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The Boom Years

The Queerest, quaintest place in all Christendom."

(the Detroit Journal on the occasion of Walkerville's incorporation as a town in 1890)

Walkerville's origin and growth clearly illustrate the skill and  entrepreneurial abilities of Hiram Walker and reflect the changing nature of Ontario and its development as an urban industrial province to which men such as Walker greatly contributed.

In terms of its physical development, Walkerville was very much a small town in the years leading up to incorporation. In 1884, the village consisted of four streets extending north and south and five running east and west.

boom1.jpgParallel to the Detroit River was Sandwich Street, the business centre of the village. Along this riverfront street, most of the Walker interests were located, but such centres as the Walkerville Music Hall, large enough to accommodate six hundred persons for lectures, dances and other entertainments, were found there also; the remainder of the village was residential.

After twenty-five years of existence, the village of Walkerville had a population of 600 people. Most of the inhabitants of the village were Walker employees. They were offered a lease to a Walker-owned cottage in the village, none of which were privately owned by the workers.

In this way, Walker could control the type of individual who lived in his village.  The inhabitants used and drank water pumped through pipes laid by the Walkers. They received police and fire protection at Walker's expense. They attended St. Mary's Church constructed by Hiram Walker and named after his late wife. The children of the village attended school on a site donated by Hiram Walker.

In the absence of a commercial bank, the Walker employees could deposit their savings in the Walker bank. Walkerville in the 1880's was a wholly owned family principality and it had been developed with great care.

Although a company town, it was never of the type intended to survive no longer than it takes the loggers to cut the timber or the miners to raise the ore, its foundations were well and truly laid and it was built to endure.

Until 1890, Walkerville retained its lowly position as an unincorporated post-office village. On the 29th day of January, 1890, a petition was forwarded to the Ontario Legislature, requesting the incorporation of Walkerville as a town, and citing the significant contributions of the Walker family to the development of the settlement.

Since the founding of the village, it had been under the immediate jurisdiction of the Township of Sandwich East. However, as Walkerville became more populous and more active industrially, this relationship began to prove unsatisfactory.

boom2.jpgThe village needed additional territory for future industrial development and homesites for the workers who were expected to follow the various industries to Walkerville. These problems required extensive planning, and the delineation of definite municipal boundaries through incorporation as a town would permit the formulation of a more extensive long-term program.

Incorporation as a town released the Walkers from the continued maintenance of a police force and fire department. As a town, Walkerville would enjoy increased stature, and as owners of extensive real estate handsome profits would accrue to the Walkers. At the same time, the family could expand its municipal lighting and waterworks system to serve a large community as an additional source of profits.

From 1890 to 1910, Walkerville witnessed a fantastic metamorphosis during which the distillery town became a flourishing industrial centre of considerable importance. The transition probably began in 1880 with the establishment of ferry service between Walkerville and Detroit.

In 1888, Walker turned his talents to the art of railway building. A railway to the Walker holdings in south Essex enabled him to ship his farm produce directly to the distillery and cattlebarns with a minimum of handling. Also, the presence of a railway with the possibility of connections with eastern rail lines enhanced the value of the Walker real estate in south Essex.

By 1901, the railway was completed with its eastern terminus at St. Thomas. Until 1888, the Walker distillery and its affiliated enterprises dominated the Walkerville scene. The railway, however, attracted numerous industrial enterprises into the village, including the drug firm Parke Davis, the Globe Furniture Company, the Walkerville Malleable Iron, Company, the Ontario Basket Company, and the Milner-Walker Wagon Works, the forerunner of the Ford Motor Company of Canada. The latter began production in January 1898, with a daily output of twenty-five wagons.

Additional industries moved into the village before the turn of the century, creating an impressive industrial complex along Walker Road, the street running parallel to the Lake Erie, Essex and Detroit River Railway.

In 1890 the Walkerville Land and Building Company was incorporated and the Walker real estate holdings in Walkerville were placed under the management of that firm. Edward C. Walker served as president for many years until his death in 1915, while his brothers were directors in the company.

After 1890, the firm gradually disposed of the Walker real estate holdings to private persons, and in the process of this task the firm continued to influence the planning of the town in significant ways.

Just as Hiram Walker had done during the earliest years of town development, every effort was made to instill pride in Walkerville with contests for the finest flower-bed, the most attractive vine-covered home and for general household appearance. 

Although many of the early Walkerville buildings have disappeared, the concept of a garden community in the midst of the city remains intact.

next: Walkerville 1898


 

 

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