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200th Anniversary of the Founding of Galt

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Local History

  • Shade's Mill, 1820. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives
    Shade's Mill, 1820. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives
  • Dumfries Mill. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives
    Dumfries Mill. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives
  • View of Jackson Park (Soper Park) Galt showing the bridge over Mill Creek c1909. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives.
    View of Jackson Park (Soper Park) Galt showing the bridge over Mill Creek c1909. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives.
  • Laying the cornerstone for the Town Hall, Galt, May 13, 1857. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives.
    Laying the cornerstone for the Town Hall, Galt, May 13, 1857. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives.
  • Galt Cityhood demonstration June 1, 1915. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives.
    Galt Cityhood demonstration June 1, 1915. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives.
  • The last Galt Council, 1972. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives.
    The last Galt Council, 1972. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives.
  • Main Street. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives.
    Main Street. Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives.

Linda, Queen's Square | January 3, 2016

It was 200 years ago this New Year, in 1816, that the Honourable William Dickson purchased 90,000 acres along the Grand River from the Six Nations Indians.  It was in 1816 that what became Dumfries Township, then the City of Galt, and later the City of Cambridge, had its beginnings. As Dickson and his business manager, Absalom Shade, followed the Grand River north on horseback, they stopped where Mill Creek meets the Grand and determined that this would be the place for their settlement.

Shade's Mill
Shade's Mill, Galt, c. 1820. (Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives)

Dickson, a Scot himself, was interested in attracting other Scots to his settlement, and a distinct Scottish flavour lingers here still.  A substantial legacy is the stone buildings that Scottish stone masons crafted, replacing earlier log buildings.  The settlement that became Galt was first known as Shade’s Mill (Dickson returned to his home on Niagara-on-the-Lake, leaving Absalom Shade in charge) but when it came time for an official name for the post office, Dickson named the town for his friend and fellow Scot, John Galt.


John Galt

The first mill, a grist mill, was built on Mill Creek where the Armoury now stands.


Photo of Dumfries Mill (Photograph courtesy of the Cambridge Archives)

Mill Creek was a better source for water power than the shallow Grand River which also had an inconvenient tendency to flood. Attempts were made to use the Grand River to avoid the swampy and difficult roads to get the farmers’ goods to market, but it was too shallow.

Jackson Park
View of Jackson Park (Soper Park) Galt showing the bridge over Mill Creek c1909. (Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives)

Still, navigable is all in the eye of the beholder.  When the 1837 bridge over Mill Creek along the old road to Dundas was reconstructed in 2004, repairs were stalled while the approval of the Canadian Coast Guard was sought: apparently Mill Creek is considered a navigable waterway in some circles.  You can follow the once prominent but now elusive Mill Creek with help from the Cambridge Galleries.

 As pioneers settled along the river, bridges, stores, schools, churches, a market, a library, an opera house and a town hall were built.

Town Hall
Laying the cornerstone for the Town Hall, Galt, May 13, 1857. (Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives)

More mills sprang up as the town became more industrialized: in 1842 the first foundry was established and textile production on an industrial scale began a year later.  Tracks for steam trains and electric railway lines were opened.   Because of its numerous factories, Galt became known as the “Manchester of Canada” and in 1915 it had a large enough population to qualify as a city.


Galt Cityhood demonstration June 1, 1915, showing a parade of automobiles at Main Street and Water Street. (Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives)

But Galt was not the only place that was growing: all of Ontario was expanding, and in the 1960s the provincial government began to look at ways that local government could be more effective.  Dr. Stewart Fyfe’s report was released in 1970, recommending that the County of Waterloo be replaced by the Regional Municipality of Waterloo and that the City of Galt be amalgamated into a larger city to include the towns of Preston and Hespeler.  So much discussion about the name of the new city ensued that the provincial government stepped in and decreed that the names of the original towns would not be allowed on the ballot.  Galt Council proposed the name “Blair” as its preferred choice, but the name “Cambridge,” taken from the early Cambridge Mills in Preston, was the winner.

Galt Council
The last Galt Council, 1972. Back L-R: Gord Chaplin, Fred Ward, Janet Mills (page) Dave Stuart, Bernice Adams, Walter Elliot, Marc Sommerville. Front L-R: Tom Briggs, Doug Hancock, Wayne Woods, Gordon Rouse, Harry Ritz, Bill Barlow, Ian Meikleham (Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives)

Cambridge is a robust, thriving city and it is good to remember its history as the 200th anniversary of the founding of Galt rolls around.  Many things have changed: the growth of the city away from its centre, the building of the 401 and the arrival of Toyota, the disappearance overseas of the shoe and textile factories, and the overwhelming influence of new technologies.  Some companies are still the same, like the Gore Mutual Insurance Company, some have developed, such as the Goldie & McCulloch Foundry into Babcock and Wilcox and now into the nuclear steam raising age of BWXT. The City of Cambridge has risen to these challenges and has diversified, changed and transformed.  Pride in its history provides some bedrock for the way ahead.

Main Street
Main Street (Photo courtesy of the Cambridge Archives)