Port Elgin, Ontario was named after James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, and the Governor General of Canada (1846-1854). Before it was incorporated as a town in 1874, Port Elgin was known as Normanton.
Ideally situated on well-timbered farmland and nestled on a natural harbour, the fledgling community welcomed a steady flow of early settlers as the area was being surveyed during the early 1850s. At the time of Port Elgin's settlement, Southern Ontario experienced significant growth in agriculture. As Port Elgin grew, it became an important centre for the surrounding rural community.
Agriculture continued to prosper throughout Southern Ontario, and so did Port Elgin as a service centre for its farming community. Agriculture wasn't the only thriving industry, however. Road travel was inadequate, to say the least, and the shipping industry made good use of the natural harbour. Timber, coal, general merchandise and passengers all arrived by ship at the busy port. In 1857, construction began on a pier and breakwater. Warehouses for storing grain were constructed, and a tannery opened for business, becoming the second largest in Ontario. Port Elgin thrived industrially and commercially, fed by its agricultural and marine economy. The waterfront development was completed in 1890 for the grand sum of $80,000.
As the practice of farming and rural living declined and urban-based industry increased, Port Elgin experienced a serious decline in population in the early 1900s. It had peaked during the late 19th century; with the decline, many businesses closed down or moved to larger urban centers with a stronger industrial base. With improved modes of transportation, Lake Huron was no longer the best means of transportation of goods and activity at the harbour slowly trickled to a stop. The town's population stabilized over the next 60 years, and with the presence of the nuclear power generating power in nearby Tiverton, has increased and the community has prospered.
The waterfront experienced other development over the years, however. In 1924, the newly built Casino/Dance Hall became a beach fixture with many famous musicians providing the music for the dancing crowd. Although it was restored after a devastating fire in 1970, the Casino was torn down during the 1980s.
As with other Lake Huron Shoreline communities, Port Elgin was discovered early in its history as a prime tourism destination. With its sandy beaches and its once-commercial harbour now filled with recreational watercraft, it remains a popular vacation spot. Tourism necessitated a different kind of waterfront development; in 1991, a new water treatment plant, Lifeguard Station and washrooms replaced outdated facilities. A paved path running through North Shore Park was created in 1995. In 1997, phase two was completed and a new promenade and gazebo became part of the landscape.
The miniature steam train that faithfully chugs through the park during the summer months is Port Elgin history in action. The replica half scale 1836 American Steam Train was originally built by Schlenker and Sons of Port Elgin in 1978 for Old Castle Farm, south of Windsor. In 1983, the train returned to Port Elgin and is a focal point of the beach.
Port Elgin is the home of the site of a First Nation community that settled here over six and half centuries ago (first discovered around 1900). The village grew to a population of almost five hundred people, predecessors of the Huron and Petun Indians, who, it has been estimated, resided there for about 10 to 20 years. An archaeological excavation of the village revealed a treasure trove of artifacts, as well as twelve longhouses from 42 to 139 feet long surrounded by a double pallisade. Today, the site (named after the family who owned the land at the time of discovery) is Nodwell Park, maintained by the Town of Saugeen Shores. A plaque, erected in 1973, commemorates the site; it was designated a Heritage Site under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1993.
A founding father, Sam Bricker, has been credited as the driving force behind the planting of sugar maples along Port Elgin's streets, leading to the town's one-time tagline of "The Town of Maples". Today, many of these graceful beauties create sun-dappled umbrellas offering welcome shade during the hot summer months. This theme has been immortalized at several of Port Elgin's main intersections, where maple designs have been woven into the roadway's interlocking brick pattern.
In the older sectors of town, graceful architecture has been maintained and preserved. Plaques grace several of the older homes, stating who built the house, his occupation and the year it was built. Walking tour brochures can be picked up at local info centers, for a self-guided tour of some of the oldest buildings and sites.
In 1999, Port Elgin experienced another major change and became part of the amalgamated Town of Saugeen Shores along with Southampton and Saugeen Township.
For more information on Port Elgin, contact the Saugeen Shores Visitor Information Centre on Goderich Street at 1-800-387-3456 or 519-832-2332 or by email at email@example.com
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