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Barrie and Big Trees

We reached Barrie safely that night, and slept at the Queen's Arms. Next morning, I had an excellent opportunity of seeing this thriving village.

It is very well situated on the shore of Kempenfeldt Bay, on ground rising gradually to a considerable height, and is neatly laid out, containing already about five hundred people.

On the high ground overlooking the place are a church, a court-house, and a jail, all standing at a small distance from each other, nearly on a line, and adding very much indeed to the appearance of the place. The deep woods now form a background, but are gradually disappearing. I went about a mile into them, and saw several new clearances, with some nice houses building or built; and particularly one by Bingham, our landlord, a very comfortable, English-looking, large cottage, with outhouses and an immense barn, round which the rascally ground squirrels were playing at hide-and-seek very fearlessly.

The Court House contains the district school, which appears very respectable, and is conducted by a young Irishman; it also contains all the district offices, and is two stories high, massively and well built, the lower story being of stone and the upper of brick, both from materials on the spot.

The church is of wood, plain and neat. The jail is worth a visit, and shows what may be done in the forest and in a brand-new district, as the district of Simcoe is, although I believe about half the money it cost would have been better employed on the roads; for it has never been used, except as a place of confinement for an unfortunate lunatic.

It is formed in the castellated style, of a handsome octagonal tower, of very white, shelly limestone, with a square turreted stone enclosure, on the top of which is an iron chevaux de frize, and which enclosure is subdivided into separate day-yards for prisoners. The entrance is under a Gothic archway; and in the center of the tower is an internal space, open from top to bottom, and preventing all access to the stairs from the cells, which are very neat, clean, and commodious, with a good supply of water, and excellent ventilation. It is, in short, as pretty a toy penitentiary as you could see anywhere, and looks more like an Isle of Wight gentleman's fortress, copied after the most approved Wyattville pattern of baronial mansion, with a little touch of the card-house. In short, it is as fine as you can conceive, and sets off the village wonderfully well.

The red pine, near Barrie and through all the Penetanguishene country, grows to an enormous size. I measured one near Barrie no less than twenty-six feet in girth, and this was merely a chance one by the path-side. Its height, I think, must have been at least two hundred feet, and it was vigorously healthy. What was its age? It would have made a plank eight feet broad, after the bark was stripped off.

But the woods generally disappoint travelers, as they never penetrate them; and the lumberers have cut down all available pines and oaks within reach of the settlements, excepting where they were not worth the expense of transport. The pines, moreover, take no deep root; and, as soon as the underbrush or thicket is cleared, they fall before the storm. Provident settlers, therefore, rarely leave large and lofty trees near their dwellings for fear of accident.

The pine, in the Penetanguishene country, has a strange fancy to start out of the earth in three, five, or more trunks, all joined at the base, and each trunk an enormous tree. I have an idea that this has arisen from the stony, loose soil they grow in, which has caused this strange freak of Nature, by making it difficult for the young plant to rear its head out of the ground. Whatever is the reason, however, all the masts of some "great Amiral" might be truly provided out of a single pine-tree.

But we must leave Barrie, after just mentioning Kempenfeldt, about a mile or so distant, which was the original village; and, although at the actual terminus of the land road, has never flourished, and still consists of some half dozen houses. The newer Admiral superseded the more ancient one; for Barrie did deeds of renown, which it suited the Canadians to commemorate much more than the unfortunate Kempenfeldt and his melancholy end.

If ever there was an infamous road between two villages so close together, it is the road between these two places; I hope it will be mended, for it is both dark and dangerous.

I always wondered not a little how it happened that Bingham of Barrie kept such a good table, where fresh meat was as plentiful as at Toronto. I looked for the market-place of the capital of Simcoe: there was none. But the mystery was solved the moment I put my foot on board the Beaver steamer to go back by the water road.

What will the reader think of Leadenhall Market being condensed and floating? Such, however, was the case; there was a regular traveling butcher's-shop, for the supply of the settlers around Lake Simcoe; and meat, clean and enticing as at the finest stall in the market aforesaid, where upon regular hooks were regularly displayed the fine roasting and boiling joints of the season. And a very fair speculation no doubt it is, this peddler butchery.

On the 3rd of July, at half-past twelve, I left the capital of the Simcoe district, and am particular as to dates and seasons, because it tells the traveler for pleasure what are the times and the tides he should choose.

We embarked on board the good ship Beaver, a large steam-vessel, for the Holland Landing, distant twenty-eight miles—twenty-one of them by the lake, and seven by the river. The vessel stops by the way at several settlements, where half-pay officers generally have pitched their tents; and twice a week she makes the grand tour of the whole lake, at an altitude of upwards of seven hundred and fifty feet above Lake Ontario, and not forty miles from it.

This navigation of the Holland river is very well worth seeing, as it is a natural canal flowing through a vast marsh, and very narrow, with most serpentine convolutions, often doubling upon itself.—Conceive the difficulty of steering a large steamboat in such a course; yet it is done every day in summer and autumn, by means of long poles, slackening the steam, backing, &c., though very rarely without running a little way into the soft mud of the swamp. The motion of the paddles has, however, in the course of years, widened the channel and prevented the growth of flags and weeds.

There is one place called the Devil's Elbow, a common name in Canada for a difficult river pass, where the sluggish water fairly makes a double, and great care is necessary. Here the enterprising owner and master of the vessel tried to cut a channel; but, after getting a straight course through the mud for two-thirds of the way, he found it too expensive to proceed, but declares that he will persevere. Why does not the Board of Works, which has literally the expenditure of more than a million, take the business in hand, and complete it? One or two hundred pounds would finish the affair. But perhaps it is too trifling, and, like the cut at the Long Point, Lake Erie, to which we shall come presently, is overlooked in the magnitude of greater things.

Of all the unformed, unfinished public establishments in Canada, it has always appeared to me that the Crown Lands department, and the Board of Works, are pre-eminent. One costs more to manage the funds it raises than the funds amount to; and the other was for several years a mere political job. No very eminent civil engineer could have afforded to devote his time and talents to it, as he must have been constantly exposed to be turned out of office by caprice or cupidity. I do not know how it is now managed, but the political jobbing is, I believe, at an end, as the same person presides over the office who held it when it was in very bad odor. This gentleman must, however, be quite adequate to the office, as some of the public works are magnificent; but I cannot go so far as to say that one must approve of all. The St. Lawrence Canal has cost the best part of a million, is useless in time of war, and a mere foil at all times to the Rideau navigation, which the British government constructed free of any provincial funds. The timber slides on the Trent are so much money put into the timber-merchants' pockets, to the extreme detriment of the neighboring settlers, whose lands have been swept of every available stick by the lawless hordes of woodcutters engaged to furnish this work; and who, living in the forest, were beyond the reach of justice or of reason, destroying more trees than they could carry away, and defying, gun and axe in hand, the peaceable proprietors.

It was intended, before the rebellion broke out, to render the river Trent navigable by a splendid canal, which would have opened the finest lands in Canada for hundreds of miles, and eventually to have connected Lake Huron with Lake Ontario. A large sum of money was expended on it before the Board of Works was constituted, and an experienced clerk of works, fresh from the Rideau Canal, was chosen to superintend; but the troubles commenced, and the money was wanted elsewhere.

When money became again plentiful, and the country so loudly demanded the Trent Canal, why was it not finished? I shall give by and by an account of a recent excursion to the Trent, and then we shall perhaps learn more about it, and why perishing timber slides were substituted for a magnificent canal.

But the Devil's Elbow should be straightened by the Board of Works at all events, otherwise it may stick in the mud, and then nobody can help it; for the marsh is very extensive, and there would be no Jupiter to cry out to.

Well, however, in spite of all obstacles, Captain Laughton piloted us safe to Ague and Fever Landing, where, depend upon it, we did not stay a moment longer than sufficed to jump into a colored gentleman's wagon, which was in waiting, and in which we were driven off as a colored gentleman always drives, that is to say, in a hand-gallop, to Winch's tavern, our old accustomed inn at St. Alban's, where we arrived in due time, and there hired another Jehu, who was an American Irishman (a sad compound), to take us as far towards Yonge Street as practicable. We reached Richmond Hill, seventeen miles from the Landing, at about eight o'clock, having made a better day's journey than is usually accomplished on a road which will be macadamized some fine day; for the Board of Works have a Polish engineer hard at work surveying it—of course no Canadian was to be found equal to this intricate piece of engineering—and I saw a variety of sticks stuck up, but what they meant I cannot guess at. I suppose they were going to grade it, which is the favorite American term—a term, by the by, by no manner or method meaning gradus ad Parnassum, or even laying it out in steps and stairs, like the Scotch military road near Loch Ness; but which, as far as my limited information in Webster's Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon tongue goes, signifies leveling. I may, however, be mistaken; and this puts me in mind of another tale to beguile the way.

A character set out from England to try his fortune in Canada. He was conversing about prospects in that country, on board the vessel, with a person who knew him, but whom he knew not. "I have not quite made up my mind," said the character, "as to what pursuit I shall follow in Canada; but that which brings most grist to the mill will answer best; and I hear a man may turn his hand to anything there, without the folly of an apprenticeship being necessary; for, if he has only brains, bread will come—now, what do you think would be the best business for my market?"

"Why," said the gentleman, after pondering a little, "I should advise you to try civil engineering; for they are getting up a Board of Works there, and want that branch of industry very much, for they won't take natives; nothing but foreigners or strangers will go down."

"What is a civil engineer?" said the character.

"A man always measuring and calculating," responded his adviser, "and that will just suit you."

"So it will," rejoined Character; and a civil engineer he became accordingly, and a very good one into the bargain; for he had brains, and had used a yard measure all his lifetime.

I was told this story by a person of veracity, who heard the conversation, but it is by no means a wonderful one; for such is the versatility of talent which the climate of Northern America engenders, that I knew a leading member of parliament provincial, who was a preacher, a shopkeeper, a doctor, a lawyer, a banker, a militia colonel, and who undertook to build a suspension bridge across the cataracted river Niagara, to connect the United States with Canada for £8,000, lawful money of the colony; an undertaking which Rennie would perchance have valued at about £100,000; but n'importe, the bill was passed, and a banking shop set up instead of a bridge, which answered every purpose, for the notes passed freely on both sides until they were worn out.

Behold us, however, at Richmond Hill, having safely passed the Slough of Despond, which the vaunted Yonge Street mud road presents, between the celebrated hamlet of St. Alban's and the aforesaid hill, one of the greatest curiosities of which road, near St. Alban's, is the vicinity of a sort of Mormon establishment, where a fellow of the name of David Wilson, commonly called David, has set up a Temple of the Davidites, with Virgins of the Sun, dressed in white, and all the tomfooleries of a long beard and exclusive sanctity. But America is a fine country for such knavery. Another curiosity is less pitiable and more natural. It is Bond Lake, a large narrow sheet of water, on the summit between Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario, which has no visible outlet or inlet, and is therefore, like David Wilson, mysterious, although common sense soon lays the mystery in both cases bare; one is a freak of Nature concealing the source and exitus, the other a fraud of man.

The oak ridges, and the stair-like descents of plateau after plateau to Ontario, are also remarkable enough, showing even to the most thoughtless that here ancient shores of ancient seas once bounded the forest, gradually becoming lower and lower as the water subsided. Lyell visited these with the late Mr. Roy, a person little appreciated and less understood by the great ones of the earth at Toronto, who made an excellent geological survey of this part of the province, and whose widow had infinite difficulty in obtaining a paltry recompense for his labors in developing the resources of the country. The honey which this industrious bee manufactured was sucked by drones, and no one has done him even a shadow of justice, but Mr. Lyell, who, having no colonial dependence, had no fears in so doing.

But of Richmond Hill, why so called I never could discover, for it is neither very highly picturesque, nor very highly poetical, although Dolby's Tavern is a most comfortable resting-place for a wearied traveler, at which prose writer or poetaster may find a haven. Attention, good fare, and neatness prevail. It is English.

I have observed two things in journeying through Upper Canada. If you find neatness at an hostel, it is kept by old-country people. If you meet with indifference and greasy meats, they are Americans. If you see the best parlor hung round with bad prints of presidents, looking like Mormon preachers, they are radicals of the worst leaven. If prints from the New York Albion, neatly framed and glazed, hang on each side of a wooden clock, over a sideboard in the center of the room, opposite to the windows, the said prints representing Queen Victoria, Lord Nelson, Windsor Castle, or the New Houses of Parliament, be assured that loyalty and John Bullism reign there; and, although you meet with no servility, you will not be disgusted with vulgar assumption, such as cocking up dirty legs in dirty boots on a dirty stove, wearing the hat, and not deigning to answer a civil question.

Personally, no man cares less for the mode of reception, when I take mine ease at mine inn, than I do, for old soldiers are not very fastidious, and old travelers still less so; but give me sturdy John Bull, with his blunt plainness and true independence, before the silly insolence of a fellow, who thinks he shows his equality, by lowering the character of a man to that of a brute, in coarse exhibitions of assumed importance, which his vocation of extracting money from his unwilling guests renders only more hateful.

We departed from Richmond Hill at half-past five, and wagoned on to Finch's Inn, seven miles, where we breakfasted. This is another excellent resting-place, and the country between the two is thickly settled. I forgot to mention that we have now been traveling through scenes celebrated in the rebellion of Mackenzie. About five miles from Holland Landing is the Blacksmith's Shop, which was the head-quarters of Lount, the smith, who, like Jack Cade, set himself up to reform abuses, and suffered the penalty of the outraged laws.

Lount was a misled person, who, imbued with strong republican feelings, and forgetting the favors of the government he lived under, which had made him what he was, took up arms at Mackenzie's instigation, and thought he had a call—a call to be a great general. He passed to his account, so 'requiescas in pace,' Lount! for many a villain yet lives, to whose vile advices you owed your untimely end, and who ought to have met with your fate instead of you. Lount had the mind of an honest man in some things, for it is well known that his counsels curbed the bloody and incendiary spirit of Mackenzie in many instances. The government has not sequestered his property, although his sons were equally guilty with himself.

We also pass, in going to Toronto, two other remarkable places. Finch's Tavern, where we breakfasted at seven o'clock, was formerly the Old Stand, as it was so called, of the notorious Montgomery, another general, a tavern general of Mackenzie's, who moved to a place about four miles from the city, where the rebels were attacked in 1837 by Sir Francis Head, and near which the battle of Gallows Hill was fought.

Montgomery was taken prisoner, sent to Kingston, and escaped by connivance, with several others, from the fortress there on a dark night, fell into a ditch, broke his leg, and afterwards was hauled by his comrades over a high wall, and got across the St. Lawrence into the United States, where he was run over afterwards by a wagon and much injured. His tavern was burnt to the ground by the militia during the action, on account of the barbarous murder there of Colonel Moodie, a very old retired officer, who was killed by Mackenzie's orders in cold blood. It is now rebuilt on a very extensive scale; and he is again there, having been permitted to return, and his property, which was confiscated, has been restored to his creditors.

Such were Mackenzie's intended government and the tools he was to govern by! Such is the British government! The Upper Canadians wisely preferred the latter.

Next to Richmond Hill is Thornhill, all on the macadamized portion of the road to Toronto. Thornhill is a very pretty place, with a neat church and a dell, in which a river must formerly have meandered, but where now a streamlet runs to join Lake Ontario. Here are extensive mills, owned by Mr. Thorne, a wealthy merchant, who exports flour largely, the Yonge Street settlement being a grain country of vast extent, which not only supplies his mills, but the Red Mills, near Holland Landing, and many others.

From Montgomery's Tavern to Toronto is almost a continued series for four miles of gentlemen's seats and cottages, and, being a straight road, you see the great lake for miles before its shores are reached. Large sums have been expended on this road, which is carried through a brick-clay soil, in which the Don has cut deep ravines, so that immense embankments and deep excavations for the level have been requisite.

Near Toronto, at Blue Hill, large brick yards are in operation, and here white brick is now made, of which a handsome specimen of church architecture has been lately erected in the west end of the city. Tiles, elsewhere not seen in Canada, are also manufactured near Blue Hill; but they are not extensively used, the snow and high winds being unfavorable to their adoption, shingles or split wood being cheaper, and tinned iron plates more durable and less liable to accident.

In most parts of Upper Canada, near the shores of the great lakes, you can build a house either of stone or brick, as it suits your fancy, for both these materials are plentiful, particularly clay; but at Toronto there is no suitable building-stone; plenty of clay, however, is found, for there you may build your house out of the very excavations for your cellars; and I confess that I prefer a brick house in Canada to one of limestone, for the latter material imbibes moisture; and if a brick house has a good projecting roof, it lasts very long, and is always warm.

It is surprising to observe the effects of the climate on buildings in this country. A good stone house, not ten years old, carefully built, and pointed between the joints of the masonry with the best cement, requires a total repair after that period, and often before. The window-sills and lintels of limestone break and crack, and the chimneys soon become disjointed and unsafe. Although it may seem paradoxical, yet it is true that the woodwork of a house lasts good much longer than the stone, or rather the cement, which joins the stone; but wood decays also very rapidly. A bridge becomes rotten in ten years, and a shingled roof lasts only fifteen; but then wood is never seasoned in America; it would not pay.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Source: Canada and the Canadians, Volume I, 1849


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