Back in the day: Power wrenched from Johnstown

Around the Nation

A column by Tom Van Dusen

It’s well known today for a profitable St. Lawrence Seaway port, with it’s massive elevator, it’s nine shiny big grain storage bins lining up along Highway 2; but back in the day, two centuries ago, Johnstown had an even more significant claim to fame — until it was wrenched away.

I split my time between Prescott and Russell Village. Johnstown is just east of my home in Prescott, a rambling old frame house overlooking what were train yards and ferry terminals and is now pristine parkland. The former elevator was in the same general vicinity until it was relocated downriver to Johnstown; that’s why, although sitting in Johnstown, it was still known as the Prescott Elevator until fairly recently.

Located within Edwardsburgh-Cardinal, during the past decade Johnstown has undergone a revival, not just at the port, but with the addition of several new industries, including GreenField Global Ethanol and CREWS Freight Rail Services. Once a dormant sidekick to Prescott, the hamlet is bustling! Business at the port is expanding in leaps and bounds, with that line of bins extending every year and millions of dollars invested in port infrastructure.

It’s a drop-off point for freight arriving by ship such as tower and blade components for  Nation Rise wind turbines being erected in North Stormont, stored in a port compound since the project was shut down. With the project rebooted after a court case, I’m told the parts should be flat-bedded out of there in the next few months.

Constricted by COVID, I’ve been using some of my free time these past three months to explore by own backyard – figuratively speaking – to visit and revisit places of interest such as historic sites and nature preserves around Eastern Ontario. For example, who knew a beautiful creek-side walking trail existed just below Burnbrae Farms, Canada’s largest egg producer, in Lyn north of Brockville.

Early on, I took some flack for being out and about when I apparently should have remained confined to quarters, masked, sanitized and separated. The criticism has evaporated as often conflicting regulations have eased; most people now realize COVID Craziness can get to your head and you have to get outside to clear it.

Johnstown is a no-brainer! As I confirmed this morning, it’s 20 minutes away from home by bike. If I knew about its colourful history, I’d forgotten! There’s an easy-to-miss mini park across from Johnstown United Church along the 2 which describes by way of plaques the fascinating beginnings of this Loyalist settlement.

Johnstown was laid out along the St. Lawrence River in 1792. It soon became capital of the newly decreed Eastern District of Upper Canada and a log court house, jail, stocks and pillory were constructed close to where the United Church stands now. Those were the glory days! But it wasn’t to last!

In 1808, following a shift in boundaries, it was decided to move the regional capital to a settlement further west which became Brockville. The good people of Johnstown were none too happy about it.

Among items in the park including a reproduction pillory is a box with a lid on it containing a copy of the British Coat-of-Arms. That was the prize up for grabs, the symbol of power! The Johnstown crowd refused to turn it over so a “delegation” from Brockville came to collect. A battle ensued resulting in broken limbs and bloody noses, with the prize claimed by the Brockville gang.

Thus ended the Battle at Johnstown Jail and the settlement’s early time in the spotlight. The court house became a barracks during the War of 1812, fell into disrepair and burned to the ground in 1875. Johnstown went on to rise again as one of the most important ports along the St. Lawrence Seaway.


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