THOUGH Port Hope was constituted a port of entry as early as 1819, no effort was made to secure harbour or wharf accommodation until 1829. In that year was incorporated the Port Hope Harbour and Wharf Company. According to the terms of its Charter the Company was bound ” to construct a harbour which should be accessible to and fit, safe and commodious for the reception and shelter of the ordinary description of vessels navigating Lake Ontario and to complete the same by May 1st, 1844, ” 1844″ under penalty of loss of their Charter.
While the Company was in process of formation, John D. Smith, Esq. offered ten acres of land for harbour purposes, with the understanding that all the villagers should become shareholders, but unfortunately a difficulty arose at the first election of officers, which disfranchised a majority of the shareholders. Much ill-feeling was thereby aroused and the prospects of the Company were seriously impaired. Mr. Smith withdrew his offer and the property was subsequently purchased from him in 1835.
Notwithstanding steps were at once taken to construct a steamboat wharf and a harbour. The wharf was run out where the eastern pier now stands and at the close of the Company’s regime in 1851 it extended as far as the present store-house. To form a harbour, another pier was run out a corresponding distance on the west side of the creek’s mouth. At this point, progress ceased and by the date fixed in the Charter, the harbour was far from being in a satisfactory state. In stormy weather and occasionally even in moderate weather, it was impossible for steamers to approach the land, so that much loss was occasioned to merchants and travellers. Commodore Hodder of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club described it in such terms as these, ” During a south or south-west gale this port cannot be made by large vessels drawing over nine feet of water, with safety, owing to the tremendous swell rolling in from the Lake ; besides which the piers being only one hundred and twenty-five feet apart at the mouth and the basin very small, there is not room to check the speed of a vessel or to snub her without danger to herself or others.”
The matter came to a head in 1851, when the Company applied for permission to increase their capital. The Town viewed such a step on the part of Messrs. Meredith and Andrews, the principal officers of the Company, with disfavour and commenced legal proceedings against them, to have the Charter declared forfeit. A compromise however was arrived at and the harbour was purchased from the Company for £11,500, being thereupon vested in a Board of Harbour Commissioners, which has ever since managed its affairs.
The fist Board was composed of Chairman E. P. Smith and Messrs. R. Armstrong, John Ross, W. M. Smith, J. S. Smith, F. Beamish, Peter Robertson and T. G. Ridout. The new authorities, having as an incentive the near prospect of a railroad to the North, set actively to work to enlarge the harbour. The services of a competent engineer were secured and plans perfected so that when the Town raised £15,000 for harbour purposes in 1855, everything was in readiness to proceed with the enlargement. To acquire a safe and commodious basin, the marshy island already referred to was to be removed. The completed harbour was to extend over five acres and to project over twelve hundred feet into the Lake and eight hundred feet within the shoreline. A depth of fourteen feet outside and eleven feet inside the beach was to be provided and a wharf accommodition of nearly five thousand feet. The contract for this important work was let to George Weir and the sub-contractors were Morton & Jones for earthwork and French & Shevar for timberwork. Mr. Simms was the contractor’s engineer and Mr. T. C. Clark, the Board’s adviser. For the land on which the new harbour stands, the Commissioners paid at the rate of $11,000 per acre, while by 1867 the Contractor had received no less than $244,000. Since that date the Dominion Government has expended large sums on the harbour to keep it in a state of repair.
On the whole the most important use to which Port Hope’s harbour has been put has been the lumber trade. In the thirties and fourties a group of shanties on the site of Helm’s Foundry were annually occupied by a rough gang of French-Canadian lumbermen, who every spring constructed rafts in the old harbour. When the new harbour and Midland Railway were completed, the new basin became the scene of the raftsmen’s labours. As a rule the lumbermen of the fifties were a much better behaved set than the whiskey-drinking Frenchmen who preceded them. As the country opened up, the lumber was shipped through without being rafted.
At present, though in excellent repair and offering many inducements to prospective manufacturers, the harbour is but little utilized. It seems but to be awaiting the opening up of a canal to Rice Lake, thereby connecting it with the Trent Valley Canal System, to make it a hive of industry. There now seems to be a very fair prospect that this route for the outlet of the Canal will be adopted as being the most direct, most feasible of construction and cheapest. The scheme is by no means a new one. The “patriot” Gourlay, whose opinions have been shown to be valuable, wrote about 182o that “in the course of time it may become an object of importance to connect Rice Lake by a canal with Lake Ontario direct, instead of following the present canoe route by its natural outlet into the Bay of Quinte.”
As early as 1833 the Government of Upper Canada took into consideration a canal from Lake Simcoe to Lake Ontario and in December of that year sent Robert A. Maingy, C. E. to report on the practicability of the Port HopeRice Lake route. His report, which it would be impossible in a work of this kind to quote at any length, showed the route to be perfectly feasible and much preferable to the Trent River route, since “the communication from Lake Ontario to Rice Lake up to Lake Simcoe can by this route be completed for a sum not greater than is necessary merely to open the nayigation from the mouth of the Trent to the Rice Lake.”
At the next session of the Legislature the Port Hope and Rice Lake Canal Company was incorporated and work on the canal begun at the Rice Lake end, but, like many of the early efforts in this Province, it was abandoned before it was well begun.
Since then the Trent Valley Canal System has been gradually evolved. Port Hope apparently took no interest in the concern until 1880 when Colonel Williams M. P. secured the services of Government Engineer Stark to go over the route. The matter has again been brought vitally before the people by the prospect of the completion of the Canal. Committees of citizens have been appointed during the last three years, who are employing every possible means to secure the selection of the Port Hope route. Of these Dr. Powers, Dr. Corbett and J. F. Clark have been the most active members.