Founding of Georgetown

On June 26, 2013, the Ontario Heritage Trust, the Town of Halton Hills, the Halton Hills Public Library Board and the Esquesing Historical Society unveiled a provincial plaque at Halton Hills Library and Cultural Centre in Halton Hills (Georgetown), Ontario, to commemorate the Founding of Georgetown.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    After British officials acquired a block of land from the Mississaugas in 1818, the initial survey of Esquesing Township was undertaken in 1819. A township surveyor, Charles Kennedy, and several of his brothers settled lands located in the Silver Creek Valley. George Kennedy dammed the stream running through his property to establish a sawmill and later a gristmill. This provided the nucleus of a small settlement, known as “Hungry Hollow.” The York to Guelph Road (now Highway 7) opened in 1828, connecting the settlement to the broader economic development of the province. Around 1837, the hamlet became known as Georgetown. In 1856, the Grand Trunk Railway opened its line from Toronto to Sarnia through the community, providing new opportunities for growth. Georgetown was incorporated as a village in 1865 and as a town in 1922. In 1974, Georgetown and much of Esquesing Township amalgamated with Acton and other communities to form the Town of Halton Hills.


    En 1818, des officiers de l’armée britannique font l’acquisition d’un lot de terrain auprès des Mississauga, et en 1819 commence l’arpentage initial du canton d’Esquesing. Un arpenteur du canton, Charles Kennedy, achète avec plusieurs de ses frères des terrains situés au sein de la vallée de Silver Creek. George Kennedy endigue le ruisseau qui traverse sa propriété pour y construire une scierie, puis un moulin à blé. L’ensemble constitue le cœur d’un petit établissement connu sous le nom de « Hungry Hollow ». La route reliant York à Guelph (l’actuelle route 7) est ouverte à la circulation en 1828, et l’établissement rejoint alors le tissu économique de la province. Vers 1837, le hameau prend le nom de Georgetown. En 1856, la Compagnie des chemins de fer nationaux du Canada y fait passer le tronçon ferroviaire reliant Toronto à Sarnia, offrant ainsi d’autres possibilités de croissance à la collectivité. Georgetown est constitué en village en 1865, et en ville en 1922. En 1974, Georgetown et une vaste partie du canton d’Esquesing fusionnent avec Acton et d’autres collectivités pour former la ville de Halton Hills.

Historical background

The founding of Georgetown can be categorized into three important themes: early settlement, the development of industry, and the improvement of communications – both road and rail. All had a direct bearing on Georgetown’s founding and development that ultimately set this village apart from other small settlements in Esquesing1 Township.

Early settlement

Settlement of the area that became Georgetown can be dated to 1819 with the initial survey of Esquesing Township in the District of Gore.2 First Nations peoples had been present in the region for some 11,000 years and, in the early 19th century, the Mississaugas’ presence extended from fishing camps at the outlet of the Credit River on Lake Ontario northward into the upper reaches of the Credit River valley and its tributaries. Records of the earliest European settlers of Esquesing Township indicate that Mississaugas continued to live in the area in the 1820s, though in dwindling numbers in consequence of the growing numbers of new settlers arriving in the area.3 Following the purchase of a block of land by British officials from the Mississaugas in 1818, surveys were commissioned for what would become Esquesing and Nassagaweya4 Townships.

Captain Abraham Nelles received the commission to survey the northerly portion of this tract and, in turn, he hired Charles Kennedy to complete the work. Kennedy belonged to a family from New Jersey who had settled in Gainsborough Township on the Niagara Peninsula in 1795. Kennedy and several of his brothers fought in the War of 1812, and this is perhaps how he came to know Captain Nelles of the 4th Lincoln militia regiment.5

After surveying the north portion of Esquesing Township, Charles took possession of Lot 21, Concession 8, along Silver Creek. His brothers settled soon afterwards on lots to the north and south of his property. Downstream from Charles, two of his brothers, Morris and George, settled Lot 20, Concession 9, with Morris taking the west half of the lot and George settling the east half. In 1823, George also purchased Lot 18, located farther downstream. George dammed the stream running through his property and built a sawmill, as Charles had on his property.

In the decade that followed, George’s sawmill – accessed by a trail that led eastward from the 8th line into the Silver Creek valley – became the centre of a tiny community, nicknamed Hungry Hollow. Tradition suggests that only the families of George Kennedy, Marquis Goodenow and Sylvester Garrison lived here.6 Apparently, Hungry Hollow experienced some difficult early years due to its location in the creek valley that separated it from the more direct routes to the more settled regions of Upper Canada. As an example of a more advantageous site, Esquesing Village (later Stewarttown) was located on the 7th Concession of Esquesing (later known as Trafalgar Road). This road became a direct route south to the Lake Ontario trade at the new port town of Oakville and a direct route northward for settlers travelling to the newly surveyed territory. During the 1820s, the first post office in the area was located just south of Esquesing Village on the 7th Concession Road, an acknowledgement of its status as a main route of travel through the region.7

Roads and industry

The construction of the York to Guelph Road by colonizer John Galt8 was of critical importance for the Hungry Hollow community. Opened in 1828, the road (now Highway 7) connected the settlement directly with the capital at York and the small settlement became a way station for settlers travelling along this route, which blazed a diagonal short-cut across the otherwise perpendicular concessions and sideroads of the township. The road also provided opportunity for Kennedy’s milling complex to compete with others in the area, notably James MacNab’s on the Credit River (Norval) and the Stewart brothers’ mill at Esquesing Village.9

Around this time, George Kennedy expanded his operations by adding a foundry and a woollen mill. The latter operation attracted another founding family to the settlement. The Barber brothers had arrived in Upper Canada from Ireland with their father in 1822 and worked at James Crooks’ growing milling complex at Crooks’ Hollow. In approximately 1834, at least one of the Barber brothers began working at George Kennedy’s woollen mill and, three years later, William and Robert Barber purchased the Kennedy mill. Soon after, James and Joseph Barber Jr. joined their brothers and established a sawmill and a foundry.10

Sometime around 1837, the hamlet became known as Georgetown.11 It is not known for certain if Georgetown was named after George Kennedy or for the late British monarch, George IV.12

The Barbers’ woollen mill signalled a new phase in Georgetown’s industrial and commercial growth. A general store opened in 1840 and, in 1844, John B. and Philo Dayfoot, two brothers from Vermont, arrived in Georgetown and opened a tannery and a shoe factory.13 A second general store was opened in that year,14 and two years later, Smith’s Canadian Gazetteer reported that Georgetown was a “flourishing village” of 700 inhabitants with a gristmill, a sawmill, a cloth factory, two tanneries, one foundry, one chair manufacturer, three wagon manufacturers, one cabinet maker, four blacksmiths, three shoemakers, two tailors and one tavern.15

Members of the growing Georgetown community signed a petition in April 1844 to secure a post office for Georgetown, but it was not successful. Residents continued to travel to Norval or Esquesing Village for mail services until 1851, when Georgetown was granted its own postal facility.16

By 1850, the town was better connected to the developing road system of the province, when two different joint-stock companies planked both the Toronto to Guelph Road and the Trafalgar Road. This improved travelling conditions on what were previously terribly rough and rutted, and muddy roads.17

The railway era

The renewed investment in roads running through Georgetown was completed less than a year before investment in new technology would transform the village in significant ways. Businessmen from Toronto and Guelph met in August 1851 to propose a railway between the two centres that would run through the Townships of York, Etobicoke, Toronto, Chinguacousy, Esquesing, Nassagaweya, Eramosa and Guelph. The Toronto and Guelph Railway Company’s preferred route would pass through Georgetown. This resulted in land speculation around the village, ahead of the May 1852 official announcement of the route. Two years later, the Toronto and Guelph Railway Company was taken over by the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), and the former’s proposed route was merged into the GTR’s much larger plans to construct a railway from Montreal to Toronto and from Toronto to Sarnia.18

The railroad brought a surge of people and businesses into Georgetown. Labourers, many of them Irish Catholic, arrived as railway construction passed through the area. In particular, construction of a stone and iron bridge over the Credit River brought a considerable number of labourers to Georgetown during 1854. This new phase of growth allowed the village to eclipse neighbouring villages, including what had been the township’s principal town, Esquesing Village (now Stewarttown). In addition to James Barber’s new paper mill that opened in 1854, subdivisions were surveyed at the edges of Georgetown, a newspaper began to publish, and new educational institutions located in the village.19 On June 20, 1856, the first train travelled through Georgetown on its way from Toronto to Guelph.20

After almost a decade of growth spawned by the railway and industry, Georgetown petitioned the provincial government for incorporation in 1864. The request was granted, effective January 1, 1865. By that time, Georgetown had grown to some 1,250 inhabitants,21 a significant population figure for a community in Canada West at this time.

New railways constructed through Georgetown heightened its place on the economic infrastructure of Ontario and Canada. The Hamilton & Northwestern Railway trains passed through Georgetown when the line between Hamilton and Barrie opened in 1877. Forty years later, the electric Toronto Suburban Railway route opened, connecting Toronto and Guelph via Georgetown.22

At the end of the First World War, Georgetown witnessed a boom in housing, along with new industrial activity. On January 1, 1922, the Village of Georgetown was incorporated as a town.23 Following the Second World War, some of Georgetown’s long-standing industries closed, though new industries opened, and many of the town’s new residents commuted to jobs in places such as Malton or Toronto. This economic growth, coupled with the baby boom, caused the town of some 3,400 people to expand with new subdivisions developed in Georgetown East. By 1967, Georgetown had over 15,000 residents. Yet, with this expansion came financial challenges similar to those faced by other Ontario towns and townships. In 1974, the Province of Ontario created the Town of Halton Hills by amalgamating Georgetown with Acton and much of Esquesing Township. It formed part of a new Regional Municipality of Halton. In the 21st century, Georgetown continues to grow with housing developments located in Georgetown South.24

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Ross Fair in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2013

1 It was generally believed that the name Esquesing came from a First Nations word meaning "the land of the tall pine(s)," but it is now thought to be rooted in the Mississauga word ishkwessin, meaning "that which lies at the end." Ishkwessin was the original name for Bronte Creek, which runs down from the hills in Esquesing to its mouth at Bronte on Lake Ontario.

2 This portion of the Gore District would form a northern part of Halton County when counties replaced districts as administrative areas of the province in 1849.

3 John Mark Benbow Rowe, Georgetown: Reflections of a Small Town. (Georgetown, ON: Esquesing Historical Society, 2006), 14.

4 Nazhesahgewayyonis is a Mississauga word meaning “river with two outlets.” In this instance it refers to the local township watercourses that drain into both Lake Ontario and the Grand River system.

5 A Charles Kennedy is listed as an ensign in the 4th Lincoln militia regiment, captained by Abraham Nelles. William Gray, Soldiers of the King: The Upper Canadian Militia, 1812-1815 (Erin, ON: Boston Mills Press, 1995), 76.

6 L. Grant, “The Early Days”, [Georgetown Herald column], MG1 A2, Box 2 #8x, Georgetown Public Library.

7 Rowe, Georgetown: Reflections, 11; David Warren, History of Georgetown. 1967. Unpublished manuscript. Archives of Ontario Library, 1:3.

8 John Galt (1779-1839) was a Scottish novelist with a keen interest in Canadian colonial affairs. He visited Upper Canada frequently and served as an agent for those claiming losses from the War of 1812. Galt later founded the town of Guelph in 1827 and the town of Galt (now Cambridge) was named for him. There is an Ontario Provincial Plaque to John Galt located in John Galt Park, 25 Woolwich Street, Guelph.

9 John Mark Benbow Rowe, The Story of Georgetown Ontario (Georgetown, ON: Esquesing Historical Society, 1992), 2.

10 Kathleen Saunders, Saunders History of Georgetown (Cheltenham, ON: Boston Mills Press, 1976), n.p.; Rowe, The Story of Georgetown, 5-6; Rowe, Georgetown: Reflections, 30.

11 Rowe, The Story of Georgetown, 2.

12 There is no historical discussion that Georgetown was named for King George IV, who died in 1830. Nick and Helma Mika, Places in Ontario: their name origins and history, Part II (Belleville, ON: Mika Publishing Company, 1981), 104.

13 Rowe, The Story of Georgetown, 3-4; Rowe, Georgetown: Reflections, 11, 18-19, 20.

14 Rowe, The Story of Georgetown, 3.

15 William H. Smith, Smith’s Canadian Gazetteer; comprising statistical and general information respecting all parts of the upper province, or Canada West ... (Toronto: H&W Rowsell, 1846), 63.

16 Rowe, Georgetown: Reflections, 18.

17 Rowe, The Story of Georgetown, 4; Rowe, “Plank Road Opening,” in J. Mark Rowe and Walter Lewis eds., Collections 2 (Georgetown: Esquesing Historical Society and the Halton Hills Public Library, 1987), 35- 7.

18 Rowe, Georgetown: Reflections, 27-8; Rowe, The Story of Georgetown, 4-5.

19 Rowe, Georgetown: Reflections, 30-1; Rowe, The Story of Georgetown, 5-7; Robinson-Bertrand, Elaine, “Georgetown in the 1850’s” in Rowe and Lewis eds., Collections 2, 39-41; Charles Hildebrandt, The Story of Esquesing: Land of the Tall Pines ([Georgetown, ON]: Charles Hildebrandt, 2005), 7.

20 Rowe, Georgetown: Reflections, 28; Rowe, The Story of Georgetown, 5.

21 Rowe, Georgetown: Reflections, 37; Rowe, The Story of Georgetown, 7.

22 Rowe, Georgetown: Reflections, 44, 59.

23 Saunders, Saunders History of Georgetown, n.p.; Mika, Places in Ontario, 106.

24 Rowe, Georgetown: Reflections, 73, 75, 83, 87, 100.


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