railways


Aerial photograph of Deseronto in winter, c.1920

Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-213876

This aerial photograph is a reproduction of an image held at Library and Archives Canada. It is undated, but was probably taken around 1920, judging from the visible buildings. Right at the bottom of the picture is the chimney of the Big Mill, and on the right is the sash and door factory which took up the western side of the bayshore end of Mill Street. The two roads stretching away from the photographer are Green Street and Mill Street, both of which were lined with trees. The Arlington Hotel can be seen on the middle right of the image, with the Canadian National Railway station just in front of it, on the other side of Main Street.

The Archives will be closed on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, but will be open again on January 7th. We’d like to take this opportunity to wish you a happy and peaceful midwinter break!

The north-south streets at the eastern end of Deseronto are numbered, like those in many North American towns. We have First Street, Second Street, Fourth Street and Fifth Street, but Third Street is nowhere to be seen.

Numbered streets on map of Deseronto from Bing

Well, that’s actually not quite true: you can see it in the Archives.

Here is a detail of a plan of the town made in about 1895:

Third StreetYou can see Third Street in the middle of the map and there’s also a Sixth Street on the far left. As you can see, Third Street was never a very long road, stretching only from Main Street down to the flour mill on Water Street.

On this day in 1896 (the Victoria Day holiday), most of this side of town went up in flames, destroying docks and many buildings. Newspapers across North America reported on the fire. This clipping is from the May 27th 1896 edition of the Daily Public Ledger of Maysville, Kentucky:

Daily Public Ledger report on Deseronto fire of 25 May 1896

Fire destroyed two-thirds of the east end of the town of Deseronto, Ont., and nearly a hundred families are homeless. The Rathbun Co.’s big flour mill, storehouse and elevator, the shingle and lumber docks, the Roman Catholic church and about one hundred dwelling houses were burned. Most of the houses were occupied by workmen. The total loss will exceed $300,000.

The original Roman Catholic Church of St. Vincent de Paul stood on the north side of Dundas Street in this part of Deseronto. The church had been built in 1883 at a cost of over $4,000. Herbert A. Osborne took this photograph of it in around 1895:

St. Vincent de Paul church, c.1895

When the church was rebuilt, it was located further west; still on the north side of Dundas Street but away from the more industrial areas of the town. It was completed in November 1896.

Unlike the church, it appears that Third Street was never rebuilt after the fire. By the time the map below was made for the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway in 1912, the road  had vanished.

Detail of 1912 map of the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway

A neat example of history affecting geography!

A recent enquiry by a researcher who is studying the region’s lighthouses has revealed some interesting facts about Deseronto’s own lighthouse. Some of its history can be traced through federal government publications, beginning with the report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries for 1884 (published in the Sessional Papers for the Dominion of Canada, Volume 6,1885), where the Ontario Lighthouse Division reported that:

Agreement to build a lighthouse in Deseronto

Unsurprisingly, it was the Rathbun Company who were contracted to build the lighthouse, for the reassuringly precise estimate of $437.49. Construction of the light had been completed by the time of the Department’s report.

We next hear of the lighthouse in the Departmental report for 1885 (Sessional Papers for the Dominion of Canada, Volume 9,1886).

Deseronto light - 1886 report

Here we learn that the Rathbun Company supplied the gas to the light and that the light was constructed on the roof of the freight shed of the Bay of Quinte Railway at the Rathbun Company’s wharf. It’s interesting to see that the Rathbun Company went a little over their budget, spending a total of $455.55.

A search on our Flickr images reveals several photographs which show the light in place on that building.

Steam wharf at Deseronto

A notice in the Canada Gazette of September 19th, 1885 announced the light to the maritime community:

Gazette notice about Deseronto light

This detail of photograph RATHCO-06-48.4 shows how the light would have appeared to the ships approaching it from the Bay:

Deseronto wharf from the Bay of Quinte

In the background on the left, you can see the brick head office building of the Rathbun Company, from where its owners could keep a close eye on the activities of the wharf. None of these buildings survive today.

A glimpse of what life was like in Deseronto in 1906 and 1907 has come to us courtesy of a conversation recorded in 1967. Bill and Jack Duncan were taped as they reminisced about their arrival in Deseronto and Bill’s early experiences of work in Canada. Their father, John Duncan, had been a shoe laster in Leicester, England, but his involvement in the trade union movement meant that it was difficult for him to find work there and the family relied on their oldest son, Bill, for their income (26 shillings a week).

John and his wife Maria decided to move their five surviving children across the ocean to Canada. The family spent less than a year in Deseronto before moving on to Stirling and then Toronto, but Bill and Jack had some strong memories of their time here, including loitering in the Post Office in order to get warm in the winter!

The arrival of the Royal Flying Corps in Deseronto in 1917 provided a new angle of perspective on the town: for the first time, photographs began to be taken from the air. Aerial photographs became increasingly important to the campaign on the Western Front in Europe as the First World War progressed and learning how to take good photographs from the air would have been a vital skill for the trainee pilots based in Camp Mohawk and Camp Rathbun.*

The  album of World War One photographs mentioned in our previous post includes this shot of the town from a pilot-training aircraft over the Bay of Quinte, looking north over Deseronto.

At the top left of the photograph is Rathbun Park and the Town Hall (at that time it was the Bank of Montreal), with Centre Street and the Post Office also visible. Between the waterfront and Main Street several railway cars can be seen, running along tracks where Water Street is today. The buildings next to the lake shore are the Rathbun Company’s cedar mill (on the right), which manufactured cedar railway ties, fence posts and shingles and the car works (on the left). The smoke from the cedar mill’s chimney shows that this was still in operation when the photograph was taken, although generally the Rathbun Company’s industries were winding down at this time, with many of their buildings being taken over for use by the Royal Flying Corps as administrative headquarters and repair shops for aircraft engines.

The picture below, from the same album, shows the interior of a typical engine workshop. Women as well as men were employed in mechanical work in these establishments (and, unusually for the time, at the same rates of pay). The person to the left of centre of this shot is a woman.

In the winter months, the Canadian training camps were relocated to a US Army base at Fort Worth, Texas. Several of the photographs in the album show scenes from the Texas camps, including this photograph of a First World War tank:

We end this post with another aerial view from the album. This one is labelled ‘Fort Worth, Texas’:

*For a timeline demonstrating the increasing significance of aerial photography on the Western Front in the First World War, see this useful blog post by Tim Slater.

Sometimes the bald information in records of the past can conceal stories of human suffering and loss. But those bare bones of birth, death, marriage and census details can also be used to give structure and meaning to half-remembered family stories and newspaper reports from days gone by.

Deseronto’s Tribune  newspaper of August 31, 1888 reported the death of Philip Gaylord, a man who was working for the Rathbun Company, in the following (rather graphic) way:

Fatal Accident

On the afternoon of Saturday, 25th inst., Philip Gaylord, an employee of the Cedar Mill, was the victim of an unfortunate accident which was followed with fatal results. He was employed as a teamster and was engaged in hauling cars loaded with refuse from the mill to the yards. About the middle of the afternoon he left the mill with a loaded car and had almost reached its destination in the yard east of the Chemical works. It happened, however, that one of the pieces of stuff on the car projected too far from the load and as the car proceeded along the track between two piles of wood, this piece was caught and as the horses moved on it was swung about, throwing Gaylord from the load.  He fell on the rails, and the loaded car passed over him, the wheels mutilating him in a dreadful manner.

Railway tracks behind the cedar mill in 1907, with refuse burner chimneys in the distance (HMR1-06-79)

Mr. Donaldson, the foreman of the yard, witnessed the accident and ran immediately to his assistance.  He was conveyed at once to Dr. Newton’s surgery where it was found that his right arm was nearly cut off, the bones being shattered to the very shoulder, while the right leg was also fearfully mangled.  Dr. Newton immediately amputated the arm at the shoulder joint, and the leg above the knee; he also amputated the great toe of the left foot which had also been crushed.  The young man bore the operation well, but the terrible shock was too great and after midnight he began to sink rapidly and he expired at an early hour on Sunday morning.

The funeral took place on Sunday afternoon and was numerously attended.  The deceased, who was 21 years of age, was the son of Levi Gaylord, of the township of Arden.  He was a steady young man and had gained the good will and respect of his companions and fellow workmen.  His sudden cutting off is rendered more sad by the fact that he was to have been married in the course of two or three months.  His last words, somewhat indistinctly uttered, expressed a message which he wished to be conveyed to his betrothed.

The obituary was discovered on this blog by a researcher who was trying to find out about the parentage of a woman called Minnie May Penny who was born in January 1889. The family story had been that she was adopted by Charles and Emma Penny in Arden after one of her parents was killed in a railway accident that spooked some horses. Marriage and census records show us that Emma Penny’s father was Levi Gaylord and that she was therefore the sister of Philip, the man who died in Deseronto in August 1888.The similarity of the family story and the information from the obituary strongly suggests that the soon-to-be-wed Philip was Minnie’s father. Minnie’s date of birth was January 4, 1889 and in the 1891 census we find her living with the Pennys in Arden and carrying their surname, which bears out the family story that she was adopted by them. Now we know from the information in the newspaper story that the Pennys were her paternal aunt and uncle.

But who was Minnie’s mother?

We had a date of birth for the child, but no name for her mother apart from a family story that it might have been Haws or Boomhower. This time, it was the Ancestry website which was the best source of information. A search on Minnies born in Ontario on January 4, 1889 brought back a likely match: Minnie Hawes was born to Ida Hawes of Olden Township, Frontenac County (not far from Arden) on that day. No father’s name is given on her birth registration, but the matches between the family stories and the records mean that Philip Gaylord and Ida Hawes are highly likely to be Minnie’s parents and that Philip’s ‘indistinctly uttered’ last words had been meant for Ida, the woman he had planned to marry.

Mystery solved!

Ontario’s marriage records show us that Ida went on to marry a man called Stephen Dolan in August 1892, by which time Minnie was living in Arden with her aunt and uncle. Minnie herself married a man called Robert Loyst in 1905 and by 1911 the couple had three children and were living in Nipissing. We can hope this was a happy ending to a life which had such an unfortunate beginning.

This small house on First Street in Deseronto looks to have an idyllic location nowadays: no immediate neighbours and a pleasant view of open fields behind it.

House on First Street (from Google Street View)

But over one hundred years ago, its location was considerably less ideal. You can see it at the bottom left of the photograph below. Immediately behind the house was the vast site of the Rathbun Company’s brick and terra cotta works, busy with railway cars transporting raw materials to the factory from the Rathbun Company’s sawmills (sawdust was a key ingredient in the production of terra cotta):

Brick and Terra Cotta works

The works was in operation from 1887 until 1898, when it was destroyed by fire. As the house was so close to the buildings of the terra cotta works, it was fortunate to survive the blaze itself.

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