Downtown Heritage Conservation District - Study and Plan

Urban Heritage Character
History of Collingwood

The Isthmus Route

The view of Collingwood from Blue Mountain dramatically presents the geographic situation that led to the founding and growth of the Town, and that continues, in new ways, to contribute to its economic health. The Niagara Escarpment now provides scenery and ski-hills, but at its southern end the Niagara River tumbles over it, creating a bottleneck for Great Lakes navigation, which the early versions of the Welland Canal were incapable of eliminating. Georgian Bay, running off in the distance, now offers recreational opportunities, but its southern reach creates an isthmus in central Ontario, and overland shortcut between the Upper Great Lakes and the Lower. The grain elevators in the centre of the view are a prime artifact of the development of the isthmus route that led to the founding of Collingwood and its exuberant 19th-century growth

Figure 1:

This NASA satellite image clearly shows the appeal of the Georgian Bay isthmus route.

Aboriginal people long ago developed a river and portage trail from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay, through Lake Simcoe, which was adopted from the earliest days of English settlement. Lieutenant-Colonel John Graves Simcoe cast his eye on the isthmus as early as the 1790s, looking for a military route, safe from American interference on the Great Lakes, between his Toronto base and the lands and lakes to the north and west. After a survey expedition, Simcoe rejected the aboriginal route, and opted for construction of what would become Yonge Street, with an additional road leading to Penetanguishene, where a naval base was constructed. The military roads proved impractical as commercial arteries, being alternately buggy, boggy, or frozen, and difficult to maintain under the Statute of Labour. They were simply not up to the job of supporting settlement and agricultural development. The move into the wilderness had to await the vastly more efficient transportation offered by new 19th-century technologies of first, canals, and then, railways. (Watts, P. W. Watts & Sons Boat Builders, 1997)

Figure 2:
The second locomotive on the railroad, and the first built in Canada was, Toronto No 1.

The recognition that railways were the superior technology came quickly. Even the Second Welland Canal (1845-1886) had 27 locks and was too small for larger shipping on the Lakes. (Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System. Internet) The Upper Canada Legislature passed bills in 1836 and 1845 for a northern railroad, but no construction resulted. A third bill in 1849 encouraged the incorporation of the Ontario, Simcoe & Lake Huron Railway, under the leadership of Sir Casimir Gzowski and Frederick Chase Capreol in July of that year. During 1853 the railroad opened service in stages to Allendale Junction, just south of Barrie, and the directors pondered the selection of a site for the northern terminus: was it to be Penetanguishene or the future site of Collingwood, then an almost uninhabited spot called Hen and Chickens Harbour? According to legend, a few local citizens, determined that a dignified town name was required, repaired to the harbour with a bottle of spirits and a list of British admirals. The namesake chosen was Nelson’s successor, Lord Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood. That the adjacent township was already called Collingwood might have helped in the selection. In July of 1853 the railroad’s directors chose the newly minted Collingwood as their Georgian Bay port, and promptly completed construction, the first train arriving on New Year’s Day, 1855. By then the railway company had also built a dock, a freight shed and a grain elevator at the harbour, and had chartered steamships to connect to Chicago and Green Bay. It’s worthy of note that the future Sir Sandford Fleming was employed as an engineer for the railroad, becoming Chief Engineer when the company was absorbed by the Northern Railway in 1858. (The founding and construction of the railway is outlined in Watts, op.cit; Arp, Relflections, Collingwood, 1983; and The Ontario Railway History Page on the internet. The legend of the naming of Collingwood is both confirmed and denied in Reflections.)

Figure 3:
This 1856 map shows the street plan for a sizable town, just beginning to fill in.

The Chicago Of The North

"Economic boom" is scarcely adequate to describe the effect of the coming of the railway. “xcepting William Watts, fisherman, and a few men employed by him, there were at Christmas 1853 only four families at Collingwood.” (Illustrated Atlas of the County of Simcoe, H. Belden, Toronto 1881) William Watts soon became Collingwood’s pioneer boat-builder, founding what became the Town’s major industry. By 1858 the site had been transformed from a roadless “impenetrable mass of cedar swamp” (John Hogg, Jubilee History of Collingwood, 1887: Quoted in Watts) into an incorporated Town, not having paused at village status. Land prices had risen a thousandfold.

Collingwood’s street plan was laid on almost immediately, in ambitious entirety. The 1856 map to the left, prompting a never-built subdivision to the northwest, shows most of the streets that exist today. Many of the blocks in early maps show few buildings or none, but within twenty years the lands west of the railroad were filled in, and the main street was recognizably a townscape all the way to Fourth Street. Solid commercial buildings also lined the first block in each direction on the south side of Huron/First Street, and industrial uses extended for some way along the waterfront in both directions.

As a port, Collingwood was an immediate and enormous success. Shippers were providing passage of goods and passengers to Owen Sound, Milwaukee, Sault Ste. Marie, and Lake Superior. In 1858, more than 4,000 passengers were carried on the railway’s steamships alone. (Leithead, M, Collingwood Skiffs and Side Launches, 1994) By 1860 the census showed 24 log shanties and houses, 175 frame houses, and one brick dwelling under construction. (Lane-Moore, Collingwood Historic Homes and Buildings, 1989) The railroad had an equal economic effect along its 94-mile length. Transport to market was suddenly available for farm goods and the abundant timer resource. Land was taken up and cleared and villages sprang up. Much of the business from the new settlement would flow through Collingwood, and people joked that the initials of the Ontario Simcoe and Huron rail line stood for “Oats, Straw & Hay."

Figure 4:
Bird's-Eye View of Collingwood, Published by J.J. Stoner in 1875. Prints available at the Collingwood Museum

The opportunities offered by the port and rail terminal were eagerly pursued by a growing population, and fishing, timber and lumber, grain-handling, and boat-building, became important in the local economy over the next twenty years, and the port traffic continued to grow. By the 18890s, Collingwood had taken to calling itself “the Chicago of the North.” This progress was scarcely interrupted in September 1881, when the timber-built business district, like many of its counterparts in Ontario, suffered a devastating fire. John Hogg wrote six years late, “The loss involved was tremendous, and might well have paralyzed a less determined people … Yet in a short time the destroyed portion of the town was replaced by a class of business places, which for appearance and finish will compare favourable with any in the province.” These business places are the brick commercial buildings that still line Hurontario Street with such grace.

Figure 5:
The aftermath of the 1881 fire, still smouldering.

It was likely the built-in business of a busy railhead, as much as the determination of the citizenry, that made the fire so inconsequential in the growth of the town, and the 1880s saw a great burst of prosperity. So much American shipping passed through the port that the United States government opened a consulate in the Town. Their commercial agent, Gustavus Goward, wrote in 1880 that the Collingwood was “in many respects … the most important point in Ontario as regards to American shipping,” and he listed the international trade as involving 293 vessels with crews of 3,951 sailors, and carrying almost 3 million bushels of American grain, besides 65,275 tons of general merchandise. As the Canadian prairies were opened up to settlement, grain from our own West flowed through Collingwood as well. (Gustavus Goward is quoted in Leithead, Op.Cit.)

Figure 6:
An 1890's view north on Hurontario Street. A harmonious streetscape with a recognizable kinship of materials, scale and detail.

The boat-building industry grew apace, with the Doherty and Morrill families joining W. Watts & Sons in producing wooden craft. Collingwood supplied skiffs, fishing boats, yachts, and wooden steamships to ports all around the Great Lakes. In 1882, recognizing the need for a dry dock, J.D. Silcox and S.D. Andres formed the Collingwood Dry Dock, Shipbuilding and Foundry Company, opening the dry dock on Queen Victoria’s birthday the following year. Named “Queen’s Dry Dock” for its inaugural date, the facility changed hands in 1889. In 1899, realizing that the future of Great Lakes shipping was in steel construction, the Collingwood Shipbuilding Company was formed to take over the works and to expand the dry dock to 550 feet.

Figure 7:
Wooden ships in the dry dock.

In 1901, the first steel hull was launched, the 321-foot Huronic, a steamer for passengers and freight. The Collingwood Shipyards built 231 vessels in the course of its 103-year existence, and became the Town’s major economic enterprise, employing up to 20% of the population. The great hulls under construction at the foot of Hurontario Street gave rise to the Collingwood tag of “the town with a ship at the end of the street.” (Watts, Op. Citl, & Leithead, Op. Cit, have succinct histories of Collingwood’s boat and ship-building industries.)

As the Town prospered, the residential blocks were filled in. As in so many places, the wealthier citizens tended to live “up the hill,” and from about Third/Ontario Street, they built many impressive homes in the 1870-1910 period. More modest houses, having equivalent heritage value, are interspersed with the mansions and extend northward onto lower lands. Collingwood has a remarkably rich residential heritage, and the existing list of designated homes could easily be tripled without any lowering of standards. The great prosperity continued into the first decade of the Twentieth Century, but as early as 1907 the port began to face competition from the Transcontinental Railroad, and the Shipyard suffered, too. The period of expansion was coming to an end, and the 1915 Post Office Building at 44 Hurontario Street and the 1918 Bank of Montreal at 79 Hurontario Street represent the final flourish of the great building period in the town centre.


Collingwood continued to thrive, but growth slowed. The population actually declined from 7,090 in 1911 to 5,882 in 1921 and scarcely grew for another 20 years. The shipyard worked through two world wars, building vessels and munitions, and it managed to survive the intervening Great Depression by manufacturing non-marine products, including agricultural implements and cement-mixers.

The last fifty years have seen significant changes in Collingwood’s economic life, and these have been reflected in redevelopment within the old street plan, and accretions to it on the periphery. Of major importance was the arrival of a new industry in the area: tourism based on the ski-hills that opened along the Escarpment. The Collingwood Ski Club was formed in 1936 by Collingwood businessmen John Smart and Norman Boadway, and in 1941 the ski club land was leased to Blue Mountain Resorts Ltd., which engaged Josef “Jozo” Weider to operate the facility. The resort led a precarious existence for twenty years, but the 1960s saw the beginning of a world-wide skiing boom that continues to this day. An idea of the economic impact of the ski industry can be gathered by the population figures for the Collingwood economic catchment area: permanent residents, 75,000; winter weekend population, 150,000.

Figure 8:
The waterfront and the ski hills provide 4-season recreational opportunities.

By the 1960s the town was actively seeking to increase its industrial base, and the provision of fully serviced sites began to bring new employers. By 1971, eleven new manufacturing firms had located in Collingwood, and eight more arrived in the next twelve years. The airport was built in 1967, providing air connections, through Toronto, to the world. These efforts made it possible for Collingwood to weather the closing of the shipyard on September 12, 1986. Local taxpayers have a long tradition of public investment in the future, beginning with the first railway, continuing through the original dry-dock company, the shipyard, and, more recently, the industrial infrastructure, the airport and the Barrie-Collingwood railroad. As a result of these efforts, growth of the Town resumed, and it now boasts a population of about 21,t500, and the current tax base has a healthy mix of 15% industrial, 27% commercial, and 58% residential. Other recent municipal efforts include acquisition of the CN spit lands, installation of water and fibre optic lines to New Tecumseh, and extensive upgrades to the water filtration plant and the sewage treatment plant. In 1994, Collingwood was delisted as an Area of Concern by the Great Lakes 2000 Cleanup Fund. (Information on modern population, tax base, impact of tourism, and municipal infrastructure developments from Collingwood Chamber of Commerce and Town of Collingwood Department of Economic Development.)

From a heritage point of view, the post-WWII thirst for newness and the growing romance with the automobile had serious negative consequences. The old Business Core on Hurontario Street suffered considerable permanent losses, as the harmonious two-and three-storey streetscape saw demolitions of original buildings, and their replacement byone-storey buildings of dissimilar material and character. The resulting gaps in the enclosure of the public space remains an urban design deficit. Other buildings were defaced with careless or unsympathetic additions, alterations, and signage. New building on the Town’s periphery took the form of suburban strip development. It is pointless to assign blame for what we now see as an avoidable degradation of a fine natural and architectural heritage: it was the spirit of the times, the age of the Jetsons. The idea of conservation, both natural and cultural was below the awareness horizon of all but a very few people. We should instead assign credit to the citizens and groups who did come to appreciate the idea of preserving our inherited environment, so that it could be passed on to our descendants.

Figure 9:
Highway strip development encroaches to within a block of Hurontario Street

Fortunately, Collingwood endured neither abject poverty nor unbridled prosperity in the post-war era, and those twin destroyers of architectural heritage had a very limited scope. As a result, the 19th-century fabric of the Town remains largely intact, and the efforts over the past two decades to recognize the value of its heritage character have borne fruit. Large portions of Hurontario Street’s building stock has seen restoration, through the efforts of the B.I.A. and the Town. The Sign By-Law and the 1980 streetscape reconstruction have created an extremely pleasant pedestrian shopping precinct, distinguished by a mostly harmonious suite of buildings lining a handsomely paved and well-furnished street. It has predominately been restored as the grand axial civic space that was originally envisioned. As tourism and recreation become a growing portion of the area economy, the Downtown Core becomes a growing civic asset. Threats to this asset remain, as we regret to say that during the course of this study two 19th-century Buildings were demolished, and two more are slated for the same fate, in order to provide a small number of parking slots for the Loblaw’s store.

Figure 10:
New peripheral residential development, tied to the four-season tourism industry. Collingwood's challenge: planning for growth while preserving its heritage.

Collingwood continues to look to its future. The Town is undertaking the Tourism Collingwood Initiative, to consolidate its position as a four-season tourist destination. Waterfront and marina developments continue to grow, and the large Intrawest development at Blue Mountain promises to have a significant economic and planning impact. This Heritage District Plan is part of a far-sighted effort to enhance its tourist potential, preserve its small-town character, and ensure that development occurs in a manner which respects the Town’s heritage and character.

Back To Urban Heritage Character Street Selections

Back To Study & Plan Main Page