Brockville in 1852

A selected excerpt from Canada: Its Growth and Prospects”,

two lectures delivered before the Toronto Mechanics Institute

on the 13th and 27th February 1852, by the Rev. Adam Lillie:




Brockville has a population of about 3400, and is “the capital” of the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville. Here the public buildings are located and the principal courts and sittings of the Counties municipality are usually held.

It is situated on the banks of the St. Lawrence. That noble river in front, rolling its clear waters onward to the ocean; while westward to the great inland lakes, the vision is lost amid numerous beautiful islands that lie scattered upon its surface; and eastward with the stream, immediately below the town, three islands break upon the view. These islands present a continuous chain, at irregular distances, from shore to shore, a distance of about 5000 feet, which at a future day, not far distant in these days of rapid progression in Canada, may form the foundation for the piers of a railroad bridge to span the St. Lawrence and connect Canada with the United States. The level of the shores on either side, a short distance back from the edge of the river, are about 100 feet above high water level.

Brockville is to be one of the terminus of the proposed “Lake Huron and St. Lawrence Railroad”, which has been surveyed, and for which plans and specifications are now in course of preparation. The distance hence to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron is said to be under 200 miles, through a country, the greater part of the way, is most favourable for constructing a railroad, and which will offer great inducements for the emigrant to become a settler on the wild lands adjoining the route.

The distance from Brockville to Montreal is about 146 miles, which is reached by steam navigation in 12 or 14 hours, passing through the far famed rapids of the St. Lawrence, or by railroad through the northern front of the State of New York, for about three-fourths of the distance, in 10 to 12 hours. It is distant from New York and Boston; from the later about 400 and from the former about 500 miles, which may be made by railway most of the distance in 20 to 30 hours.

Brockville 1848 engraving (based on Wm Sherwood sketch)

A view of Brockville from the St. Lawrence River. This engraving is dated 1848 and was based on a drawing done by Brockville lawyer, William Sherwood.

Not less than eight of the largest and first class steamers from Canadian and American ports touch at the wharves daily, during the season of navigation, independent of the very many smaller steam and sail craft, offering hourly unlimited facilities for the transport of property and for travel east and west.

The town is chiefly supported by the agriculturists in rear, whose fine farms are scattered over the land, and weekly pour in their surplus productions over the turnpike, macadamized, and plank roads, to be exchanged for the manufactures of the town, or those from Britain and the United States.

A number of valuable manufactories are carried on, embracing a large factory for farming utensils, some of which made a most creditable display in the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, one stove foundry and machine shop, and another in course of erection, a flouring and two saw-mills driven by the waters of ” Mill Creek,” which mingle with the St. Lawrence at the western end of the town. A steam saw-mill and planing-mill, three tanneries, with many and various other mechanical trades and occupations are in successful operation and employment. There is also an extensive brick-yard, and a commodious ship-yard.

Merchants stores, with goods from the four corners of the globe, are here in abundance; three bank offices of discount, telegraph office, post office, custom office   this port being also a warehousing port   and last, though not least, the town boasts of two weekly newspapers, the Recorder and the Statesman, which have large circulation in the adjoining counties. There is also in the town an extensive public library, and a well conducted reading-room, in which may be found the leading journals of Canada, Britain, and the United States.

We cannot do better than close this brief and imperfect description by extracting from a correspondent’s letter in the Recorder of 8th April last, a sketch of Brockville:

“Few towns in North America, and none in Canada, will compare with Brockville, in the beauty and healthfulness of its site. Situated upon a gently rising ground, on the summit of which stands the Court House, a model of architectural elegance and substantiality, with its classic Figure of Justice overlooking all beneath it. Immediately in rear the grounds beautifully undulate like the summer ocean, and coursing along the base of these undulations, like the great Sea Serpent amid the billows of the ‘mighty deep’ is Mill Creek, whose waters drive the busy ‘click clack’ of various machinery. Immediately to the east and to the west, some of them embowered in trees, rise the lofty spires of numerous stone, rough cast, and brick churches, where meet our towns-people to serve their God, none daring to make them afraid. In front, and away to the right and left, are many solid and handsome private dwellings, not a few surrounded by choice gardens, orchards, and other useful conveniences so necessary to good.

Up and down the Main Street are numerous substantial and handsome brick, rubble, and cut-stone stores, hotels, and other places of business. Still further off, upon Water Street, is seen the superfluous steam issuing from the work shops of the industrious and enterprising bee-hive like manufacturer and mechanic. Richly studded with islands in front, above and below the town, the ‘mighty St. Lawrence,’ touching the banks of the great and growing Republic, rolls its clear waters to the ocean, and floating, in season, ‘Watt’s’ life-moving palaces laden with the hardy emigrant from our father-land, and the fruits of trade and commerce, or the produce of the backwoodsmen and toiling agriculturist.”

1849 Magazine Article about Brockville

This article was selected from an old magazine:

The Maple-Leaf or Canadian Annual

Court House Ave 1849 (from the Maple-Leaf)

 Looking up Court House Ave. towards the Brockville Court House


About fifty miles from the head of the St. Lawrence, stands Brockville, the subject of our vignette. To every Canadian, and indeed to every Englishman, this town, though far from being the most important in size and population in our Province, cannot fail to be an object of interest.

The association with the memory of him who fell in the arms of victory on the Heights of Queenston, whilst it adds a feature to its attractions, renders it an enduring monument of his fame — a monument, which will last whilst its stone-built streets endure, and may in some measure make amends for the apathy with which a nation looks on the once graceful, but now ruined column that marks the spot where her hero’s blood was spilt.

But, apart from the memories of mingled pride and regret which its name may call up, Brockville possesses many charms.

In a downward journey on the bosom of the magnificent St. Lawrence — which may now be made with safety in a commodious steamer, and surrounded with comfort and even luxury — before arriving at the subject of our present notice, the traveller passes amidst the far-famed Thousand Islands, which bear the appearance of having sprung from the depths of the mighty stream expressly to be the’ abode of the spirits of its waters.

Amid their picturesque mazes, man feels himself an intruder; and as the moving mass he treads bears him safely among the labyrinth of rocks, he may fancy himself transported by genii through some region of fairy land; or, without yielding to the powers of imagination, he cannot forbear contemplating alike the extraordinary results of human skill, and the wonders of nature’s own creation, thus brought together for his use and admiration, in the self-impelled ark which he inhabits, and in the beauteous scenery which surrounds him.

Brockville 1849 (from the Maple-Leaf)

Our illustration — though we trust our readers will not deny to the artist his due need of praise — gives but a very imperfect idea of the town. After passing through scenes whose claims to admiration, though great, are altogether their natural beauties, the eye rests pleasantly on the stone walls of Brockville. The Court House, and the Church on the eminence above the town, are the chief objects which attract attention.

The latter is seen in our artist’s sketch; but the Court House, though visible from the deck of the steamer, cannot be distinguished. The well-executed wood-cut, however, which we subjoin, gives a faithful representation of this commodious and handsome structure, the commanding site on which it stands, and the broad avenue through which it is approached.

The view which forms our vignette is taken from the level of the site of the lower part of the town, and comprises only that portion of it adjacent to the wharves, consisting chiefly of warehouses. From other points, however, the town presents a much more favourable aspect. Opposite to the wharves is what forms a pretty object in our picture — a small fort or block-house, in which a few troops are usually stationed. If we land and proceed through the principal streets, we are agreeably surprised at the features presented, so different from those that mark the generality of the towns in this newly-peopled part of the world. Instead of the glaring and perishable attractions of painted frame-work, and those characteristics, which indicate the rapidity, wherewith the cities of this continent, as if evoked by magic from the vast wilderness, leap into existence, and the primeval forest is replaced by the busy haunts of man, Brockville affords an appearance of solidity grateful to the eye of the “old country man,” and of substantial and unostentatious comfort. Its handsome houses of stone, with cut-stone fronts, and its public buildings of the same massive material, give to the streets an air of wealth and importance which other Canadian towns of the same size and population cannot boast of, and which form the distinguishing feature we have remarked. This it owes to the abundance of limestone and granite which is found in its neighbourhood. The heaviness and gloom which the general use of stone in the buildings would otherwise create, are agreeably relieved by the number of residences, even in the heart of the town, which are surrounded by neat gardens and ornamental trees.

The commercial prosperity of Brockville in some degree declined after the construction of the Rideau Canal, a stupendous work of art, connecting the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, and cut by the Government chiefly for military purposes, but which enabled passengers and the forwarders of merchandise to avoid the then dangerous navigation of the St. Lawrence, though by a circuitous and expensive route.

Of late years, however, the “carrying trade”, as the business of forwarding merchandise and produce is called, has been finding its old, and what would seem to us to be its natural channel. Canals, wide and deep, and furnished with handsomely and substantially-built stone locks, render the formidable Rapids of the St. Lawrence no longer an obstruction to navigation. Steamers of the first class now descend the whole course of the mighty stream, and ascend it with equal safety, — stemming, by the invincible power of steam, the torrents of the ” Gallops”, and the “Plat” rapids, so long considered insurmountable, but escaping, by the use of the canals, the more impetuous and impracticable rapids of “Lachine”, “the Cascades”, “the Cedars”, and “the Sault”.

Far different was the mode of transportation on our own first acquaintance with the giant river. Among the younger of a band of emigrant brothers, it fell to our lot to accompany in its course, towards our westward destination, the usual vast pile of huge bales, sea-chests, and other indescribable appendages of the self-made exile, which in those days was considered indispensable, but a great part of which was too often found on its arrival to be unsuitable or unnecessary, and only to afford a cause of regret to the disappointed owner, that it had not been left on the other side of the broad ocean, and a proportionate increase made in his letters of credit. The adventures of that voyage from Montreal to Kingston, which can now be performed in little more than twenty-four hours, would fill a chapter.

No ark-like steamer, with its towering decks and lofty wooden walls, received us and our fortunes. The open and fragile batteau, manned by the “voyageurs” of the then sister Province, was the only bark to bear us over the rushing waters. Horses, and sometimes oxen, slowly dragged our diminutive vessel up the foaming rapids.

A surly “habitant”, whose whole vocabulary seemed to consist of the everlasting “marche donc” to his weary cattle, urged his lagging train along the margin, sometimes at the water’s edge or again on the high bank of the stream. Armed with a hatchet, his companion followed him, ready at a moment’s notice to sever the tow-line, should the failing strength of the cattle or the increasing force of the current threaten, what occasionally happened, their being dragged backwards into the water.

His duty was also to clear the line — which was necessarily very long — from the numerous stumps and other obstacles by which it might be caught and impeded. Slow, and not without danger, was our course. Nor was its speed accelerated by the long and tiresome halts that, deaf to all remonstrance in English or French, our boatmen made, to drink and smoke. It was during one of these weary halts at the Long Sault rapids, that, by accident or design, our moorings broke, and not without consternation we found ourselves afloat on the rushing river, accompanied by but one boatman.

The danger, however, was not so great as might be imagined. Swiftly but safely (for our tiny craft drew but little water) we shot o’er the surface of the stream which it had cost us so much toil to ascend, and without injury landed (through, we have no doubt, the design of our French friend, who formed captain, pilot and crew) at a small village, the name of which I forget, on the American side of the river, and then our boatman very deliberately — left us.

No arguments — no remonstrance could procure his stay: could we have addressed to him Caesar’s pithy words to his storm-overtaken pilot, we should still have failed: had Caesar’s self entreated, Caesar must have entreated in vain; “away he went — we never saw him no more”.

We escaped — though not without some investigation on the part of Brother Jonathan, as to our smuggling or piratical designs; and by our own exertions, being now beyond the force of the rapid, reached the opposite shore in safety. But our adventure delayed us several days in arriving at our destination, and obliged us to bring our batteau up to Prescott without the aid of boatmen, and which we should never have achieved bill for the assistance of some stout English carpenters who had crossed the Atlantic, and now ascended the St. Lawrence, with us.

We sojourned in the land of our adoption, and years — if not marked by “moving accidents by flood and field,” yet not unvaried by many an adventure and even “hair-breadth escape”, on the wide surface of its sea-like lakes, or in the shady depths of its leafy forests — passed, ere again we sped o’er the waves of its noble river.

After an interval of time, short in itself, but long in the changes it had wrought in ourselves and in the scenes around, we once more contemplated its rapid and sparkling waters. The boy had grown a man — had known the joys, the cares, the strifes of manhood. Was the scene around less changed? The river rolled its mass of waters in its unaltered and unalterable channels; but the villages that had dotted its margin, had become towns — the tiny and straggling craft that had toiled with their handful of freight up its mighty current, had disappeared — steamers and schooners boldly traversed its waters, and bore towards the ocean rich cargoes of the produce of our fields, or carried from the sea-board the fruits of the industry of distant thousands.

The attempts of steam vessels to stem the rapids of the St. Lawrence, were not at first attended with the success which they have now attained. The “Iroquois” (called after the Indian tribe of the same name) was, we believe, the first that undertook to pass up. Her mode of progression, however, was not that of the present day. As she neared die rapids, a strong tow-line was thrown on shore, and the slow but sure labours of toiling oxen enabled her to overcome the current, which she otherwise could not have confronted.

Even within the last few years, steamers with all the modern improvements, have been glad to rest in their upward course, retained in their position by ropes made fast to trees or stout posts on shore, and thus recover their breath and renew their drooping energies, before they ventured to face “the pitch”. But the rapids have carried us past Brockville; and we too must stem the tide, or brave a similar mishap to that which before befell us.

Of a more than ordinarily pleasant journey, that gave us an opportunity of admiring the richness and fertility of the country that borders on the Bay of Quinte, and the splendid locks and occasional romantic views on the Rideau — and, on our return by the Ottawa and St. Lawrence, of comparing the beauties of those rivers — we have retained no recollection of more interest to us than that attached to Brockville.

The sweet picture of the gay little town, with its comfortable houses stretching to the water’s edge down the ascent, whose crest is surmounted by picturesquely-situated public buildings, is still fresh in our memory. Well do we remember, too, the companion of our upward voyage, from whom we parted at that wharf where you see the steamer moored.

He was one of its oldest and most honoured inhabitants, and during his long residence there had materially promoted its progress and improvement. That little church to the left of our vignette attests the active interest which he took as well in the spiritual as in the temporal welfare of his fellow-citizens.

Although Brockville has sent forth many who have attained to eminence in their native land, in various walks of life, yet of none has she more reason to be proud — none has she more cause to regret, than our eminent and lamented fellow-traveller. The Bar — the Senate — and the Bench, each in its turn shared his labours and was the sphere of his distinction; and his removal from among us has left a void in a large circle of grief-stricken relatives and connections in Brockville and elsewhere, which it will indeed be difficult to fill.

Honest and manly in his public career — amiable and kind, in all the relations of private life, the public have to lament a tried and faithful servant, and his family to mourn for a fond and affectionate relative. Little did we think, as our kind companion, in all the buoyancy of health and spirits, described the familiar scenes of his early youth, whilst we ascended the stream between Prescott and Brockville — told us of the olden days at Maitland and Augusta, and fondly pointed out beside the old poplars the ruins of the parental dwelling, in which he had first drawn breath — little did we think, that that voice was so soon to be for ever hushed — that warm heart so suddenly chilled — that active mind and vigorous frame so instantaneously prostrated by Death.

We parted from him at Brockville, in hope and confidence of many years of life and honour being allotted him; but one short year — and we formed one of a numerous train of mourners that followed his remains to their last resting-place.