Orillia Waterfront Transformations

By David Town, Historian, Author of ‘A Waterfront for Everyone’

Orillia Museum of Art & History Guest Contributor

What a transformation our waterfront is undergoing!  There’s a new road going in with better access to the downtown, massive new sewers lie sprawled ready to be installed and a shiny, new row of three-story townhouses backed by an eight-story tower will soon rise up to frame the waterfront.  Can you imagine a more dramatic re-configuration?

Actually, yes, I can.  It has happened before, not once, not twice, not even three times, but four times.

Our wonderful waterfront that so many people enjoy, that draws so much tourism to Orillia, was willingly transformed into an industrial wasteland 160 years ago.  At that time, it was a shallow, muddy and uninviting shoreline that nobody made much use of anyway.  Even the Chippewa, who occupied the first village along that shoreline when they settled into reserve life in 1830, stayed up the hill, far from the water’s edge to avoid the mosquitos.  You’d have to wade out a hundred metres in ankle-sucking ooze just to get to waist-deep water.  That shoreline, believe it or not, would run right through the middle of the Metro grocery store today.

Once the Chippewa had re-located to Rama in 1838-9 (not particularly willingly) and the white settlers began developing the townsite, two sawmills were built – at the foot of Neywash Street and next to Cedar Island – boxing in the dismal shoreline that hosted a few boathouses mostly owned by boat-builders.  When the bay was taken up by rafts of logs, nobody really cared.  Those logs represented progress.

The first big transformation came in 1873 when the Midland Railroad was installed sixty metres off-shore in the shallow waters, leaving a lagoon between it and the town.  Council had lobbied hard for the railway and there was an enormous celebration the day the tracks were laid.  This too was progress.  The transportation of lumber, retail merchandise and farm produce no longer had to rely on the snail’s pace of the steamships.  Orillia was a part of civilization now and embarked on a fifty-year economic boom of astounding proportions.  That no one could even get near the lake didn’t bother anyone.

Forty years later, in 1911, the next transformation came.  It was another railway, the Canadian Pacific, which was installed in the lake sixty feet beyond the Midland RR tracks, moving the lake that much farther from the town.  This time, though, there were citizens who fought for a better, people-centred waterfront.  After much angst and passionate debate, the town organized a neat row of uniform public boathouses outside the railway embankment, prudently securing the water rights beyond that too, to prevent any more infilling by anyone but Town Council, and enacted a bylaw that would allow for development of public parks there when feasible. Couchiching Beach Park was only four years old at that time (built on the site of the old Lunatic Asylum), and a faction of townspeople envisioned the park being extended to the south, out into the bay, in front of the railway tracks someday.

That day didn’t come for another fifty-five years.

In 1967, as a Centennial project, the town finally built Centennial Park, another in-filling of the lake, this time creating a four-and-a-half-acre tract of public land with a boardwalk along the water.  All the shallow muck had been buried with the three in-fillings so that now large boats could moor along the walkway.  The two railway lines were now situated a hundred metres from the waterfront, finally returning the lake to the townspeople.  After 100 years the industrial wasteland had finally been reclaimed as parkland.

Then came the fourth transformation, the harbour.  In 1984 the break walls were deposited far out in the lake to create a calm harbour for boats.  A radiating array of docks and a port building were built making Orillia one of the most enticing stops on the Trent-Severn waterway.  The waterfront, which had just twenty years earlier been rescued from industrial interests (who’s operations had greatly benefited the town economically), was now ceded to tourism (which would greatly benefit the town in future).  But this time the boardwalk and benches and vistas could be shared with the citizens of the town, unlike the era when the sawmills and railways cut the people off from the lake.  But, as some will remember, there was a lot of grumbling about the tourists taking over when people realized they could no longer see the lake as they drove along Centennial Drive, thanks to the eight-foot-high berms installed to shield the railways from view from the harbour.  In the end, though, it seemed like a win-win situation, and the town applauded.

And now we are seeing the fifth transformation.  The parkland could have been significantly expanded by the development of the abandoned railway lands as a public space, but Council decided a row of fifty townhouses was a better investment.

One can see both sides of the debate.  This was the last chance to expand the parklands, which are often very crowded in the summer (the park itself becoming a tourist haven) and could use some more room.  But fifty townhouses will bring in a lot of revenue through property taxes that can be put to good use for the benefit of the community.  There is also great pressure from the province to prevent urban sprawl, with direction to municipalities to develop dormant residential land inside their boundaries too.  Council did their due diligence and made their decision.  It is going to change the culture in the parklands, plopping fifty affluent households along the rim of the park, and maybe for the better.  A more permanent presence of homeowners may help ensure tourism doesn’t overtake the parklands.  But the wall of townhouses will absolutely block the view of the lake we are now enjoying, especially down Coldwater Road.  Time will tell if this was a good move or not.  In the meantime, there is a silver lining.  Frenchie’s Hotdog Stand is now going to be back inside the park limits again.  No more crossing the road to get an ice cream cone.  Hard to believe it was once right on the waterfront.

Dave’s book A Waterfront for Everyone’ is available for purchase on-line (linked below) or at the Orillia Museum of Art & History.