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Old Hastings Road sign. Photo by Gus ZylstraThe Old Hastings

Eastern Ontario
ghost towns
are a trip into the past

by Peter Young

Settlers to Canada in the 1850s would often leave their homeland with a tear in their eye as they bade their families and friends farewell. With Patrick and Dermot Kavanaugh, circumstances were likely somewhat different. Forced from Ireland’s troubled County Wexford with a price on their heads, the youths escaped what might have been an unpleasant and very short future by hopping aboard a sailing vessel bound for Canada.

Patrick and “Darby” arrived in North Hastings in 1856 via the newly constructed Hastings Colonization Road, one of a series of routes built in Upper Canada (Ontario) to encourage settlers to move northward into the central region of the province. Within months Patrick cleared land and began homesteading.

Not Darby. This Irishman was a born entrepreneur who enjoyed business and the company of people, and thanks to his strong will, the town of Umphraville (now spelled Umfraville) became one of the busiest and most populated centres along Hastings Road.

Darby established the Umphraville Post Office which soon expanded into a full business centre dealing in practically every commodity and service required by settlers. Cash in the early days was not the usual means of payment; rather, the barter system was more practical. Darby accepted goods for trade. These items would be sold or traded to others. He kept tabs running for years, accepting his customers’ promises to pay by a certain date. As a middleman he would acquire products such as a team of oxen for a customer, or collect funds for his priest and church. Darby even dabbled in money-lending for people to travel to southern towns such as Madoc or Belleville. Interest rates ranged from seven to 10 percent.

Darby Kavanaugh’s post office, store and hotel made Umphraville a popular spot to stop along the Hastings Road, providing supplies to lumber mills, and lodgings to teamsters as they made their way to the camps.

Today the once-thriving hamlet of Umphraville is marked only by a single sign pointing to the pioneer cemetery located west of the Old Hastings Road. The town that once boasted 260 residents is completely removed from the map. Not so much as a dilapidated shack remains, which might at least have given the village “ghost town” status.

What happened to Umphraville? To Thanet? To Murphy Corners? To Glanmire?

These once-busy towns, with stores, hotels and mills along the Old Hastings Road, have simply disappeared.

The Old Hastings Colonization Road may conjure up romantic Canadian images of farm families industriously creating new lives for themselves in the wilderness. But in reality, this route was the “Trail of Broken Hearts”—a label given to this colonization road by Ontario Land Surveyor C.F. Alysworth in 1925. After traveling the entire length of the route from Madoc north to the Madawaska River, he found less than 25 percent of the original land grants still occupied. From a peak of 400 settled lots in the late 1800s, fewer than 75 were being worked at the time of his inspection. Fields were overgrown and buildings stood vacant, the products of decades of pioneer sweat and toil slowly reclaimed by nature.

Today there is little to remind us of those who came before us to carve their life out of dense bush, swamps and Pre-Cambrian rock. The only physical evidence left from these early settlers along the Old Hastings Road are hints of their presence—a fallen moss-covered split-rail fence, the form of an old cellar hole now sprouting trees and bushes, or perhaps a pile of boulders cleared, more than a century ago, to make room for what was hoped to be an abundant harvest.

Between Millbridge and Bancroft a number of bustling communities sprouted along the Hastings Road in the latter part of the 1800s, but alas, these hamlets are long gone with names found only in local history books. But if you enjoy traveling the back routes on a quiet summer or autumn day, you can visit these sites, close your eyes, and imagine the school bell calling children back from recess, the clip-clop of horse hooves pulling supply wagons, and laughter drifting from the hotel’s open door.

Before we grab the camera, put on our hiking boots and explore the locations of these “ghost towns,” let’s take a look at the history of the Old Hastings Road—a trail considered one of the “most challenging thoroughfares ever built in southern Ontario.”

By 1850 in Ontario most of the good arable land to the south was cleared and occupied. Most people at the time lived in the country and farmed; in fact, before 1900, three of every four people lived on farms or in rural communities. New immigrants were arriving from Europe eager to own property. They had been pushed from their homeland for a number of reasons, including the potato famine in Ireland, political unrest, and a rise in population in some countries which made it very difficult for some families to survive. These new Canadians, along with sons of Upper Canada farmers looking for their own land to till, placed a heavy demand on farmland.

In response to this need for new land to cultivate, Upper Canada passed the Public Lands Tract in 1853. Funds were set aside to build colonization roads, and free land grants were given to settlers 18-years and older on the condition that, within four years, they cleared 12 acres, built a house of 18’ x 20’ (some sources say 20’ x 23’), and promised to maintain their section of the road.

However, before lots could be surveyed, cleared and settled, access to the interior of the province had to be established through a network of colonization roads. The Hastings Colonization Road was one of a series of north-south and east-west routes built between Ottawa and Georgian Bay.

In 1851, a Belleville surveyor with the distinctive name of Publius V. Elmore was assigned the project of running an exploratory line from Madoc to near what is now the southern tip of Algonquin Park. Three years later, Robert Bird, of Sidney Township, was instructed to open a road on Elmore’s line which, when completed, would form the north and south boundaries between a series of North Hastings Townships. Fifty-acre lots were surveyed on either side of the Hastings Road through these townships. The Hastings Road Agency was given the responsibility of building the road; construction was contracted to George Neilson from Belleville, who sub-contracted the work to Madoc farmers Cook and St. Charles to begin construction in 1855. The first 40 miles (64 kilometres) were built for 125 pounds per mile.

The road could have been laid down over crystalline limestone to obtain a level course, (according to Memoir #6, Geology of the Haliburton and Bancroft Areas—Geological Surveys Branch, Department of Mines, 1910), but instead a line was drawn on a map, and orders were given to lay out a road along this line. The route held its course regardless of hill or valley, and ran through very rough country—this could have been avoided had the road been located slightly to the east. And as the lots were laid out, a mathematical grid pattern was used—rather than thought being given to the quality of the land—resulting in many of the land grants being rocky, swampy or both, and not suitable for farming.

The agent in charge of securing settlers for the road, M.P. Hayes, later complained this trail crossed hills at right angles; “it may be said to be a continual succession of steep hills and crosswayed gullies....” The completed road went north from Madoc, running 16 degrees west, with a change of direction to the east at L’Amable Lake, and ended 100 miles later at the Opeongo Colonization Road.

On July 18, 1856, Hayes opened his Hastings Road Agency office in Madoc. The company had annexed close to 1.2 million acres of land in the townships of Hastings, claiming that 900,000 acres were suitable for agriculture and would be divided into 100-acre farm lots. A few years later, an 1863 official map, published by the Commissioner of Crown Lands, indicated 40 percent of the whole county was suitable for farming. Interestingly, one hundred years later, a 1962 soil report states less than 150,000 acres could be used for agriculture, a figure closer to 12.5 percent. Many surveyors and land agents of the time sent in optimistic reports on land use but knew very well that most of the land could not sustain farming operations. It was lumber companies, desperately wanting access to the forests of central Ontario, that pushed for the completion of colonization roads.

Between 1856 and 1863, more than 1000 people followed the footsteps of early settlers such as the Kavanaughs to carve out a new life in Ontario’s wilderness. This land was attractively marketed to potential homesteaders as an area with an abundant water supply, falls of water with potential to supply power for manufacturing, and superior heavy timber that could be sold and burned for potash—a commodity in demand at the time. The pioneers were told, once cleared, the land could be used for growing crops such as wheat.

By early 1858 Hayes reported statistics to his Commissioner indicating the total population was 683, there were 144 lots settled, 1200 acres were under cultivation, and 187 buildings were erected. The report also stated that during April the Hastings Road was almost impassable.

Indeed, travel on the Hastings Road was easiest during the winter when wetlands froze, pot holes filled, and sleigh runners could glide along terrain that, during the rest of the year, offered a slow, bone-jarring trek. Even springs on wagon seats provided little protection against the rough trail.

Hayes told his Commissioner that transportation on his road was twice the cost of the other Free Grant roads and the cost of maintaining this trail was more than the settlers could afford. More government money was allocated to improve the road in 1865 and in the years following. Much of the work was done by Darby Kavanaugh and men he hired. Even though some sections were re-routed, a geologist at the turn of the century wrote that the road was constructed through the county’s roughest country, “interesting to a geologist, but presenting difficulties to the settler.”

Figures in 1863 show a growth pattern along the road. A population of 1031 had cleared 5,370 acres, and constructed 580 buildings. But as optimistic as these numbers may be, they do not give a true picture of the sweat, toil and frustration experienced by the settlers.

Unlike the rich agricultural southern part of the province which had been systematically developed, people had to search for small patches of tillable farmland in the central region. Often the forest camouflaged marginal farmland. Pioneers believed that by clearing the land of trees, crops would thrive afterwards. Therefore, lumbering was looked upon as a forerunner of a more important industry—agriculture.

Strenuous, difficult, heartbreaking—these words all describe pioneer life. Fields had to be cleared, seeds were sown by hand, and the limited selection of machinery available at the time continually broke down. Blackflies and mosquitoes were at times unbearable, considering that one had to work outside every day. Pioneers combated many things from bush fires, to birds and animals eating the small crops, to natural misfortunes such as drought and hail.

Self-sufficiency was the goal that all homesteaders aimed to achieve; this meant devoting efforts in a variety of areas. Hay and grain were hand-cut, clothes were knitted, and soap came from leaching hardwood ashes. Maple trees were a godsend for syrup and sugar. But although a few successful farms on deeper soil lured others to Hastings County, it became nearly impossible to make a living from farming alone, and most settlers had to engage in another activity such as logging.

Lumbering was the main industry in the region between 1850 and 1900. Farmers turned to this type of work in the winter, cutting logs and skidding them by oxen and horses to rivers and lakes when the spring log drive would send timber to its final destination: the Ottawa River. Lumber camps also provided a market for farmers to sell some of their products including potatoes, oats and hay. By 1880, farmers began to see that lumbering had a limited duration. Logging—one of the main activities that supplemented farmers’ incomes—was seasonal and risky, especially as resources became somewhat depleted.

Though women were often the source of stability and courage in pioneer families no woman’s name appears on any records of the Hastings Road until 1874 when Elizabeth Neal located in Faraday Township. As Nila Reynolds points out in her book, Bancroft—A Bonanza of Memories, “women nursed the sick, tended the dying, prepared the dead for burial, and acted as midwives; they worked beside their husbands much of the time, kept the house under terrible conditions of cramped space and extremes of heat and cold, and oiled the very machinery of life itself with their tenderness and compassion, ignoring slow years robbing them of the nameless grace that never comes again.” Women tended to develop a fatalistic attitude to their life—“If I’m meant to live, I’ll live, if I’m to die, I’ll die.”

By the latter part of the 1800s, farmers realized they were not going to make a living from the land along the Hastings Road—or along many of the other colonization roads in central Ontario. By 1900 the futility of farming this area, combined with the opening of Canada’s west, with its fertile soil that needed little clearing, led to an exodus of settlers from the Hastings area. This pattern was normal throughout the southern Ontario portion of the Pre-Cambrian Shield in the early 1900s. Without new settlers replacing those leaving, the population actually declined in most North Hastings townships in the first decade of this century.

Prospectors were moving into the area though. They staked claims they hoped would be abundant in mineral deposits. Mining did develop into a large industry in the Bancroft region, but still presented similar problems encountered in logging—after the resource was mined, the demand for settlers’ products and labour to service the facility also dried up.

Towns along the Old Hastings Road were not abandoned overnight. The process was gradual as various services and industries closed down. Gristmills ceased to operate when wheat farming declined. Rail lines, once busy servicing lumbering and mining operations, closed. Hotels were boarded up as the temperance movement succeeded in stopping liquor sales. By the 1900s Ontario had entered its urbanization phase, and many people from small hamlets who had not moved out west drifted to larger centres. This movement led to highways being built, often bypassing what remained of the villages.

The present Highway 62 follows much of the original Hastings Road at both the southern and northern ends, but it is the central section, about 50 kilometres (30 miles), that witnessed partial to complete abandonment. Along this stretch, between Millbridge and Bancroft, the villages of Glanmire, Murphy Corners, Thanet, Ormsby, and Umphraville struggled for life and identity. However, except for a few dwellings which mark the crossroads of Ormsby, the fight for a permanent place on the map of Ontario was in vain.

But to forget these hamlets and, more importantly, the people who braved almost impossible odds to create a new life for themselves, would be doing a great disservice to them and their descendants, many of whom still live in the Bancroft area.

Ron Brown’s book Ghost Towns of Ontario briefly describes these villages. The remains of Glanmire, once a thriving centre with a school, church, post office, hotel, mill, and houses, can still be found 10 kilometres (6 miles) north of Millbridge. Originally called Beaver Creek, and then Jelly’s Rapids, Glanmire’s post office opened in 1858 by James Richardson. St. Margaret’s Anglican Church was erected in 1887, but all that remains today are the front steps leading to a monument indicating the congregation worshipped here “faithfully for over seventy years.” In the early days, a United Empire Loyalist, Isaac Stymers, carried the mail on foot from Jelly’s Rapids to York River. During the 1870s the meagre prosperity of the Hastings Road showed signs of decline, and Glanmire felt the effects. As with most of these population centres, the buildings have long ago disappeared, but just north of the cement bridge crossing Beaver Creek, the cemetery headstones in the St. Margaret’s churchyard remain. It is at Glanmire that the fully serviced Hastings Road ends and becomes a seasonal road, but remains passable during the summer.

The road improves a few miles north at Murphy Corners, just west of Steenburg Lake. In the old days, Murphy Corners—settled by brothers James and Pat Murphy—was the mill town, and the village of Thanet was the stopping place. In 1860 a school was built in Murphy Corners with a church following 10 years later. The original Murphy log homestead, still being used as a seasonal residence, can be seen at the northeast corner of the crossroads. Church services were conducted in this cabin until the new building was constructed.

Although only a small cemetery now marks the location of Thanet, 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) north of Murphy Corners, three hotels once offered food, lodging and plenty of drink to customers. One of the establishments here, known as “Thwaites Place,” had a reputation for the latter throughout the county.

Travelling north for another 7 kilometres (just over 4 miles) brings you to Ormsby, located at the intersection of the Hastings Road and Highway 620. By the 1880s a railroad traveled from Picton through Trenton to Coe Hill, making Ormsby, where the railway crossed the Hastings Road, the most important railroad depot in North Hastings County. This prominence was short-lived after the Central Ontario railway pushed north, with its main line bypassing Ormsby, dashing the residents’ hope of making Ormsby a significant centre. An Old Hastings Colonization Road Historic Site marker is located at this intersection.

The final ghost town along the trail is Umphraville, 16 kilometres (about 10 miles) north of Ormsby. Umphraville was perhaps the most important of these pioneer settlements, mainly due to the water power facility on Egan Creek, which gave this hamlet more growth advantages than other centres. Along with the enterprising Darby Kavanaugh, other individuals tried to make a living with their businesses. In 1860 William Jorman built a flour mill and sawmill, and Benjamin and William Spurr opened a general store. The store lasted until late 1890s, but other services closed down shortly after they began. As with Glanmire and Thanet, the only enduring mark of Umphraville may be seen in the graveyard, located along a gravel trail about one kilometre west of the Old Hastings Road. Some of Umphraville’s early settlers are buried here, including Bridgeta Cavanaugh (with a ‘C’), wife of Patrick, who passed away in 1887.

In 1897, Darby sold 600 acres of land and moved into Bancroft where he bought a dry goods store, later selling it to his son, Thomas. By this time Umphraville had seen its best days. At one point, around 1892, it outdid rival Bancroft in population (260 to Bancroft’s 250), but with only one general store and one flour mill, it quickly fell behind the growing town of Bancroft with its five general stores, three blacksmiths, a number of mills, a hotel—and a doctor, too.

The Old Hastings Colonization Road can perhaps best be described in a quote from the book, Historic Hastings: “The Hastings Road is one long trail of abandoned farms, adversity, blasted hopes, broken hearts, and exhausted ambitions. The rugged countryside of Hastings County has handicapped the surveyor, discouraged the farmer, attracted the miner, rewarded the lumberman, and enchanted the artist, sportsman, and vacationer.”

Indeed, our forefathers proved farming in many parts of the county is impossible. Many of the tall pine forests that once carpeted the region were logged out long ago, and mining activity is at a standstill. Yet there is a magic in Hastings that not only urges locals to plant their feet firmly on the ground, but also attracts visitors year-round, even coaxing some people to lift up stakes and move here. Just what is this magic? Perhaps, as the quotation suggests, it is this “rugged countryside”, or natural beauty, that calls to people and whispers to us, “I cannot be tamed, but I can be loved.”

Brown, Ron (1978) Ghost Towns of Ontario, Stagecoach Publishing Company
Cole, Jean Murray (1989) A History of the Township of Chandos, Publisher—Municipality of the Township of Chandos
Langman, R.C. (1971) Patterns of Settlement in Southern Ontario, McClelland and Stewart Limited
Reynolds, Nila (1979) Bancroft—A Bonanza of Memories, Publisher—Bancroft Centennial Committee

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 47, Autumn 2004. Copyright Peter Young.

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