Skip to main content

A Brief History Of The City of Oshawa

1400s

The earliest known settlement in Oshawa began in 1400 when the Lake Ontario Iroquois settled a large village, of approximately 12 longhouses, near the Harmony Creek. The Lake Ontario Iroquois were farmers who grew maize, beans, sunflowers and tobacco in fields near the village. Sometime around 1450 the villagers moved their home from the Grandview St. and Taunton Rd. area and constructed a new village near Rossland and Thornton Roads. The new village was smaller than the one further north, with only five longhouses, and was protected by a large wooden wall or palisade. The Lake Ontario Iroquois did not stay in this village long, as evidence suggests that it was abandoned after approximately 20 years.

1700s

In 1794, Benjamin Wilson and his family arrived at the Oshawa lakefront just east of the present day harbour and established themselves in an abandoned log building which had been constructed by the French traders in the 1750’s. Since Lake Ontario afforded the only means of transportation, early settlement in the Oshawa area tended to concentrate along the shoreline. It wasn’t until after 1793 when Governor Simcoe planned a road between Kingston and Toronto that settlement throughout Upper Canada started to move further inland. This road is known as the Kingston Road (now Highway 2). By the 1820’s people had begun to establish themselves along the road.  The first settler in the area, which became known as the village of Oshawa, was John Kerr who purchased 200 acres at the northwest corner of King and Simcoe Streets in 1816. For many years, the settlement was called Kerr’s Creek.

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 the 1830’s one local merchant, Edward Skae, opened a popular general store at the corner of Simcoe and King Streets and the hamlet soon became known as Skae’s Corners. In 1842, Edward Skae made application to the legislature for a post office.  John Hilliard Cameron, representing Skae’s Corners as part of the Home District in parliament, replied that a name other than “Corners” must be chosen for the post office as there were already too many place names containing corners. The name Oshawa was chosen to represent the settlement and translates from the native dialect to mean that point at the crossing of the stream where the canoe was exchanged for the trail. In 1849, Oshawa was incorporated as a Village and boundaries were listed as follows: Oshawa Creek to the west; Elgin Street to the north; Mary and Albert Streets to the east; and Lloyd/Ash Street to the south. The area south of Bloor Street was known as Cedardale.

As early as 1840, the Harbour was known as Port Sydenham, named after the Governor General of Upper Canada Lord Sydenham, who reigned from 1839 – 1841. In fact, in early January 1841 a petition was put forth to Parliament for a charter for the Sydenham Harbour Company. Port Sydenham was located only three miles from the centre of town and provided means of importing and exporting goods from Oshawa.  Smith’s Gazetteer of 1846 lists the exports from the port for the year 1844 including flour, pork, ashes, oatmeal, whiskey, wheat, oats, grass seed, potatoes and lumber. The settlement at Port Sydenham in the 1840’s consisted of several storehouses for storing produce, one tavern and houses for the wharfinger and deputy custom house officer.  The railway’s arrival in Oshawa in 1856 profoundly affected business at Sydenham Harbour as coal and other necessities were being brought in by Grand Trunk Railway rather than ship.

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.