With a population of about 22,000 people, Owen Sound is a major population centre in this area and can look back on a long history. The area was first surveyed in 1815 and settled as early as 1841. Owen Sound historically played an important role as a port city that was often called “Chicago of the North” and “Gateway to the West”. Throughout the 19th century Owen Sound was quite a raunchy place since many of its entertainment establishments catered to the sailors who travelled through this town. As a result of all the associated vice activities, the city decided to ban all drinking establishments for several decades.
Looking north on the Sydenham River in Owen Sound
Owen Sound’s history also includes a critical role in the Underground Railroad, the informal network of safe houses and escape routes that provided a path to liberty for thousands of African Slaves during the 19th century. Our local expert Keith mentioned that Owen Sound was the northern terminus of the Underground Railroad, and since 2004 a Black History Cairn (a pattern of symbolic stone tiles that included secret instructions for escaping slaves) located in the town’s Harrison Park commemorates Owen Sound’s role in the liberation of slaves. An Annual Emancipation Festival features a picnic, music, art show, poetry and readings celebrates black history in Owen Sound.
One of the bed and breakfasts in Owen Sound
Our local tourism expert Keith also explained that Owen Sound offers a great variety of outdoor summer activities including golf, hiking, biking and fishing, and in the winter travelers can enjoy snowmobiling, cross country and downhill skiing nearby. Owen Sound has also become a popular retirement destination that attracts many retirees from Toronto and other urban centres. He also pointed out that this weekend the 155th Owen Sound Fall Fair would offer special attractions such as a tractor pull and a demolition derby. In addition to all the relevant brochures he equipped us with a free parking pass that would allow us to park at any parking meter free of charge – definitely a nice, welcoming touch that many travellers will enjoy.
St. George’s Anglican Church at Salvation Corners
The first thing we decided to do was to go on the Historic Walking Tour through downtown. We decided to park our car next to “Salvation Corner”, an intersection that is anchored by four limestone churches. St. George’s Anglican Church to me was the most impressive, and this building, dating back to 1881, was modeled after St. Mary’s Church in Bristol, England.
Victorian row houses
We continued east and walked south on Fifth Avenue where we saw several collections of late Victorian row houses, built in Gothic Revival and Italianate styles. On the left hand side of the road we were captured by the Butchart Estate, an imposing Queen Anne Revival home that was built in 1880 by one of the pioneers of Canada’s cement industry. Robert Pim Butchart and his wife moved to Vancouver Island in 1904 where they created Butchart Gardens, one of the primary tourist destinations on Vancouver Island.
The Butchart Estate, now a B&B
On our way west on 9th Street we admired a variety of Queen Ann and Georgian style homes that were built between the late 1850s and early 1900s. Our next major stop was the Old Post Office, an imposing Beaux Arts style building dating back to 1910. Today the building is used for commercial offices and apartments. Then we headed south on 2nd Avenue, one of Owen Sound’s major streets and the heart of the town’s commercial district. This strip offers a very intact Victorian streetscape and most of the buildings also date from the second half of the 19th century. A drugstore, a hardware store, a stationery store as well as a former hotel provide some of the highlights on this strip.
Intact Victorian architecture in Owen Sound
Our tour then took us west on 8th Street past the Waterworks / Market Building. This building was originally built in 1868 as a private waterworks building, was taken over by the town in 1890 and became the town’s farmers market in 1935. The surrounding site has been used as a market continuously for more than 150 years. We then crossed the bridge over the Sydenham River and were impressed by the numerous flower boxes that adorned the railings and the scenic views north and southwards along the river. On the other side of the river we visited the Owen Sound & North Grey Union Public Library which was built in 1911 with a grant from Andrew Carnegie.
The Owen Sound Library, donated by Andrew Carnegie
Back on the east side of the river again and on our way back to our vehicle, we admired the Seldon House, a former hotel with 44 rooms that was built in 1887. This hotel also featured three parlours, a bar, dining room and commercial sample rooms. We had only seen a small portion of Owen Sound’s architectural heritage, but I concluded that it is one of the most well-preserved Victorian towns I had ever had a chance to visit.
The former Seldon House
From architecture we moved to nature exploration. We decided to drive south along the Sydenham River to Harrison Park, an important recreational area. This beautifully landscaped park straddles the scenic Sydenham River and features walking paths, ponds, a campground, picnic areas, tennis courts, paddleboats and many other recreational activities.
Pedal-boating in Harrison Park
The Harrison Park Inn restaurant provides affordable family dining and also has a take out window that offers 16 different ice cream flavours. The park itself was donated by the family of sawmill owner John Harrison who, during the late 1800s, had spent years improving the area with bridges, buildings, benches and walking trails. After his death his family decided to make the property available to the residents of Owen Sound through a gift sale. Since 1912 Harrison Park has been owned by the city and represents one of the most popular recreation areas in the city. The Black History Cairn can also be found in this park.
Bales of hay on top of the Niagara Escarpment