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Cobourg’s Gilded Age

We still think of it as a pretty little lakeside town, but to an earlier generation, Cobourg was something more. In fact, it was the destination of choice for throngs of wealthy Americans.

“As a child I spent all my vacations in Cobourg. They were wonderful summers and for that reason it always seemed much more like home to me than Buffalo. Cobourg is the place of happy memories.” – Katharine Cornell, Renowned Stage Actress

Fuelled by the demand for munitions during the Civil War, the city of Pittsburgh rose to be the undisputed leader of the American iron and steel industry by the 1870s. Soon, fully half the steel produced in the U.S. would be forged there. The city’s success was largely thanks to the apparently limitless seams of Pennsylvania coal in nearby hills, which kept local blast furnaces stoked and hot. But iron ore, another key ingredient in the recipe for steel, was less abundant in the American Mid-West, which prompted the industry barons of Pittsburgh to search far and wide for promising new sources. They found one in, of all places, a mine in Marmora, Ontario.

Inadvertently, the steelmen also found Cobourg. And although interest in the iron mine proved fleeting, Cobourg would never be the same.

Cobourg was on the way to Marmora, one of the last legs in a journey that went by rail from Pittsburgh to Buffalo to Rochester and then by ferry across Lake Ontario. En route to scout the mines, the American businessmen couldn’t help but be charmed by the sleepy little town that awaited them on the lake’s north shore. The antithesis of soot-laden Pittsburgh, complete with its own sand beach, Cobourg must have seemed quaint indeed. As their business trips became more frequent, the steel magnates would sometimes be accompanied by their wives, families and servants, especially in the summer. By the mid-1870s the new colony of Americans was the driving force behind a local tourist industry that launched a humble Northumberland town into the international spotlight.

A resort unrivalled in Canada, Cobourg was now in the same league as Newport, Rhode Island, a posh ocean-side destination for rich New Yorkers. “Newport of the North,” it was called. Not all of the colony hailed from Pittsburgh – tourists came from throughout the American Mid-West and some even came from the South – but there was a common denominator among them: These were no ordinary visitors, but families of means, including the titans of industry and senior officers in the military. Cobourg even attracted the daughter of an American president and a famous Broadway actress (see sidebars). Quite the compliment for a small town in the middle of the southern Ontario countryside.

One of the first off the ferry was George K. Shoenberger, who took control of the Marmora mine and a railway link to Cobourg in the 1860s. Among his partners was his brother-in-law, William Chambliss, and it is these two men who are credited with putting Cobourg on the tourist map. Indeed, they were the money behind construction of the Arlington Hotel in 1873 (Victoria Park occupies the spot today). No ordinary farmer’s inn, it was a well-appointed hostelry – four storeys high in Second Empire style, almost a block long, with 150 rooms – designed to cater to a discerning clientele. The word was out: Cobourg was the place to be.

Sensing they were onto something, Chambliss and Shoenberger spread the word. It wasn’t enough that Cobourg was pretty: they promoted the healthful benefits of its fresh lake air, claiming that local “ozone” had great therapeutic value. In fact, they set out on an “ozone tour” of various American cities and proclaimed that, after the Swiss Alps, Cobourg had the second-best ozone count in the world. Of course, this was more of a marketing gimmick than scientific fact, but it seemed to strike a chord among potential visitors and Cobourg’s rise as a destination seemed assured.

In the beginning, the tourist trade focused on the Arlington, which after all, backed onto the beach. It was so popular that reservations were required a year in advance and guests would stay for weeks at a time. Its reputation for entertainment was legendary: “Sunday evening concerts in the ballroom,” wrote historian Edwin Guillet in 1948, “attracted such crowds that streets, wide piazzas and spacious lawns were blocked by the eager throng.” The success of the Arlington inspired several competitors, most notably the Columbian Hotel, which stood on the same block and underwent not one, but two renovations to accommodate ever-growing demand.

Summer life was a series of social calls, card games, golf dates, afternoon picnics and evening dances. Men dabbled their toes in the cool waters of the lake, relieved to have escaped the oppressive heat of an American summer. Couples strolled the beach and under the protection of their parasols, Victorian ladies breathed in the ozone. Thanks to the American colony, Cobourg’s equestrian show attracted international renown, and its yacht club and lake regattas were similarly boosted by the presence of the wealthy tourists. By the 1880s, many of them had graduated from the hotels to putting down roots, buying local houses as seasonal retreats. Others built permanent homes.

ROBERT ROWE was probably the wealthiest of all the steel magnates and it showed. His Pittsburgh mansion, which stood until recently, was so grand that it resembled more a college than a private residence. His Cobourg home, called Cottesmore Hall, built in 1910 on King Street East, was just as lavish and was generally considered the most beautiful estate in the summer colony. Both buildings were the work of Pittsburgh architects Russell & Rutan. Rowe presided over the Pittsburgh Steel Co.

At one time, WILLIAM L. ABBOTT was a partner with the most famous Pittsburgh industrialist of all, Andrew Carnegie. In Cobourg, he added a new chapter to Sidbrook, one of the summer mansions at the east end of town, transforming an already opulent house into a three-storey mansion.

CHARLES DONNELLY was another of the Pennsylvania steel barons; among his posts was chairman of the Pittsburgh Bolt Works. He left his mark in Cobourg with additions to Strathmore, yet another in the line of estates on the north side of King Street East.

At the reins of a lead-smelting business in Buffalo, S. DOUGLAS CORNELL bought a Cobourg house that once belonged to William Chambliss. His extended family summered in Cobourg for over 40 years. Katharine Cornell (see sidebar) was his granddaughter.

ISABELLA WELLS was the widow of Erastus Wells, a congressman who made his fortune at the helm of the first omnibus line in St. Louis. After her husband died in 1893, Isabella bought a sprawling old residence called Hamilton House on the west beach of Cobourg (on what is now Pebble Beach Road), only to watch it burn in a fire. Remodelled and rebuilt, the property was turned over to her daughter in 1905.

GENERAL CHARLES LANE FITZHUGH’S distinguished military career included a term as the youngest brigadier-general in the Union army. With family roots in Virginia, he came to know Cobourg through his father-in-law, George K. Shoenberger, and built an estate called Ravensworth on the lake in the east end of town. His son, Carroll, built a nearly identical house nearby; a second son, Henry, also summered in Cobourg.

GEORGE TENER OLIVER earned his fortune in the manufacture of wire in Pittsburgh, only to turn to politics (he sat in the U. S. Senate) and the newspaper industry. The Olivers’ Cobourg home was one of the few not located near the lake; it spread over a parcel of farmland on Ontario Street, just north of town.

H. H. King, a lawyer and entrepreneur from Pittsburgh and Erie, Pennsylvania, preferred to separate himself from the Cobourg colony and instead spent his summers in Port Hope. His descendants managed his estate, Penryn Park, until the 1980s.

The new seasonal residents were rich beyond imagination. More to the point, they were nouveau-riche, with few inhibitions about displaying their wealth. To be sure, their homes, most of them constructed between 1890 and 1910, were nothing short of palatial, built to the latest architectural tastes and sprawling over acres of manicured gardens. Most were found on or near the lake at the fringes of town, particularly in a row along King Street as the town gave way to the countryside to the east. Only a few local families – the Crossens and the Boultons, for instance – were in the same league, but there’s no question that the two elites – American and Canadian – blended quite harmoniously. Pittsburgh boys often courted Cobourg girls and their weddings were frequently the highlight of the summer season. But the influence of the Americans went beyond the social calendar: they contributed to local causes, particularly the hospital, while the Cobourg elite invested in railways, mines and other business ventures south of the border.

As a boost to the local economy, the American summer colony couldn’t have come at a better time. After a boom period in the 1850s, Cobourg had slid into the financial doldrums and only had itself to blame. The town had invested in two failed schemes that had left municipal coffers dangerously close to empty. One was the soaring cost of Victoria Hall, today a much-loved civic landmark but an overly ambitious undertaking for such a small town at the time of construction. The other was the northbound railway, whose bridge over Rice Lake was so plagued by engineering flaws that the crossing was shut down after only one year and the rails were left to languish. (It was this railway link toward Marmora that would soon attract Schoenberger and Chambliss to Cobourg in the first place.) The debt incurred by both ventures was crippling, but the tide turned, thanks to the American colony. Local people found employment in hotels or as servants in private homes. After years of stagnation, population numbers were on the rise again. New construction was everywhere. Real estate values soared: “No good lots can now be had under $1000 per acre,” lamented the Cobourg Sentinel in May, 1874. Ironically, the town was saved but through no effort from its politicians.

These were heady days and for the next six decades, Cobourg lived in a gilded age. But it wouldn’t last. Most observers say the bubble burst during World War I and the Depression dealt the final blow. Indeed, the war ushered in an era of social change that greatly affected the lives of the moneyed elite. New income taxes and property taxes made even the wealthiest family rethink the wisdom of having a sprawling second home in a faraway town. Meanwhile, the war coincided with the emergence of a more egalitarian society, based on the rise of the middle class – indeed, the era of privileged capitalist aristocracy – dubbed the “robber barons” among detractors – was about to give way. Likewise, tourism entered a new phase about this time, based on shorter weekend trips and the freedom afforded by the automobile.

But if there was an official date to mark the end of the era, it was probably the day in the early 1920s when the Arlington – the hotel that started it all – abruptly closed its doors to the public. A small fire in 1937 sealed its fate and the enormous hotel, once the social hub of Cobourg, was demolished. Next door, the Columbian struggled on, but the bloom was definitely off the rose; it survived as a beer hall known as Chateau until it was finally demolished in 1994.

Time hasn’t been any more kind to most of the old American estates either. Several succumbed to fire, including Carroll Fitzhugh’s mansion on the lake, the Olivers’ Dungannon Hall (its gates are still very prominent on Ontario Street just above the 401) and Mrs. Wells’ Hamilton House, which burned a second time. Others were converted to such institutional uses as a private school, a convent and a private hospital, but by the 1950s, most were considered unwieldy, impractical and with little recognition of their heritage value, they were unceremoniously demolished. On their grounds are subdivisions, apartment buildings, housing for seniors and behind an impenetrable security fence, the Brookside Correctional Centre.

The Fitzhughs’ Ravensworth is one of the few estates to reach the 21st century in mint condition as a family home. Sequestered behind an evergreen hedge, Nellie Grant’s house (see sidebar) likewise still faces Lake Ontario, converted to a retreat facility, while the Abbotts’ Sidbrook sits boarded up and neglected, awaiting development. Across the street, on what is now the Brookside grounds, the Donnellys’ Strathmore is the sole survivor of four grand homes that presided over the north side of King Street East. With its stately columns and inviting verandahs in plain view of passersby, it is probably the most visible vestige of the American summer colony. But without a trace of so many of its contemporaries, it looks a little lonely.

Today, most of the tangible links to the summer colony are a distant memory and Cobourg’s connection to Pittsburgh is largely forgotten. And with the steel mills gone, even Pittsburgh itself has been transformed. It seems Cobourg’s rise as the destination for rich Americans was a phenomenon that could only have happened in a certain time and place. It seems that time and place are gone.