SIMCOE COUNTY HISTORY: Three dreamers saw potential

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

Public domain postcard from the late 19th century showing the Collingwood dockyard.

Public domain postcard from the late 19th century showing the Collingwood dockyard.

The North-West Transportation, Navigation and Railway Company (NWTNRC) was Collingwood’s introduction to the big time of commercial transportation.

The town at the northwest corner of Simcoe County wasn’t the county’s first big port town or the first one where big ocean-going ships (yes, ocean-going) were constructed. Penetanguishene was a port of the Royal Navy for decades before Collingwood came along and Coldwater was the first place an ocean-bound ship was built not just in the county, but in the whole province.

But the NWTNRC propelled Collingwood into the limelight. Collingwood, with its quick rail link to Toronto and deep harbour, was a natural transportation hub. The three men who brought the NWTNRC – Thomas Dick, Allan MacDonell and William Kennedy – had only slight ties to Collingwood, but they saw its advantages.

Dick, famous ship owner, Great Lakes captain and hotelier, set up the headquarters for his navigation business which would become the NWTNRC once Toronto’s MacDonell had his way with it and linked up with Kennedy.

MacDonell had made his first mark in the province as a militia leader during the 1837 rebellion, as did Dick. MacDonell then went on to build a mining empire, followed by a stint arguing First Nations should be compensated fairly for their land in treaty agreements, followed by trying to build a national railroad and transportation company. His plans weren’t always met with enthusiasm, as he writes in the introduction of: The North-West Transportation Navigation and Railway Company: Its Objects.

“It was viewed rather as a hallucination to amuse for a moment and then to vanish; nevertheless, in despite of all ridicule and opposition, it has been steadily kept before the public since the year 1847, an extract from the communications in a city paper of that year, will exhibit the views then advanced by its correspondent,” he wrote.

Dick was commander of the steamer Experiment at the battle of the Windmill, Nov. 12, 1838, near Prescott. It was from the deck of his craft that a Canadian militia artillery officer fired a light cannon, taking off the head of the Fenian captain of the captured American vessel, The United States. This served to dampen the ardor of the rebels.

Dick then went on to use the slow but nimble Experiment to block supplies and reinforcements trying to come across the river to bolster the rebel forces taking refuge in the windmill. When the Experiment’s services were required on the middle lakes, Dick brought it north, possibly making his first stop in Collingwood when he called in for fuel for the boiler.

Dick had already made a name for himself on Lakes Ontario and Erie, after emigrating from Scotland a few years before the rebellion. He was in his 20s when he took a job at the Niagara Harbour and Dock Company.

After the rebellion, he captained a number of popular passenger ships – often between Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake – until 1850 when he purchased City of Toronto. Dick became famous (and infamous) while commanding this steamer for racing against his competition. Eventually the government made both stop before one of them caused a boiler to explode.

In 1858 he and his brother James expanded to Collingwood, running the first mail service to Fort William (Thunder Bay). Dick’s steamer, Rescue, was incorporated into the NWTNRC, which MacDonell got up and running after winning his charter bid, and that company got the government nod for the official mail run to Thunder Bay and thereby, the interior of Canada.

To move north had all been decided a couple of years earlier, according to an article in Urban History Review’s February 1988 edition on Changing Patterns of Great Lakes Vessel Ownership As a Factor in the Economic Development of Toronto, 1850-1860 by Malcolm E. Davidson: “In August 1856, those interested in establishing steamboat communication with the North-West met in Toronto to launch a scheme which two years later would result in the formation of the North-West Transportation, Navigation and Railway Company. Toronto businessmen and politicians predominated on the board of directors. Among the less prominent directors was Thomas Dick. It is noteworthy that Dick’s involvement in the scheme coincided with his failure in, or perhaps intentional withdrawal from, Lake Ontario steamboating. In 1858 the North-West Transportation Company began carrying freight, passengers, and the mails in its steamer Rescue (commanded by Thomas Dick and his brother James) from Collingwood to the Lakehead, for transfer from there across the Dawson Road to the Red River settlement.”

Investments in this and other operations like it siphoned money from Toronto and the lower lakes and were responsible for Toronto losing ground as a shipping capital, according to Davidson. (Apparently it didn’t detract from that city’s standing as a tourist attraction — even in the mid-19th century, Dick was investing thousands in real estate, buying up land in downtown Toronto and in 1844 putting up what would become the Queen’s Hotel on the site of the Royal York Hotel.)

Dick was also a big wheel in the province’s railway industry, serving as a director with the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway.

Kennedy, who started life in Canada working for the Hudson Bay Company, learned to loathe his employer for its practice of selling liquor to First Nations’ traders and trappers.

He came to work at the NWTNRC with no connection at all to the rebellion of 1837-38. But he did have a number of links to Simcoe County.

One link was through Lady Franklin and her husband, John Franklin, the Arctic explorer. John Franklin had been through Simcoe County and hired a number of county residents to work on his overland Arctic explorations, in particular, his 1825 expedition. Lady Franklin hired Kennedy to search for John Franklin after he went missing in the Arctic.

Kennedy had established a commercial fishing centre at Southampton on Lake Huron where the Saugeen River flows into the Great Lake, making him one of the founders of the popular summer resort town. After he left HBC, he set up shop on Lake Huron. Like MacDonell, he was against the monopoly HBC enjoyed and believed the land it controlled should be released. While he continued to espouse these strong political views, he developed a thriving industry at his Saugeen River community where he became famous for his steady command of his steamer.

Lady Franklin hired Kennedy for two expeditions to search for her husband. Kennedy had met John Franklin when he came through Kennedy’s hometown of Cumberland House in what would become Manitoba, during Franklin’s 1825 trip, which started in Simcoe County. The first search expedition set out in the spring of 1851. At this point, the search was multi-national with Americans, Scandinavians and British subjects all searching for the missing explorer. Kennedy’s Prince Albert, an 89-ton steamer, made the most progress thanks to Kennedy’s training in the use of blasting powder which he used to free his vessel from the grip of Arctic ice.

During this trip, Kennedy managed to explore, mostly on foot in the depths of the Arctic winter, 1,100 miles of coastline without the loss of a single man.

In 1853, Lady Franklin funded a second expedition under Kennedy but it ended in a crew mutiny. A third expedition failed to materialize and Kennedy headed back to Ontario, where he continued to argue in favour of depriving the HBC of much of its holdings. This is when he met MacDonell, another who coveted HBC land. Kennedy became a director of MacDonell’s NWTNRC, checking out the company’s most profitable route from Toronto to the Red River settlement.

He did it in February. You know, just to prove it was possible in even the worst conditions. And it was.

While at Red River, he circulated a petition among the settlers – just under 600 of them signed in favour of union with Canada, making him a sort of father of Confederation.

Kennedy established the western base of the Collingwood-centred NWTNRC, just north of Winnipeg. His old stone home is still there, where it serves as a museum.

While NWTNRC had loads of shipping and exploration experience, it seemed to lack in business acumen and failed after a few years. But it did establish Collingwood as a significant transportation hub in the country.

Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs, podcasts and can be reached at