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The Lindsay CPR bridge abutment. Photo: Ian McKechnie.
The Lindsay CPR bridge abutment. Photo: Ian McKechnie.

Romance and mystery: ruins in Kawartha Lakes

in Just in Time by
The Lindsay CPR bridge abutment. Photo: Ian McKechnie.
The Lindsay CPR bridge abutment. Photo: Ian McKechnie.

A year and a half ago, I had the opportunity to spend a week in England. One sunny Sunday afternoon saw me sitting on a bench a short distance away from the Tower of London, munching on a large bag of candy I had purchased from Lindsay’s own Burns Bulk Food.

Right across from where I was sitting stood a portion of the old London Wall, originally constructed during the Roman occupation of the British Isles. A couple of days later, I found myself strolling through the expansive ruins of Fountains Abbey, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Enormous rooms once occupied by the Cistercian monks who lived there for more than 400 years starting in the 10th century now form the centrepiece of a beautiful park. Later that day, I peered into the ruins of Yorkshire’s 19th-century Toft Gate Lime Kiln.

For this lover of history, exploring England’s enchanting ruins was a wonderful way to learn about that country’s rich heritage without being overrun by the crowds of camera-toting tourists so common at other sites, like Westminster Abbey. The landscapes surrounding these ruins were largely quiet, affording the opportunity to meaningfully reflect on the stories they told.

While they may not make it into the glossy guidebooks, Kawartha Lakes has its fair share of ruins. Like those across the pond, our ruins, too, tell tales — not of medieval monks or military conquests, but of our history as a hub of commerce and industry. Some, like Lindsay’s 151-year-old mill, are well-known; others have faded into the landscape, their stories obscure to most passersby.

Consider the concrete bridge abutments just north of Lindsay, known colloquially for years as “the pillars.” Rising above the surrounding autumn foliage, there is a certain Stonehenge-like quality to them; their massive form can’t help but impress. Built in 1911, they carried the Georgian Bay & Seaboard Railway across the Scugog River for over 25 years. (A branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway built to facilitate the shipment of grain from the Great Lakes to places like Montreal, the GB&S line snaked across the Kawartha Lakes countryside from Eldon Station in the northwest, through Lindsay to Dranoel Junction, about 3.5 km southeast of Bethany.)

When the CPR removed its track between Lindsay and Orillia in 1938, the enormous wooden trestle bridges on either side of the Scugog River were unceremoniously dismantled. Left behind were these beautiful concrete structures, which in 1911 would have represented the latest in bridge construction. Prior to this, most railway bridges were built of stonemasonry. The most substantial and visually appealing of “the pillars” can be found on the west side of the Scugog River, easily accessible after a short hike or bike ride up the Victoria Rail Trail. The east side is a debris field of rotting timbers, bridge decking and the occasional rusty railway spike.

In the shadows of the old GB&S embankment paralleling Lindsay’s Rivera Park on the east side is yet another ruin, that of the old Hodgson Bros. Chemical Plant. Opened around 1919, the plant was used for wood distillation. Like the GB&S, it was abandoned in the 1930s and left derelict. According to Brenda O’Keefe, who has lived in the neighbourhood for almost seven decades, the old factory soon became a haunt for curious children and local transients. Deeming it a hazard, local authorities demolished most of the building in 1976.

Hidden in the tall grass between Hamilton and Albert streets in Lindsay are the ruins of the Grand Trunk Railway’s locomotive sheds. Built from red brick in 1888, the facility employed a large and skilled staff who ensured that the railway’s steam engines were kept in good repair. A series of pits, long since filled in, enabled crews to inspect the rolling stock from below. Demolished in 1961, the heavily overgrown, brick-strewn site remains one of the largest surviving remnants of Lindsay’s railway age.

Beyond Lindsay, some of the most interesting of this region’s ruins are the lime kilns which dot the countryside. The best-preserved examples are those in Coboconk, which have towered over the surrounding landscape for more than 120 years. Like those in Yorkshire, the kilns in Kawartha Lakes were used to make lime which in turn was used in the production of mortar for building construction.

The remains of railway and industrial infrastructure from the last two centuries are among our most substantial ruins. But they are far from our most plentiful. A glance at many of our weather-beaten barns reveal ruins in the making. As farming practices changed over the last century, many of Ontario’s barns were displaced by prefabricated structures and the picture-perfect old barn, with its stone foundations and wooden walls, fell into disuse. Though some barns have been lovingly restored and repurposed, fires, powerful windstorms and sheer neglect have all taken their toll.

Many of our ruins will reappear at this time of year as the leaves that obstructed them fall away. Now is the best time to get out and see them. “Ruins add a romantic and mysterious quality to the landscape which makes them exciting to explore,” says Emily Turner, the municipality’s economic development officer responsible for heritage planning. “They remind us of how our community was in the past and how it has changed and evolved.”

Ian McKechnie is a graduate of Trent University and a lifelong resident of Lindsay. He presently works as a freelance writer and researcher, undertaking projects both for the museum in Lindsay and other organizations. Ian writes regularly on issues of cultural and historical significance.

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