Every week, I share an excerpt from my Great Aunt’s book, As the Story is Told: A History of Morpeth and Community, which was printed in 1986. Note, this is a historical text and I don’t necessarily agree with all of the authours’ views or turns of phrase. This week’s chapter is about The Port of Antrim.
The Port of Antrim
Morpeth’s early history is closely connected with Big Creek and the thriving port of Antrim, which played such a vital part in the early development of this area. The Antrim story is an interesting one that all began back in the parish of Antrim, in Northern Ireland, where Thomas Ruddle, who had been born there in 1759, lived with his wife Margaret and their family,. Here in Ireland, we find that the Ruddles had become dissatisfied with conditions where the system would allow them to work land under lease but could not own it. They also had heard of the great possibilities of the land that could be had in Upper Canada just for the asking. As a result, it is not surprising for us to find, in 1812, among the passengers aboard the American clipper ship “The Baltimore” the Ruddle’s son John and daughter Margaret. They were Along the Lake, Part 1: The Port of Antrimbeing sent to visit Upper Canada to get first-hand information as to the existing conditions.
When they arrived in Halifax, however, the War of 1812 had broken out and John was promptly drafted into the British Army. But, owing to Margaret’s eloquent pleas, pointing out her forlorn position, he was released and started to work in Halifax as a carpenter. He became associated with a young Englishman, Lovell Harrison, and a little later Margaret Ruddle became his wife.
In 1815 Harrison and his wife Margaret left Halifax to settle on Lot 88 Talbot Road North, in the township of Howard. For this lot, which contained 200 acres, the Harrisons were not granted the Crown Deed until 1832. Of local interest is the fact that Lovell Harrison was the great-grandfather of the late Mrs. Austin Walters and this farm was later resold in 1848 to the great-grandfather of her husband Austin Walters. The farm passed from the Walter’s family in 1969 when it was sold to Luke Mikolaski. Through the corner of this lot and other lots, later to be owned by the Ruddles, flowed Big Creek. This stream meandered on down across the Talbot Road, twisting about in a southwest direction on its way to Lake Erie. This was the creek that was to furnish power for no less than four mills and to provide a good harbour, later to be known as the Port of Antrim.
The glowing letters that Margaret sent back home persuaded the entire family, except two girls who were already married and settled in Ireland, to come to Howard. The father obtained land on Lot 85 Talbot Road North; William go the Crown Deed to the south half of Lot 11, on the Twelfth Concession in 1845; and James received the deed of the south half of Lot 10, on the Twelfth Concession in 1848. These were the dates of the actual Crown grants but we know that they were here many years earlier. Among the first burials in Morpeth Cemetery are two of the Ruddle family. Here there is a memorial stone to seven of the original Ruddles. It records the deaths of two on the same date June 4, 1822. John aged 39 years and Thomas aged 27 years with the inscription: “They were inseparable in their lives and in their death they were not divided.”
It has been suggested that it was probably a drowning accident.
The Ruddles became intrigued with the possibilities of a harbour at the mouth of Big Creek. Registry Office records show that in 1826 and 1827 the Ruddles – Robert, William and James – received a complete title to 327 acres of land abutting on Lake Erie, which included the natural harbour at the mouth of Big Creek. Since there were no stores or posts near, the Ruddles opened a trading post, the first on the shore of Lake Erie in Kent County. Talbot Road lots through Howard were already occupied by this time.
As early as 1834 Robert Ruddle and Company were advertising their new store at Antrim. James Ruddle had a tavern built by 1836. Wheat and other grains, as well as products from the surrounding area, were being exported from here and many foreign products imported.
For some years the village and harbour of Antrim continued to handle heavy traffic with small sailing crafts tied up in the harbour to deliver grain at the ware houses. In 1841 Antrim shipped 6100 bushels of wheat, 84 hogshead of tobacco (a hogshead averaged 800 pounds), besides quantities of pork and high wines. The flagstone step at Trinity Church was taken off a schooner here at Antrim. The brig, ‘Matilda Taylor’, was launched on October 2, 1845, one of several crafts built here. The Ruddles also had a one-day sale of cattle held here four times a year.
The first purchasers of lots in the village were Isaac Fisher, Mary Wedge and Samuel Burns. It seems however that there were never more than ten lots sold as such. If you were to visit the place today you would see a wide valley with high banks on either side, but no landmarks remain as proof of what was or might have been. If what we are told is true, and we have good reason to believe it, one can quite easily visualize Big Creek with a wide mouth forming an estuary, which in its natural state could accommodate several smaller sailing vessels and with its dredging could have made an excellent harbour. The creek was spanned by a high wooden bridge that would allow the sailing vessels to pass through without hindering travel on the road above. It is also quite possible that homes and businesses could have been erected along the banks that surrounded the harbour.
For some unknown reason, in 1846, the partnership between Robert William and James Ruddle dissolved. It seems that the Ruddles were the driving force behind the Antrim enterprise. It was not long before Antrim began to decline with much of its business being diverted to Hill’s Landing, a port at the end of the road leading to Morpeth. By this time the mother had already passed away in 1835 and the father in 1838. William, who had served on the first Howard Township Council, died in 1851, followed by his sister Agnes in 1852. James, whose death is the last recorded on the memorial stone, died in 1853. James apparently was a prominent figure in the community, having been a candidate for the Legislative Assembly prior to the Rebellion of 1837. In the 1851 Census, Robert Ruddle is recorded as owning a one and a half storey house, a shop, and a storehouse which was capable of holding 20,000 bushels of grain. It also claims Robert Ruddle was a resident since 1819.
In 1878, the property now consisting of 325 acres was sold by the Ruddle heirs to an Anglican clergyman, the Rev. Humpisch Massingberd, who lived in London. He had apparently had the idea of reviving the village and the natural harbour. But by now, the glory of Antirm had departed and the inner harbour had become silted up. The township, resenting the extra expense of keeping the high bridge in good repair, had built one on ground level, thus cutting off all possibility of boats entering the harbour. Massingberd did not carry through his intentions but returned to England. His grand-daughters Rose and Alice Brown sold it in 1955 to H. J. Mero of Windsor. The Port of Antrim now had become just one more ‘Memory of the Past.’
The poem “Ghost Port” that follows is an original written especially for this book by Frances Gillard Harvey. Frances has for some time been writing poetry. She has compiled a book of her poems and has been successful in having some of her work accepted by World Poetry and the American Poetry Association.
Ghost Port – by Frances Gillard Harvey
Fair and sure of name,
To your glory, fame –
Your silted harbour
Where bulrush, now,
And sumac grow;
Your brigs, your wharf,
Your land bridge, high;
Your warehouse, post,
Your mill close by?
Only this, I know,
Your fathers*, early,
Combined with stress,
Your ship was left
And that it foundered,
To do with pride
*The Thomas Ruddle family, two of whom died together tragically early on, and three of whom died, within as many consecutive years, later. The Depression of 1857 followed shortly thereafter. I little suspected when I set out to do the research for this poem, that another member of the family, Margaret Ruddle Harrison, would prove to be my great, great grandmother. (–Frances Gillard Harvey)