A Glimpse of Morrisburg’s History
The sparkling blue water of the St. Lawrence River is an essential part of the spirit of Morrisburg, Ontario, the river shaping the very foundation of the town.
Resilient United Empire Loyalists and settlers carved homesteads and farms out of the forested wilderness in Upper Canada’s Dundas County, creating a small village named West Williamsburg.
By 1832, the community on the St. Lawrence River shore received a Royal Mail post office. The river was the fastest transportation route between Montreal and the Great Lakes, vessels serving settlements along the way.
The rapids in the St. Lawrence River were a shipping hindrance and safety hazard. Between 1843 and 1856, a series of canals and locks were constructed on the north side of the great river near West Williamsburg to circumnavigate the rapids. Politician James Morris of Brockville promoted the Williamsburg Canal project and helped the Upper Canada House of Assembly with funding. The canals brought commerce and new residents to the village.
In 1851, Morris was appointed the first Postmaster General of the United Province of Canada. For his dedication to the waterway development, the residents of West Williamsburg honoured him in the same year, renaming the village “Morrisburgh,” later spelled “Morrisburg.” In 1864, he returned the honour by providing funds for a town bell.
Incorporated as a village in 1860, Morrisburg was home to flourishing industries: a gristmill, a carding mill, and a fanning mill. Wharves were erected for shipping, and the first trains chugged through in 1855. Churches and schools were constructed and a thriving market brought sellers and buyers together from miles around. Two banks were ready to serve the prosperous villagers – Molson’s Bank and the Bank of Ottawa. The hamlet grew steadily with stately, large homes lining the unpaved streets, later used as tourist residences.
By the mid-20th century, modernization in shipping and the urgent need for hydro-electric power dams demanded the widening of the St. Lawrence River. The planned St. Lawrence Seaway expansion permanently altered Morrisburg and nearby towns. The timed release of water on July 1, 1958 left approximately 1/3 of Morrisburg permanently underwater. Before the flooding took place, nearly 90 of the town’s homes and buildings were moved to higher ground. Buildings that could not be moved were demolished or left in place. New homes and a plaza replaced the submerged section of Morrisburg, constructed away from the waterfront.
The St. Lawrence River continued to influence the town with Morrisburg transforming into a lively waterfront playground. The Old Power House near Lock 23 in front of the town became an attractive site for scuba divers, the submerged stone building covered with barnacles and home to an abundance of underwater life. Each summer for over 40 years, the town has hosted “Tubie Races” weekends, drawing buoyant local and distant crowds to the river’s edge.
A sparsely populated frontier village in the early 1800s, Morrisburg developed into a modern small town, the great St. Lawrence River entrenched in its past and still shaping its future.
This article was written with the help of Susanna McLeod. Please visit her site http://susanna-mcleod.suite101.com for more great articles on Canadian history