The Wilder Days of Orillia

Orillia Trivia   ◘ History of Orillia's Power   ◘ The Wilder Days   ◘ Vintage Summers

While much of the wild going's on during Orillia's history seem to have taken place between the 1830s and 1900, it most likely began when whiskey started to be imported into this area. Back in 1802, a trading post was opened up at the area we call Orchard Point. This trading post served areas surrounding Orillia too, and allowed for trade between the aboriginals and the "whites". Unfortunately for everyone (at least I think so), one of the commodities used as barter was the whiskey.  Back then, it appears to have been quite cheap, and apparently "fashionable", and wasn't restricted to any particular class of people. It affected everyone, from the local natives to the pioneers and settlers, and even the religious.

Illustration of the hotel on Lake Couchiching, circa 1890.
c. 1890 (Public Domain Image Available from Virtual Reference Library)
With it, the drink brought public drunkenness (both men and women); street brawls; arguments; illness, and even death.  The aboriginals were treated poorly by French traders, using whiskey in exchange for furs and and other native goods, and in some cases, simply taking what they wanted. In the 1820s-1830s, it was bad enough that the government stepped in to try and put some control in place. This period was devastating for the aboriginal culture in this area.

Between the 1830s and the 1900s, it seems that Orillia had more taverns (what we consider bars today) per capita that we've ever had. In a historical study by Larry Cotton (Whiskey and Wickedness - I recommend reading this if you get a chance. Available here for sale, and at the Orillia Public Library.) he notes:
"Orillia had 24 legally licensed hotels and shops in 1873 for a population of 2500."
Judging by what I've been reading in other accounts, it was probably pretty close during the earlier years as well (not always at the same time, it seems it was an on-off business as hotels opened, closed, and opened again), but apparently, some was available even at unlicensed shops.

Advertisement from an 1836 directly.
c. 1836
In the streets, it wasn't uncommon to see brawls, and drunkards harassing the more temperate folks, including women. Apparently, there was little to no chivalry in the early days of this settlement. Even the constable(s) were unable to control the rowdy populace. From some accounts, the constabulary simply ignored it. Well, perhaps not all of the constables, but for the most part, the ruffians went unchecked much of the time.

There were accidental drownings (some perhaps not so accidental), and the women and men of the temperance league lived in fear and trepidation. Not only did the threats come from the local drinkers, but during some periods of the year, the influx of "lumbermen" coming into town to relax after leaving the harshness of the lumber camps for a little fun usually ended up with fist-fights, arguments, and threats.

An advertisement for the Queen's hotel from an 1836 directory of Orillia.
c. 1836
Hotels appeared to change hands on a whim, and often the name of the hotel or tavern changed with the name of the owner. It seemed almost a round-about, with several people owning or running one hotel which appeared under several names. There was also the Albion, King's Tavern (later called Orillia House), Fraser's Tavern, the Queen's, the Royal, Beaver Inn (there was a steamboat called "The Beaver"  (piloted by "Captain Laughton") which stopped here as well). The Queen's Hotel once occupied the location of the current Champlain Hotel (actually, it's current name is the Rodeway Inn).

Later hotels and inns bore such names as "The Prince Albert", "The Victoria Hotel", "The Green Bush Inn", "The Narrows Hotel" ... according to Larry Cotton's book, there were eight taverns/inns in the community, which only numbered about 320 inhabitants in 1851.

The Orillia Hotel, as a residence (small image), and as the hotel in the 1960s.
Some names of the hotels are the familiar: The Orillia Hotel (burned down in 1968). My husband remembers working at the Orillia Hotel during the summers he spent at Tudhope Park. But this was not the same "Orillia Hotel or Orillia House" as the as the one mentioned in the 1800s records. The one he remembers was originally the home (a palatial mansion) of Andrew Tait. He built this residence in 1885 and lived there with his wife and five children until he put it up for sale in 1904.  (One interesting note was that the mansion had it's own roller rink on the upper floor.) Once purchased, it was converted to a summer resort hotel, and eventually closed down in 1967, being marked for demolition. But before it was demolished, it burned in a fire in February of 1968.

Orillia's liquor problems most likely weren't helped by the fact that over the course of these years, there was a large brewery located on Couchiching Point (I would guess this is where the name "Brewery Bay" came from), and a smaller one (different owners) located in town. I wonder how many people know that Orillia had her own breweries?

The Orillia Steam Brewery on what is now Couchiching Point was (believed to be anyways) started by John Thompson (c. 1845), and sold to Wm. Jackson who ran it until 1874, closed it, and reopened in 1875. By late 1876, it was taken over by Henry Allen and Montgomery Revell.

The smaller brewery on Mississaga St. was opened by H.S. Fairhall, sold in 1883 to Melville Herbert and Herbert Clark (weird, huh?), and sold again in 1891 to H. Graham and J. Clark and ran as J.A.P. Clarke Brewery. In 1912, Albert Wright bought it. I think this brewery was located where Fred's Meat Market was (corner of Mississaga St. and Andrew St.) until it closed (2014?). Most folks in town will remember Fred's.

The town earned some infamous monikers during it's early days:
  • a newspaper in Barrie said it was worse than Sodom and Gomorrah
  • a Toronto newspaper said it was one of the most notorious towns for wickedness and drunkenness
  • a Constable of the town (Sam Cotton) called it "an awful town" (see Larry Cotton's book)
For a little town, it's reputation was apparently stunningly bad.

A sketch by George White of Orillia in 1872. Public Domain from the Toronto Library Virtual Archives.
Orillia, 1872 - Sketch by George Harlow White (Public Domain - Available at the Virtual Reference Library)
After spending a couple of weeks reading (books from the library, as well as those papers and pamphlets available from the Internet Archive), I believe one could probably write their own book, incorporating many different details from different time periods, all gleaned from different places. But ... I'm not going to do that.

What I do recommend is if you have an interest in this long-ago period in Orillia's life, that you set out on your own journey of discovery. I can give you several books and links for what I'd consider recommended reading. Sometime's you'll find a tiny tidbit of information in the most unlikeliest places - a recollection from an old-timer noted in passing, or memoirs and diaries of family. In trying to find out the date the Orillia Hotel burned down, I discovered that in a book composed of photos of old Victorian family homes in Orillia ("Beautiful Old Orillia"; Sue Murdoch, Orillia Museum of Art  and History).

Suggested Reading

Beautiful Old Orillia, Sue Murdoch/Orillia Museum of Art & History (Orillia Public Library)
Whiskey and Wickedness (Vol 1 & 2), Larry D. Cotton (Orillia Public Library)
Secrets from the Lakes (Lakes Simcoe & Couchiching), Monica Frim (Orillia Public Library)
Men of Colour, Gary E. French (Orillia Public Library)

Online Books & Papers

A brief History of Orillia: Ontario's Sunshine City, Dennis Rizzo
Aboriginal History in Ontario's Cottage Country
Old Province Tales
A History of Simcoe County
Recollections of J.R. Hale