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The Plank Road - 5

train40Though the original Cobourg Railway Company had secured an extension of three years on their building permit in 1836, by the early 1840s work on the line had still not begun. The Cobourg Railway Company's charter lapsed and the townspeople began to think of the possibility of a new, improved plank road linking Cobourg to Rice Lake.

By this time, too, the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada were united in one colony under a new and more dynamic government, with the capital alternating between Kingston and Montreal. One feature of the new government was a public Board of Works, to which plans for local improvement were to be submitted. Once again, in 1842, the Cobourgites turned to Nicol Hugh Baird, the engineer for the railway line, to lay out the route for a new plank road.

There were several fledgling towns along the south shore of Rice Lake. The main road, though unimproved by any special grading or other features, now led from near Port Hope up along the boundary line between Hope and Hamilton Townships to approximately Bewdley. Baird submitted his report, detailing several possibilities for the new road, including a route which only in slight ways deviated from the current trail, and another which departed from that road and stretched from Gore's Landing to a point half-way between Port Hope and Cobourg. Many people got into the planning and tempers began to rise. Indeed the Cobourg Star quotes one contributor as saying:

" ...there has been no less than six surveyors and as many determinations, and as the interest of each of the contending town (sic) was represented in Kingston, so did the balance incline; Mr. A was secured at 10 o'clock, that his advice would be attended to; at 11 Mr. B steps in, contradicts Mr. A's statement, and the great man is fully persuaded Mr. B is right, and continues in that mind for a full 24 hrs., unless in the meantime he should happen to meet Mr. A or some of his friends. "Such is the actual and correct history of the Plank Road, and during a year and a half the country has been kept in doubt and uncertainty."

The government did eventually put money into a road which led to Port Hope, so Cobourg decided to build its own road to Gore's Landing. In May of 1845 the Star editorialized that never was money better spent in the district, if not the province. They mention that the road is great in winter (for sleighing) and in summer (when dry) but useless in spring and fall; the fall especially when it was needed for harvest.

The danger was that the local traffic from Hamilton Township would use the Cobourg road, but the back townships beyond Rice Lake would send their goods to Port Hope.

Thundered the Star: " The carrying trade of the Newcastle and Colborne Districts never has gone, and never will be permitted to go to Port Hope...."
A deputation consisting of Sheriff Ruttan (bio), George M. Boswell and D'Arcy E. Boulton was sent off to the capital (now in Montreal) in Dec. 1845, to urge Cobourg's claims on government money for their own road.

If unsuccessful, the Star proclaimed " there is spirit enough among the population of Cobourg to help themselves."

Their petition was successful and in the spring of 1846 the Cobourg Plank Road and Ferry Company was chartered. They were granted all usual rights of road companies and the " Right of ferry... to be propelled by Steam, Horse Power or otherwise across said Rice Lake."

The company had a working capital of 6,000 pounds and was under the direction of William Weller, the famous "Stage Coach King". They immediately purchased 300,000 ft. of three inch planks.

Plank RoadA typical plank road as was popular in the
period around 1850
From contemporary drawings it would appear that the road was constructed on a berm of flattened earth and gravel with stringers laid across the berm, the 12 or 13 foot planks then being laid on top along the length of the road and staggered for strength. The supervisor of the work appears to have been Thomas Gore, after whom the village was named. It is tempting to think that the road followed roughly what is now Burnham Street, but apparently at least part of it was along the present Ontario Street. How much was actually planked in this fashion we do not know.

Probably the difficult, swampy bits and the lower lying ground were covered, with the hills left bare. Certainly we have recollections of people in Gore's Landing knowing that the coach was coming by the racket it made descending into that village. Weller built a hotel at the northern end of the road, but whether that is the same as the hotel-like building that is there now is impossible to say.

Given such a promising beginning it is sad to report that after only a few years the road began to fall apart due to the ice and other inclement weather conditions. By 1850 the road was, once again, almost impassable. Cobourg began to look at the railway instead.

Written by Colin Caldwell

Part 5 is on this page and an index is below.