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Remember This, Newmarket: Charles Thompson's little known history (6 photos)

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights the story of a local entrepreneur who created a virtually seamless transportation network with stagecoaches and steamboats from Toronto in the south all the way north to the shores of Lake Huron

Charles Thompson, while he is perhaps little-known today, was once one of the most important entrepreneurs in Ontario during the first part of the 19th century. Most of the traffic, whether it be of the human or merchandise variety, which travelled from York (Toronto) north to Simcoe County, was carried on one of his stagecoaches or on his steamline.

Thompson was associated with nearly every aspect of the stagecoach transportation and postal service on Yonge Street from York (Toronto) and Lake Simcoe during the period from 1830 to 1850. Let begin with a little background on the stagecoach and steamer trade in the area.

My research over the years has turned up several of the reminisces of our ancestors concerning the Newmarket to Penetang road. The round trip required three or four days. The journey was made along the Penetang road to Barrie Bay, where it was continued by an ice road in the winter and by boat in the summer to Holland Landing, and then again by road to Newmarket

I have related the story in earlier articles about the creaking stagecoaches struggling over the hills of Yonge Street between York and Holland Landing, constituting the only public means of transport north until 1853. These stages were ponderous affairs of the old English mail coach type, drawn by four horses.

Stories abound about just how uncomfortable the early stagecoaches were, the passengers generally cramped into two narrow seats that faced each other. There were no springs to ease the jolting and the luggage was strapped on top.

The first reference to public colonial transport is from the year 1825 when a wagon service was inaugurated between York (Toronto) and Georgina, which would include Newmarket. The wagons continued to be used for passengers until 1830. These were followed by the stage and passenger coach service which had been established by George Playter and Sons in 1832.

These Yonge Street stages became a part of a complete system of transportation including travel across Lake Simcoe by steamer. An early owner, Charles Thompson, had an interest in two steamers, the Beaver, and the Morning. The machinery for the latter was hauled up Yonge Street from Toronto on rollers made from sections of tree trunks, which required weeks to transport.

In 1832 a stage line was bought by William Weller, who was also the owner of stages from Kingston, Dundas, and Niagara. These, too, ran in connection with the steamers on Lake Simcoe. After 1840 these wagons would be replaced by vehicles improved and designed for more comfort and more passengers.

News stories of the day tell us that: “There are few roads, and these are generally excessively bad and full of mud holes in which, if a carriage falls, there is great trouble to get it out again. The mail coaches, or wagons, are often in this predicament”. In those days it was not an uncommon sight to see passengers of the old stagecoach running along with fence rails on their shoulders to give her ‘boost’ when it got into difficulties.

Ads from the day state that a passenger could travel first, second or third class on the stage line. In first he could keep his seat the entire way unless the coach turned over; in second class the passenger was expected to dismount and walk whenever the road was bad and in third class he was supposed to walk past the bad spots and procure a fence rail whenever a mud hole would consume the coach.

I have referred to the deplorable condition of the roads in past articles, due to a lack of official care. For a time, money was granted to overseers who were authorized to repair the roads and to account, on oath, for the money. This was a sore point with the officials at York who regretted that some of the public money had been removed from their grasp. In 1824 this law would be repealed, and a new law was enacted giving the money to the local Justices of the Peace, many of whom were tools of the Family Compact.

Mail was dispatched from Toronto to Holland Landing three times weekly, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; on Wednesday the same stage carried mail for the remote places in the northern wilderness. This once-a-week mail was then carried on horseback, sometimes on foot, sometimes by stage, according to the season and state of the roads. Horseback was the mode usually employed. This was to continue until the Rebellion of 1837, after which public roads became more passable.

By 1848 the northern mail system had developed as follows. A passenger coach left Toronto every afternoon at 3 p.m. and was scheduled to arrive, via Newmarket, at Holland Landing at 8 p.m., about 34 miles. But sometimes it was two a. m. when it arrived. In turn the carrier for Penetang was supposed to reach the post at 3 p. m. unless he were waylaid by wolves which were very numerous, and dangerous foes with which the carrier had to contend. If there was a passenger for the north country on the stage, he then had to ride horseback behind the carrier.

In my article about Holland Landing, I spoke of how in 1830 letters intended for Holland Landing, were addressed to Newmarket that was the only post office this side of Penetang. Afterwards an office was opened on Yonge Street, approximately one mile south of the Landing village. George Lount was appointed the first postmaster and Aaron Jakeway was his deputy.

Around 1833, Thompson operated a daily service carrying the mail between York (Toronto) and Lake Simcoe, via Newmarket and Holland Landing.  This would soon include a passenger service along the same route. Thompson himself described the nature of passenger travel along Yonge Street as ‘subject to tremendous jerks from the many loose stones on what was then a deeply rutted mud road. It is said that Thompson’s stagecoaches were among the most comfortable means of transportation during this period.

Then around 1833 he purchased the steamer the Sir John Colbourne, further augmenting his services to include the transportation of passengers, the mail and cargo across Lake Simcoe, becoming known locally as ‘steamboat Thompson’. Along with this steamer service, Thompson added stage lines in Simcoe County along the Penetanguishene Road stretching from Barrie to Georgian Bay. Thus Thompson created a virtually seamless transportation network stretching from York (Toronto) in the south all the way north to the shores of Lake Huron in the north.

A true entrepreneur, Thomson forged a partnership in 1844 with the Lake Simcoe shipping line and William Laughton. This was to solidify his monopoly over the transportation of people, goods, and the mail along this established route.

This partnership would lead to the building of the new side-wheel steamship ‘Beaver’ which was to ply Lake Simcoe for years.

It seems that this partnership proved an uneasy alliance. Both men could be said to be very ambitious indeed, entering the partnership solely with an eye toward how it could benefit their own business interests. Then in 1850 the partnership dissolved with Laughton taking sole control of the ‘Beaver’ and Mr. Thompson building the ‘Morning’ a ship said to have been even faster and more efficient that the ‘Beaver’.

Laughton set up a rival stagecoach line, ‘the People’s Line of Stages’ along Yonge in direct competition to Thompson. This was the beginning of years of fierce competition between the two business interests, both men determine to undermine the other man’s operations. Thompson, primarily due to his more efficient and far-reaching transportation network, would eventually win out, solidifying once and for all his position as the undisputed ‘king of the Yonge Street to Lake Simcoe route.'

History tells us that eventually Thompson would own a piece of every stagecoach line that ran in Ontario.

But progress tends to always have the last laugh. When the railways arrived a few years later they destroyed the stagecoach business and would compete with the steamships for prominence.

Thompson would soon sift his focus to the lucrative market then growing in the Barrie area, where he would become a prominent citizen. He held the contract for Simcoe County’s first courthouse and jail and built a row of homes known as ‘Thompson’s pepper boxes.’  Mr. Thompson would die in Barrie, his name interwoven into their history.

Sources: ‘Steamboat Thompson’ by Andrew Hind, Secrets of the Lakes by Monica Frim, The Yonge Street Story 1793 – 1860 by F. F. Berchem, Stories of Newmarket – An Old Ontario Town by Robert Terence Carter, The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella