/grist mill cemented Peterborough’s role as a major centre. The plains were named “Scott’s Plains” and had a population of 10 or so: The Scott family and employees until the Peter Robinson Emigration of 1825. In that year, over 2,000 destitute Irish settlers under the direction of Peter Robinson arrived at Peterborough. The settlers were sponsored by the government of Upper Canada and were allocated farmland in the surrounding townships. The scheme was well organized thanks to Robinson, and the new arrivals were provided with tools and food for one year. Scott’s Plains was their ‘shopping centre’ and support network, and the government began to construct buildings to serve as offices, storehouses, staff accommodations, etc. The townsite was surveyed into building lots, a new mill was built to replace the totally inadequate Scott mill and a new name was selected: Peterborough in honour of Peter Robinson.

The sudden surge in settlement led to the growth of Peterborough as a shopping centre, industrial complex, transportation hub and administrative centre for the local townships: roles it still fits today. But the village remained isolated and difficult to access until the age of railways and improved roads. The lakes (especially Rice Lake) blocked access from the south, and the Trent canal was still in the future. For 80 years, planners envisioned the Trent Canal as the major transportation link to the outside world, but in reality, the watershed was blocked by numerous waterfalls and was not actually completed until the 1920s! Until the advent of the iron horse (1850s), the economy of Peterborough City was still the hub. The arrival of the railways led to a boom in industry in the city. Quaker Oats had a huge mill in the town and numerous lumber mills dotted the banks of the Otonabee River. By 1867, the city boasted numerous flour mills, woollen mills, tanneries, breweries and dozens of mills making wooden products such as carriages, handles, shingles, farm equipment, furniture, pumps, etc. Most of these manufactures were destined for export; and most were shipped out on the several railway lines that linked Peterborough to the outside world. In 1866, the sawmills in the county exported over 50,000,000 board feet of sawn lumber alone!

The first and most famous of these railways was the doomed Peterborough-Cobourg Railway, nicknamed the Rice Lake Railway. When this engineering marvel failed, rival outlet Port Hope took the lead and built a line to service both Peterborough and Lindsay. Soon major industries such as Edison General Electric and Johnson Motor/Outboard Marine were operating out of the new industrial centre. Another famous factory was the Peterborough Canoe Company which tapped into legendary local artisans to produce the world famous Peterborough Canoe. By 1930, 25% of all boat craftsmen across Canada worked out of Peterborough!

Peterborough City became the ‘county town’ of the new Colborne District of Upper Canada in 1841. By that date enough settlers had flooded in to allow for separation from Durham. The new district included all of future Peterborough, Victoria and Haliburton Counties. By 1861, Victoria County had acquired enough settlers to form its own county, and by 1874 the 20 northern townships also flew the coop and became the Provisional County of Haliburton. Despite these losses, Peterborough City still maintained its hold as the city for the entire area.

Peterborough was incorporated in 1850 with a population of 2,100. The arrival of the Railway Age boosted the city to 7,000 by 1881. Since then the population has steadily increased until it stood at 79,000 in 2011. The original townsite of Peterborough was part of North Monaghan Township until 1850. The first town covered a very small area of what is now downtown Peterborough. As the city grew, it annexed sections of North Monaghan to the point where this township virtually ceased to exist. Ashburnham, the settlement on the east bank of the Otonabee River, was a separate town until it too was annexed in 1904. Numerous chunks of Smith Township to the north are also part of modern Peterborough.

Being a ‘regional centre,’ the City of Peterborough built up a large government and service sector. It has become a health services centre. Originally, the city contained two hospitals: Civic and St. Joseph’s. The latter was closed and a huge new structure added to Civic Hospital to serve a large local area. Peterborough is home to two major post-secondary educational facilities. Trent University opened its doors in 1964 and currently has approximately 12,500 students. Sir Sandford Fleming College began in 1967. Since then it has branched out with satellite campuses in Lindsay and Haliburton. Approximately 16,000 full and part time students attend each year. It is home to CHEX TV, as well as the Peterborough Petes (Junior A), Kawartha Downs (horse race track) and Riverview Zoo.

The Peterborough area has historically been home to many literary and cultural figures. Among the first settlers in the area (early 1800s) were such famous writers as Catherine Parr Traill, Samuel Strickland, Susannah Moodie and John & (his sister) Anne Langton. The early history of Peterborough has been well documented by these early settlers and many more.

Today Peterborough is still a vibrant local centre for east central Ontario. It is the mecca for a large surrounding area. It is still an industrial city, but much of the growth lately is outside the old-fashioned manufacturing sector.

Peterborough’s Top Employers (2013)

Peterborough Regional Health Centre     2075

Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board     2050

General Electric     1450

City of Peterborough     1267

Fleming College     1100

Ministry of Natural Resources     895

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