St. Clement's Anglican Cemetery©Copyright: Yvan Charbonneau
The Opeongo Road in Renfrew County stands as a silent testament to the government's failed colonization road scheme that took place during the mid 19th century. This historic road, now renamed Highway 64, is littered with the remains of small communities that failed, largely as a result of poor planning practises.
Colonization of the area began in part to serve the needs of the lumber industry. After the lumbermen moved in, they began to demand roads and settlements, so they could carry on with their business. Farms and supply centres were needed to provide the lumbermen with food and other provisions. The lumber industry also needed suitable locales where they could set up sawmills.
The government was eager to colonize the area but for reasons of their own making. They believed the future of the province lay, not in industry or urbanization, but in agriculture. The land colonization scheme, which went as far as offering free land to settlers after certain conditions had been met, was devised to fulfill the government's plans of having as much land as possible under cultivation.
Although the colonization plan had been successful in the south, where the soil was rich and the growing season long, this portion of Renfrew County was simply not suitable for large scale farming. Where small packets of good farmland did exist, the government applied the same principals to severance and lot size as they did in the south. Rather than create parcels that made the best possible use of the land, they chose instead to use the same type of land divisions, cutting right through arable areas and creating lots that could not farmed in any kind of effective manner.
In order to attract settlers, the government hired agents such as T.P. French to both promote the scheme and then ensure the settlements were successful. In fact French's pay packet was in part determined by the long-term success of the settlers. Although T.P. French is widely associated with the failed Opeongo Road, he appears to have shown genuine concern for both the needs of the settlers and the success of the new communities.
French eventually settled in the Clontarf area where he opened a post office in 1858. The new settlement was originally known as Sebastopol, however was renamed Clontarf in 1860. French stayed there until 1864, when the post office was taken over by John McDonald. A Lutheran church, started by a group of German families, was built during the 1850s.
French's efforts at building a small community initially seem to have been successful. By the mid 1860s, Clontarf was a busy place. Its population had reportedly grown to about 150 and included mainly farmers who also wore tradespeople's hats, such as William Mahon, who was a mason, John Manson, who was a carpenter, two blacksmiths, James Mahon and John Potter and two boot and shoe makers, A. R. McDougal and C. Sellar. Situated on Clear Lake, it was well renowned for its fishing, in particular the salmon trout. Mail was delivered to the post office three times a week.
One of Clontarf's early business owners was Xavier Plaunt, who was operating a hotel probably as early as the 1860s. His listing periodically shows up in Vanbrugh so it's possible the hotel was located between the two villages.
Plaunt who was born in Quebec in 1808 arrived in Renfrew County during the early 1830s and immediately found work as a farm hand. Within a short period of time, he had acquired a farm of his own. Plaunt proved to be a very shrewd businessman and by the mid 1830s owned most of the land on what later became the village of Renfrew.
Plaunt strongly believed that communities needed institutions in order to grow and become successful. He freely donated lands for the establishment of schools and churches as well as Renfrew's first railway yard. Although his religion was listed as Roman Catholic, he apparently gave equally to all denominations. He was highly regarded for both his generosity and keen involvement in town affairs. Plaunt found a later calling as a hotel owner and during the late 1840s and 1850s owned and operated a popular hotel in Renfrew, later known as the Albion House.
Sometime during the late 1850s or early 1860s, Plaunt and his wife chose to head west with the new Opeongo settlers where they remained for quite a number of years. His hotel, reportedly located right on the Opeongo had a reputation for being the quietest and most comfortable hotel on the road. The Plaunts stayed in the Clontarf area where they farmed and ran their hotel until some time in the 1870s before returning to Renfrew.
By the 1880s Clontarf had acquired a Baptist church as well as a school. During that period it functioned mainly a service and supply centre, that in addition to the regular services, such as blacksmithing and carpentry, also offered a tannery, painting and carpet weaving. Later on, it acquired two sawmills, one owned by Wilson & Stewart and the other by F. Margin. The community also boasted a thriving industry in beekeeping that included two apiarists, one of whom manufactured hives and sold supplies. The Raycroft family operated a stopping place at their farm just down the road.
During the 1890s, Clontarf added two new churches. St John's Lutheran Church was built to replace the older structure that had been used when the congregation was first formed in the 1850s. The construction materials included timbers from an earlier, unfinished effort by a Roman Catholic group. While the Catholic church was being constructed, one of their members suffered a fatal accident. Believing this to be an ominous sign from the heavens above, construction of the Catholic church was halted and the materials sold to the Lutherans.
St. Clement's Anglican Church was built in 1892. Originally constructed of logs, clapboard siding and cedar shingles were added afterwards. Before the roads were realigned, the original road ran in front of the church and the reforested section surrounding the church.
Following the demise of the lumber industry, Clontarf began to decline during the early part of the 20th century, although it continued to support a small rural population. A new school was built during the 1930s. The community itself was stretched out along the Opeongo Road without any central point of origin and is difficult to find. The post office closed in the 1980s. The school still exists and has been converted to a private home.
Tourism is now the main attraction in the area and a general store and gas bar are still operating. Both the Lutheran and Anglican churches continue to function and the area still supports a small, but vibrant, population.