A scenic tour of one of Canada's most historic and lively regions.
The history and character of Frontenac County have been shaped by its geography -- the numerous rivers and lakes, the farm-friendly limestone bedrock, the granite of the Canadian Shield, which includes the Frontenac Arch, a UNESCO-designated area of extraordinary biological diversity -- and its people.
Also fascinating is the social and economic history of Kingston. French explorers, British Loyalists and later arrivals all helped transform it into a key naval and military base, thriving port and center for shipbuilding and the railroad. The book pays particular attention to Limestone City, home to Sir John A. Macdonald, but it also explores the surrounding towns and villages and the entire county's wealth of artists, writers and musicians.
This captivating collection of new and archival photographs and essays will delight and inform residents and visitors alike.
Alec Ross is a journalist and author who has lived in Kingston since 1986. He has written extensively about local business, history and music.
John de Visser's photographs have been collected in more than 60 books, including Rideau and Thousand Islands. A member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Association of Photographers and Illustrators in Communications. He lives in Cobourg, Ontario.
I have lived in and written about Kingston for more than 20 years, poked around Fronteanc County for just as long, and I have always marvelled at how much they offer in terms of history and culture. Kingston is well known as the home of Fort Henry and Sir John A. Macdonald. It also lays claim to being the birthplace of hockey, and hockey stars such as Kirk Muller, Doug Gilmour, Jayna Hefford and Don Cherry, as well as Canadian music icons such as the Tragically Hip and Sarah Harmer, and the world's greatest marathon swimmer, Vicki Keith, all hail from here. Yet these facts just scratch the surface. Twenty years from now, no doubt we'll still be discovering new things about the region, hearing stories that help us understand the place better, seeing changes we might never have imagined.
Kingston is a city of 130,000 people located at the east end of Lake Ontario, at the mouths of the St. Lawrence River and the Cataraqui River, the latter a part of the Rideau Canal connecting Kingston with Ottawa, 200 kilometres away. In the past it has been a military centre and naval base, a commercial port and a centre for ship-and locomotive-building. Today it is a government town still anchored, employment-wise, by its military base, CFB Kingston, but also by three major hospitals, two universities, a community college and nine prisons.
Kingston is nicknamed the Limestone City because many of its historic buildings are made of the same rock that underlies Lake Ontario and creates level plains north of the city, and on rural Wolfe, Howe and Amherst islands to the south, east and west, overlain with thin but fertile soil. As Queen's University historian Dr. Arthur Lower once observed, Kingston is "unique from the structural material from which it is constructed; much of Kingston indeed, built itself out of itself."
From a political-boundary perspective, the City of Kingston is not part of Frontenac County, though historically and culturally the two are inseparable. After the arrival of the Loyalists in Cataraqui (Kingston) in 1783, the farms hewed out of Frontenac County's first townships supplied food for the fledgling village. Later, in the 19th century, pine and oak timber from the county's forests, and ore from its scattered mica, iron and phosphate mines, conveyed to Kingston via the Rideau Canal and the Kingston and Pembroke Railway, helped to sustain Kingston's shipping trade. Today most people living in the southern parts of Frontenac County work in Kingston. The urban-rural relationship between the two has long been symbiotic.
Two-thirds of Frontenac County (population, 25,000) lies on the Precambrian Shield, the massive ancient granite formation that forms the geologic underbelly fo much of Canada. Its landscape, captured so memorably by artists such as A.Y. Jackson, Tom Thomson and so many others before and since, consists of rock, coniferous forests and lakes, rivers and wetlands. More than any other factor, the Shield determined how Frontenac County was settled and developed. Aboriginal people lived here thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. Their lifestyle sought harmony with nature. The Europeans, in contrast, sought to "tame" nature and reshape terra firma for their own purposes. However, the land did not always cooperate. The forbidding Shield is the reason why widespread settlement never occurred in Frontenac County but instead happened further west, where the soil and terrain was much better suited to agriculture. Still, where the Shield once drove people away, its wild beauty now lures them back as tourists, cottagers and full-time residents.
One consistent thread that runs through Kingston's history is politics. Unlike Niagara and York (Toronto), Kingston was not ravaged by the War of 1812. In fact it benefited from it, militarily, economically and politically, which led to its being declared the capital of the united Province of Canada in 1841. Though it held that distinction for only a few years, it nevertheless produced a remarkable pantheon of political leaders. Sir John A. Macdonald is the best known, but there was also Sir Oliver Mowat and Alexander Campbell, both of whom had worked in Macdonald's law office and became Fathers of Confederation; Alexander Mackenzie, a stonemason who became Canada's second prime minister; Sir Richard Cartwright, Sir Wilfred Laurier's right-hand man; latter-day cabinet ministers such as the Liberal Edgar Benson and Conservative Flora Macdonald; and Peter Milliken, Kingston's current member of Parliament, who has served as Speaker of the House of Commons since 2001.
In this book I've set out to paint picture of Kingston and Frontenac County that I hope will leave you with some idea of this unique place and how its inhabitants live, work and play. It's not a formal history, but there is a lot of history in it. Knowing where a place has been can suggest where it might go, or should go, in the future.
Throughout, I have opted to call things by the names that people in Kingston and Frontenac County tend to use; thus, I use "Highway 38" instead of its official name, County Road 38. Similarly, Market Square in Kingston, which since 2008 has been formally called Springer Market Square - after a local family that donated generously to the square's renovation - remains known to most as Market Square, or just "the market".
This book begins with a chapter on the natural environment for several reasons. The first is that Frontenac County's lakes, rivers and forests are its greatest asset. For the most part, they are clean, accessible and, compared to Muskoka or Ontario's other cottage-country areas, relatively uncrowded. Second, the region's distinct geology had a direct bearing on the way Frontenac County was settled and developed.
Next come excursions into Kingston and Frontenac County past and present. This is, of necessity, a highly subjective summary. Kingston is one of Canada's most historic cities, and its past includes far more fascinating stories and characters than could possibly be covered adequately here. The same applies to Frontenac Country.
The Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood once posited that "survival" is the archetypical story of Canada. In some ways, it is also the story of Kingston and Frontenac County, here explored in a chapter called "Making a Living"...well, the title says it all.
It has been said that Kingston has more published writers per capita than any other Canadian city. There's no question that the city is rich with men and women who string together words for a living. And artists, actors and musicians who put food on the table by doing their own thing well. In Chapter Five, you'll meet some of the stars of Kingston and Frontenac County culture.
I close with a few thoughts on what the future may hold for Kingston and Frontenac County. Given their historic staying power, there's little doubt that they will survive as viable places to live for generations to come. But in what form? Kingston's days as an industrial town are gone, most likely forever, yet further growth will depend on a stronger private sector. What sorts of businesses and industries might come to the city? What areas of strength can Kingston build upon? Ad what about Frontenac County - will economic factors cause more people to leave or more people to choose the county home as it evolves in new ways?