I never grow tired of writing about South Eastern Ontario’s vast historical significance. Every destination from Bay of Quinte to Cornwall, and beyond is built upon a fascinating series of stories, each chapter contributing to the overall story of Canada itself. The chapter that we will be exploring in this article is a personal favourite of mine: Transportation.
The story of Canada’s transportation history has deep roots throughout South Eastern Ontario. From the oxcart to the automobile, the stagecoach to the train, and the sailboat to the supertanker – Canada’s industrial revolution was a truly inspiring story that took place during a tumultuous era in our nation’s early years.
Collected here, for your reading pleasure is a selection of intriguing destinations and attractions where visitors can explore and experience this fascinating chapter of Canadian History, right here in South Eastern Ontario!
Situated adjacent to CFB Trenton, The National Air Force Museum of Canada presents visitors with a fascinating and commemorative collection of military aircraft representing several critical timelines throughout the Canadian Forces’ proud heritage.
Aviation history is most certainly an important part of Canada’s past – and the Air Force Museum provides a series of amazing exhibits, interactive displays including the star of the show – a fully restored Handley Page Halifax Bomber.
I first saw the Halifax bomber in the late 90’s shortly after being rescued from the bottom of a lake in Norway – where she had previously rested since being shot down during the Second World War. At the time, the Halifax was a rusty framework that was barely recognisable.
After seeing the finished project, I can’t help but reminisce about my grandfather: the late Herbert E. Hector (Sgt. Ret’d). He, (and countless other Canadian grandparents) served as an airframe technician during the War – and would patch up Halifax and Lancaster bombers between missions, keeping these now vintage wings in the air.
The former Belleville Railway Station is one of the few Grand Trunk Railroad Stations left standing today. It is a designated National Historic Site and still stands adjacent to the current modernised VIA Rail station.
It is an impressive example of the larger Grand Trunk stations and a fine monument to Canadian rail history. The once thriving GTR railroad linked Toronto to Montreal during the mid 19th Century.
The Belleville GTR station is a variation of the railroad’s second-class stations designed by Grand Trunk’s then Chief Architect: Francis Thompson. Mr. Thompson designed several of the Grand Trunk stations including the Prescott Station, which is also still standing.
The Mariners Park Museum explores the maritime industrial and economic history of Prince Edward County – which once thrived due to its location along Lake Ontario. Visitors can see interesting examples from fishing to shipbuilding as well as ice harvesting – and even rum smuggling during the Prohibition era.
The grounds are adorned with a beautiful vintage lighthouse which was lovingly relocated from False Duck Island. Visitors can also explore Fort Kente, and have a family picnic in the park area. The museum itself is packed with intriguing exhibits, including several treasures retrieved from over 50 shipwrecks from the waters surrounding the County.
Picton Ontario’s Naval Marine Archive is a must-see for anyone interested in Maritime History. The archive has an awe-inspiring collection comprises over a quarter-million items including books, maps, models, artwork, photographs, ship schematics, and more! South Eastern Ontario and Marine Heritage go hand-in-hand and this destination certainly belongs on your list!
Historical Points of Interest – Kingston
Kingston was Canada’s first capital city, its borders closely guarded by the intimidating Martello Towers and fortifications at Forts Henry, and Frontenac. The area in front of Kingston’s City Hall was once a huge network of railways and piers, where parks, condos and hotels now stand. As such, Kingston was a major player in Canada’s industrial revolution.
Some echoes of these now vanished rail lines exist today. For example, the Tourism Kingston’s main office is located in a vintage train station that was once part of the Kingston & Pembroke rail line. Behind the building is Engine: 1095 Spirit of Sir John A. This famous train is one of 3000 engines built by the Canadian Locomotive Company (once based in Kingston) – and today serves to commemorate this chapter in Kingston’s economic history.
A short walk East of the Spirit of Sir. John A, you will find another wonderful gem of Kingston’s railroad history: the former Grand Trunk passenger station.
One major technological development was the ability to harness the power of pressurized water and steam. Steam was once a broad source of power for vehicles and even cities. A shining example of this technology can be discovered at the Pump House Steam Museum. The museum itself is located in a preserved pump house and still possesses the original equipment which is now animated.
In addition to this, the Pump House Steam Museum also has an amazing and intricately detailed model train set, in addition to an engaging series of exhibits. The Pump House Steam museum is a destination where kids and adults alike can learn more about a revolutionary technology which helped propel our country toward the future we now enjoy!
A short drive from the Limestone City’s downtown area, the Kingston Mills Lockstation and Museum is a brilliant window into the past. It is the first of twenty-three impressive lockstations along the marvellous Rideau Canal between Kingston and Ottawa. The canal itself was once the jugular vein of Canada’s trade economy – and fiercely defended in case of any potential attack from American privateers.
Today, the Kingston Mills Lockstation is still busy throughout the summer months and a favoured local destination for a scenic picnic, fishing or a peaceful stroll. It’s also a great place to relax and watch as boats go up and down the locks. Visitors can also learn more about the history of the locks – and the canal itself at several plaques and points of interest throughout the site. For example, there is a military blockhouse fortification which is one of four that were built at key defensive points along the canal.
The property that the Arthur Child Heritage Museum currently sits upon was once the central station for the Thousand Islands Railway. The railway lasted over one hundred years after first opening in 1884. The advent of rail access brought scores travellers and tourists to Gananoque and the Thousand Islands – ushering in a prosperous era that helped make the region the premier destination it is today.
Following the bankruptcy of the Grand Trunk Railroad in 1923, the Thousand Islands Railway was acquired by the Canadian National Railway (CN). CN carried on with the railway as a separate operation until 1958 when it was amalgamated into the company’s regular operations. Passenger service was ended in 1962, yet freight traffic continued until 1995 when the Canadian National Railway was privatized. In 1997, the rail line was dismantled marking the end of an era.
The station building, under the ownership of the Town of Gananoque, became a restaurant at one point but was unfortunately destroyed by a fire in 1990. Today, the museum invites visitors of all ages to learn more about the diverse history of Gananoque and the surrounding region. There are several interactive exhibits, artefacts, model ships and other fascinating things to discover at the Arthur Child Heritage Museum!
The Thousand Islands Boat Museum is a must-see attraction for anyone who is remotely interested in boating Located smack-dab on the gorgeous waterfront of the St. Lawrence; the TI Boat Museum is a magical place where history comes to life. In addition to a boat building shop, and children’s activity centre, there is a beautiful collection of lovingly maintained, vintage wooden boats that are still seaworthy today.
In addition to a spectacular collection and series of exhibits, the museum also hosts several youth programs that include boat building, sailing and more! This museum is an ideal choice for travellers looking for “a hands-on museum where history becomes something that can be touched, built, and experienced.”
Situated close to Brockville’s bustling waterfront and downtown area, the Brockville Museum is packed to the brim with exciting and fascinating examples of the city’s social, and economic journey through the ages. The ‘From Carriage to Car’ exhibit provides an in-depth glimpse into Brockville’s once booming carriage manufacturing industry and subsequently fleeting automotive legacy.
On display, you will find a pair of vintage Briscoe automobiles that were manufactured in Brockville. What’s fascinating is the clear parallels between horse carriages and the first automobiles that hit the market. The seats used similar springs, and the suspensions and undercarriage components were similar.
Another great exhibit is Brockville’s Rail Story which chronicles the golden era of rail travel in the region. The exhibit is filled with memorabilia and brilliant photographs that paint a vivid picture of transportation history in the City of Brockville.
Brockville Railway Tunnel & exhibit
It’s impossible to write about transportation history without mentioning the Brockville Railway Tunnel. This immense tunnel stretches for 1721 feet (roughly half a kilometre) from the waterfront, and directly beneath Brockville City Hall where it exits beneath the old Grand Trunk rail line. It is in fact, Canada’s oldest rail tunnel.
Best of all, the tunnel has been painstakingly restored and made part of the scenic and vastly popular Brock Trail as of 2017. Improvements include enhanced lighting, and a smooth concrete floor easy traversal.
The Rideau Canal is easily one of the most amazing engineering achievements in known history. An official UNESCO World Heritage site, the canal stretches from Kingston Ontario, all the way to Ottawa, and was once the main artery between Upper and Lower Canada. Originally designed and oversaw by Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers, the project took six years to complete (1826-1832). Its construction was an arduous and colossal undertaking involving hard labour and at times perilous working conditions.
Today the canal is used entirely for leisure purposes and remains a cherished destination for travellers from all over the world. The famed Rideau Canal is home to some of South Eastern Ontario’s most scenic drives that are prime for cycling, cottaging, boating, camping and hiking. A trip to The Great Waterway isn’t complete until you’ve explored the majestic Rideau Lakes region!
The St. Lawrence Seaway System in Iroquois Ontario, is a fantastic spot for a picnic, and outdoor fun with friends and family. I can easily spend an entire day at Iroquois Point watching supertankers and massive cargo ships pass through the lockstation. It’s essentially a giant version of the very same technology used to create the Rideau locks.
Explore a Famous Chapter of Canada’s History!
South Eastern Ontario was once the epicentre of a brand new nation. From the first stagecoach to the last of the legendary steam locomotives, Canada’s transportation journey began right here.
As always, thanks for reading!
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