The abandoned Anglican church©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
Prior to the 1830s, the area now known as Haliburton County was desolate, remote and inaccessible. Transportation was limited to narrow rivers, lakes and streams. By the 1850s, both the government and lumbering industry were determined to change that.
The government's road colonization program was touted as a means of attracting European settlers to farm the country's vast agricultural resources. Settlers had four years to build a house at least 20 X 18 feet and cultivate 12 acres of land. After they had lived on the land for a minimum of five years, they were eligible to apply for title. The government was also under pressure from the lumber industry to provide roads and settlements where they could obtain provisions and set up milling facilities.
In reality, the government's road colonization plan was badly misguided and much of the land was unsuitable for farming. Nevertheless the government, being the government, stubbornly carried on. The Bobcaygeon Road was completed in 1863 and the Buckhorn Road in 1874. Although limited farming was possible in some areas, the principal commodity was lumbering. Since lumbering was not sustainable in the long-term, new reports of recent iron discoveries were beginning to generate far more interest. By the early 1870s, the new settlers were eager to take more active control in both the growth and development of their region.
George Laidlaw and H. P. Dwight were also interested in the Haliburton area but for very different reasons. They were seeking to build a railway as an immigration scheme to settle the northern townships of Victoria and Peterborough Counties. Although they expected revenues from the timber limits and ore exploration would be sufficient to cover operating expenses, there was one major snag. Laidlaw and Dwight were short on capital. They approached the residents of the northern townships, requesting a $55,000 'bonus', essentially a gift, to help them get started.
Settlers in the northern townships jumped at the chance to have a railway of their own. They believed the opening of a railway would generate a great economic boom in their region. They enthusiastically embraced Laidlaw's and Dwight's proposal and were more than willing to fork out the requested $55,000 to the two fledgling railwaymen. Their hopes were quickly dashed when the county council of Peterborough turned them down flat, refusing to allow the ratepayers to raise their taxes to that extent. Angered but undaunted, the residents approached the provincial government in Toronto requesting separation from the county of Peterborough.
The provisional county of Haliburton was established in 1874 and comprised of 23 townships from the northern portions of Peterborough and Victoria Counties. Although administration of justice would continue to be handled by Victoria County, the village of Minden was established as the site of the registry offices as well as the meeting place for the county council. Thus Haliburton became the first county born from the railway age. Haliburton remained a provisional county until the end of 1982.
Gelert (pronounced Gillirt) started out as a sleepy little sawmill town known as 'little' Ireland. For a time it was also known as Snowdonville. First settled around 1860, it boomed overnight after the new Victoria Railway was officially opened in 1878. Located approximately 10 kilometres (7 miles) from the county seat of Minden, its name was changed to Minden Station for a brief period when the railway first opened. The name change didn't stick and in 1879 it was renamed again, this time to Gelert. William Ritchie opened a post office in his general store, putting the official stamp on the newly renamed community.
After the railway built a siding and board and batten station 77 feet long and 22 feet wide, along with agent's quarters, Gelert quickly grew into a shipping centre for cattle and lumber. Gone were the old log buildings and shanties. New buildings, with snappy new frame construction, popped up practically overnight.
By the mid 1880s Gelert's population was around 120 and the village was humming with activity. J. Lofthouse and Co. were operating saw and shingle mills. Simpson and Stork ran a planing mill. E. Ashworth owned a woollen mill. The mills changed hands a number of times during the 80s with Lofthouse taking over the woollen mill and expanding it to include carpets.
Throughout the 1890s Gelert continued to grow in leaps and bounds. In addition to the shingle, saw and carpet mills, the village included Clark's blacksmith, Connor's hotel, a second general store run by J.W.Watson, a carpenter, shoemaker and wagonmaker. A stage line, run by Hartle and Levis, rattled back and forth between Gelert and Minden. An Anglican church was added around 1895.
Gelert's prosperity lasted only a brief period of time. Farming was simply not sustainable in this region. Once the soils were depleted, farmers deserted the area in droves for the lush soils in western Canada. Two-dozen farms alone were abandoned in the first decade of the twentieth century. The lumbering industry died after much of the surrounding woodlands were lost to fire. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Gelert was on a definite decline.
Projected operating revenue for the Victoria Railway never materialized and the railway was eventually taken over first by the Midland Railway and later the Grand Trunk and finally Canadian National (CN). Once the siding was lifted, Gelert's shipping days were over. The store struggled on for a while but eventually closed. The post office was shut down in 1969 and in 1980 CN closed the railway line.
Throughout it all, Gelert has never been completely abandoned. Although it remains a mere shadow of its former self, it continues to support a small group of rural residents and contains many interesting relics of its former past.