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The Development of Burnt River

March 30, 2024

Miss Kellar's class waiting for the last passenger train to pass through Burnt River headed for Haliburton, September 1960.

By Guy Scott

The village of Burnt River lies almost dead centre in Somerville Township. While surveyed in the 1830s, Somerville didn’t receive any settlers until the 1850s. By then, three nodes of settlement were opening: Along the Bobcaygeon Road, up to Kinmount in the east, along the Gull River up to Coboconk in the west and up the Burnt River Valley in the centre. Somerville was never a “Free Grant” Township, meaning that settlers had to buy their lots. Much of the land was already sold to land speculators (such as Abraham Farewell) or lumbermen. Since the townships along the Bobcaygeon Road (such as Galway, Snowdon and Lutterworth) were Free Grant townships, many early settlers avoided Somerville, especially the lots away from the major access points. Settlement proceeded more slowly in the Burnt River vicinity.

Another issue for this area was access. The Burnt River was navigable all the way from Cameron Lake at Rosedale to just north of Burnt River village in Concession 7, but the River was a tortuous, winding waterway, fit only for canoes and small craft. (It’s hard to get a cow in a canoe!) The log drives filled the river for months of the year, and the current was strong. It’s no accident the first name was Rettie’s Crossing, not Rettie’s Landing!

Roads were necessary to allow access and the Burnt River itself was an obstacle. The village of Burnt River grew up along the west side of the River because that’s where the first road (North Line Road) crossed the Burnt River and went north to Kinmount. The closest village was Coboconk and then Fenelon Falls. Kinmount and Bobcaygeon required bridges to go across the Burnt River and nobody wanted to go north by boat!

The Burnt River vicinity never had a major pioneer/colonization road. The Cameron Road ran from Rosedale to Coboconk and was the closest major road. Settlers on the west side could access the Bobcaygeon Colonization Road at Union Creek, but the way was rough. The future Highway #121 ran across Lamb’s Bridge, up the Main Street and across the East Bridge before following the 7th Concession Road allowance to Union Creek on the Bobcaygeon Road. Eventually, a series of forced roads were laid out east of the River, but the Burnt River Bypass between the two bridges was not built until the 1930s. Highway 121 was not designated until the 1950s and was a patchwork of concession roads and forced roads. It does not follow concession lines like older roads, but cuts through lots east of the river. However, today, it is the only highway access to the village from north, south and east. The original pioneer era roads from Coboconk and Baddow remain as secondary access only. The old Fenelon Road north along the River to Kinmount is rarely used. One advantage this area of the township had was a strip of good farmland along the valley of the Burnt River. The Valley contains some of the best agricultural land in the township, a very important asset for pioneer farmers.

The Burnt River valley is about one-mile-wide and is flanked by limestone ledges on both sides that were once the shorelines for an enlarged Burnt River. The land on top of these ledges is often poor farmland: shallow soils set on top of the flat limestone rock. Most of the lots past the ledges were unsuitable for farming, but that didn’t stop pioneer farmers from trying! Many late-comers patented lots on the limestone plateaus. Most were eventually abandoned and turned over to pasture or lumbering. It was worthwhile to pay for property along the River, and the earliest settlers did just that.

Alexander Rettie purchased the north half of lot 14, concession 5 from Farewell in 1864. His lot (lot 14, concession 5) was astride the pioneer road to Coboconk and Fenelon Falls. A bridge across the Burnt River was built on the next lot and called Rettie’s Bridge. In the next few years, other pioneers joined the Retties along the River Valley, including George Sheehey (1864), the Sired Family (1865), the Moffat family (1868), Henry Stainton (1872), Andrew English (1874), James Nichols (1874), William Dodd (1874), William Shuttleworth (1875), Joseph Handley (1875) and James Cain (1875). A post office was established in 1873 with Simon Moore as the first post master. Legend has it the first post office was Rettie’s Station or Rettie’s Crossing, but post records record the name Burnt River was used in 1873. The name Burnt River Crossing was the original name of Kinmount, but when a Post Office was formed there in 1859, the name Kinmount was chosen. There was no identifiable hamlet site or business in the area. The new post office served a small group of struggling pioneer farmers clustered in the valley of the Burnt River. But changes were coming. The iron horse was about to travel up the valley of the Burnt River, and a Hamlet was about to be born.

The Victoria Railway was to run from Lindsay, then a growing railway centre to Haliburton Village and then beyond to reach the Ottawa Valley. The line was designed to tap the prosperity of the ‘back townships’ of Victoria and Peterborough Counties. Colonization Roads had been built to open up this section of Ontario, but the real path to prosperity lay with the iron horse. The Toronto-Nipissing Railway had reached Coboconk in 1872, but had dead ended there. This line ran from Toronto through Uxbridge and Kirkfield to open up western Victoria County. To the residents of the county seat in Lindsay and the communities in the eastern section of the county, this was a sin. Uxbridge was to siphon off the prosperity of large sections of Victoria County and leave Lindsay a backwater.

The Lindsay businessmen decided to take the initiative and run a railway north into the hinterland to forestall the TNR from continuing northeast into the back townships. Thus, the Victoria Railway was planned to run out of Lindsay and serve the back townships. The biggest obstacle was crossing the Kawartha Lakes chain of waterways. There were 3 practical sites: Bobcaygeon, Fenelon Falls and Rosedale. Bobcaygeon refused to grant a bonus to the railway, so it was ruled out. Rosedale was too close to the competing line in Coboconk. But Fenelon Falls was both generous and willing, so the Victoria Railway crossed the lakes at Fenelon Falls. This was a big bonus to residents of the future Burnt River area. Somerville Township had granted $15,000 to the Toronto-Nipissing Railway, despite the fact it didn’t enter the township.

Somerville felt obligated to grant the same sum to the Victoria Line, which ran the full length of the township and had 4 stations within its boundaries. The line was planned to cut across the middle of Somerville Township, hugging the level ground in the Burnt River Valley all the way to Kinmount, and even beyond to Haliburton Village, still on the Burnt River Valley. The Victoria Railway ran north from Fenelon Falls, crossed the Burnt River on the 4th concession and ran right through the middle of the future hamlet of Burnt River.

It is safe to say the Victoria Railway created the hamlet of Burnt River. The railway passed through the area in 1875 and reached Kinmount by the end of 1876. Proper stations were planned along its route at existing villages or hamlets. At intervals between the hamlets, flag stations were created. These were unmanned stops along the line. A flag was placed on a pole by a customer if the train needed to stop. It was stop by demand. Sometimes a siding was built where box cars could be left to be filled with freight. Coming north from Fenelon Falls station, a flag stop was created at Fell’s, near what is today Bury’s Green Road. The next designated stop was at Rettie’s farm, where the existing road to Coboconk and a bridge across the Burnt River were located. The first station was located north of the Rettie Farm between the Coboconk Road and the quarry. A station house and a foreman’s house were constructed along the tracks. Wood products were the big industry at the time, and a large yard was often filled with forest products. Several years later, a fallow fire from the James Nicholls farm grew out of control, swept south and burned out all the station buildings at Rettie’s Crossing. The Victoria Railway decided the site was too rough a moved a mile up the tracks to Lot 12 in the 6th concession and built a new station complex. The name was soon changed to Burnt River.

Settlement began to cluster around the new station in lots 12 and 13 in the 6th and 7th concession. The road between the lots was already part of the Fenelon Road and it became known as “Main Street.” The point where this road intersected with the rail line became the centre of the hamlet. Several businesses were set up in this core. Residences spread up and down the road both north and south of the station. Another bridge (East Line Bridge) was built to allow traffic from Union Creek to reach the hamlet. Eventually, several sawmills were set up in the vicinity of the railway station. A quarry was started along the track. The hamlet of Burnt River was created!

Burnt River station became a full station with a station house, sheds for storing freight, a siding and wood yard to allow for product loading and a station agent and section crew. All the signs of prosperity were present including a thriving passenger service. More settlers flooded into the area after 1875. Industry (sawmills) and businesses slowly sprouted along Main Street, all based on the presence of the railway. Burnt River hamlet never contained a grist mill, an important feature of pioneer hamlets. There were no serviceable mill sites on the Burnt River in the vicinity for grist or sawmills. The earliest farmers had to cadge their grist to Coboconk or north to Kinmount, the closest grist mills. When the railway arrived in 1875, several steam powered sawmills sprang up in the area. Steam engines were a new source of power that were portable, and not tied to water power sites. But even then, the mills were still loosely tied to river access and proximity to the rail line.

The first saw mill was a small set up along the banks of the Burnt River, currently the site of Centennial Park. It was operated by David Nichols, and only employed a few men; likely it sold sawn lumber to the local residents only. The river was filled with a log boom in the summer after the main log drive was over, and local children often crossed the logs as a shortcut to the Burnt River School. This so frightened Mr. Nichols that he built a crude bridge across the River (at his own expense) to prevent a potential tragedy if some student drowned during the log crossing. This bridge benefitted the community greatly, and various bridges have occupied the site to this day. A (cedar) single mill was built along the River on the original Rettie farm to supply roofing shingles. It too was steam powered. One day, Alex Rettie Jr. was having issues with his old steam engine. Frustrated, he decided to hop on the afternoon train and travel to Toronto to purchase a new engine. He didn’t have time to change out of his dirty work clothes, so when he showed up in Toronto, he was arrested for vagrancy due to his dirty appearance. He was hauled before a magistrate who didn’t believe the steam engine story. But when Alex reached into his pocket and produced $3,500 in cash, the story suddenly made sense and he was released. Hobo and new steam engine eventually made it back to Burnt River! The Phillips Mill was located along the Burnt River just north of the East Line Bridge. This Phillips Mill was later relocated to the Kinmount area.

Garfield Nichols operated a mill north of the school in the early 1900s. This small sawmill concentrated on custom and private sawing. Bert Rettie bought the Nicholls mill in 1935. After some moving around, the mill was relocated to the current Recreation Centre property. In 1945, this sawmill was sold to the Dancey Family and renamed the Bow Lake Lumber Company (The Danceys owned land at Bow Lake near Furnace Falls). This mill operated until the 1960s when it was closed. The mill property eventually became the Burnt River Recreation Centre and park.

But the largest sawmill was the Handley Mill, located near the cross-roads at the north end of the village. Joseph Handley started the operation as a shingle mill in 1918 on family property on Hillside Drive. In 1924, the old mill burnt down and was replaced by a larger sawmill. Since this mill was not on a waterway, the logs were cadged in by horse and sleigh in the winter and sawed in the summer. While sawn lumber (mostly pine) was popular, other wood products such as fence posts, poplar lumber (for packing boxes) and firewood were also important. The mill had bunk houses and a cook house as well, since many of the crew stayed all week at the mill site.

In 1934, the Handleys purchased the Fenelon Sash and Door Factory in Fenelon Falls and branched out. By this time, trucks had entered the lumber industry and logging became easier. Not only could the raw materials be delivered to the mill more easily, but the finished product could be delivered to market without multiple handling exercises! The Handleys quickly had a fleet of trucks on the road. The Handley Mill provided lots of employment for local men and a market for local property owners to sell their wood products.

By the 1970s, supplies of wood in the Burnt River area were becoming exhausted. Both sawmills in Burnt River shut down. The Handley Lumber company continued to run its Fenelon Falls operation, eventually morphing into a retail building supplies store that still operates to this day. The railway also allowed another industry to flourish: The Burnt River Limestone Quarry. The quarry was located on lot 14, concession 5. The Victoria Railway passed right next to the quarry, and made this whole operation possible. Limestone building blocks were cut from the quarry face and shipped out to the world via rail. Many buildings in Toronto were built from Burnt River limestone, as well as the bases for the railway trestles at Crego Creek and Howland Junction and the (old) Lindsay Jail. The leftover debris was crushed into gravel right on the spot. Limestone dust from the crusher was sold for cement mixing. A railway siding meant the local stone was easy to move to market; an important advantage in the age before trucks. The quarry had several owners: Alex Rettie, Samuel Suddaby and finally Joseph Britnell. In its heyday, it was the largest employer in the area. It became difficult to find workers, thanks to the lumber industry) so Sam Suddaby went back to Britain to enlist workers for the quarry in 1909. This led to an influx of newcomers to the hamlet about 1910. The census recorded the names of residents who gave their employment as quarry workers. Many of these were Suddaby’s recruits from Britain and the Isle of Guernsey. Several families remained in the area, but most of the quarry workers moved away when the quarry closed. To house these workers a number of cottages were built along the railway track and on the main street. Single men could find rooms in several boarding houses, the largest being the Chalmers General Store on Main Street.

To break up the limestone rocks, blasting was necessary. The explosive originally used was black powder, which was later replaced by the safer (?) dynamite. It was a dangerous business, and at least two fatalities occurred while blasting. Jim Rettie was killed tamping down a hole filled with powder when it prematurely went off (Another worker was later blinded in the same sort of accident). Robert Wilson was killed in a strange accident. One winter’s day, he placed the frozen dynamite near the fire in the blacksmith’s shack to thaw out. Unbeknownst to him, the blasting caps had been previously installed in the explosive. Without the blasting caps, dynamite is somewhat harmless, but with the caps… The heat set off the explosive, demolishing the shank and Robert Wilson was killed by flying debris! The Burnt River Quarry was purchased from Billy Britnell in 1925 by a Hagersville crushed stone company to take over more of the market. The quarry was abandoned and sits forlornly on the edge of town today.

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