The town of Collingwood, as it stands today, is a testament to its heritage and small-town charm. The downtown core has many beautiful heritage brick buildings that line its streets with such grace and grandeur. Today, the town is a bustling tourism community with many seasonal residences and with its proximity to ski hills makes it ‘The’ place to be.
In the beginning, Collingwood was a treacherous, impassable mess of cedar swamp with no roads into or out of it. The surrounding country was very sparsely settled, except by the Aboriginal people the Petun Indians. They developed a river and portage trail from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay through Lake Simcoe. Due to a larger harbour that was surrounded by smaller islands, the town of Collingwood was originally named ‘Hens and Chickens Harbour.’ The town was settled approximately around 1840, and the Town Proper was first settled in 1854. Collingwood was the first township of Grey County laid out by a surveyor. By 1854, the village had built a sawmill, grist mill, a couple of stores, a tavern, and a blacksmith. The town was named in honour of Lord Collingwood who distinguished himself during the 1800s in battle. In 1855, the town of Collingwood started to grow rapidly and it was in this year that the town’s lake traffic was laid. As a port, Collingwood was an instant success. Shippers provided passage of goods and passengers to Owen Sound, Milwaukee, Sault Ste. Marie, and Lake Superior. In 1853, the Simcoe & Lake Huron Railway chose Collingwood to be their Georgian Bay port and the first train to arrive in Collingwood was on New Year’s Day in 1855. The railway company also built a dock, freight shed, and a grain elevator at the harbour, as well as chartered steamships to connect to Chicago and Green Bay.
The Bill of Incorporation was passed in Parliament in the fall of 1857, and Collingwood came into existence as an incorporated town on January 1, 1858. It was approximately 1859-1860 that a Grammar School was built in Collingwood. By 1867, the town of Collingwood had a population of 1532 residents. Within a year, that town had grown to have 1920 residents. In 1871, the town purchased a steam fire engine that was christened the ‘Georgian’ and was heralded as one of the finest most efficient steam fire engines in the country for its time.
In September of 1881, a destructive fire swept out the existence of the largest portion of the business street. This did not slow the town down and the business section of the town was rebuilt in a short period of time with brick commercial buildings that are still standing along Hurontario Street. In 1887, the town set to improve the harbour as they built immense piers, docks and a channel that was deep enough to accommodate any size vessel. There was once an American consulate installed in the town due to the large number of American shipping that passed through the Collingwood Port. Collingwood was the prime supplier of skiffs, fishing boats, yachts, and wooden steamships in the 1800s to all the Great Lakes.
In 1901, the first steel hull ship in Canada was launched in Collingwood the 321 foot ‘Huronic.’ During the early 1900s Collingwood’s great population growth and development slowed considerably with the last historic buildings being built in 1918. As the Transcontinental Railroad began to flourish, the town started to lose its population and declined between the years 1911-1921 and scarcely grew for another 20 years.
The arrival of ski hills that opened along the Escarpment in the 1930s and 1940s breathed new life into the Town of Collingwood and started the four season tourism that still goes strong today. The Collingwood Ski Club was formed in 1936 by Collingwood Businessmen, and in 1941 the ski club land was leased to Blue Mountain Resorts Ltd., that hired Jozo Weider to operate the facility.
After 103 years of existence and surviving through two world wars building vessels and munitions, the shipyards were closed on September 12th 1986. The 1980s brought a change to the downtown core of Collingwood and saw the removal of many historical two-storey buildings and were replaced by not as graceful one-storey buildings.
The Town of Collingwood continues to be primarily a tourist hub that showcases its historical roots and classy nature. Collingwood is a gem in the landscape of the area that is showcased by the sparkling Georgian Bay and the majestic Blue Mountains.