Cornwall: From Loyalist Village to Industrial City

June 11, 2019 | lfeesey

Comments (1)

Situated on the St. Lawrence seaway, Cornwall is Ontario’s easternmost city. It's also a port-of-passage joined to the United States by the Three Nations Crossing on Cornwall Island, which is inside the Ontario portion of the Mohawk Akwesasne reserve.

Cornwall was settled on the land of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, Mohawk, Huron-Wendat and Haudenosaunee (Native Land).

This post highlights Cornwall's evolution from a small United Empire Loyalist village to a thriving port city to industrial centre hit by manufacturing job losses. Below are digitized paintings, maps and photos from Toronto Public Library's Digital Archive Ontario.


Loyalist Village

With the British defeated in the American Revolutionary War, those who supported and fought for them were no longer safe in the former Thirteen Colonies. They lost their land and homes, and were now refugees travelling through Quebec and westward to their compensatory land grants.

The gateway to the newly created townships was New Johnstown (later Cornwall) where the rapids of the St. Lawrence river were too treacherous to traverse by boat. The colonial settlers proceeded from there on one of the established portage routes. 


Founded in 1784, New Johnstown was a square mile named after Lieutenant Colonel John Johnson who commanded the King’s Royal New York Regiment, or the Royal Yorkers as they were known. (They had fought relentlessly against the rebels in the New York colony.) The settlement was renamed Cornwall when the Duke of Cornwall took over command of the British military in Upper and Lower Canada in 1792.


In 1842, the rapids were replaced by the Cornwall Canal. Reconstruction of the 1842 locks began in 1876. The new locks were built in parallel to the first set, allowing ships to move through during construction. Finished in 1904, the new locks accommodated ships up to 245 feet long loaded to 14 foot draft with approximately 2,500 tons of cargo.



Picturesque Port City

By 1910, Cornwall was a thriving port city on the St. Lawrence with multiple railway connections. Its commercial importance was reflected in its impressive civic buildings and main street.

See what the city looked like in these 1910 postcards:


Industrial Growth and Decline

Cornwall saw rapid economic growth after the Second World War. The city had a thriving cotton processing industry, as well as pulp and paper manufacturing. Canadian Industries Limited (C.I.L.) had operated a plant there from 1935.

The population grew to fill the jobs from 18,000 in 1951 to 47,000 in 1971.

The shuttering of Courtaulds rayon fibre plant in 1992 cost Cornwall roughly 3,000 jobs. The Domtar paper plant closure in 2006 saw 1,500 jobs disappear. These well-paid manufacturing jobs have not been replaced with jobs at the same income level.


Decades of industry resulted in "Big Ben," an 85 hectare, 80 metre tall dumpsite filled with wood bark, paper mill sludge, demolition waste and asbestos. Mercury, zinc, lead and copper contaminate the river, and some soil has coal tar and its by-products. The area is off-limits for recreational sports except in winter.

However, the air quality has improved so much that Cornwall now has the best urban air in Ontario.


Two call centres and a Target Canada distribution centre have come and gone since 2000. Also, Cornwall has the dubious distinction of the second-lowest per family income in Ontario. Cornwall remains a shipping gateway to central Canada. Shoppers Drug Mart in 2008 and Walmart in 2017 have opened distribution centres creating over 1,000 jobs.




You're welcome to explore more images of Cornwall on Digital Archive Ontario.

[Edited June 18, 2019 to correct date of Domtar plant closure.]