Four fun facts on the history of Collingwood

March 3, 2024

In Collingwood, the town’s rich and colourful history is almost everywhere you look, shaped by the railways, shipbuilding and agriculture industries that laid the foundation for a bustling and prosperous centre. Collingwood’s downtown area features an abundant and eclectic variety of heritage structures repurposed as charming family-owned shops, quaint cafes and commercial offices. The waterfront is also steeped in history; while water is ever-changing, the town’s storied shipbuilding legacy lives on in the few choice industrial structures that line Collingwood Harbour.

You don’t have to go too far or look too closely to get in touch with Collingwood’s history, but here are a few historical facts you may not be aware of that will give you an even greater appreciation of our town’s storied past.

We were the first
Our town’s ties to history are so deep and strong that Collingwood was the first municipality in Canada to have a Heritage Conservation District included on the Canadian Register of Historic Places. The official district covers a large portion of our traditional downtown including Hurontario Street and its pedestrian pathways; historic residential, institutional and public buildings; and even park spaces. Most of these structures and spaces were created in response to Collingwood becoming an epicentre for shipping and shipbuilding soon after its founding in 1853.

The site of the side launch
One of the things Collingwood is known for the most among history aficionados is the side launching of ships. Beginning in the late 1800s, Collingwood Shipbuilding built a variety of ships including Great Lakes freighters, Coast Guard ships, ferries, naval ships and more. Due to harbour limitations, some of the shipbuilding company’s newly built ships had to be launched into the water sideways. The process involved building an elaborate wood and chain system that would release ships broadside into the water before pulling them upright.

Ontario’s “Easter Islands”
Before being named Collingwood, the town was called Hen and Chickens Harbour – named after the one large and four small offshore islands that rim Collingwood Harbour. The Hen and Chickens name has now been transferred specifically to the constellation of islands and has also left its legacy on our Hen and Chickens trail. Incidentally, Collingwood was also previously known as Hurontario Mills, and was renamed in 1854 in honour of Admiral Lord Cuthbert Collingwood, Lord Nelson’s second in command at the Battle of Trafalgar who assumed command of the British fleet after Nelson’s death.

The Gayety used to be True Blue
The property where the Gayety Theatre stands today at 161 Hurontario Street was not originally built to be a theatre. Instead, it was conceived as the True Blue House, a hotel that provided a temporary residence to the farmers and workhands that supported Collingwood’s bustling commercial activities. The property was converted into a theatre in the early 1900s and was originally named the Empire Theatre, then the Rex Theatre and finally the Gayety Theatre in 1927. The theatre was allegedly renamed “Gayety” after the owner purchased the vertical sign and marquee from the Toronto Gayety Theatre upon the Toronto theatre’s closure.

There’s so much more to learn about Collingwood’s incredible past and, like all things Collingwood, the best way to learn is to get out there and experience it for yourself. The Town of Collingwood has developed a series of exceptional self-guided Heritage Walks for you to enjoy.

The Downtown Walk is approximately 1 km in length and takes 20 minutes to complete.
The West Heritage Walk is approximately 3 km in length and takes about 1 hour to complete.
The East Heritage Walk is also approximately 3 km in length and takes about 1 hour to complete.

Download the walk guides at the links above and enjoy your Collingwood walk through time.