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Arts & CultureJohn Dunn's StoriesThe Genealogy of the Town of Almonte

The Genealogy of the Town of Almonte

The first European name considered as a settler at this place was David Shepherd. Of this man little is known, and what little is says that he came, took up a grant of land which included the present downtown area of the town of Almonte, but that he failed to complete the settlement duties required from every settler before a final deed would be issued to the settler. It is reported that David Shepherd left this area and went to the United States.

He was followed by Daniel Shipman, son of an émigré American of the same Biblical kingliness, Daniel. Too. The Shipman family, having remained loyal to George III in spite of that sovereign’s strange notions that colonists in the New England should contribute to the royal revenues by a tax on tea.

Shipman’s lumber yard circa 1860, by site of Old Town Hall. Michael Dunn photo.

Life, however, for those in the thirteen colonies whose loyalty never wavered during the revolutionary period that confirmed their declaration of independence, well, let us say simply that they were not welcomed amongst their former neighbours. For fifty years Shipmans had been mill owners at Greenbush, a hamlet on the edge of Albany, New York, only a hen’s race from the height of land which there separates the waters flowing west along the Mohawk to Lake Erie from those flowing sharply east to the Hudson and the Atlantic Ocean.

The Shipman family, finding their entire holdings, land, houses and mills, sequestered by the new government, and themselves cast as outlaws and traitors, were driven out. They moved along the well-traveled Indian route, the Mohawk Trail, probably as far as Syracuse, until they veered north from there towards Watertown and the frontier, the St. Lawrence River. This great Divide they crossed to Brockville, and immediately took up land six miles further inland from the town.

There a small stream with a falls offered an immediate return to the way of life known outside Albany, and there Daniel decided he would build a grist mill needed by farm folk, émigrés like himself, following the same trail into British North America. A hamlet grew up around the Shipman mill, and, like a new-born infant in a family, called out for a name to be known by. Mr. Shipman found the surroundings remarkably similar, though considerably less grand than either the Hudson River outlook or the ancient Indian Mohawk Valley’s scope, did have the practical utilitarian value of a mill site in British Territory, equal to the former mill site at Greenbush, outside Albany.

That settled it. This was his new home. Greenbush it became, too, a second Greenbush.

His son, Daniel too, ventured far into the frontier wilderness, because he had heard of a mighty river called the Mississippi, and of a fast-flowing cataract in it which might provide for a mill site for another grist mill for a new generation of settlers. He came up to Smiths Falls, to Morphy’s Falls, and followed the Mississippi downstream to a place with a falls. There he took up the land grant which David Shepherd had abandoned. Taking stock of the place, the forest close at hand, the river, the falls, the power waiting to be harnessed from the river’s current, Daniel Shipman could readily envisage the benefits that new settlers would require for building materials, timbers, shingles, lumber, and also livestock supplies, grist and flour. He set to work, and before long the place was being spoken of as Shipman’s Mills. That was probably the beginning of the legendary collection of Mills along the Mississippi.

Behold, in 1821 a number of Scottish emigrants, mostly distressed weavers from Glasgow, came floating down the Mississippi on a hand-made raft. Searching for land for settlement, they found their further progress barred by a tremendous fall in the Mississippi where Mr. Shipman had taken over Mr. Shepherd’s grant of land, and was already at work devising a square-timber making site where the present town hall stands. And found out too that he was preparing to build a grist mill on another site at the head of the first falls.

It all reminded the Scottish settlers on the raft of a phrase from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, in which Brutus says to his fellow conspirators,

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their lives
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

Colonel Marshall of Perth had been appointed to direct the Scots weavers to get settled, and, for that purpose, had established a depot opposite Mr. Shipman’s timber-making yard. From there the Scots fanned out into the countryside seeking out likely places for carving out farms for themselves, and places to make their new homes.

Two years later, another group of colonists arrived under the direction of Mr. Peter Robinson, brother of John Beverly Robinson, Attorney-General. Peter had accompanied his brother, John Beverely, to Britain in the preceding year where discussions took place with Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for the Colonies, concerning the apportioning of debt in the government’s plan to divide British North America into two, one French in administration, the other English, Upper and Lower Canada.

In London, evidently, the authorities discovered that Peter Robinson had a vast and intimate knowledge of the geography of the Upper Canadian wilderness, and they sought out his advice concerning places for settlement and conditions to be imposed before deeds would be dispensed by the crown.

Famine, a periodic disaster, was again raging in the south of Ireland, particularly in the Cork district, and starving people led some to “insurrection”, as the public-relations spinners represented conditions to be. Lord Bathurst had even received representations from the Earl of Kingston (Big George Kingston), owner of a tract of 60,000 acres near Cork. Money was to be made in beef cattle for the English, to feed growing numbers of people in the cities, and in that business of beef, Big George had no need for the hundreds of starving potato-munchers now working his sixty thousand acres. He proposed that government simply lift this burden of people that were a bothersome yoke around his neck, and transport them out of his sight to the wilds of North America.

Well, gentlemen, the government is aware of a threat to British America from this insurgent United States of America, and, with that in mind, has been considering the possibility of a canal to by-pass the dangerous St. Lawrence route from Montreal to Kingston by means of a canal along the Rideau River route through the series of lakes to the high ground above Cranberry Lake and thence down the Cataraqui route to the town of Kingston. Would it be feasible, Mr. Robinson, to settle land along that route with distressed Irish? Could government rely upon their loyalty? Beyond question? Or would they simply melt away across the border into the United States and there mingle with and increase the numbers of republican rebels who, in 1775 had dared deny George III his tax on tea?

Desperate times make for desperate moves.

Peter Robinson accepted the proposition from Lord Bathurst. He was appointed “Superintendent of Emigration from the South of Ireland”. On behalf of the British government, he went to Cork and began a recruiting campaign among distressed Irish in and around Cork, inviting them to turn west to the New World, to leave Ireland, and take up land of seventy acres and an additional thirty alongside after some years’ residence. Certainly, in the ears of his hearers, a bounty which would never come to them in conditions prevailing in Ireland. The thought of a provision of a livelihood for their families appeal strongly: no one denied the sense of urgency about it.

Five hundred and seventy people signed on, accepting Mr. Robinson’s trustworthiness on behalf of government. In two naval transports, the ‘Hebe’ and the ‘Stakesby’, they left the Cove of Cork in late June and arrived at Quebec eight weeks later, by which time their numbers had increased: they now mustered 586. Hebe arrived at Quebec on the 31st day of August, and Stakesby three days later.

Little did the Emigrants realize that frost was in the offing.

In his report on progress from Quebec to Montreal and on up the St. Lawrence, Mr. Robinson reported to Lord Bathurst as follows:

“At Prescott I engaged wagons to take the Emigrants cross-country a distance of sixty miles to a place on the Mississippi with a falls.”

Colonel Marshall’s depot, still there, stood waiting to be used by a new run of settlers.

Another section from Mr. Robinson’s report touches on the weather: it says
“We were very lucky. The weather remained fine right up to the first day of December, and by that time all the Emigrants were under their own roofs.”

It is further interesting to learn of the things of importance in their minds. December led them into desperation methods of preserving fire overnight in their log cabins, for winter’s cold might be endured in December, but January’s fearsome frosts were beyond their wildest imaginings. Each new day confirmed the frost, and dispelled the notion that the township of Huntley was ever a close relation in its weather conditions with the soft days of March in the county of Cork. The fire must be kept alive and the wood box kept filled.

As the sun rose a bit higher each day, other essentials pressed for attention too. Back in Cork when Mr. Robinson had been urging them to accept the government’s offer of free land in a new world, the Emigrants had to struggle with the notion that a government which had inflicted brutal penal laws against them because of their religion could now offer even the slightest benevolence.

This Mr. Robinson, however, seemed a different cut from the pestilence of government agents they had known for years: he was a North American himself, he and his whole family had been exiled from the United States for his loyalty to the English king, even though the Robinson family had been neighbours at Mount Vernon on the Hudson to General George Washington. Furthermore, it was clear that he knew British North America very well. Possibly then his commission from government might allow him some freedom of action. Those who were seriously considering the offer that Mr. Robinson made, now came forward again to enquire from him if that New world might have two components that could determine their readiness to accept government’s offer. They enquired if in that new world, there would be two essentials to go with the offer of land, namely, priests and potatoes.

Mr. Robinson assured them that they would certainly find both. After their wagon journey across country from Prescott, and getting settled in to their own habitations during the month of December, they endured January’s fearsome frosts, and turned to one of the essentials: the matter of priests. . In February, 1824 their effort to establish a parish bore first fruit. Under the patronage of St. Michael, Archangel, the parish came into being two and a half months after the Emigrants landed in Huntley’s wilds from the South of Ireland. The parish has remained to this day a tribute of faith both in Mr. Robinson’s integrity as agent of government and in the inheritance of Faith released centuries before at Cashel in their homeland by a former slave named Patrick. .

Mr. Shipman by 1840, with twenty years of experience in this “Place on the Mississippi with a falls” had made considerable progress. He had a shingle mill, a square-timber making yard, a sawmill and a grist mill, and he knew there was more power which could be harnessed yet in the Mississippi.

However, the little settlement needed more people too, and to encourage settlement and make the village grow he made a bold public pronouncement. In his eyes, the enticement for new families in the place well, new arrivals would first have to wonder if there were anything permanent about the place. And what would they use for a measuring rod? They would look for evidence of a church. A church in the place would mean that people already here, were prepared to stay. Nothing more permanent in that direction than a church.

With that in mind, Daniel Shipman went public: he set out this proposition: he would donate a lot, entirely free of charge, to the first congregation that would undertake to build a church in this place. No strings attached, no hidden agenda.

In later years his son, Sylvanus, revealed that his father was shaken to the very foundations of his boots when he learned that it was them Catholics who had come forth with a fixed notion that they wanted to build a church. Catholics! Those distressed Irish, was this some joke? Daniel Shipman, inheritor of much of the puritanical animosity of Cromwell and his associates towards religion in general, were first and foremost in the cry of ‘No popery’.

On examining his position in light of this intelligence about the intention of the Catholics, Mr. Shipman toyed with the idea of welching on his public declaration of a lot to the first congregation, by which he meant, the first Protestant congregation. Seeing as any welching would destroy his credibility and perhaps ruin his future as a public figure in the growing village, he submitted reluctantly to the fact that the Catholics would be the inheritors of his generosity, and so, the first church in the village came into being as a Catholic church, dedicated to the honour of the Holy Name of Mary, and as a mission of the parish of St. Michael’s in Huntley.

St. Mary’s was not, however, the first church in the district surrounding the “place on the Mississippi with a falls.” That honour goes to the Auld Kirk, built by the Scottish Presbyterians on the eighth line in 1836 and dedicated to the honour of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland.

Auld Kirk circa 1900

A tidy little settlement sprang up around the Auld Kirk. Church and school went together in those days, in the same manner as horse and buggy. A tannery beside the creek followed, for a tannery’s operations demand the use of large volumes of water, a schoolhouse, and, in later years, when the use of artificial rennet came into play with tremendous advantage for cheesemaking, a cheese factory and a chair manufacturer (how those two go together too)

Still, those uses came from close proximity to a small falls in the tannery creek. A regular supply of water, and the energy to turn a mill wheel from the falls of a creek were great advantages.

How much greater potential for use lay in the spectacular falls of the Mississippi around |Mr. Shipman’s mills? It seemed to be a matter of scale.

Into this discussion came news from Britain, exciting news indeed, concerning the use of water power in Britain, allied with the invention of a coal-fired steam engine. That combination seemed unbeatable, and was already in use to provide power for very large scale mills

For there had been a revolution in the machinery used in woolen cloth manufacturing. The loom, the spinning wheel of the country kitchen, Within a period of 40 years inventions had revolutionized the treatment of wool to the point whereby the centuries-old cottage industry which comprised washing, carding, spinning, dyeing, weaving, fulling, and final fitting, and which demanded countless hours of painstaking care from the hands of everyone in a household, all that had changed because of the inventions. The result was that the use of water power from a falls in a river, coupled with energy for turning wheels to turn machines into working tools, all this because of the invention of a steam engine and the presence of coal in Britain to use in the firing of a boiler.

Factories sprang into being outside Glasgow, and in the Liverpool district. Around Manchester.

Why Francis Lowell of the Boston Lowells, had taken his wife to Britain on a two-year period of study of the woolen industry, and the new ways of treating wool, and the commercial possibilities which arose out of the use of machinery. |It amounted to mass production of cloth. And that in turn had possibilities which would require shipping. Boston could become a port of importance for Mr. Lowell.

As a result of his study, Mr. Lowell returned to the family enterprises in Boston, and immediately put into practice some of the industrial mode of doing things which he had seen first used in Britain. The Lowell family began from scratch. They built the New Harmony mills, an entirely new and planned community on the banks of the Merrimac River in the brand new town of Lowell, Mass.

Advances were in the air. “A place with a falls” could no longer be looked on as a barrier to the emigrants coming down the river on a raft, seeking a suitable place to stop and begin farming. The falls would for the future be more valuable than the place for farming. It was strange: but life was like that, constant upheaval taking place, upsetting the ways that people had worked for centuries before.

Why, in 1850 there was even talk in the air about a railroad. Railroad? Yes, and of course, there was the famous Stockton and Darlington railway in Britain on which George Stephenson had run his famous |”Rocket”, the steam engine that drew a train of cars behind it on the railroad. In the lower part of Canada, rails had already been laid for what its promoters called the Interprovincial Railway that would link Montreal with the Atlantic seaboard of Nova Scotia.

CPR train circa 1920

Why, who knows, they could even run a railroad from Brockville on the St. Lawrence to this “Place on the Mississippi with a falls”, and even beyond, right into the frontier somewhere on the Ottawa. Steam power on wheels! That’s what it was! Nothing could stop the march of progress now.

Mr. Rosamond and three others combined their talents, their energy and their capital, and they built a woolen mill, the Ramsay Wool Cloth Manufacturing Company on he flank of the gorge opposite the present hydro-electric generating station. The wool cloth manufacturing enterprise ran into ill luck – fire destroyed the entire structure within months of its completion.

Fire may have destroyed the building, and broken the partnership of the gang of four, but it had not dimmed the spirit of enterprise in Mr. Rosamond. He bought out the interest of the other partners, and shortly began to build a bigger and far higher building than had formerly held the scene. He called his the Victoria Woolen Mill. A turbine set into a crevice in the gorge whirled with the fast-running river water: the turbine spun round and round, and through its upright shafting and gears, the machinery inside the mill turned, the belts ran over the pulleys and the carding machine, the washing machine, the spinning apparatus, and finally the looms all together made the woolen cloth. Difficulties were made to be overcome with foresight and sound engineering.

In 1859 Mr. Rosamond grasped fortune by the forelock. A great exposition was to be held in London, England, at which the world’s best products from the industrial revolutionary era would be on display. Competition for the best of various classes ran keenly through all parts of the Empire especially, and this competitive edge encouraged |Mr. Rosamond to enter a sample of cloth from the Victoria Woolen Mill in the competition for wool cloth. Behold, his entry won a gold medal for “Excellence in Manufacturing”.

In August of that same year, 1859, the Brockville and Ottawa Railroad reached Almonte. And a new era blossomed, the era of railroading.

Mr. Rosamond’s vision had closed the circle. In three other parts of the world, excellence in wool manufacturing had been the norm, at New Lanark on the Clyde in Scotland, at Manchester in England’s Midlands district, and at Lowell, Massachusetts. Those three manufacturing sites had the immediate advantage of ocean shipping, through Glasgow, Liverpool, and Boston respectively.

From 1859 on, Mr. Rosamond’s mill had the same advantage through the railroad to the port of Montreal.

Rosamond Mill No. 1

The Victorian era concluded the following year, 1860, with the visit of the youthful Prince of Wales. He came as the heir apparent to the throne of Britain’s Empire, representing his mother, Queen Victoria, and bringing with him the aura of responsibility and respectability that the age associated with the royal family. The Prince set the last stone in place for the greatest engineering feat of the age, the Victoria Bridge at Montreal. The final link in that extraordinary achievement, the block of stone measured ten feet in length by four feet in width and two feet in thickness, a massive chunk of granite to close the link in a chain of 1100 miles of railroad leading in to the metropolis called Montreal.

From that undertaking he came to Ottawa to lay the cornerstone of the new parliament buildings which spelled out unmistakably the importance of the new Bytown for the expected growth of Canada from colony to nation.

And from that cornerstone mission he was escorted upriver to the foot of Chats Falls where a massive flotilla of one thousand canoes escorted the prince across the wide expanse of the Ottawa River to the landing at the foot of John Street in Arnprior, where a massive picnic had been arranged in his honour on the grounds of Daniel McLachlin, the lumber and timber baron of the Upper Ottawa.

And from there the prince’s carriage brought him and his escorts from Pakenham along the ninth line to Alexander Snedden’s stopping place, from where they diverted up to Bennie’s Corners and came along the eighth line to the Indian River, and continued thence and came in to Almonte. There, the train sat waiting to bring the prince further along on his Canadian visit to Kingston, and Cobourg, and Toronto, and thence across the lake to Queenston, where another commemorative stone-lay9ing ceremony awaited him — the final stone in the rebuilt Queenston memorial to honour General Brock and Colonel John Macdonell.

It is little realized today that there is a connection between Almonte and the Macdonell honoured at Queenston.




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