The Early Years

The town of Hastings straddles a set of rapids, where the Trent River narrows, at the eastern end of Rice Lake. Champlain passed this way in the company of a band of Hurons during their unsuccessful campaign against the Iroquois in the late summer of 1615. The Trent formed part of a natural route from Lake Ontario, along a chain of rivers and smaller lakes, to Georgian Bay.

The rapids at Hastings would have made a natural stopping place for those choosing to portage upriver around the rapids or for those recovering from running them. The river was also shallow enough at this point for a traveler to wade across, though the current was swift.

In 1787 the government of Upper Canada signed a treaty with the Missassagua tribe for a tract of land encompassing Newcastle, Durham, Northumberland and Peterborough counties and subsequently opened the land up for settlement.

Rivers played an important role in the early settlement of Upper Canada. Aside from forming natural routes to the interior, they were also the primary means of bulk transport of goods. In addition, they could be a dependable and relatively constant source of power. Mills were erected to grind grain, cut lumber and provide a power source for various manufacturing efforts.

It was the river, and the rapids with it’s promise of power, that no doubt prompted James Crooks to purchase a plot of land of approximately 1040 acres at the present location of Hastings in 1810.

James Crooks came to Upper Canada from Scotland in 1791. He joined the military and by 1807 had achieved the rank of Captain. James settled in the Niagara district. This remained his home base for the rest of his life, though his commercial interests extended beyond there.

James was a friend of Governor John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe encouraged immigration and settlement in Upper Canada. Indeed it was part of his job to do so. Governor Simcoe was instrumental in the passing of a resolution in this early parliament encouraging the building of mills along the provinces waterways. There is no doubt he encouraged James Crooks to take action to improve his lot, and the purchase of the land on the Trent was one step in this direction. It must have been obvious to men like Simcoe and Crooks that growth was inevitable. Those who purchased desirable property early and built mills not only furthered development of the land, but also stood to make themselves some money.

Relations between Great Britain and the United States were strained at the time and eventually resulted in the 1812-1814 war. James Crooks served under Sir Isaac Brock and was at the Battle of Queenston Heights that took Brocks life. James later wrote about the battle and Brocks death. He was one of the pallbearers at Brocks funeral.

After the war Crooks’ business interests kept him busy in the Dundas area for some time. He built and operated a paper and grist mill. In this way he achieved two firsts. He manufactured Upper Canada’s first domestically produced paper and the first load of Upper Canada flour was shipped to Montreal from his mill. During these years James was also active in lumbering and other commercial activities.

While the southern portion of his land purchase had been surveyed as early 1795, the section north of the river was not completed until1820 when Richard Birdsall finished it as part of his extensive work there and throughout Peterborough and Asphodel counties. Although Crooks was not doing anything with his land, that doesn’t mean the area wasn’t growing. Settlers were locating in the surrounding countryside. Finally the difficulty of transporting material across the river prompted the settlers, lead by Birdsall, to petition the government to build a bridge over the Trent in 1825.

This petition was successful and the bridge was completed in 1826. It seems likely the construction of the bridge, with it’s promise of increased traffic, is what prompted Crooks to put up his grist mill on the Trent at the present location of Hastings in 1829.

The original bridge certainly increased traffic to the small inn constructed by Jeremiah O’Grady at McCarthy’s Point, near it’s northern end. Not for long however. A lumber drive the next year resulted in a jam on the upriver side and the bridge was destroyed. A new one was built a short time later at it’s present location. Mr.O’Grady purchased some land from Crooks and relocated his inn to an in-town location. Crooks would often stay there during his visits to Crooks Rapids, as it was then called. His workmen had previously erected a small shack in which he would stay to oversee work. However the inn was altogether more satisfactory. Crooks never took up permanent or long term residence in the little hamlet of Crooks Rapids. His permanent residence remained in Flamborough.

Grist mills work best when they have dams to provide a reservoir ofwater and an adequate head to operate the water wheel. Jame’s first mill had no permanent dam. His mill used a “swing dam” to divert water to the mills wheel. The Government of Upper Canada decided to build a dam at Crooks Rapids as well as a set of locks to facilitate river travel. Crooks moved his Grist mill in 1835 in anticipation of the new dam. Construction started in 1837 however it was interrupted by theUpper Canada Rebellion and work was stopped for a couple of years. The locks were finally competed in 1844.

Hastings first permanent resident was Timothy Coughlan. He was hired by Crooks to clear brush on the town site and he joined the dam construction crew at the beginning of the work. In 1844 he became the first lockmaster in Crooks Rapids, a position he kept for more than 45 years.

A fellow woodcutter of Tim’s, Basil Lajoie, lived with his wife in a small shanty just west of the locks in 1840. Basil and Rosella moved into town in 1842 and a short time later Rosella gave birth to the village’s first baby girl, Caroline Lajoie. Tim’s wife Ellen gave birth to the settlements first boy baby, John, in 1845.

The James Crooks era in Hastings history was almost over. He had contributed to the towns growth, but most of his interests were elsewhere. He had been elected to the legislature in 1829, representing his home district. In 1841 he was appointed to the legislative council. His business interests at home, and the death of his son no doubt contributed to his decision to finally sell his land in Northumberland in 1851, to Henry Fowlds and sons. The small town did not have more than 200 residents at that time. The grist mill did attract business and provide employment. The bridge encouraged traffic. The work on the locks and dam had provided income and employment of a small group of workers but the village was hardly what you could call bustling. Things would soon change.

Fowlds senior came to Upper Canada from Scotland by way of the United States in 1835. He met Richard Birdsall and was convinced by him to locate in Asphodel. Fowlds soon had men working for him doing contract land clearing for settlers. He soon branched out into lumbering. He built a sawmill near the present site of Westwood. He and his sons constructed homes in what would later become the town. He soon built a grist mill and general store. The local post office was soon located in the store.

Birdsall had done the survey work for the dam and locks at Crooks Rapids in 1837, so he was well familiar with the lay of the land and the potential. It is hard to say what prompted the Fowlds to approach Crooks about purchasing his land and mill but it was not a highly populated area. If Crooks was entertaining any thoughts of getting out of business in the area, it is not hard to imagine that Henry would get word, being the other local man of means and enterprise. Fowlds made his purchase. Henry changed the name of the village from Crooks Rapids to Hastings and began a campaign of construction and improvements that would turn the sleepy little hamlet from a population of 200 in 1852 to 1500 thirty years later in 1882.

The Fowlds family opened a sawmill, a grist mill and a woollen mill.They completed construction on several houses in 1852 and opened the first store. Later that year the store became the location of the town’s first post office and Henry Fowlds Jr. became the towns firstpostmaster.
Hastings’ first school was started by James Fowlds. James also played a significant role in bringing the railway to town. Some of the steamboats travelling the canal were owned by Henry Sr. And they carried the products from the various mills to lake ports for shipment around the world.

Members of the Fowlds family were active in the local community. Many served terms as councillors, reeves and wardens.

This was the early history of the town. The period from 1852 to 1882 was a significant one that can be fairly said to have seen the launch of an important early community in this part of Ontario. In the years since then, much has happened and several devastating fires caused serious setbacks in Hastings growth and development. But the town served as an anchor for local inhabitants, providing sources of consumer goods, markets for local produce, all important jobs for families and a center for health, governance and education.

The nature of the town has changed as manufacturing moved, first to larger centers, and then to offshore locations. But the increase in tourism and movement of people from the cities to the comfort of smaller centers like Hastings has meant renewed growth. The appearance of craft industry, specialty agriculture and the ability of people to telecommute and work from home are causing a historical shift in activities in the town. Change brings a renewed appreciation for the roots of the past. You are invited to join with the Hastings Historical Society’s efforts to preserve and celebrate our heritage. For more information please go to our “Contacts” page.





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