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Trent-Severn Waterway National Historic Site of Canada

Celebrating 125 years along a significant stretch of the Trent-Severn Waterway

Buckhorn and Burleigh Falls, together with Parks Canada, are celebrating an important milestone: the 125th anniversary of lock operation in these waterside communities.

The water corridor along this stretch of the Trent Canal represents a time in Canada's history when the federal government renewed its commitment to the expansion of an interconnecting set of locks, dams and canals; a commitment that originated with construction of the waterway’s debut lock in Bobcaygeon, more than 50 years earlier.

In 1887 the first steamship passed through the locks at Burleigh and Buckhorn, leaving in its wake a tangled web of political intrigue and engineering prowess...

Buckhorn Back in the Days

Documentation on activities in the Hall's Mill and Bridge area, as the Buckhorn/Deer Bay locale was known in the mid 1800s, is scarce. But by the latter part of the nineteenth century it was a bustling milling community, due in large part to the pioneering efforts of John Hall. In 1828 Hall purchased property on both sides of the rapids (on what became Buckhorn Lake in Harvey Township) and over the next four years constructed a dam and mill. Some 30 years later this dam was rebuilt and a bridge 642 feet long was framed into the structure. A timber slide, piers and booms were included in the new work to support the area’s logging activity.

In 1867 with the creation of the Dominion of Canada and the establishment of two levels of government, responsibility for the Trent navigation route was assumed at the federal level. Less than a dozen years later the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie clandestinely transferred this responsibility to the Province of Ontario after defeat in the federal election. However, the incoming government of Sir John A. Macdonald opposed the move, rescinded the transfer and established the Department of Railways and Canals to manage all federal canals.

The first clear indication of a potential lock site in the Hall's Mill area was in the summer of 1881. T.S. Rubidge was transferred from his duties on the St. Lawrence Canal to undertake a survey of the Trent and make recommendations as to next steps in developing this system. In his report Rubidge recommended constructing locks at Buckhorn, Burleigh Falls and Fenelon Falls to open up some additional 80 miles of navigation through the Kawartha Lakes from Lakefield to Coboconck and Port Perry.

Just prior to the election of 1882, the Department of Railways and Canals posted a tender call for the work. The timing was not coincidental as the government was hoping to use the promise of further canal expansion as a pitch to local voters for their support. The Conservatives won the election and work proceeded with the awarding of a contract for the Buckhorn project to an experienced canal contractor, George Goodwin.

Work began the following spring and was completed by December 1885 - a few months later than called for in the original contract.1 This short delay was the result of heavy expenses incurred by Goodwin. He'd grossly underestimated the cost of drilling through the pre-Cambrian granite of the Canadian Shield. To compound matters, labour was scarce in this remote part of the country. Goodwin found it necessary to import workers from Italy and pay them $1.50 per day - a fee much higher than he'd anticipated. Even the dredging work proved problematic. Fifty years of accumulated sawdust and debris from Hall's Mill had produced a "fluid, formless ooze", almost 4½ feet deep.

Once all major structural work was out of the way, the focus shifted to making the lock useable, in particular, constructing and installing the lock gates. This phase was completed by the end of 1886 and the lock became operational in 1887.2

Although the lumber industry remained an important commercial undertaking at Buckhorn, there was a concerted effort to promote the tourism potential of the waterway. With the advent of rail service it was clear the original commercial imperatives that had prompted the government to complete through-navigation, from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay, were no longer viable. In 1920 representatives from communities all along the waterway met in Peterborough and formed the Trent Waterway Development Association to promote tourism. The Association continued to operate into the 1930s when the impact of the Great Depression appears to have contributed to its demise.

In the 1960s the Department of Transport initiated a major upgrade of facilities along federal canals due in part to significant increases in recreational boating. Major renovations to the Buckhorn lock, including conversion to concrete and mechanized operation, were undertaken in 1972. Along with this change a new high level concrete bridge was built which completely bypassed the lock. Today, the lock at Buckhorn remains a busy station for boating traffic and land visitors alike.

Burleigh and Lovesick: Canal Expansion Continues

The federal government's late nineteenth century commitment to expand the waterway navigation system through Central Ontario also included construction of locks in the areas of Burleigh Falls and Lovesick Lake.

As with the proposed lock site at Buckhorn, the survey work of T.S. Rubidge provides a snapshot view of the locale just prior to start of construction. While his reports indicated that rugged landscape and impenetrable granite limited opportunities for settlement and agricultural production, a brisk timber trade had developed at Burleigh and there was already an active presence and extensive infrastructure in the form of dams, slides, hotels and at least one residence in the area.

The government advertised the Burleigh Falls project in tandem with Buckhorn. George Goodwin's firm submitted the lowest bid for this work as well and was awarded the contract.

By the spring of 1884, it appeared all was running smoothly. A report in the Peterborough Daily Evening Review described the scene at the construction site:
"Your correspondent took a flying trip to Burleigh the other day and found around Holman's hotel and vicinity quite a change from days gone by. Several wooden shanties are erected, also two large boarding houses, and more to go up. A great many men are now employed at the quarry getting out stone for the locks, and when the canal is to go through over two hundred men will find constant employment. It must certainly do this section a great deal of good owing to the large amount of money paid out for wages, etc."3
Appearances, however, were deceiving. Goodwin was having serious second thoughts about the project and was delaying work in hopes the government would increase funding. In an attempt to force the government's hand Goodwin sent a letter with a veiled threat that unless his offer was accepted, no further work would take place. These and other tactics fell short. Eventually Goodwin’s own hand was forced to complete the project. On 26 October 1887 the first steamship passed through the new locks.4

Today, there are only a few isolated bolts and submerged resources remaining at the entrance of Burleigh Falls to Stoney Lake from the heyday of lumber and resort activities in this vicinity. In keeping with the federal government's move to upgrade canals in the 1960s and early '70s, the two masonry locks at Burleigh Falls were replaced with a single concrete lock, steel gates and mechanized operation, various control dams on Perry's Creek were upgraded and the lock at Lovesick was mechanized.

Five years ago, as part of an initiative to reconnect with communities all along the Trent-Severn Waterway and enhance our collective ability to tell the stories associated with this National Historic Site, Parks Canada launched the Decade of Discovery. This year – the midway point of the Decade – pays homage to a vital section of the Trent Canal representing renewal and commitment to a unique heritage water corridor where visitors can enjoy recreational activities and learn about Canada's history.

1 AR, 1885, p.141.
2 AR, 1886, p.138.
3 The Daily Evening Review, Peterborough, 7 May 1884.
4 J. Angus, op.cit., p.180.