Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Dualsport on your doorstep: Lost communities near Corkery Road

Halfway between the 417 and Almonte, just west of Ottawa on March Road, lies the Corkery Ridge, an intriguing bit of history, and forgotten communities.

Cresting the ridge reveals a spectacular view west: a long, shallow valley runs north-south, with exposed limestone on the slopes, swampy ground at the bottom where Peter Robinson Road and then Upper Dwyer Hill Road cross March Road,  scrubby vegetation eking out an existence among the rocks and swamps. A few pioneer log homes dot the area, as well as some magnificent Eastern White pines that are possibly remnants of the original old growth forest.

At the top of the ridge lies Corkery Rd running south, and just past the corner is St. Michaels Catholic Church--another remnant of the pioneer days and the mostly Irish immigrants that settled this little pocket of Huntley Township in Carleton County.

On the far side of the valley lies a large quarry run by the Cavanagh family. Behind the quarry and up on the far ridge lies Burnt Lands Provincial park, an alvar that is remarkably rare in the world and home to rare plant and animal species found nowhere else.

Most of this view can be taken in with one quick glance. It’s a pretty but unremarkable view of rural life today: Some old farms, some newer ones, a few McMansions placed imperiously. I’ve seen this view thousands of time on my daily commute into Ottawa. But I always wondered, who was Peter Robinson and what lies down the unopened section of road between March Road and Old Almonte Road, that bears his name?

Here’s the view of Peter Robinson Road as seen from the Old Almonte Road. 

Since it’s in a swamp, it’s usually filled with water. However, this year’s dry summer dried things up enough to convince me to take a look. 


Turns out there’s a solid layer of rock beneath the dirt, making it easy to ride. Just a few puddles to run through.

After a couple hundred metres, the swamp gives way to a gentle rise that turns into an island of sorts, surrounded by swamp in all directions. It’s a beautiful location: quiet, breezy, completely remote and invisible from the surrounding area.

So I’m surprised to note what appears to be an old building up on the rise. Sure enough, it appears to have been a fine log home with high ceilings, large windows, a rubble foundation, and at least two doors. The roof has long since caved in, but inside are the remains of plaster wall coverings. This was no shanty – it was clearly a loved home.

There’s too much overgrowth to get much of a closer look. 

A few dozen metres away lay the remains of a significant barn structure, and possibly the original shanty that the settlers built until they could erect a more permanent home.

There was also recent evidence of visitors: shotgun garbage scattered on the ground. Otherwise the site appeared to have been abandoned for many decades, probably not even used as a hunt camp in at least 50 years.

The old road continued past the farm, but soon became impassable swamp, so I didn’t risk it and turned back.

Now I was intrigued: Who lived here? What’s the connection with Peter Robinson? What’s the story behind this forgotten pioneer home surrounded by swamp and clearly isolated from any recognizable community?

Some online research revealed part of the story and a few more surprises. Peter Robinson was well known by 1834 as someone who arranged for many shiploads of poor families to leave Ireland and settle in Huntley Township. He worked tirelessly to give them an opportunity for a better life and seems to have been widely respected for these efforts. Many common family names around Almonte and Corkery today, including the Cavanaghs of quarrying fame, can trace their roots back to Peter Robinsons ships.

Consulting a map of Huntley Township from 1879 revealed that the land where the old log house lay belonged to James Carter. It even showed a house in the same location as the ruins. More sleuthing uncovered obituaries in the Almonte Gazette for Elizabeth Carter (nee Kelly) and her husband, JamesCarter, who was born 1824 in Tyrone, Ireland, and died in 1894 in Huntley Township. The family grave is just up the hill at St. Michael's. 

James arrived in Canada in 1845. Although there were a few James Carters on the passenger lists of the Peter Robinson ships, it's seems clear he wasn’t one of them. He originally settled in Ramsay Township (home to Almonte) and then later moved to Huntley Township. There are only three lots registered to a James Carter in Huntley, and they are adjacent to the one with the ruins. Clearly this was the homestead of James and Elizabeth Carter, and their ten children--one of whom, Patrick, continued to live at the homestead.  

I’m guessing the home was built after the great fire of 1870 which swept through the area from Almonte to Ottawa and destroyed pretty much everything in its path. And it was obviously built before 1879, the date of the map. It was probably built between 1871-1878.

Here's the satellite view of the site:

Peter Robinson Road is visible along the treeline at top right; the house is the smaller square rectangle at lower right. The faint white lines indicate the unopened road allowances which are still registered with the Province of Ontario. 

How did James and his family get to and from the home? Where did they connect with their community? The swamp route along Peter Robinson Road was probably not viable for most of the year. I’m guessing there’s a higher path that leads towards Upper Dwyer Hill Road. Remarkably, there were several options for nearby community, although nothing remains today.

The old map shows that the intersection of Corkery Rd and Old Almonte Rd (where today stands a modern home) used to be called West Huntley, where there was a store and post office. These buildings were destroyed in the 1870 fire and presumably that was the end of West Huntley.

On Old Almonte Rd near the intersection with Upper Dwyer Hill Rd was another community called Clandeboye, also home to a post office. Nothing remains today except a few modern homes. The former Herb Garden across the road was probably part of the hamlet.

Most intriguing is that at St. Michael’s Church on the crest of March Rd, the original path of Corkery Rd continued across March Rd and along the slope where today there’s a rural subdivision. This road descended the ridge at a lower slope and met up with Carroll Road where it crosses Peter Robinson Road. Many years ago, before the subdivision on the ridge was built, I met the owners of the farm at this intersection and they invited me to mountain bike up the ridge to the forest beyond. The satellite image of the ridge shows signs of a vestigial road in this location. Little did I know, the route I’d cycled from Almonte through the Burnt Lands, down the old Carroll Road allowance, and up the ridge was in fact one of the original routes into Almonte before March Road was opened through the steep ridge beside Cavanagh’s quarry.

Also intriguing is that along the Carroll Road where it rises into the Burnt Lands was another hamlet called Powell, where there was a hotel and post office. Today it’s just bush but now I’m really curious to see if any signs of the former buildings remain.

All of these locations are marked in orange on the following map. The blue rectangles indicate the approximate views of the satellite images. 

Here's the vestigial road down Corkery ridge. It's barely visible as a diagonal depression running from top right down to the farm house at bottom left:

Here's the probably location of the Powell hotel and post office on Carroll Rd:

James Carter and his family lived in what was probably a more bustling farming community than today’s sleepy rural farmland would suggest. However, the lure of fertile land drew many of the Huntley pioneers west, and those who remained would’ve faced soul-crushing work rebuilding their lives after the total destruction of the region by the 1870 fire.

Here's a class photo (dated maybe 1924?) from the old school #6 that used to be located near the present-day firehall up on Old Almonte Road past Corkery Road. The indicated Carters are not children of James and Elizabeth, but may be grandchildren or great-grandchildren descended from Patrick, who continued to live in the home. If so, then the old farm may have been inhabited in 1924.


  1. Well researched and sensitively written. I have often wondered who Peter R was and about the history of Corkery. Thanks to your sense of curiosity that have bebefitted mine. Thank you.

    1. Thanks! Glad someone's reading this stuff. Yesterday I met a resident of Carroll Sd Rd who said he would will introduce me to his neighbour, a 91-year-old Carroll. Hopefully I can hear some stories about the hotel and other details of life in the area.