Bancroft is the gem of North Hastings County. For all who through the ages have claimed Bancroft as their own, there remains a fondness in their hearts and a fierce loyalty in their thoughts, and dreams for this area.
Stepping back in time is always a wondrous way to appreciate what has come before. To see the world as it was for our grandparents, and great grandparents allows us to have a small sense of their joys, sorrows, hardships and rewards. Things taken for granted today were not even a dream for the frontier people of yesteryear. The success of a berry picking, hunting, fishing or trapping expedition then determined whether or not families would survive the winter. Times have changed since grandma was a girl.
For millennia this area has been home to the native nations of peoples who have raised their families, hunted, trapped, fished and harvested. Their commitment to this land has a great and consistent past, and remains strong today.
Since the more recent arrival of immigrants from counties afar, the face of the area has changed along the York River. The town started with two or three families who settled close to the natural waterfall. When the first settlers, Alfred Barker and James Cleak arrived in the early 1850’s, it is said that there was a family named Clark already living on the west side of the river just north of the Bridge Street bridge. There of course was no bridge across the river in those days. Unfortunately the wife and child of Mr. Clark were drowned in the river and he left the area never to return.
The Barker and Cleak families did thrive here and there are still many of their descendants in the community today. James Cleak was the first postmaster and the first post office was a log in front of the present Baragar Funeral Home.
During the decades of the nineteenth century the name of the settlement was changed several times and it has reflected the town’s growth. The name York Branch indicated the fact that the York River was a branch of the Madawaska River. Later York Mills would speak to fact that there were mills established at the water falls. When a post office was opened by James Cleak in 1861 the village was known as York River. All of this happened before confederation.
After confederation the federal government established the Canadian Postal Service. Prominent citizens across the new nation applied for name changes for their towns. In 1879 York River was renamed Bancroft after Billa Flint’s wife’s maiden name. Billa Flint owned mills here and he petitioned the Canadian Post Office to change the name.
From the 1850’s the lumber industry dictated the prosperity of the region. It is hard to imagine today the river running through Bancroft filled with logs jammed up in piles at the dam. The main streets, on the east side of the river, were often flooded as a result, so citizens needed boats and canoes to traverse from house to outhouse and beyond.
The town folk worked long and hard (to no avail) to convince the lumber barons that the consistent flooding of the town was a unacceptable. The towns people, over those early years, filled the streets with gravel to raise the ground level. The streets on the east side of the river are said to be about twenty feet higher today than they were in 1860. The earliest stores were established along Bridge Street from the bridge to the Hotel corner because of the danger of flooding in what is now the business section on Hastings Street.
Churches Are Built
Many of the churches were built in the 1870’s, 80’s, and 90’s. The Methodist, 1870’s (now St. Paul’s United), St John’s Anglican, 1889, Knox Presbyterian, 1890 (at the top of Hastings Street south), Our Lady of Mercy, Catholic 1893, (now The Old Tin Shed)
When the Methodists and the Presbyterians “United” at St. Paul’s the Christian Brethren Assembly were able to move from a rented location to the old Presbyterian church which they purchased for $650 in 1924. The Pentecostal Assembly had preachers in this area around 1921 and purchased their first building here in 1941. Many other denominations were established here in the twentieth century.
The Bancroft Times newspaper opened for business on Dec 16, 1894 with John Bremer as editor. In that paper was recorded the incorporation of Bancroft as a village in 1904. David H. Kelly defeated Wm. A. Davy by one vote to become the town’s first reeve. Politics was exciting even then.
The coming of the railway in 1900 was instrumental in opening the town to new business and opportunity. Near the dam there were mills which flourished because of the ease of transporting their goods to market. People from Bancroft were able to enjoy travel to major centres, as well as to benefit from the merchandise which was now available in stores here at home. As always the lumber industry continued to flourish. It was much easier to load logs and milled lumber unto flat bed rail cars than it was to drive the logs down the river to Ottawa.
Another industry that was able to take advantage of the rail service was mining. There is marble in the area and quarries were established because it could be transported by train. Mable from here was used in both the Provincial Parliament buildings, Queens Park, the Royal Ontario Museum, and Casaloma in Toronto, and the Federal Parliament buildings in Ottawa. Bancroft marble has been shipped all the world including to Canada House in London England. Over the years Bancroft has been a centre of mining. The most significant were the uranium mines which opened in the 1950’s and ran through to the early 1970’s. The majority of sodalite found in the world is found here.
Today Bancroft is know as the mineral capital of Canada and hosts the annual Gemboree to celebrate the minerals found in the area. It was once said that within a 35 mile radius of Bancroft there can be found 85 percent of the semi precious minerals that exist in the world. Every year more and more rock hounds and enthusiasts come here to try to prove that theory.
There have been many fires that have leveled Bridge Street west, on one or both sides in the early 1900’s. It must be remembered that all the buildings in town were made of wood and heated by wood stoves. The first fire department was formed in 1897. In 1901 a fire at McPherson’s Bake Shop proved that the equipment the town had put together was inadequate to contain fires of any size. In April 1901 it was agreed that $2500 would be spent to build a fire hall and purchase a steam engine. By 1905 there was a new fire station on the east side of the river just north of the present day Bridge St. bridge and a volunteer fire brigade established.
In 1906 most of the south side of Bridge street burned despite the new equipment. It was not functioning properly. Again in 1908 another major fire broke out on Hastings Street and that one was followed by several others that year. On January 25, 1912 Bancroft was dealt a terrible blow. It was 32F below zero when the whole of the industrial center was wiped out. Mills on both sides of the river south of the Bridge St. bridge were destroyed. Freezing lines, inadequate equipment, and frigid conditions all hampered the efforts of the volunteers and owners.
Fire wasn’t particular about what time of year it struck. July 30, 1914 was the date that both sides of Bridge Street West, from the hotel corner to the bridge, burned to the ground in three short hours. Only the drug store on the south side of the street close to Hastings Street survived. Although Mr. Kennedy the hotel owner had installed his own state of the art fire pumps he was away the day of the fire and the equipment was not used properly. The hotel corner, for the first time in decades, was razed to the ground. A comment in the Bancroft Times, “Among the travelling public it was recognized as one of the best conducted houses in Ontario.”
In 1920 the Bancroft Community Hall (Bancroft Theatre today) was destroyed and it is said that Bill Broad saved St. Paul’s United Church from the raging fire. Over the years there have been many individual fires. The last great burn was on March 21, 1978 when the Laundry and Rouse Block along the east side of Hastings Street north of Flint Street was leveled.
The Bancroft We Know And Love
Since the beginning there have been fires, floods, wars, the Great Depression, tragedy and sorrow. There have been celebrations of births, successes, joys, homecomings, marriages, and peace.
The people of Bancroft have endured and thrived through the ages in this community by faith, friendship, hard work, and generosity of spirit.
Today let us marvel at all that has come before and move forward with the determination of our ancestors.