The Bobcaygeon Road: Artery of a Community
December 1, 2022
The Main Street of Kinmount, AKA the Bobcaygeon Road in ordinary times, c 1920
By Guy Scott
In the beginning was the Bobcaygeon Road. No statement could be truer about the early history of Kinmount. This muddy, narrow trail, ribboning through the dense forests totally dominated the early history of Kinmount and indeed other communities along its course. It was Kinmount’s one and only contact with the rest of the world. The Burnt River would cut diagonally through the area, but was unnavigable due to a variety of spectacular falls and rapids. It might be a good highway for logs moving south, but otherwise was only a source of recreation. Everything else coming to or going from Kinmount moved along the Road. Early settlers clustered along the Road. New arrivals plodded their way north in search of their fortunes. Disappointed pioneers left the area down its straight course.
There was some early debate over the course the Road was to follow. In 1855, the counties of Peterborough and Victoria were united in one municipality with Peterborough as the county seat. Bobcaygeon was an obvious site for the start of this new colonization road. It was located smack-dab on the Kawartha Lakes system. It could be easily reached by water from Both Lindsay and Peterborough. It was located right on the Victoria-Peterborough County line. Any road north from this point would open townships in both counties. Since Somerville Township was already surveyed, its eastern boundary was a convenient starting line for the Road. There were alternative starting points. Buckhorn was given consideration but the area beyond was extremely rough and unpromising. Fenelon Falls was another likely site. But this village was too far from the county seat of Peterborough. Fenelon Falls eventually had its own colonization road, the Cameron Road. Bobcaygeon was Peterborough’s choice as an outlet to the back townships, and in the 1850s, Peterborough called the shots.
The Road was an instrument of government policy. It was designed to open up a section of the Ottawa-Huron Tract for settlement and it was successful in this mission. Without the Bobcaygeon Road, the history of the Kinmount area might have been radically different. The Bobcaygeon Road, as it was originally designed, was to run from Port Hope on Lake Ontario to North Bay. The route from Port Hope to Bobcaygeon was largely a series of local roads and trails and not really a colonization road. This section was considered to be in place by 1856. The route from Bobcaygeon to North Bay was to be a true colonization road. The eventual line of the Bobcaygeon Road marched as straight as possible north between the townships of Harvey and Verulam, Galway and Somerville, Snowdon and Lutterworth, Minden and Anson, Stanhope and Hindon, Sherborne and Ridout, McClintock and Franklin. A few variations were made for local obstacles such as lakes and rivers, but as a whole, the Road marched as majestically straight as a Roman Legionary Road. Some of the old route is still part of Ontario’s fine system of highways today. Highways 649 and 121 between Kinmount and Bobcaygeon follow the original route as does 121 north of Kinmount to Minden. From Minden the old road ran through the village, across the bridge and straight north; a route still called the Bobcaygeon Road even though it is not a highway. North from Minden it skirted to the west of Boshkung Lake, before rejoining today’s Highway #35 at Kushog Lake. In the 1930s, the course of the route north—now Highway #35—was altered to run east of Boshkung Lake via Carnarvon and Hall’s Lake. A few sections of the old road may still be seen east of the present highway. The old road can be seen at the 6 Mile Turn or junction of Highways 121 and 649 running straight ahead over the hill. The original route is still much in use today.
Construction on the Road began on October 16, 1856. Tenders had been called and private contracts signed. This was the early method of road construction. Unfortunately, this system had its drawbacks. Contractors often bid to low and were forced to default on their contracts. In the interests of turning a bigger profit, some operators cut corners producing inferior work unsuitable for a colonization road. Many contractors also failed to complete their agreement in the time allotted. Finally, frustrated by the shortcomings of the tender system, the government of Canada West finally took charge and built the roads themselves through the Department of Agriculture. Later such roads as the Monck Road were built by government appointed agents; therefore, the system must have been in place by 1870. However, the section of the Bobcaygeon Colonization Road covered by this book was built on the private tender system.
Two such tenders can be studied to give the modern reader an idea of how much these colonization roads cost. The following are tenders submitted for a section of the Bobcaygeon Road in 1860. Since the Road was completed to Kinmount by the fall of 1858 and Minden one year later, the bids must have been on a section of the Road north of Minden. John Hunter, the first bidder, was by this time a leading resident of Kinmount. The other bidder, a MacMahon, was a Bobcaygeon contractor. The bids were as follows:
Chopping and clearing per mile: $80
Crosswaying per rod: $1.25
Grubbing per rod: $120
Levelling per mile: $80
Cutting hills per yard: $0.10
Brushing crossways per rod: $0.50
Excavation of rock per yard: $1.25
Chopping and clearing per mile: $75
Crosswaying per rod: $1.50
Grubbing per rod: $80
Levelling per mile: $80
Cutting hills per yard: $0.10
Brushing crossways per rod: —
Excavation of rock per yard: $1.00
As you can see, MacMahon underbid Hunter on major items such as chopping, grubbing and excavating rock. Perhaps John Hunter was more familiar with the rugged nature of the local topography and hence more realistic in his bid. These bids reveal that grubbing out the stumps was the costliest and most time consuming task. Crosswaying or making corduroy over swamps must have been difficult. Some of the deep swamps along the road must have taken quite a lot of corduroy to bridge. While allowances were made for “cutting hills” and “excavation of rock” these two operations were kept to a minimum. The grades and rock cuts along today’s highways are much more extensive than the original works. Lack of technology and machinery made many rock cuts difficult, if not impossible. Expense was another factor. As was time. Better to cut the trail and open it first and worry about the fine points later. Such was the case along the Road just south of Minden. The Road was pushed at such a sharp grade down Scott’s Hill, a very steep drop of over one hundred feet. This natural obstacle remained a hazard on the Road for six years until a bypass was arranged around the hill.
The Bobcaygeon Road was to be built to government standards. It was to be slashed to the full sixty-six foot width of the road allowance. Twenty-four feet was to be cleared of timber and stones. Obviously the stumps could be left to rot with age on this strip. The centre or actual road was to be ten feet wide grubbed and levelled. The methods used were primitive by today’s standards. Teams of oxen and/or horses were available to move logs. Horse-drawn scrapers or graders were also available to level and grade. Otherwise, everything was done with hand tools. A plough could be used to make ditches, but pick and shovel were the most common mechanical device. Wheelbarrows were used to move dirt where necessary and crowbars were used on rocks and stumps. It must have taken a lot of men many days to construct the Road, yet progress seemed to be steady. One fact should be kept in mind: the Bobcaygeon Road of 1857-8 would not pass today’s standards for roads. It could hardly be called an all-season or all-weather road and constant maintenance and rebuilding were necessary to keep it open.
A certain procedure or order of construction was followed. First the right of way was slashed and cleared. Stumps were grubbed or removed as well as any rocks present. Once the right of way was slashed and grubbed, it could be used as a ‘winter road.’ This meant that it was open to sleighs when sufficient snow had fallen to provide a good surface. Special projects or sections were often prepared separately. Corduroy had to be laid before grading and levelling. Bridges were also started before the Road reached the site. The Kinmount bridge was being built in March 1858, while the Road itself was only open to the Galway Road corner. Culverts were favoured over bridges if possible. But major bridges were still necessary over the Union Creek, Burnt River, and Gull River. A description of the first bridge over the Burnt River at Kinmount runs thus:
Burnt River is spanned by a wooden bridge standing firm at the present time. Queen posts and straining beams support the roadway. There are log end abutments and two intermediate piers with their cutwaters sidelong the current.
The original bridge stood at the exact site of the present bridge.
Work on the Bobcaygeon Road officially began on October 16, 1856. Likely, a trail or winter road was opened at least partway up the Verulam-Harvey section prior to this date. On March 21, 1857, Richard Hughes reported the Road open as far as Lot 9, Galway, a distance of nine miles. By November 1 of the same year, the Road was completed as far as Lot 22, Galway, or approximately the Union Creek. January 1858 saw the head of the Road reach the Galway Road corner while a winter road was open to Kinmount village. In March 1858, Mossom Boyd visited the camp of men working on the Kinmount bridge. The camp was located on Lot 42, Concession A, Galway, near the corner of Lot 43, or approximately the site of the Kinmount Legion. By September 1858, the Road was open to wheeled traffic one mile north of Kinmount. Construction advanced twenty miles in two years or an average of ten miles a year. By the summer of 1859, the long awaited Road reached the Gull River at Minden.
Local residents were so ecstatic that they threw a party that lasted five days and four nights! Now there was a community that knew how to show appreciation! Their optimism was well founded for Minden, like Kinmount flourished after the arrival of the Bobcaygeon Road. By the end of 1859, the Road had advanced eight miles north of Minden. By 1863 the Bobcaygeon Road reached the Oxtongue River in the north-western corner of Haliburton County, roughly in the vicinity of Dwight. North of Peterson’s Corners in Stanhope, the land was poor and attracted few settlers. The section from Dorset north to Dwight, was soon abandoned for lack of use. The plan to extend the road through to North Bay was abandoned and Dorset became the Northern terminus of the Road.
The Bobcaygeon Colonization Road quickly became a major artery of transportation and commerce. Real settlement followed the Road. Pioneers might push beyond the actual construction to locate their lots, but their belongings, equipment, and families could only be cadged in when the Road was ready. The condition of the Road itself varied greatly. The free grants of land along the route were given on condition that the new settlers performed statutory labour on the Road. The usual rate was two days per year for every one hundred acres. This worked only where there were settlers and isolated sections tended to be in constant bad repair. Every few years a major overhaul at government expense was necessary. Such an operation was organized by Crown Lands agent William Hartle in 1875, on the section of Road from Kinmount to Kinden. Me left the following list of repairs:
6 ½ miles graded
1 mile hill graded with broken stone
1 ½ mile crossway covered (but not permanent)
1 large bridge repaired (Pierson’s Creek)
3 very large stone culverts replaced
14 rods new crossway
1 mile ditching
11 miles of road worked on
The work gang of nineteen men were locals earning some extra cash. The entire cost of the operation was $433.27, a bargain by today’s rates.
Since asphalt and crushed gravel were not used, the surface of the Bobcaygeon Road was very susceptible to weather conditions. Mud in the spring and fall turned the Road into a quagmire and often rendered it impassable. The only method of public transport, the daily stagecoach, was not always ‘daily’ in bad weather. Mr. Alex Niven, reeve of Dysart, returning from a council meeting in Peterborough one spring, arrived as far as Union Creek by stage when mud halted all wheeled traffic. Evidently, this was a common experience, for he thought it not unusual to continue by foot to Haliburton. Walking was still the most reliable means of transport. Another story about the Bobcaygeon Road comes from the Rocky Mountains. One day a group of stagecoach drivers and teamsters were discussing the horrendous condition of the roads through the Rocky Mountains. One disgusted driver exclaimed, ‘Have you ever seen a road in worse shape?’ Another teamster, obviously a local expatriate, calmly replied, ‘You’ve never driven the Bobcaygeon Road.” The Road was unofficially closed during the height of winter. Snow, especially drifts, would clog the road, making it impassable in many spots. Local detour, lumber roads, and later the railway tracks became the only methods of moving around at these times. But regardless of how imperfect, impassible, or perplexing the condition of the Bobcaygeon Road was, it was all the early settlers had. It was better than nothing.
The Bobcaygeon Road was a boon to the lumbermen. In fact, without this road, lumbering could never have existed on the scale it did in this area. An average lumber shanty required at least one hundred wagon loads of supplies for the winter season. It would be virtually impossible to move this volume of supplies up-country by water. The Road was really the only practical method of cadging supplies to the north country until the railroad arrived. In any one year between fifteen and thirty shanties were operating in areas serviced by the Road and this made for quite a bit of traffic. Since the shanties were stocked up in the fall—October, November—all this cadging occurred when the road was very susceptible to poor weather conditions, or more precisely, mud. Numerous complaints were lodged that the lumbermen were tearing up the roads. In defence of the group, it might be said they paid taxes like everyone else, and therefore had the right to use the public roads. Also, from time to time, the lumbermen would pitch in and repair the roads at their own expense. Impassable roads hurt them as much or more than any other group.
With the Road, a new industry sprang up in the area. Cadging, teaming or transporting goods by wagon or sleigh became a lucrative source of revenue for many local settlers. Oxen could be used in a pinch, but a good team of draught horses was the first prerequisite for a teamster. The census of 1861 lists several ‘teamsters’ in the area, and many farmers earned extra cash in this manner. Before the railway, everything from soup to nuts had to arrive in Kinmount by wagon or sleigh. The lumbermen were always hiring teamsters. The government road crews had their supplies cadged in. The local merchants were totally dependent on horse and wagon transport. The sleighing season was the favourite time to use the Road, but not everything waited for winter. The Bobcaygeon Road was no doubt impassable for several weeks in the fall before freeze up and in the spring after break-up, but allowances had to be made for these factors. In 1870, John Hunter was paid $3.00 a day—two trips—to cadge supplies from Kinmount to the Monck Road crew at Devil’s Creek—Irondale. It was a lucrative business built on that key artery: the Bobcaygeon Road.
Travel on the Bobcaygeon Road also gave rise to another industry: hotels and inns. Richard Hughes politely refers to them as ‘houses of entertainment.’ In his 1861 report he mentions there were ten such institutions situated along the Road, between five and ten miles apart. Since Bobcaygeon was more than a thirty minute jaunt from Kinmount in the 1860s, several inns were necessary along the route. Three were situated in the Silver Lake area: one on the Somerville side operated by the Coulters and two on the Galway side owned by Thomas Probert and Thomas White. Bill Dunbar had a roadhouse at Union Creek. The next stop was at Kinmount where the two early hotel-keepers were Ralph Switzer and Thomas Baker. John Hunter may also have operated an inn giving Kinmount three such houses in 1861. Five miles north of Kinmount was the Springhill Hotel on Lot 15 on the Lutterworth side. It was originally built by Edward Harvey but later sold to Douglas Kellett. The next stop north was Minden where there were at least two hotels by 1861. Further north was one such establishment, likely at Peterson’s Corners, near the Road’s end. These ‘houses of entertainment’ provided board and lodging for men and beast. They also provided for the sale of intoxicating spirits both to travellers and local residents. A liquor licence was necessary, but they were not hard to acquire.
The only form of public transport available was the daily stagecoach. The stage left Bobcaygeon every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 12 noon and arrived in Minden at 6 pm. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday it reversed the roles and left Minden for Bobcaygeon, departing at 6 am and arriving at 12 noon. The scheduled six hour trip covered thirty miles, an average speed of five miles an hour. This was not bad time, considering it was a horse drawn vehicle operating under less than perfect road conditions. Late arrivals were probably common. For days or even weeks, the stage might be stopped by mud or bad weather. Heavy snow also spelled the end of stage service, isolating the northern settlements during the dead of winter. The daily stage carried the mail to the northern post offices, giving them regular mail delivery as early as the 1860s. Passengers were accommodated at ‘reasonable fares’ but parcels were carried on the rooftop racks at ‘the owner’s risk unless booked and paid for.’ Many early residents, visitors and settlers must have journeyed back and forth between the back townships and the ‘centres’ such as Bobcaygeon, Lindsay and Peterborough on the Royal Mail Stage. Some early stages were operated by W. Snowdon of Bobcaygeon and Bryan Gunigale of Lindsay. The stage to Kinmount and Minden was discontinued after the arrival of the railway and was replaced by a local Minden-Kinmount mail run. Joseph Bowie ran the stage between Kinmount and Minden in the late 1870s and 1880s.
The Bobcaygeon Road enjoyed its heyday in the 1860s and early 1870s. Thousands of settlers must have travelled its muddy paths. It fed not only the Kinmount area but the entire county of Haliburton. Before 1876 it was the only transportation corridor for these new settlements. Between settlers and lumbermen, the road must have seen a lot of traffic. But it might be said the Bobcaygeon road was before its time. In the 1850s technology was not yet ready for the golden age of roads. The invention of the motor-car would see the rebirth of the highway as the major form of transportation. The last half of the nineteenth century was the age of the railways. The Victoria Railway was to conquer the Bobcaygeon Road and push it into the background. The arrival of the iron horse in Kinmount in 1876 reduced the Road from a major artery to a local route, and the Hotels along the Road were abandoned. Communities bypassed by the railway stagnated or declined, while those spots on the iron road prospered. But there is a postscript to the rise and fall of the Bobcaygeon Road. Seventy-five years later, in a different age of technology, the iron horse fell into decline and the Roads revived in importance. Today the railway is gone while ‘the Road’ carries the traffic. History moves in circles.