Port Elgin Ontario Started with a Storm 

Port Elgin Ontario Started with a Storm. A ship forced to seek refuge from Lake Huron's stormy wrath signalled to one man the idea of starting a new community.

In 1849 a storm struck the coast of Lake Huron. As the water churned and rolled a small vessel making its return trip to Goderich from the "Fishing Islands" sought refuge from the winds that threatened to send the boat and its crew to Huron's sandy bottom. Just south of Southampton they found a small bay that presented a respite for the vessel and its crew. 

Lochlan McLean, who sailed aboard the vessel made a decision that day that would affect the rest of his life. Perhaps he was enamoured by the location, but whatever the reason he decided to build a home a short distance from the shoreline of the bay that had perhaps saved his life from one of the storms that so frequently wreaked havoc on early Lake Huron sailors and their vessels. 

Perhaps hoping to cater to pioneer travellers and other sailors seeking refuge from a storm he and his wife opened a tavern in their home. 

McLean's wife gave birth to the first non-native baby in that area. In 1851, two years after their arrival, Alexander Vidal arrived to survey the region which was to be called Saugeen Township. Shortly after the completion of the survey the McLean's welcomed neighbours as settlers moved into the region. In 1854 a post office was opened. The arrival of the post office caused some consternation for the settlers. The Post Office Department arbitrarily gave the new post office a name which did not sit well with the residents of the area. The post office decided that it would be called Normantown. Adding to the displeasure of the locals the post office officials misspelled the name in the official announcement of the opening of the post office. The name was listed as "Mormantown" in the official release. Normantown remained the official name of the community until it was incorporated as the village of Port Elgin in 1874. 

In the same year as the arrival of the post office, a group of citizens succeeded in acquiring 220 acres of land for the purpose of laying out a town site. These men, Messrs. Hilker, Stafford, Shantz and Seiffert, then contracted two public land Surveyors, to lay out a town plan. Kertland and Sproat completed the project in 1857. They expressed a positive opinion with regards to the future of Normantown in their remarks which accompanied their survey. They stated: 

"We have great pleasure in recommending this survey to the attention of the public. In 1853 it began to be settled and the rapid strides which it has made are almost miraculous, it can now boast of 1 Fanning Mill Factory, 3 Excellent Shops, 1 Wheel Wright Shop, 2 Commodious Hotels, 2 Black Smith Shops, 1 Steam Cabinet Factory, 1 Cooper Shop, 2 Saw Mills, 1 School House, 1 Flouring Mill. Also, a large Tannery and several Churches in course of erection. There are also many Private Residences some of which will compare favorably with first class houses in Toronto." 

Within a decade of the survey the town had 630 residents. The harbour had been developed and there was regular boat service between both Goderich and Southampton. The maritime connection was enhanced by the erection of warehousing facilities. 

Normantown continued to grow with the establishment of another hotel, a brewery, a woollen factory, a pottery, a grist mill and the arrival of a physician. Also reflecting the growth and success of the village was the construction a large town hall. 

Port Elgin, like so many communities, has known its periods of economic boom and decline. However, the determined spirit of its pioneers has travelled through the decades since its inception and today it is one of the favourite tourist locations on Lake Huron for visitors from both Canada and the United States. 

The quotation used in this article, as well as much of the information came from a wonderful book, Reminiscences, Port Elgin 1874-1974, by Carmin J. Levie. 

It is a book well worth reading by anyone interested in the history of this region.

A version of this story first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times on January 23, 1998.

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