St. John's Anglican Cemetery©Copyright: Susan Foster
The Old Nipissing Road was one of many failed colonization routes opened by the government in the mid 19th century. Now known as "The Ghost Town Trail," this early pioneer route tells a sad story of failed farms, horrific plagues, staggering rates of child mortality and mind numbing hardships. Dufferin Bridge was an early casualty.
The opening of the road attracted numerous settlers to the rugged bush of Parry Sound District. Most arrived during the early to mid 1870s and included people like John and Jane Clark (also spelled Clarke), James and Martha Vigrass, John Morden and his wife Mary Brown from Markham, and Richard and Frances Irwin from Ireland. Clark was a lumberman, Vigrass a carpenter, and Irwin a hotel keeper. Irwin put Dufferin Bridge on the map with the opening of a post office in 1878. One directory described it as an "embryo village" with a store, hotel and saw mill.
The first saw mill was owned by Clark, one of Dufferin Bridge's earliest settlers, who arrived in 1873. The Clarks were preceded by the Mordens who arrived with their family in 1872. The Morden family settled along the Muskrat Valley Road (later Dufferin Bridge Road) just east of the town site in what became known as the "Morden settlement." Other residents included James Perkins and Ed Woods. An Orange Hall, shared with North Seguin, was located on lot 41, Concession A, which was owned by W. Adams.
In 1879, Clark opened a boarding house known as "Dufferin House." Legend has it there was a gaming room in the basement of the rooming house, although that story has been subject to dispute. There was also a store on the Clark property. Richard Irwin's hotel, known as the Lorne House, and the post office were located across the road from the Dufferin House.
One settler who played an important role in the area's development was James Vigrass. Vigrass and his family arrived in Canada from England in 1872. After receiving a land grant in 1876, the family of nine trudged up from St. Catharines to begin their new life in the bush. Vigrass' skills as a carpenter served him well. In 1879 he built the Orange Valley School (SS #2 Spence) in North Seguin, five kilometres to the north. He then equipped the school with desks and benches.
Vigrass was a generous man who donated an acre of land for St. John's Anglican Church and Cemetery, also known as the "Vigrass Cemetery." He then built the church, which included an attractive stained glass window, and carved the pews and baptismal font. From 1889 until his death in 1898, he served as postmaster which included the contracts for carrying mail from Emsdale to Dufferin Bridge and from Dufferin Bridge to Parry Sound. His son Albert moved to North Seguin where he played an equally prominent role in that community for many years.
Dufferin Bridge was primarily a lumbering community and stopping centre along the Nipissing Road. The soil was thin, rocky, and completely unsuitable for farming. Apart from Irwin's hotel, most of the residents were lumbermen or saw mill owners. By the mid-1880s, they included William Bradley, F. Edwards and Thomas Frank, in addition to John Clark. Clark's eldest son Charles opened a blacksmith shop. Both horses and humans were well-shoed, the latter by Henry Good, a shoemaker who also served as Justice of the Peace.
Around 1884 John McGarry opened a new general store, said to have been built by the Guelph Lumber Company. John Clark and his family sold the boarding house and headed up to Sturgeon Falls where Clark opened a boat building business. Charles Clark remained in Dufferin Bridge for a number of years as the village blacksmith. Richard Irwin, who was also involved in lumbering, appears to have lost his properties in 1888. G.P. Brooks took over the hotel and Irwin headed to parts unknown. The post office moved to McGarry's store, where it remained until Vigrass assumed the duties of postmaster.
Although the community with an average population of around 50 was never large, residents were frustrated with not having a school in the immediate vicinity. The closest schools were located in North Seguin, about five kilometres north and Seguin Falls, about five kilometres south. Either way this would have been a difficult journey for children to make especially in the dead of winter. Students had the option of attending classes taught by Miss Julia Good in McGarry's store, but the facilities were hardly conducive to effective learning.
In 1894 residents petitioned for a school of their own. The petitioners included David and William Morden, Orien Mott, James Vigrass, William Beasley, Matthew Stewart and Julius Pearlman, who had taken over the store after McGarry's departure. Despite objections from the school sections in North Seguin and Seguin Falls (both concerned with the loss of revenue), the new section, U.S.S. No. 5, Spence and Monteith, opened in 1895. Teachers included Julia Good, Miss Patterson, Miss McKay and Annie Black. Although the intent was noble, the school in Dufferin Bridge was hardly a success. The community was dwindling and along with it the supply of pupils. The school is believed to have closed around 1901 with average attendance in the range of 10 to 12.
Another addition to Dufferin Bridge was the Methodist Church, formerly located in North Seguin. The move likely took place in 1898 when a new deed and small mortgage were granted by Edwin Hurlbut and his brother James. The church was relocated to Lot 40A, Concession A, at a point where North Seguin meets with Dufferin Bridge. In addition to the building, the congregation established a cemetery, now known as the Dufferin Methodist Cemetery. The tombstones tell a particularly heartbreaking tale of the Ashton and Morden families. Between them, they lost 10 children from the ages of one to 10, during a diphtheria outbreak in 1902. Only one of the Morden children, Lucinda, survived the epidemic. A second daughter was born a few years later. Ironically Lucinda lived to the ripe old age of 102.
The Methodist church and cemetery were located at the northern boundary of the community. To the south were the Anglican church and cemetery and then the blacksmith shop. The hotel was on the east side of the Nipissing Road where it met Muskrat Valley (now Dufferin Bridge) Road. The Clark boarding house would have been on the west side of the Nipissing Road on the Clark property. The livery barn was on the opposite corner from the hotel and the store next door. Just south of the hotel was a cement bridge, now replaced with two culverts, and to the south of that was the school. Many of the dwellings could be found along the former Muskrat Valley Road.
By the early 1900s, Dufferin Bridge was clearly on the decline. After the lumber supplies were depleted, the saw mills began closing putting an end to the lumber trade. The hotel traffic on the Nipissing Road dried up after the Canada Atlantic Railway (later CN) established a flag stop just south of Seguin Falls. Farming on the rocky, acidic soil was never an option. In 1905 Martha Vigrass closed the post office and headed to North Seguin where her son Albert had a number of prosperous business operations. The home she shared with her husband James for so many years burned down, possibly in the early 1900s.
There is an historical plaque, claiming the Methodist Church simply disappeared one night and no one knew what happened. There are a number of wonderful tales about Dufferin Bridge. Like most, this one, while entertaining, doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. A more likely scenario is the building was demolished with permission by a resident and the materials reclaimed elsewhere. This likely happened before church union in 1925 as the United Church seems to have no record of it.
Leaving aside the unlucky fate of the Methodist Church, many of the remaining structures in Dufferin Bridge continued to stand for many years. St. John's Anglican Church caved in and collapsed, sometime in the 30s or 40s. The schoolhouse was demolished in the 40s. The crumbling hotel apparently lasted until the 1950s. A few homes along the back roads reportedly stood until the 1960s.
There are few physical reminders of Dufferin Bridge. Apart from a handful of foundations buried in the weeds, very little else remains. The tombstones in the St. John's Anglican and Dufferin Methodist Cemeteries now tell the stories of the hardships and struggles faced by the early pioneer settlers who built this community and once called it home.