Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Monday, November 12, 2018

Dan Buchanan - an architectural history

Dan Buchanan is a friend, a friend of friends, a tenacious history researcher, a delightful storyteller and a most entertaining writer. Dan, the 'history guy' of Brighton, is heavily implicated in several important history activities in his area, including the annual Brighton history week events and Brighton Digital Archives. Then there's his own history/genealogy site . And two great local history reads.

Unlike many folks with a murderer in the family, Dan outed his relative, Dr. William Henry King, the only man ever hung in Northumberland county, in "a true crime tale of poison and philandering,"* the whodunnit (well, we get to know from the start) Murder in the Family (Dundurn Press, 2015.)
This year, Dan released 38 Hours to Montreal: William Weller and the Governor General's Race of 1840. If I were to tell you that it's the story of GG Charles Thomson rushing from Toronto to Montreal in February, on a unimaginably tight time line (there's a wager involved) with new legislation he'd drafted in response to general whinging that grew into the Rebellion of 1837-38, I might not induce you to join the bookstore queue. But it's fascinating. Exciting. And time travel by one of the best guides around. Again I quote from the back cover: " Dan Buchanan brings the reader along on a breathlessly exciting journey that intricately explores Canadian history through the people, places, and buildings that existed along those treacherous roads in 1840."*

The reader shares Weller's pride in his efficient stage coach company, his thoughts of family, his solicitousness regarding the coach horses, his apprehension about the condition of the plank, corduroy and mud roads, his concern about the dangers of river and ravine crossings (when was the last time you worried about crossing the Rouge River valley?) and the cold and dark of the journey, almost as if you were seated on the bench beside him. But of course, what I am appreciating most is the spotlight back through time, as we see buildings which still stand today, through the eyes of Weller as he passes by.

Buildings. Hear that? It struck me last night, as I had yet another "I've been there" moment, that it would be fun to capture photos of some of the places Dan's account mentions, in a post. William Weller and I notice some of the same places.

The journey starts from Toronto, a smooth ride along the planked expanses of King Street. Dan suggests that the journey begins at John. This Streetview glimpse is...well, no help at all. William Dendy's Lost Toronto might be a more reliable resource.

Even then, several buildings which stood in 1840 along Front and King Streets have since been replaced by newer versions. These more 'modern' iterations stand out and stand firm,  as wonderful examples of our built heritage in 2018.

I'm thinking of the fabulous Gooderham Building, built in 1891. Its unusual shape conforms to the wedge-shaped space created by the junction of Wellington (Market Street once upon a time) and Front Street (that name actually made sense in the days when the street hugged the lakeshore, before developers started to build more Toronto. Here's a great BlogTO post.) The night of Weller's trip by the area, the building standing on the same wonky lot was the earlier Coffin Building; it was from this location that the Toronto office of William Weller's stagecoach line operated.
Dan mentions St. James Anglican Cathedral. Today its 1874 Gothic Revival presence stands on the site of an 1839 version, which Weller would have seen as he passed. Sadly that lovely neo-Classical structure perished in the terrible 1849 Toronto fire. Have a look at St. James's bold glass Parish House addition. Thanks to a dear fellow photo wanderer for the introduction.

Another important building in the area in 1840 was the Market Square. Iterations in 1803 and 1831 were later replaced by the one so familiar today, the St. Lawrence Market built in 1845.

Here's another thing I love about the book. Dan the self-confessed 'history geek' makes sure that we learn the story of each village the team and sleigh pass. Many place names change over time and we lose contact with the intrepid UEL or Irish immigrant who received the initial land patent, or built the first mill, and had the spot named after him. Later, new names were often adopted to curry favour with governors general or other somebodies, then perhaps changed again when the post office was opened. Did you know the hamlet of Norway once stood at the corner of Kingston Road and Woodbine? A steam-powered sawmill operated there by 1835; the local Norway pines were a specialty. A wooden post office stood here in 1825.

Then there's Pickering Village, which started out as Duffins Creek, after an Irish settler. The name changed in 1829 when a post office was established. Nearby was the Old Post Inn (1815)  a happy rescue in recent years. This was a frequent stop for the Weller stage coaches. Dan usually has a story to tell about the early inhabitants of the places 'we' pass.

Here are a few of the spots I have enjoyed over time, made even more resonant with the backstory provided by 38 Hours to Montreal.

William Weller and his important package arrived in Cobourg after an astonishing five hours from Toronto (the press went wild at the feat.) Dan Buchanan offers a detailed look at this most prosperous town, rival of Port Hope, noting several important buildings. On his gallop along King Street, Weller could look up College Street to the Upper Canada Academy. It became known as Victoria College. Today it's a retirement residence, but it's kept its splendid pedimented portico since 1832.

Weller's fresh horses thunder eastward along Kingston Road from Cobourg to Trent Port. They're entering my home territory. So many landmarks, still familiar today, fly by that night in 1840. Just west of Grafton, the pre-1812 Barnum House tavern and hotel, burned during that war, later rebuilt, would have hove into view. I've written about Barnum House occasionally  The house, when it's open, interprets life in the 1820s to 1840s. William Weller would feel right at home.

Our travellers in 1840 would have seen the fine brick Spalding's Inn, built just outside Grafton by Thomas Major Spalding around 1834. The Georgian brick structure served as home, tavern and inn. Today, if I'm not mistaken, it's the home of one of historic Port Hope's most influential realtors. "Spalding's Inn was well known as a halfway house between York and Kingston. It is mentioned in records as early as 1816, mostly related to fees due for inn-keeper licences." (page 98, 38 Hours)

William Weller must have liked Grafton as much as I do. "Arrangements had been made to change horses at the Grafton Inn, and William Weller could see the fresh team standing off to the south side of the road in front of the Lawless store." (ibid)

The Grafton Inn operates today, its historic Neo-classical charm as well-known as its hospitality. Here's an AR flashback to when I fell in love with Grafton. When Mr. Weller stopped at the inn, the community bore the name Grover's Corners.

 Dan describes the street scene - two other  structures persist from the day he passed by. I just love this c1820 commercial building, its setting on the old Danforth Road, the way it's been preserved and prettied up.

To my embarrassment, in my Grafton wanderings I overlooked an equally historic building, the James Lawless store, which you'll have to appreciate on Streetview. This structure (thanks Dan) "was originally built in 1837 of  one-inch planks stacked and nailed on top of each other." A rare plank wall house! And I dismissed it because of my vinyl siding snobbery. My historic bad.

Keeler House (1812)
William Weller goes on to navigate past "a lumber wagon stuck on the bridge over Shelter Valley Creek" (think about that the next time you speed over Shelter Valley on the 401) and the gumbo on fearsome Herriman Hill, to hasten past several landmarks which grace the lovely village of Colborne even today.

Wesleyan Methodist Church 1823
"William Weller guided his sleigh over and around the hills and soon came to the curve just west of Colborne,where the road heads south to meet King Sreet by the public square in the middle of the village." p. 105

If you've ever travelled that route, or lingered in Victoria Park (est.1815) you can still see a lot of what Weller observed in passing. He noted the 1823 Wesleyan Methodist Church, and Old Joe Keeler's House further down Church street.

Thornton Residence (1819/30) Colborne's oldest house

As he turned the horses left onto King Street he recognized the Thornton Residence and the house next door, built in the 1830s.

Steeles Regency cottage - 7 King Street West

St. Andrews, imposing since 1833

"Not far along King Street East, the imposing St. Andrews Presbyterian Church stood majestically on a rise, back from the street."page 106

Dan writes that the "travellers would not be stopping in Colborne but if they were it would likely be at the Keeler tavern in East Colborne." Thanks to our writer/guide, we can discern the proportions of the Georgian style tavern at the corner of Parliament and King Street, despite some 'remuddling' (credit to Laura Smith for the term.) Let the Streetview folks take you there.

"Just after the creek, on the right, Mr. Weller would notice Salem Cemetery..." page 106

" the team galloped along the Kingston Road, with a cold breeze blowing off the lake. He had decided to stop at Proctor Inn, at Huff Road..." page 109 Somewhere I have a photo of this house, built after the Proctor family arrived from Vermont in 1810. But for now, this Streetview peek will remind me to keep looking.

Hodges Tavern, Brighton
Weller gallops on to page 110. " A little further along, on the north side of Main Street, William Weller would see the Ira Hodges tavern, which was built in the 1820s, along the same lines as the Keeler and Proctor inns."

Staunchly and symmetrically Georgian in proportion, Hodges Tavern at 156 Main Street, Brighton, resembles so many fine old houses, some of them taverns, along old Highway 2.

The sleigh continues across the old covered bridge at Trenton, and the Moira River crossing over Bridge Street at Belleville, to dinner at the Mansion House hotel in Belleville. I'm still trying to find an historic photo of that hotel, 'cos it's certainly not here anymore. Best I can do is a photo of a favourite building further south on Front Street, a contemporary of the Mansion House - the Commercial House hotel, built around 1838.

Napanee river mill site
Clippity-clop through Napanee and its mills, and onto the rather disconcerting new macadamized (ie. gravel road) damaging to sleigh runners and horses' feet,  and a change of team at the Fralick tavern coaching stop in Morven. For some reason, I don't have a photo of this historic place, either. It's now a private home. But I will collect one soon.

McDonald House (1831) now Gananoque Town Hall
I have appreciated, as did Weller, the fine stone Timmerman's store (on left here) in Odessa (although the coachman would have known the place as Mill Creek.) I have also failed to capture the two Kingston businesses that our travellers would have seen along Store Street (now Princess) but once again the roving Streetview cameras saved the day. The limestone buildings at 68 and 75-77 Princess would have been familiar in 1840 - and miraculously, still serve Kingston today.

I've had better luck with Gananoque, , not yet known as the Birmingham of Canada in 1840. I posted about the industries that soon lined the riverbank, only last month. Dan Buchanan hints that Weller might have glimpsed mill-owner John McDonald's fine brick house. Certainly did that.

Then Lansdowne, and the McNeil home still standing today, just at the intersection on the way to Charleston Lake Provincial Park.

"As he approached the tiny community of Springfield, much later to be called Escott, William Weller sounded his horn once more. As he drove up to the inn at the corner of Rockport Road, a team was waiting. The change was performed quickly, and they were on the road again." p.153.
This magnificent 5-bay Georgian built of local sandstone must be the inn, right at the intersection. Here's a link to prove it, right? Well, actually, no. This building which serves as the library along the Front of Yonge, was actually built (way out of style by then) in 1871. Weller missed it by a country mile!  Here's the account of my discovery back in 2013.

Dan Buchanan, William Weller and GG Thompson next galloped past Mallorytown, the town Nathaniel Mallory built. I believe this might have been his home. I've visited Mallorytown from time to time.

The author mentions the famous Mallory glassworks, Canada's earliest, established 1839, closed 1840. Devilishly difficult. The hard to produce glass is very rare now, found here and there in museums (this peculiar looking link takes you to Google image files, and a shot of a collection at the ROM.)

Through tiny villages, past many coach stops, Weller and his cargo continue. "It was after three in the morning when the travellers approached Brockville." p.156. Imagine sitting on the driver's bench of a sleigh, exposed to the weather, hands frozen around the reins, in February, for 38 hours!

Dan Buchanan suggests that  William might have looked up the wide boulevard to the court-house and jail. The impressive ceremonial route remains, but the building we see at the top today was built 2 years after Weller peeked uphill.

downhill here to Flint Street

I've always enjoyed the Brockville/Belleville connection. One of Belleville's earliest entrepreneurs was Billa Flint, son of Brockville merchant "Billy" Flint. Several streets in the wharf area recall his pugnacious presence.

"Glancing toward the river, William Weller could see that lamps were already casting shadows at Billy Flint's wharf at the end of St. Andrew 158. Today there's a highrise tower and a parking lot; Flint Street runs along the side. But these brick houses along St. Andrew, associated in some way with Flint, will serve as stand-ins for the area.

Longley Tower, Maitland
"The next village along the King's Highway was Maitland, a bustling commercial centre with wharfs at the shore of the river and a long history to boast about." p.159 Quieter now.

This 1828 windmill, later steam driven, even later a distillery among other things, became a heritage site in 1923. Indeed, according to this article, it might just be Ontario's oldest windmill.

Two miles on, Dan imagines, Weller might have spotted Homewood, the 1801 home of the Jones clan. This historically significant stone house with the distinctive French accent was almost lost to us. The Grenville Historical Society stepped up and ensured its safety in the 1970s.

I visited on a bright summer day few years ago.

But back to a cold February night in 1840. "The King's highway stretched out in front of the sleigh, flat and relatively straight for the next few miles into the town of Prescott. In many places, if not for the rhythmic pounding of the horses' hooves, William Weller might have heard the lapping of the waves of the St. Lawrence just off to his right. At this hour of the day, in dull, cold February weather, the river was only a deep blackness off to the south." p.161

Such are the sensations Dan Buchanan creates, taking the reader along on this historic journey.

From this point, however, I will have to stand at the roadside and wave as Weller and his important personage gallop off into the darkness toward Prescott and Montreal.

I plan to revisit Dan's book as my historical atlas next spring, on our (already) planned return to Prescott and the drowned villages, communities inundated by the St. Lawrence Seaway project of the 1950s. Some of the historic buildings of these towns and villages rest at Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg, others were moved to 'new' towns. Others, well, drowned.

Thanks Dan, for a great dash through a great deal of our built heritage!

 If you haven't had a chance to pick up 38 Hours from Montreal, you should, you know. You can purchase it at any of the area's bookstores, at a book talk and signing (Dan is tireless) or, as a last resort, online.

all quotes are from 38 Hours from Montreal, with the permission of the author.
*cover notes

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