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Grimsby Park – A colourfully beautiful historic cottage community

August 2020

The quaint, colourful, lakefront cottage community of Grimsby Park in Grimsby, Ontario,

Grimsby Park has its beginnings in 1846, when John Bowslaugh, a Methodist, offered up his lakeside property to host large Temperance gatherings; events that soon became quite popular with over 2000 people regularly attending. These gatherings were not just religious gatherings, but also acted as social functions.

The large plot of land was the perfect place for overnight camping, complete with a view of Lake Ontario, lots of shade trees and fields for horses to graze.

In 1859, the Niagara-area chapter of the Hamilton Methodist Church separated into their own independent chapter, and needing a permanent site for religious gatherings, Bowslaugh again offered up his property.

An area was cleared and fenced in, with benches and a raised platform added, on which a podium, the Preacher’s Stand, stood so that lecturers could speak to the congregation on various religious topics. This would become known as “The Auditorium”.

By 1874, Grimsby Park was now the permanent site for summer-long Methodist revival events, and became known as the “Chautauqua of Canada,” a reference to a religious and cultural movement in the Chautauqua area of New York State.

Initially there were no permanent buildings, so the Ontario Methodist Campground Company was established for the purpose of raising money to build permanent structures. To accomplish this, the company began selling shares to the parishioners, then using the money raised to buy a portion of Bowslaugh’s property, which they named Grimsby Park, and erecting over 50 cottages where tents were once stood.

These wood-frame, 1.5 story, gingerbread-style cottages, many of them built by Bowslaugh’s brother Edward with wood from is own mill, were quite luxurious and fully furnished, with decorative fretwork on the exterior, and a small balcony off the bedroom. They featured a dining room and living room and a kitchen was in the rear, with a fireplace on the first floor and bedrooms on the upper level, for a total of about 270 square feet. Lighting and cooking heat was provided by coal oil.

The cottages were built very close together, maximizing the use of the land. Eventually the cottages were occupied by residents all summer.

The Great Western Railway, whose tracks ran past the Grimsby Park property, built a station at the far end of Grand Avenue, and bus service from Grimsby Village was started in 1888.

A pier was built by Bowslaugh around 1876, extending out from the beach, allowing ferries to bring visitors from Hamilton, Port Dalhousie, and as far away as Toronto.

The Methodist Campground Company oversaw adherence to the community rules, including maintenance of the cottages, a prohibition on alcohol and foul language, a six-day a week 10:30pm curfew and Sunday rest and attendance at church services. By 1877, constables were employed to enforce these rules.

A bell was installed in the garden area, which soon became known as Bell Park, in 1884 to summon residents to daily worship or social events. The bell was originally intended to be mounted in the Temple, but it proved to be too heavy, so a special platform was built for it in the park. The bell was manufactured by the Jones Troy Foundry Company in Troy, New York.

A small water fountain was also added.

By 1888, a new 7000 seat temple was built for the worshipers. The Temple was a 121 foot diameter circular building with a central dome topping at 100 feet. Despite the best intentions, the building was poorly built and a problem from the very beginning. The roof leaked, and although many repairs were done over the succeeding years, water continued to seep into the structure. This would eventually lead to its destruction.

Eventually two hotels, the Park House and the Lake View House, were added for overnight visitors and over time, Grimsby Park began to attract non-Methodists, leading to a relaxation of some of the rules. The community would also feature amenities like a grocery store, barber shop and telegraph office.

With the dawning of the 20th Century, attendance at Grimsby Park began to decline, and the Ontario Methodist Campground Company was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1910.

Grimsby Park was purchased by Harry Wylie, who quickly eliminated the most of the restrictive rules.

Wylie had drastically different ideas for the property. He built a dance hall, a restaurant, a movie theatre (the first one in the area, which opened on 18 May 1910), a figure 8 roller coaster, a carousel, a miniature railway, a shooting gallery and other mid-way attractions along Grand Avenue, creating an amusement park instead of a religious retreat.

A dance hall, called “The Casino,” was built on the lakefront on Park Road, where live bands provided music for guests.

A fire in 1914, caused by an overturned coal-oil stove, destroyed 34 of the cottages.

Canada Steamship Lines (CSL) bought the park in 1916, after Wylie’s death, with the intention of entering the amusement park business, with their own ferries transporting visitors to the park.

The Lake View Hotel was heavily damaged by a fire on 30 June 1918, after having just undergone renovations. The hotel never re-opened and the park saw a decline in visitors

A brief reprieve cam in 1922, when the figure 8 coaster was replace with a ‘Deep Dipper,’ but two years later, Canada Steamship sold the park to The Grimsby Beach Cottagers’ Association.

The Temple building was demolished in 1922, having deteriorated from the aforementioned water damage and poor maintenance over the years.

Another fire in 1927, also caused by a coal-oil stove, destroyed another 30 cottages.

There was new hope for a revival of the park when a new entrance to the park was created off Park Street, made necessary after the construction of the Queen Elizabeth Way freeway just to the north, cutting off a section of park property. Stone and wooden pillars were topped with a wood arch banner reading “Grimsby Beach” (the name “park” having been dropped in the 1920s), designed to commemorate the visit to Canada by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth; there to officially dedicate and officially open the new freeway.

The end of the amusement park came about in the 1940s, when the Town of Grimsby, which had grown up around the park, assumed control of the property.

By 1948, most of the attractions at Grimsby Park had been dismantled or burned, and the cottages were sold to developers and other interested buyers. Some were retained and became year-round residences, while others were demolished over the years and new homes built in their place.

The dance hall burned down on 31 December 1948.

Today, a few reminders of the Methodist campground-era remain. Auditorium Circle, a circular road, denotes the outline of the former Temple building. A stone cairn in the grass-covered middle commemorates the first meeting at the camp in 1859.

The two stone pillars remain standing at the former entrance to the park, at the west end of a short dead-end road now named Phelps Avenue, after former park president Noah Phelps.

St. Phillips Church, now Grimsby Bible Church, built in 1961, stands where the figure 8 roller coaster once stood.

The now-silent bell and the fountain, void of water, can be found in Bell Park, close to the playground structures that entertain children today.

The crumbling pier where CSL steamships where visitors to the park would disembark, remains as a lonely sentinel to the past.

Many of the cottages, with their bright, multi-coloured paint schemes, remain standing today; well maintained by their owners.

John Bowslaugh’s second house, built in 1874 to replace one near Grimsby Park that burned down, still exists today at 245 Main Street East, now part of the Grimsby town.

Sources: https://www.exploringniagara.com/places_to_explore/forgotten_places/grimsby_park.html, http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_stories/pm_v2.php?id=exhibit_home&fl=0&lg=English&ex=00000564, https://www.ontarioabandonedplaces.com/Grimsby-Park-abandoned-Ontario_loc6346.html, http://www.communitycaptured.ca/history-grimsby-beach, information from Dorothy Turcotte, https://brocku.niagaragreenbelt.com/listings/76-parks-gardens-a-conservation-areas/473-grimsby-park-and-grimsby-beach.html, https://www.niagarathisweek.com/news-story/3295498-family-centre-takes-over-grimsby-beach-hall-operations, https://www.niagarathisweek.com/opinion-story/9515549-grimsby-beach-is-loaded-with-history, http://cec.chebucto.org/ClosPark/Grimsby.html.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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