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The History of Port Hope

Port Hope was the proud Recipient of The Lieutenant Governor's Ontario Heritage Award for 2008!

Before Canada became a nation in 1867, Port Hope was already a boomtown. Its main streets were thronged with horse-drawn carriages and farmers’ wagons, its plank sidewalks crowded with shoppers and merchandise. Wood-burning locomotives pulled heavily loaded trains through town on their way to a harbour filled with schooners and steamships. Solid brick commercial blocks and houses lined the streets.

The town had grown rapidly since four families of English descent arrived by boat in 1793 and settled at the river mouth. Until then the area had been home to aboriginal groups—Huron, then Iroquois, and finally Mississauga—attracted by the salmon and sturgeon that swarmed in its river. On a French map dated 1688 their village is identified as “ganaraské”. That Iroquois name is remembered today in the Ganaraska River that flows through town.

The first European settlers came from the new United States. They had chosen to follow the British crown after the American Revolution. So had Elias Smith, a Montreal merchant who, with two partners, Jonathan and Abraham Walton, financed their arrival. In return for settling 40 families on the land and building a sawmill and flourmill to serve them, the partners received a grant of land roughly the size of modern urban Port Hope.

More families arrived including blacksmiths, carpenters, bricklayers, and merchants. The mills drew farmers from 50 and 60 kilometers away. Grain that could not be milled was bought by distilleries—there were eventually five along the river—that produced a famous Port Hope whisky.

In 1834 Port Hope had 1,500 residents and was incorporated as a town—the first so recognized along the lakefront between Kingston and Toronto. Its most rapid growth began 20 years later, when railways revolutionized travel in what is now Ontario.

In 1856 the Grand Trunk Railway connected Port Hope to Toronto and the Atlantic seaboard. Its viaduct over the Ganaraska was the second greatest engineering challenge on the route, exceeded only by bridging the St. Lawrence River at Montreal.

By that time another railway was heading north from Port Hope to open the vast timberlands and new farms of central Ontario. To help finance it the town council borrowed £50,000, an immense sum at the time. Within a few years the stake had tripled, but the line had stretched to Peterborough and Lindsay. Eventually it reached Georgian Bay, at Midland. Down this line came great loads of timber and grain. Some went east to England, but most was exported to the USA through Rochester across the lake.

With the economic boom, housing spread east and west beyond the river and new industries sprang up. Some residents became international figures. The Great Farini (a.k.a. William Hunt) successfully challenged the most famous tightrope walker of his time, Blondin, in stunts over the Niagara Gorge in 1860. Joseph Scriven wrote the words of one of the world’s best-loved hymns, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Unlike many other communities, Port Hope has suffered neither economic collapse nor runaway development. Many areas of the old town, including the downtown commercial core, remain little changed from the days of Queen Victoria. Fortunately, residents were quick to recognize the value of their architectural legacy. Hundreds of them have worked to conserve, restore, or renovate commercial blocks and private homes, making the town a tourist destination and a landmark of Ontario preservation. Like a time capsule, Port Hope captures the flavour of small town Ontario in the late 1800s.

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