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Caledonia - Along the Grand River
The Incurable Optimist


Ranald McKinnon By 1846, just 11 years after Ranald McKinnon first arrived in this wilderness area, Caledonia was booming. The dam was built, the river was busy transporting goods and people, the plank road was open for traffic from Hamilton to Port Dover, a swing bridge allowed for easy travel across the river and streets and squares were named.

What had been Seneca Village to the east and Oneida Village to the west on the north side of the river were now part of the village of Caledonia. The other nearby small residential areas of Sunnyside and South Seneca Village were not yet included. For some time the village of Oneida was nicknamed Little Caledonia, while the village of Seneca retained its original name for specific referral.

What in 1835 had been no more than Mr. Bryant’s tavern on the north east corner with the two adjacent log houses, by 1846 consisted of a physician’s residence, five stores, three taverns, two grocery stores, two wagon-makers, two cabinet-makers, three blacksmiths, three shoemakers, three tailors and two bakers. Ranald McKinnon’s saw and grist mills and Jacob Turner’s saw mill would, in 1850, be joined by McKinnon’s woollen mill. Some three hundred people were residing and working in Caledonia with more arriving each day.

Born in Ardelum on the Isle of Mull, Argyleshire, Scotland on September 11, 1801, Ranald McKinnon was just four years old when his family emigrated to Masonville, New York. In 1820 the family moved to Esquising, not far from Streetsville in Canada. At age twenty-four Ranald was employed in building the Rideau Canal. By the time he left in 1832 he had established a reputation of achievement in the construction field. In 1835 he was commissioned as a contractor on dam and lock number five for the Grand River Navigation Company. It was McKinnon who pushed to have the bridge built in the location it now stands, a legacy to his foresight. Otherwise the bridge might have been built at the Seneca Village area.

McKinnon’s ability to remain in the public eye was rewarded once again when he was contracted, in 1845, to build the portion of the plank road from Hagersville to Port Dover, thus completing the earlier link from Hamilton Mountain to Hagersville. By this time McKinnon’s efforts and acquisitions were increasing his wealth. It was McKinnon who had land or housing to either sell or rent to the Mill workers needing housing for their families. He had positioned himself well.

It is not surprising that McKinnon was also becoming interested in politics. About 1846 he was petitioned to run for political office by residents of the community who felt they needed a local representative familiar with the needs of the area. The tradition of someone from Toronto whose main interest was to "act" in parliament was losing favour. In 1851 he ran for the Haldimand seat against William Lyon McKenzie and George Brown. This was a hard-fought by-election held to fill the vacancy left by David Thompson’s death. Despite the local petitions McKinnon lost by a few votes to William Lyon MacKenzie of Toronto. [Mackenzie, 462; McKinnon (Conservative), 399; Brown, 283; and Case, 113. – Examiner, April 16th, 1851.]

There were four general elections from 1851 to 1858. In the first three, McKinnon ran for the Conservative party and lost to the "Little Mac". In his fourth and last effort in 1858, MacKinnon dropped out at the last minute, perhaps avoiding what might have been another defeat.

During the 1870’s the once wealthy mill owner was having severe financial problems. Many properties he owned had to be sold under the Insolvent Act. His grist and woollen mills had burned down in the fifties and again in the sixties. The rebuilding had required considerable expense. However, by 1873 McKinnon found his place in local politics. He was back as Reeve and was still the optimist despite his earlier setbacks.

In 1875 he initiated the construction of a steel bridge on the original site to replace the initial wooden structure. That structure would remain until 1927 when the present bridge was built.

By the time Ranald McKinnon died in 1879, a handsome village and community had evolved from an area that had been dense with bush and wilderness only forty-four years earlier. His vision and efforts against numerous odds led to his being known as the "Incurable Optimist" and the founder of Caledonia.

The McKinnon Lifestyle

The Ranald McKinnon home still stands today at 232 Caithness St. West, overlooking the dam. For almost a century it remained in the family, but once sold it gradually fell into relative obscurity, its historical significance all but forgotten.

Ranald, 34 years old when he came to work on the dam in 1835, was married in March of that same year to his cousin, Euphemia McKinnon from Masonville, New York. Euphemia was just 22 years old at the time.

The McKinnons had nine children. Malcolm, Donald, Mary and Catherine died shortly after birth. Christina, Isobella, Flora, Archibald and John survived and the McKinnon household prospered. Soon Ranald was known as Squire McKinnon to separate him from other McKinnons living nearby. Besides his sons there were Neil, a nephew and Dr. Ranald, a son of Neil.

Stories passed down by persons who knew the family and who visited in the home in their youth describe the McKinnon family as living in a gracious manner. As they became more prosperous the original log home was torn down and a large new home with an east and west wing was built on the same property. The east wing contained the drawing room while the west wing, with a separate entrance, was Ranald’s office. Above his office were the servants’ quarters. To the rear of the west wing, there was a coach house with room for two coaches. Later this would become the garage. The main house, without the wings, had fourteen rooms.

In 1842 Ranald McKinnon was identified as a merchant engaged in trade and commerce as well as owner of the sawmill. He had a store at the northwest corner of Argyle and Caithness St. listed under the name of his good friend John Scott & Co., to keep it separate from his mills. He owned 40 acres described as occupied and 70 acres listed as improved. Records show that in one year he produced 40 bushels of wheat and 150 bushels of potatoes and that he had 7 cattle, 3 horses, 8 sheep, 7 hogs and 20 pounds of wool. He also had three servants.

The McKinnons, active Presbyterians, supported the building of the first Presbyterian Church in 1849. Their Sabbath School Picnic of 1859 was held at Squire McKinnon’s grove on his farm. He had placed tables, benches and swings on the grounds to accommodate about 80 children plus a large number of adults. It is likely that there were many such events held at his home.

When he ran in his last campaign in 1858, the publisher of the Grand River Sachem, known to be a Conservative newspaper, said, "Mr. McKinnon is not only well known throughout the county but possesses a name in every part of Upper Canada as an extensive manufacturer and merchant, a gentleman of more than ordinary abilities as a practical business man, and just such a one is required at this time to study and carry out the wishes of an agricultural and manufacturing community such as ours."

By 1861, the Ranald McKinnon household included four carriages for pleasure, with an acre of land attached to the house. His business, still expanding, consisted of merchandising, milling, farming and lumbering. He annually employed an average of twenty-five men and two women.

The properties just east of the home at 194-196 Caithness Street and at 192 Caithness Street West were also owned by Ranald McKinnon. Both these homes still stand. The one at 192 Caithness was built in 1860 for his eldest son, John, who later sold it to his brother Archibald for $2,000. John had acquired it from his father for $1,700.

John and his wife Sophia (Matthews), an accomplished musician, played a major role in the life of Caledonia. John, who owned a dry goods store in the village, became the Reeve on three different occasions. Little is known of Archibald other than he attended military school.

In 1871, just eight years before Ranald’s death, the saw mill was worth $1,000 while his woollen factory had a fixed capital of $31,000 and the grist and flouring mill had a fixed capital of $9,000.

Ranald died on October 18, 1879 in his seventy-ninth year. His wife, Euphemia, was to live for another sixteen years. She died April 30, 1895 in her eighty-third year.

After her mother died, Christina lived in part of the big house until she married Laughlan McQuarrie in May of 1906. A local beekeeper, Henry Pedlow who lived in one room of the house until 1921, said it still contained the tapestries and furnishings that belonged to the McKinnon’s. Included in these furnishings were a grand piano and a set of chairs.

A granddaughter, Effie Eadie, daughter of Flora (McKinnon) Eadie of Allanhurst, New Jersey, sold the property in 1926 to Walter Carpenter who owned it until 1940. During the hurricane in 1936 the roof blew off the house showing rafters, of four by four pine and the square-cut nails.

Although the dam he built has been replaced since it was first constructed, the McKinnon home has withstood all test of time. Today it no longer commands the attention it once did when it was known as the Squire McKinnon’s estate home on the hill. Yet through the careful maintenance of its former and present owners, the home remains as an enduring remembrance of Caledonia’s founder.

James Little

It is said by some that James Little was as much a founder of Caledonia as was Ranald McKinnon. Little’s development of the south side of the river is reason enough for the statement.

At the same time that Caledonia was getting its start, so was the village of Seneca. With a year’s head start on Caledonia, it claimed about 250 residents. Some predicted it would be the main residential area rather than Caledonia. In 1837 further development seemed likely when The Grand River Navigation Company obtained a grant of 368.7 acres at Seneca Hill.

However, by 1846 Seneca was a village with only 140 residents, a saw mill on both banks, a grist mill, a wool carding mill, a sash and door factory, a Methodist church, a log schoolhouse, a chair factory and a physician. The population declined as residents were moving to the Caledonia village.

Among those businesses in Seneca was a store run by James Little, the first postmaster of the village. Although he was still in business in 1846 in Seneca, he had purchased considerable land on the south side of the river in anticipation of a bridge and plank road that would extend south to link with Caledonia.

Haldimand House

Little’s first and oldest existing building is the historic landmark Haldimand House. Completed in 1842, the building’s history began in 1836 when Haldimand County issued License No. 1 for a stage coach inn. In 1867, the James Little Estate sold it to the Sutherland family who owned it for four years and then sold to Bridget Britton. James Hayes purchased Haldimand House in 1875. Then, in 1900 it passed into the possession of the Matthew Richardson family estate. Today Haldimand House is an apartment complex. Owner Louis Leousis, and his son Chris, have plans to restore the building in an attempt to recapture some its early grandeur when it was an inn famous for its ciders.

The plank road envisioned by James Little is now Highway 6. Completed in 1844, it runs from Port Dover to the top of Hamilton Mountain. With its construction completed, Caledonia forged ahead of Seneca Village and Little’s Post Office and store were moved to the south side.

Another landmark building, built by James Little in the early 1850’s and which still stands today, is the Caledonia Mill. It was first known as the Balmoral Mill, later as the Grand River Mills and eventually became The Caledonia Milling Company.

James Little went on to construct more homes on land he owned. One of those was the first brick home of the area, built in 1855 at 20 Wigton Street. He also erected a hotel across the street from Haldimand House, at the southwest corner of the bridge. In 1870, this property was sold to William Munro and later to John Ryan when it became known as the popular Ryan Hotel or Mansion House. Today it is owned by Mary Mellish.

Ryan House

An ambitious entrepreneur and an influential contractor, James Little used his position to ensure that the Hamilton and Port Dover Railway would run through Caledonia rather than Cayuga. As a director of the railway line and holder of stock valued at 100 pounds, his influence led to the town’s making a 10,000 pound (equivalent to about forty thousand dollars) commitment to the line. That railway was not completed until 1873, at great expense of the local populace.

Originally from Londonderry, Northern Ireland, James Little and his wife Ann had seven children. The eldest, John, was born in 1832. Besides John, there were William, Charles, Leonard, Margaret Jane, Harriet and James. Margaret Jane married the Hon. Edmond Spring Rice and lived in Montreal. William went on to become President of the Canadian Forestry Association.

In 1867 Little’s holdings went to Thomas Cockburn Ken of Hamilton and were later sold to Wm. Munro who also became a partner in Balmoral Mill. James Little died in Montreal in his eightieth year, October 2, 1883.

William Moore

If James Little was responsible for the development of Caledonia south of the river, William Moore was responsible for the Caledonia development north of Orkney Street, south and north of the railroad tracks, but east of today’s Highway 6.

William Moore came to Caledonia from Londonderry, Northern Ireland in 1840. He was just twenty-seven years old. His first home, on the northeast corner of Highway 6 and Orkney St. E., was constructed to resemble his family home, "Barnfoot", in Londonderry. There he lived with his mother and sister, Elizabeth.

In 1850 William and Elizabeth bought one hundred acres from the Crown and built numerous homes along Orkney Street, many are still there today. One, at 96 Orkney St. E., was assembled according to a design of a sea captain who wished a particular look-out room on the roof.

The farm home just north of the railroad tracks, now owned by Bob and Helen Thompson, was also built by William Moore. In 1852 he sold the right of way for the railway to cut through this property. He also owned and developed a farm on a piece of land west of Caledonia, formerly known as the Williamson farm.

A Number 1 Lucerne seed imported from Scotland in 1881 that yielded one bushel per acre in its first year became known as Moore’s seed, and is still grown on the farm by Bob Thompson.

Although a lifelong bachelor, William Moore was an active community member. Along with Ranald McKinnon he helped found the Presbyterian Church and became its first treasurer. Upon his death in 1868 he left the estate to his nephew, William Henry Moore. This nephew was killed in the first year of his marriage leaving his widow, the daughter of William Marston, a Caledonia storekeeper, and their infant son named William Henry Marston Moore. The estate was administered until William came of age. William Henry Marston Moore received the deed for the property in 1912. He sold it in 1914.


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