It was known to the First Nations as “Qua-sah-qua-ning”, or “ice driven on shore and piled upon the shore in a heap”, then dubbed by early settlers, “Hen and Chickens Harbour,” after the loose cluster of islands along the shore. But in 1855 Hen and Chickens Harbour met its destiny when it was chosen as the northern terminus for the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway.
Only a few years earlier, the settlement was barely more than a collection of log cabins and rudely constructed supply stores, surrounded by uncleared bush and swampland. From its less than village status, however, the town of Collingwood was suddenly born. The settlement was renamed Collingwood Harbour on the eve of the arrival of the railway, and upon official incorporation as a town on January 1, 1858, it was officially renamed Collingwood.
The real estate boom that followed word of the railway’s arrival in Collingwood in 1858 sent land prices in the small settlement to unprecedented highs. Hotels and saloons sprang up to absorb the brisk flow of trade, and travellers could enjoy a meal, a quart of whiskey and a warm bed for less than 20 cents. Speculation, however, led a glut of building lots unleashed into the rural market, and the local land bubble burst. Slow to recover, the market remained affordable for new settlers for more than two decades.
By 1881, the town occupied a total area of 4,000 acres, with a population estimated at the same number. A thriving commercial sector had been established, with the enviable advantage of railway and marine routes for the transportation of raw materials and manufactured goods. Town builders looked forward to Collingwood’s future as a magnet for industry, however, manufacturing was not its only economic resource. Even in the 1890s, the potential of tourism was recognized by progressive town promoters. In the 1894 Annual Report of the Collingwood Board of Trade, F. T. Hodgson touted the area as a choice destination for rest and recreation:
. . .Beautifully situated on an indentation of the South-east shore of Georgian Bay, surrounded with lovely natural scenery and ornamented with charming parks, elegant private and public buildings, churches, halls and business houses, with magnificent streets, shady drives and unexcelled water stretches; hundreds of places of interest within easy distance, fishing, boating, bathing and shooting, all go to make the town a veritable paradise for the tourist . . .
In spite of Hodgson’s enthusiasm, the tourist potential of the area was slow to come to fruition. In 1940, an interest in recreational skiing began to gain momentum in Toronto. The benefits of fresh air and exercise drew increasing crowds to Blue Mountain country, only a few hours’ drive from the city. Around the same time, Jozo Weider, having fled the Nazi invasion of Sudetenland, arrived in Canada with his wife and infant son. Weider, a ski instructor, immediately recognized the untapped tourist potential waiting in the ribs of the Niagara Escarpment. Thirty years later, annual revenues for Weider’s dream achieved the $1M mark. Controlling shares of the resort were purchased in 1999 by Intrawest, a major developer of resort villages worldwide, whose tenure propelled Blue Mountain into an astonishing evolution. Now the nucleus of the highest priced real estate in the Georgian Triangle, the resort’s marketing machine boasts its own “village” status.
Alongside the steady rise in Collingwood’s popularity as a tourist destination, industry remained an economic mainstay for over a hundred years, with Collingwood’s shipyards providing stable employment for successive generations of workers. However, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 triggered the demise of shipbuilding in Collingwood. In 1986, the long-rumoured closing of the Collingwood Shipyards became an unfathomable reality. Cushioning the blow, several new industrial plants responded to government incentives to locate in Collingwood.
Around the same time, residential construction spread westward to what had been mainly farmland; tradesmen who had grown up in the shipyards were able to use transferable skills, building new homes for the influx of city-dwellers seeking the tranquility and amenities that Collingwood offered in abundance.
Tourism continues to forge a path to population growth in the region. The oasis offered by Collingwood’s landscape and gentler lifestyle has increased its draw for home buyers to the tune of about 2000 new homes since 1990. For many weekenders, brief sojourns away from the city end in plans for early retirement or new careers such as work-from-home sales or consulting, agri-tourism, and internet-based businesses. But what about those who cannot transplant or pack up a city career to start anew in the beckoning hills of the Blue Mountains?
The answer is the old real estate chestnut, “location-location-location.” Downtown Toronto is barely a two-hour commute from Collingwood, an easy distance for keeping up with big-city activities. But the real draw is the ease with which professionals are able to straddle both worlds. Maintaining modest condominiums in the city during the work week, many professionals find the weekend escape to a rural home of woodland, waterfront and abundant leisure, eminently achievable. Weekday office duties are often accomplished in less than a traditional 5-day week, allowing for a true blend of urban and rural lifestyles.
Serving this community of astute consumers is an historic commercial district offering abundant choices for shopping and dining, backed by national retailers and restaurants surrounding the heritage district. The fact that housing and commercial developments are taking root outside of the downtown core does not, however, translate into suburban sprawl. Though major retailers have recently located in the west end of town, big-box stores surrounded by acres of parking will not be the norm in Collingwood. New design standards established in 2010 mandate architectural designs that accommodate and preserve the natural environment and historically or culturally significant features. “The built environment we create is the stage upon which our lives are lived,” says Robert Voigt, the town’s senior planner and author of the new Urban Design Manual. “This is why the Town has taken such care in ensuring that the community’s evolution will result in vibrant neighbourhoods that speak to the community’s sense of self and sense of place, not like everywhere or anywhere else.”
As a model for a culture striving to protect natural heritage, respect historic context and create a better world for future generations, Collingwood occupies an enviable position in the Canadian landscape. What changes will ensue in the transition from small-town industrial hinterland to lifestyle mecca for the well-heeled is the subject of much speculation. How well newcomers and 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-generation residents work together toward the common goal of preservation, enjoyment and celebration of the area’s natural abundance might serve as testament to the power of mutual benevolence.
First published November 2012