Saturday, September 17, 2016

Dual sport on your doorstep: James Gamble homestead on Peter Robinson Road

As I described in a recent post, Peter Robinson Road between March Road and Old Almonte Road runs through a desolate swamp that, incredibly, was the location of some optimistic and tenacious homesteaders in the late 19th century. In my last post, I described the James Carter homestead which sits on a large, gently sloping "island" in the middle of the swamp. But as the old Huntley Township map of 1879 shows, there's another even more isolated homestead that belonged to James Gamble, situated on smaller island that lies close to Old Almonte Road.  The outline of what must be the foundation is obvious in the aerial photo:

As you can also see from the aerial photo, Peter Robinson Road in this location is just a muddy, rocky track that's usually flooded year round. The scrub and mush completely obscures a view to the island. This is all you see from the track, and there's no way I was going to try to use through that to the island:

Instead, I continued a hundred metres or so further down Peter Robinson to a clearing on the right at a slight rise in the land.

From here I backtracked through the underbrush directly behind my bike, crossed a stream, and bushwhacked a little further south before I finally emerged from the undergrowth to see the entirety of the island:

Even when I visited at the end of a remarkably dry summer the bugs were awful. I can't imagine how tough it must've been in the summer 100+ years ago, with no screens on the windows and the heat of a wood-fired stove radiating in a small cabin!

A foundation was indeed located right where I expected. It's little more than a depression in the earth, and quite easy to miss unless you know exactly what to look for. This is the view from in the foundation. Just to the left another depression with a dead tree sticking out of it. Not sure what it was, but it could've been either a cold storage cellar or perhaps a latrine, although it was located only a few metres from the home. There may not have been another location at this site where it was possible to dig this deep without hitting rock or the water table.

Some dry-laid foundation stones were clearly visible.

This is looking into the second depression with the dead tree. Clearing away the overgrowth might reveal some hints to its purpose. 

I couldn't find much information about James Gamble to determine who he was, what family he had, and what he did to make a living. Hopefully with a little more research I can fill in more of a picture of his life.

Something I have deduced is that this area was not ravaged by the great fire of 1870. One nearly contemporary account of the fire describes how a group of men took a wagonload of tools down to create a firebreak near Hugh Kennedy's home on the Long Swamp Road (now called Old Almonte Road), which was the site of the former community of Clandeboye. However, it's reported the fire bypassed this area altogether. Both the James Carter and James Gamble homesteads are shown on the 1879 map, but since that's after the fire it's not clear when they were actually built. My guess is that much of Huntley township was depopulated for several years after the fire, since there was very little left to rebuild with (no timber for construction, no forage for animals). Sustaining even a rough, pioneer lifestyle. would've been very difficult without the means to import resources until the land could recover. 

For the hardscrabble homesteaders in Huntley Township, the allure of green pastures opening up in the North American west after the end of the US Civil War proved too much to resist. Many families emigrated out of Upper Canada. This story repeated across the region from Ottawa to Georgian Bay, resulting in many of the abandoned roads and ghost towns we see today.

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