Elgin County, est. 1,000 residents
Port Burwell, Ontario, is a quaint beach town whose historic beginnings ensured the area would flourish as time went on. Known as the “Jewel of Erie’s North Shore,” the town was named after Mahlon Burwell, a surveyor for Thomas Talbot, who, after many obstacles, was able to lay out the village in 1830.
Burwell wrote in a letter to the surveyor general in June 1815: “It would appear as if nature had intended the mouth of Big-Otter Creek for a place of greater importance than any other in the District of London. In my mind, it is highly probable that such will be the case before many years.”
To ensure the town would thrive, Burwell deeded two-and-a-half hectares of land to the Port Burwell Harbour Company, which helped develop the mouth of Big Otter Creek into a harbour to easily export lumber and farm products. The town sits at the end of the Big Otter Creek and is situated midway between the Detroit River and Niagara Falls, making it an optimal shipping location for such goods.
More Than Just Fishing
As a port town, Port Burwell is known mainly for its fishing industry, which still operates today. The area was also a shipbuilding hub and used as a major export point for lumber and farm produce from the surrounding townships. This booming business further boosted the construction of roads and railway lines to and from Port Burwell.
A group of businessmen from the Tillsonburg, Lake Erie & Pacific Railway recognized the area’s potential to receive coal and improved the harbour for this purpose in 1903. The Ashtabula railcar ferry began operation between Ashtabula, Ohio, and Port Burwell, bringing coal across the lake from 1903 to 1958.
In the past, Port Burwell has transformed into a natural gas collection point for pipelines from gas wells drilled offshore, as well as natural gas drilling onshore. They also gained fame for being the home of the infamous McConnell Nurseries, a nationwide mail-order business for seeds and plants that grew into the area’s largest employer.
More recently, Port Burwell has become a hotspot for windmill development which feeds electricity into Ontario’s power grid.
Lighting Up the Harbour
By the 1920s, Port Burwell became a hotspot destination for summertime beach goers. The beach was famous for its natural sandy shore due to the wind and water currents caused by the extending breakwaters. Today, Port Burwell Beach is Blue Flag certified for water quality and environmental protection.
The Port Burwell Lighthouse is the oldest wooden Canadian lighthouse on the Great Lakes. In 1837, the committee of the House of Assembly for the Province of Upper Canada recommended funds be provided to create lighthouses in ports along Lake Erie. Port Burwell, Port Colborne, Port Stanley and the Cut in Long Point were all issued the funds, with around $790 granted to build a lighthouse in Port Burwell.
The lighthouse was completed in 1840 by Alexander Saxon. James P. Bellairs was hired as the first keeper of the lighthouse. Although Bellairs was the first lighthouse keeper, Alexander Sutherland and his family are most associated with the lighthouse, keeping for over a hundred years.
The lighthouse stands at forty-five feet tall, but thanks to the lofty bluff it stands on, the building actually has a focal plane of ninety feet above Lake Erie. The lighthouse was used to help navigate the commercial shipping of local timber on the lake. In 1910, the lighthouse switched from using an array of three lamps and reflectors to a fourth-order lens illuminated by petroleum vapour burned under.
The Port Burwell Lighthouse was discontinued in 1962 and acquired by the Village of Port Burwell in 1965. In 1986, Mennonite craftsmen refurbished the tower using hand tools and methods that emulated those used in the original work.
With the updated restoration, the lighthouse offers a steep 56-step climb to the top for a panoramic view of the town and a look at a decorative Fresnel lens housed inside.
Port Burwell Today
Port Burwell Provincial Park is a fantastic place to hike, camp and spend the day at the beach. Established in 1971 as Iroquois Beach Provincial Park, the near 240 hectares of land and 2.5 kilometres of sandy beach is situated nicely on the northern shore of Lake Erie. The name of the park was changed to Port Burwell Provincial Park in 1986 when the lakeshore beach, parking areas, nature trails and campgrounds were expanded.
The Trinity Anglican Church was built in 1836 and still stands as a pillar of the historic community. This incredibly stunning building has stood the test of time as one of the last remaining structures from the 1800s left in Port Burwell.
The Port Burwell Marine Museum offers a collection of local artifacts and harbour photographs. You can check out their lighthouse lenses, relics recovered from numerous Lake Erie shipwrecks and gems from around the area, including a wood plank from the original Plank Road. The front of the museum is entirely unique by featuring a wheelhouse from a Great Lakes freighter, the Judith M. Pierson.
The HMCS Ojibwa submarine was a project brought to life by the Elgin Military Museum that felt the need to tell the story of the Royal Canadian Navy and the cold-war era submarine. The HMCS Ojibwa is Ontario’s only submarine-turned-history museum making it a must-see for Canadian history fanatics.
Originally, the project was a risky purchase for the Elgin Military Museum and the Municipality of Bayham. It cost $6 million to bring the sub from Halifax to Port Burwell in 2012. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly hasn’t helped the municipality with its debt, but the submarine’s business is chugging along. Tours for the sub have been limited to 50 percent capacity since the pandemic began. Although, there seems to be a turning point as tours have been nearly sold out for the last two summers.
Unfortunately, the tours for the sub were already booked for the day I visited Port Burwell, but hopefully, I’ll be able to get to see the inside of the submarine at one point.
The best view of the submarine comes from Izzy’s Schooners back deck. Izzy’s Schooners was originally a bank in Port Burwell before developing into a restaurant in 2003. They serve incredibly fresh local fish and have become a staple within the community being one of the only restaurants left in the area.
You can’t visit Port Burwell without stopping by Simply Scoops for some ice cream. Simply Scoops was established in 1995 and is the perfect spot to cool off after a long day at the beach. With over 20 flavours of ice cream, there’s always something for everyone.
Port Burwell has continued to be a popular beach destination for those in Southern Ontario during the summer months. The area has such an extensive history that I’m glad I was able to dip my toe into it.
Special thank you to Port Burwell and Area Over the Years on Facebook for the fantastic photos of Port Burwell from the 1900s and the Elgin County Archives for their extensive photos and history about the area.