Part Two of a three-part series by Larry McIntosh
The first known human settlement, within what is today the Port Elgin urban settlement area, was a Huron and Petun First Nations community established around 1340.
Today, Nodwell Park, was named after the farmer who plowed and discovered what was originally believed to be an Iroquoian village. Excavated in 1971, the site contained twelve long houses and a double palisade. It is believed the site was home to some 500 people. The village was only occupied for a brief period of time, approximately 20 years.
The town of Port Elgin was named after James Bruce, Eighth Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, who was Governor General of Canada from 1846 to 1854.
When European settlement began, Lachlin (Loch Buie) McLean was one of the first to arrive in Port Elgin as a squatter. He built a shanty north of present day Market Street that was later turned into a tavern where settlers of surrounding townships could rest on the way north to Southampton.
In 1852, George Butchart built a dam and sawmill (that would now be inside town limits). Soon after that, a grist mill was constructed. A group of men, mostly of German decent, settled the farm lots which they then wished to have surveyed into town lots.
Port Elgin, in 1855, contained seven houses of which two were taverns. The first pier was built in 1857 helping to increase trade, especially with the towns of Goderich and Southampton. Within the first years of settlement, there was a wagon maker, blacksmith, sawmill, brick maker, woollen mill and one doctor.
In 1873, the village was incorporated, and the arrival of the train brought more trade and people. In that year, the town was home to 941 people.
Port Elgin has long been affected by war, along with every community across Canada. In 1866, a militia unit was formed by 160 local men who volunteered in response to fear of Fenian attacks in Southwestern Ontario (Goderich). They marched to Goderich but the ‘invasion’ never took place. Again, in the Riel Rebellion and the Boer War, Port Elgin men were involved in conflict. In World Wars I and II, over twenty-five men from Port Elgin lost their lives and, today, the faces of the young men are depicted on banners that fly each Remembrance Day from lamp posts in the downtown core.
The first wood-frame public school was built in 1854 and, as the population increased over the next 20 years, a new brick school was constructed in 1875. Through the years, many changes have occurred in the elementary school system and, today, Port Elgin has three primary schools – Northport Elementary, St. Joseph’s Catholic and Saugeen Central Public School.
The Port Elgin Library was built in 1908, with financial assistance from the Carnegie Fund, to promote literacy and education.
A secondary school was needed in 1889 to serve those who wanted to continue their education and a high school was built on Goderich Street in 1939 with additions made in the late 1960s. This building, now known as Maple Square Mall, has been renovated into apartments and businesses. The ‘new’ Saugeen District Secondary School (SDSS) was built on Gustavus Street in 1975 and has been sharing space with the Port Elgin Centennial Pool used for the area’s aquatic activities. Sports have continued to build local pride and identity throughout the ages.
Lacrosse was a popular sport in the early years of the town but after WW1, hockey became the sport of choice. The Bricker Street Arena was originally used as a roller-skating rink in the 1880’s until it was remodelled to accommodate an ice surface and became the town arena in the 1940’s. Today, it is the Missionary Church of Port Elgin.
The Saugeen Shores Community Complex (a.k.a. The Plex) at the north side of town was completed in the late 1990’s and now houses the present hockey arena and town offices. Behind The Plex and former police station, there is a recently constructed BMX track and Skate Park.
Other early areas of recreation included various music societies and brass bands and one of the first was a female brass band established in the 1880’s.
Port Elgin has always been a popular tourist destination. Evidence of this started in the 1880’s with passenger boats largely from the U.S. visiting the area. Tourism continues today in Port Elgin as one of the town’s main industries. Thousands of visitors come to the area for year-round recreation and to participate in festivals, such as Pumpkinfest with its famous Antique and Classic Car Show, and the Canadian Big Band Festival.
With information from the Bruce County Museum Archives
adapted by Larry McIntosh