Walking history is something we do every day in Prescott as we shop on King Street, head over to the marina along Water Street, or walk our dogs on the great greens of the Fort or along the Heritage River Trail.
I enjoy thinking about the past. On several occasions I’ve imagined how First Nations might have used a path similar to our River Trail some 600 years ago…how they might have considered it a meeting place, where the calm waters would soon give way to the turbulent…and how important it would have been to fish and gather for the village’s winter stores.
When Prescott’s founder, Edward Jessup, started clearing the land in 1784, what vegetation did he see? What seeds and seedlings did his family bring from the U.S.? I was surprised to discover that the following River Trail plants are not native to Ontario: Bladder Campion (some settlers enjoyed eating the young shoots and leaves in salad and the older leaves sautéed with onion), Common Dandelion (used by early settlers in salads, to make coffee or wine, and to dye wool), Queen Anne’s Lace (used as a root vegetable but hard to distinguish from its poisonous look-a-likes), Selfheal (used as both a medicinal tea and ointment), and Tansy (used as a medicinal tea, a fly repellent and a dye for wool).
In addition to taking in the natural stories of the Trail, I stop from time to time to re-read the historical plaques and markers. My favourite story on this site has to be the building of the Bytown & Prescott Railway in the early 1850s, and like so many, I enjoy looking out at what’s left of the Coal Docks. I think of growing up in Ottawa in the 1950s and 60s and our neighbour, who would drive down to the Prescott Coal Docks several times a week to pick up coal for his father-in-law’s thriving fuel business.
Communications have been a key element in Canadian history starting with the first canoes that helped connect the villages of the First Nations. Canada in particular takes its shape from its communications systems: its roads, its newspapers, post and telegraph, the steamers and trains, broadcasting, air travel, the telephone, and the internet.
The Bytown & Prescott Railway made its first voyage, from Prescott to Bytown, on Christmas Day, 1854. Colin Churcher’s Railway Pages are the best resource I’ve found online describing the construction and some of the first voyages of the B. & P.
With but two assistants, Churcher writes, engineer Walter Shanly surveyed the route on snowshoes during March 1851. He surveyed three routes during that same winter to avoid having to deal with the dense swamps in the spring. In other words, Shanly and his assistants walked on snowshoes between Bytown and Prescott an astounding three times!
Time and time again, Shanly revealed himself to be careful and meticulous, a trait he carried into his later Parliamentary work. It is said that he mis-ordered the rail required to complete the 54-mile line, but according to Churcher, historians have, unfortunately, made the calculation using a “short” ton (2,000 pounds) and not the Imperial or “long” ton of 2,400 pounds which would have been the norm at the time.
The very first passage on the Bytown and Prescott Railway actually took place on June 21, 1854. A notice appeared in the Prescott Telegraph: “We are requested to state that the Prescott Division of the Sons have engaged passages by the cars to attend the Temperance Celebration at Spencerville on Wednesday next, the 21st, and other individuals can also be accommodated at the same price, say Three York Shillings each for going and returning (about $33 today). Tickets to be had at the railway office over Mr. Perk’s store, or on the cars. The cars to leave the station below the Fort at 9½ o’clock a.m.”