The Canadian Shield & Niagara Escarpment

Rugged coastline of Lake Superior

The rocks that form the Canadian Shield were formed about four billion years ago during the Archeon Eon of the Precambrian Era. Erosion of this extremely rugged, mountainous landscape deposited enormous quantities of clays, silts, sands and gravels into the surrounding waters. Compressed by their sheer cumulative weight and the heat of the shifting Earth’s crust, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks formed during the Proterozoic Eon of the Precambrian Era.

More recent rocks that were formed above these ancient layers have since been largely removed by the scouring action of glaciers that covered northern North America in the several ice ages in the past 100,000 years.

The last ice age scraped the rocks in a NNE (north-north-east) to SSE (south-south-east) direction. At the end of the last ice age, all the waters in central Ontario (and the great lakes) drained to the east, toward the St Lawrence River. After the weight of the glaciers left this area, the land slowly began to rise.

As the Niagara escarpment rose, the waters to the west flowed to Lake Huron, and the waters to the east into Lake Ontario. The soil on which trees and other vegetation grow in this part of the continent are the result of gradual sediment buildup since the last ice age.

First Nations and Early Explorers

View from top of Blue Mountain in Collingwood
The earliest recorded Indian habitation of the area is 6,000 to 7,000 BC, based on an excavation on Manitoulin Island where quartzite tools
and weapons were found. More recently, early Woodland Indians inhabited the area around 225 BC.

By the time the first explorers arrived, the Algonquin, Chippewa and Ojibway tribes had settled into the area along the French River between
Lake Huron and the Ottawa River. Studies of native customs and language indicate that the Algonquins had lived with the Crees and then migrated
eastwards until they met the Iroquois. The natives in this area at the time of European visitation were the Mississaugas (part of the Iroquois nation) who settled along the north shore of Lake Ontario.

The first European to visit the area was the French explorer and fur trader Oavelier de la Salle and Louis Joliet, who arrived at Burlngton Bay in 1669 via the Grand River from Lake Erie on their return from Lake Superior

At that time the natives called this place “Ganastoqueh”, also “Des-aas-a-deh-o” in another Iroquois dialect, which is interpreted to mean “Where the sand forms a Bar”.

Following the Fall of Quebec City, the area was visited by British Major Robert-Rogers (who commanded the Rogers’ Rangers in the French war of 1759-60) to take possession of the French military posts. One of those accompanying him was Captain Coote, of the 6th Regiment stationed at Fort Niagara, who was drawn to the abundance of wild game and waterfowl at the swamps off Burlington Bay, the area was named by the other officers as “Coote’s Paradise”.

Early Settlement to War of 1812

View of/from the Niagara Escarpment at Hamilton

After the American Revolutionary War, many United Empire Loyalists settled in the fertile region along Lake Ontario’s shores. This boosted the population and economic development of the lands between Upper Canada’s original capital at Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) and the new one at York (now Toronto).

Lots for settlers were surveyed using Dundas Street (Regional Road 5) as a base line. Lots south of Dundas Street were given to United Empire Loyalists as rewards for service. North Halton was settled quickly by immigrants from Britain, Scotland and Ireland.

Burlington was created on lands awarded in 1798 to Joseph Brant, the great Mohawk Chief, as a reward for his services to the British Crown during the American Revolutionary War, although an early pioneer (George Chisholm) had settled in the vicinity in 1791. The name Burlington is thought to be an altered form of the name Bridlington, a town in Yorkshire, England.
Monument at the Battle of Stoney Creek
After simmering treaty and border disputes finally erupted into the War of 1812 and the Americans repeatedly attacked British Upper Canada, including one time landing at and burning Fort York. In 1813, the British regulars and Canadian militia defeated invading American troops at the Battle of Stoney Creek, and the War between England and the US ended in 1814. This led the British to develop Upper Canada with greater haste.

Halton County was named in 1816 for William Halton, secretary to Francis Gore who served as Upper Canada’s Lieutenant Governor intermittently from 1806 to 1816.

To Confederation

In 1821 Jasper Martin from Newcastle England built a grist mill along the banks of the Sixteen Mile Creek, near today’s Milton, founding a settlement of 60 people first called “Martin’s Mills” which had an ashery, small store and a post office. In 1837, with a population of over 100 people, the community was renamed Milton, for the English poet John Milton, who wrote the memorable poem, Paradise Lost. The closeness to the Escarpment provided building materials used in the early town’s construction.

Oakville was founded in 1827 by Colonel William Chisholm (1788-1842), who became a merchant and shipbuilder on 960 acres granted at the mouth of Sixteen Mile Creek, where he soon established the first privately owned harbour in Upper Canada and handled trade between Hamilton, Toronto and in 1934, the US with William Chisholm serving as the first Customs Inspector. When the town was incorporated in 1857, George King Chisholm became Oakville’s first mayor.

Pioneer windmill at Bronte Provincial Park
In the early days of Burlington, animal farming and fruit growing were prominent activities and contributed towards its rapid growth. In 1873, the adjacent hamlets of Wellington Square and Port Nelson amalgamated into the village of Burlington.

Halton’s largest industries included wood processing, fishing, leather production, mineral extraction and paper production. The area was also important in “stone-hooking” where shale and granite was raked from the bottom of Lake Ontario for use in roads and buildings.

When the railway reached Milton in 1877, the town grew with several brickyards by the escarpment around Milton Heights. Most famous was the Milton Pressed Brick Company, and several buildings in today’s downtown Milton were made with bricks that bear either the MPB or Milton stamp. The railway also opened up the quarry industry which manufactured cut limestone used in area buildings, including the Town Hall.

In 1853, Halton became a separate county with its own governing council headed by a warden, and comprised of Nelson, Trafalgar, Esquesing, and Nassagaweya Townships, with Milton being the County Seat. In 1888, the Barber paper mill on the Credit River in Georgetown, became the first factory in Ontario to use long distance transmission of hydro-electric power.

In The 1900s

By the early 1900s, Halton Region’s development had become part of the “Golden Horseshoe” industrial belt around the western end of Lake Ontario. The most famous industry was the P.L. Robertson Company, maker of the square-slotted Robertson screw, which became one of Milton’s largest employers.

As the prairie provinces became settled, Halton farmers turned from wheat to dairy farming and fruit growing to meet the growing demand for agricultural products in nearby urban centres. By 1951, Halton and Peel Counties ranked among the largest fruit producers in Ontario with the mild micro-climate protected by the closeness of the Niagara Escarpment.

After World War II, Halton entered into a period of prosperity and rapid growth, and by the early 1970s, Halton’s population grew by 400 per cent as job opportunities and cheaper “country” living attracted residents. The Oakville Ford Plant was built in 1952 and created 5,000 industrial jobs and prompted many auto suppliers to build in the area.

By 1961, less than fifteen per cent of Halton residents were still farming. As farmland was sold for suburban development, planning became a critical factor in the urbanization of formerly rural areas. In 1962, the surrounding townships of Trafalgar and Bronte were amalgamated to form the current Town of Oakville.

Over the 1960s, government reforms to streamline administrative structures were introduced in Ontario and in 1974, Halton County was reorganized into the Regional Municipality of Halton with four restructured municipalities (Burlington, Halton Hills, Milton and Oakville).