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A Brief History Of The City of Oshawa

1700s

In the early 18th century Indians of the Mississauga Tribe began trading furs with the French and later the English. At the spot where the Oshawa Harbour is now located, they loaded their furs into canoes and paddled along the shore of Lake Ontario to the trading post at the mouth of the Credit River. This fur trade became so important that the French established a trading post near the mouth of the Oshawa Creek around the year 1750. Thus began the economic history of exporting products from the region now known as the City of Oshawa.

In the late 1790's, Roger Conant, based out of the Village of Oshawa, pursued the fur trade and later the packing business, shipping salmon to the United States. The success of this business contributed toward paving the way for the coming from the United States of other United Empire Loyalists who made their contribution to the beginning of this pioneer community. Among those who came in this initial wave were two skilled mechanics named Beagle and Conklin who became the area's first manufacturers. They made spinning wheels and hand looms, plus other equipment for house and farm.

1800s

As immigration to the area continued to build, local mills which had taken advantage of the abundant water power were frequented by farmers from the surrounding countryside. Thus, the need for other services arose. Hotels and inns were erected. Soon other services were added, including stores, churches, a tannery, an additional grist mill, a woollen mill, two distilleries and an ashery. In 1840, the first pier and breakwater at what is now Oshawa Harbour was constructed by the Sydenham Harbour Company.

In 1842, the inhabitants of the area applied to the Government for the establishment of a post office in the settlement. The application was granted but a name had to be chosen for the post office. After several meetings, the consensus was that the name Sydenham, by which the wharf was known, would be acceptable. Two visiting Indians were asked for their opinion of this name. They suggested the Indian name "Oshawa", the literal translation of which is "that point at the crossing of the stream where the canoe was exchanged for the trail". This suggestion was immediately accepted. In 1850, Oshawa was incorporated as a village with a population of approximately 2,000. In January of 1879, Oshawa's status was changed from a village to a town; at this time, Oshawa's population was 3,992.

By 1853, the Port of Oshawa was established as a clearing and warehousing port by an Order-in-Council. Oshawa's industry continued to grow especially with the coming of the Grand Trunk Railway from Toronto to Montreal. In 1858, Joseph Hall purchased the Oshawa Manufacturing Company and developed it into the largest producer of agricultural implements in Canada. Another exporting industry to commence operations during this period was the Cedar Dale Works which manufactured scythes, hoes and axes.

In 1871, the Town of Oshawa granted a bonus to the Ontario Malleable Iron Company to locate in Oshawa in order to obtain a source of malleable iron for local industries. This proved to be a vital factor in Oshawa's growth as an industrial centre.

In 1876, Robert McLaughlin, who had already established a carriage works business, relocated to Oshawa, drawn by its flourishing rail and harbour facilities. With the help of a $50,000 interest-free loan from the Town of Oshawa, the McLaughlin Carriage Company quickly developed into the largest carriage works in the British Empire.

1900s

With the automobile fast gaining popularity, the McLaughlins decided to enter the business by contracting with the Buick Motor Car Company of Michigan for use of the Buick engine in the McLaughlin car. Automobile production began in 1907 when 198 McLaughlin automobiles were built.

In 1915, the McLaughlins acquired the rights to build Chevrolets and the Chevrolet Motor Car Company of Canada was formed. This resulted in the sale of the carriage business. Three years later, the McLaughlin Motor Car Company and Chevrolet Motor Car Company of Canada were merged to create General Motors of Canada, Limited, a wholly-owned unit of the General Motors Corporation, with Robert Samuel McLaughlin as President.

Another noteworthy event in the growth of Oshawa's industry was the establishment of the Pedlar Metal Roofing Company in 1861. In 1911, the Company reorganized into a joint stock company under the name of the Pedlar People Limited. Ten years later, the plant had grown to be the largest of its kind in the British Empire.

By 1911, the number of people employed by industrial establishments in Oshawa had risen to 3,220. This number was stimulated by the First World War, reaching a peak in 1929. Although the Great Depression had a disastrous effect, by 1932 recovery started in Oshawa. During this industrial transition, Oshawa's population expanded at a slow but steady rate.

During the period 1900 to 1924, the Town was expanding in other areas as well as industrial. In 1904, the construction of a public water supply system began. The first sewer mains were constructed in 1905; the purchase of a site for the public library occurred in 1906; in 1910, construction of the Oshawa General Hospital began; the first streets were paved the next year; and, by 1920, two large parks (Alexandra and Lakeview) had been created.

Late in 1922, the Town of Oshawa annexed a portion of the Township of East Whitby (this was followed by an annexation of another 10,415 acres of East Whitby Township in 1951).

On March 8, 1924, with a population of 15,545, Oshawa was elevated from a town to City status.

Oshawa officially becomes a City - Parade down City street on March 8, 1924

“By order of the Ontario Railway and Municipal Board, the Town of Oshawa was erected into a City at twelve o'clock noon today, Saturday, Mar. 8th, 1924, becoming the twenty-fifth city of the Province of Ontario with a population of 15,545. It is one of the few cities to attain that status by reason of its requisite population and not by Special Act of Parliament. The event was celebrated by a salute of twenty-five guns fired from the turret of the Armoury. A meeting was held in the Armoury being addressed by the Mayor, members of the Council and the Clergy. Through the afternoon and evening parades were held, followed by a community dance: the real celebration of the event being left until the Old Home Week, August 3rd to 9th, 1924. The Ontario Reformer and the Oshawa Telegram issued historic numbers on this occasion.”

~ Oshawa City Council Dated 8 March 1924

Between 1933 and 1939, employment continued its recovery from the Depression. The Second World War led to a tremendous industrial boom. This prosperity has fluctuated moderately, but lasted through to the late 1970's when a downward trend in the Canadian economy caused a decline in the buoyancy of Oshawa's industrial and exporting base.

In 1960, administration of the Oshawa Harbour by the Federal Government was transferred to a local governing body, the Oshawa Harbour Commission. Realizing the Harbour's vital link to export markets, the Commission implemented extensive modernization and improvements to the harbour and its facilities within three years. The harbour was used mainly for lake shipping, but the volume of traffic increased steadily.

Following the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway it became evident that Oshawa Harbour's depth was inadequate for 'seaway' vessels. In 1967, dredging rectified this problem. Since then, a wide variety of commodities such as salt, steel products, fertilizer and sugar are exported from the Oshawa Harbour.

2000s

Today, with a population of 157,000, Oshawa is the largest municipality in the Regional Municipality of Durham.

Oshawa is a growing and evolving city that is fostering the development of diverse economic sectors and knowledge-based industries. Although still a sector of strength, especially in the field of engineering, automotive is no longer the sole focus in Oshawa. Oshawa’s diversified business platform focuses on five emerging key sectors: advanced manufacturing, health and bioscience, energy generation, multi-modal transportation, and logistics and information technology.

Oshawa is home to three highly acclaimed post-secondary institutions – Durham College, Trent University and University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). In addition, Queen’s University School of Family Medicine has established a residency program at Lakeridge Health Oshawa. 

Oshawa is rich in arts and cultural assets - with over 500 cultural businesses, events and festivals. The new Culture Counts: Oshawa’s Arts, Culture and Heritage Plan supports and builds upon Oshawa’s cultural vitality. This plan, in partnership with community groups and cultural organizations, will guide our arts, culture and heritage for years to come. Learn more about our many City events and discover Oshawa.