Time Traveling – A tour of Alexandria, Ontario and its Harrisons
Following is something I had written over a decade ago for a whole different website. But it’s relevant to reprint here (along with a few updates, corrections, and changes to things I just really didn’t like very much on re-read).
During the months of March through May, 2003, I temporarily located for work purposes in Toronto, Ontario, Canada from my usual home of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. During my visit, I took the opportunity to visit Alexandria, Ontario and area to discover the region to which one branch of my family settled early in the 19th century. I had proposed the idea to my mother, Rita, and she proposed the idea to her brother, Donald. Though they had been through the area and visited family before, it was to be my first real steps in my ancestor’s footsteps.
All individuals mentioned in this account will have their relationship to John Harrison (JH) indicated. This will provide an easy single reference point to give some context to their relationship in the family. (I am their GGG grandson.) To help you, here is a short depiction of John and his wife, Ann.
John was a Colour Sergeant in the 41st Regiment of Foot, a British military regiment stationed in what was then Upper Canada during the War of 1812. He retired from the regiment in 1822 and settled in Canada, having received a land grant from the government. Having married his wife, Ann (née McIntosh) in Canada during his post here, this is where they returned to from Europe upon his retirement from the regiment.
Day 1 – Saturday April 19, 2003
My mother [GG granddaughter of JH] arrived in Toronto the week prior to Easter Sunday. On Saturday, April 19, we caught the train to Cornwall, Ontario. Uncle Donald [GG grandson of JH] picked us up at the train station, as he had decided to take an extra week prior to our arrival to do some genealogical research. Mom and I are very thankful for his efforts, as we most certainly would not have seen or learned nearly as much as we did without his outstanding efforts.
Our first stop was a museum hosted by the Lost Villages Historical Society. The Lost Villages museum is dedicated to several villages that were lost underwater when the St. Lawrence Seaway was dammed and flooded and has a small collection of original buildings from some of these villages. Uncle Donald had discovered that some of our ancestors were living in one of the lost villages, known as Moulinette, during some portion of the 1800s. The museum, which is closed during the winter months, had unfortunately not yet been opened for the season. However, we were lucky to find a volunteer working out of the office, the only heated building in the park. We visited for a short time and learned a little about the various villages before continuing on our way.
Harrison’s Corners, ON
Our next stop was a few kilometers northwest of Cornwall was the location known as “Harrison’s Corners”. Records of a local indicate that it was so-named by Henry Harrisson (son of JH; the difference in spelling from the location and the individual are noted and is not a typo), who was the first postmaster of a post office located there. We spoke with someone who lives on one of the corners. We had assumed that the building across from them was likely the original home of Henry Harrisson and the location of the post office, but we can’t be certain.
St. Andrew’s West, ON
From Harrison’s Corner, we continued on to what would be the first of many visits to local churches and cemeteries. Little did Mom and I know that this was to be the oldest gravestone that we would discover on this visit.
After driving east just a few kilometers, we came to the historic town known as St. Andrew’s West. The town has one of the oldest churches in Ontario and the old cemetery happens to be the resting place of the celebrated Canadian explorer, Simon Fraser. Also in the old cemetery (so-called because a “newer” cemetery – probably dating back a hundred years or more – is now located to the south of the church) are the founders of this line of Harrisons, John and Ann Harrison. Theirs is a large, white monument, not far from a replica of the log cabin that served as the first St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, built by United Empire Loyalists around 1784.
Their stone reads:
TO THE MEMORY OF
DIED IN ROXBOROUGH
WIFE OF JOHN HARRISSON
BORN IN SCOTLAND 1792
DIED IN ST ANDREWS
DONALD THEIR SON
AGED 5 YEARS
Note that this stone contains an incorrect date, as John Harrison could not have died in 1829. He and Ann had three additional known children between 1829 and 1832. It is believed that he, in fact, died in December 1831, some months prior to the birth of his final child. The stone even mentions that a five-year-old son was buried there in 1836. The surname is mis-spelled. It is believed that Dr. Henry Joseph (Joe) Harrisson (grandson of GJ, son of Henry Harrisson) erected the monument after Anns death. Dr. Joe and his father are the only known families to use the double s spelling.
We also located stones for the above-mentioned Henry Harrisson and his wife, Adelaide Bockus, as well as a stone very nearby the John & Ann Harrisson stone bearing the name Alexander McIntosh, leading us to believe that it may be a relation to Ann.
We stopped at the “new” cemetery and looked around at the gravestones looking for anyone of note, but did not find any. However, our efforts were rewarded with a beautiful view of St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church.
The day was beginning to get on. Though we had stopped for a bite not long after departing the train station, our stomachs were again beginning to demand attention. Luckily, we had only one more churchyard to visit before continuing on to Alexandria.
St. Raphael’s church, Ontario
St. Raphael’s church (pronounced as ‘Raffles’) was built in 1821 to accommodate what is regarded as the largest and most important parish in Canada at the time. It was razed by fire in 1970, though the ruins still stand and are being carefully stabilized to ensure that the memory of the original church will not fall from existence like the church itself did. We believe that many of our family members likely attended church here through the 1800s and 1900s and it may well have housed many a wedding. While there, we sought out and photographed several markers from our McDougald side of the family.
After leaving the church, we continued on to Alexandria. Uncle Donald had a surprise for us when we arrived. He took Mom and I for a short drive through town (Alexandria is a small town of about 4,000 residents). After pulling over to the side of the road, he pointed out a brick house that was home to a restaurant that was almost immediately recognizable. He explained how he had gone there for dinner, thinking that it was likely the family home of George Henry Harrison (son of JH and my GG grandfather). Indeed, the restaurant known as Georgian House was the very same one that George Henry built in 1858.
We find the name of the restaurant to be very interesting. The owners of the restaurant, Heinz and Deborah Kaswurm, had no idea who the original owner was when they named the restaurant. During renovations in 1987, they found a small plaque above the main entry indicating the date of construction and bearing a name that they thought might be Henderson, but was not clear. However, thinking that the home bore a decidedly Georgian style architecture, they named it the Georgian House. We thought it quite interesting that George’s house became known as Georgian House. Also interesting is that the initials of each is GH.
Seeing as how it was now most certainly time to eat, we headed over to a pub known as Champion’s Roadhouse. It is located on the lower level of a beautiful old building that houses a restaurant on the main level known as Priest’s Mill restaurant, so-named for the building in which it resides. But of course, this is no ordinary building.
Priest’s Mill was built as a grist mill back in the early part of the 19th century by one of the founding priests in the area. After it burned down, we believe our George Henry Harrison purchased the lot and built the existing structure that now houses the restaurant. On the site was also located a tannery that Mr. Harrison built.
After a full first day, we retired to our Bed & Breakfast, known as the Carriage House. I must give a plug for the Carriage House and it’s proprietors, Karen and Gary Gauthier. Their home is beautiful. Every nook and cranny is filled with some item or other than Karen and Gary picked up in their travels. The home is a museum in its own right. Their hospitality was second-to-none and the price was right as well. Each bedroom is decorated in its own style and the beds are not only luxurious, but very, very comfortable. Should you find yourself visiting the area, the Carriage House comes with our highest recommendations. Ask for the burnt-orange sheets – they are as luxurious as they come, I think. Visit the website for the Carriage House.
Day 2 – Sunday, April 20, 2003
After waking and getting breakfast, we headed back to St. Raphael’s for Easter Sunday mass. A replacement for the church that was burned in 1970 is immediately adjacent to the ruins. Uncle Donald introduced Mom and I to Father Donald McDougald (while sharing a very common name of some of our ancestors, he is no relation).
After mass, we explored the St. Raphael’s ruins and cemetery. It had been getting dark the last time we visited, so the full sunlight offered us a little better view of the area. We didn’t find any Harrisons buried here, nor did we find any additional McDougalds that we weren’t already aware of. However, the ruins are spectacular and I took some very nice photos. In the new St. Raphael’s, as in each of the churches we visited, Mom lit a candle in remembrance of those who came before us.
St. Finnan’s, Alexandria, ON
Afterwards, we headed back to Alexandria so that we could look through the cemetery at St. Finnan’s church where we knew George Henry Harrison’s family stone was. We first stopped at Georgian House to make a reservation for that evening. We had the opportunity to meet the lady of the house, Deborah, and chat with her about the history of the home and their acquisition of it. She explained how her husband and the chef, Heinz, operates the restaurant while she focuses on the day spa that they also operate from the old home.
It was a beautiful, sunny day and reasonably warm, considering it was still only mid-April. We found several stones that we believe are relatives (there’s a stone bearing the name “Williams” that we are almost certain is a relation of one sort or another), including the George Henry Harrison family headstone. While there are no particulars about who is buried there (the monument simply bears the name “Harrison”) we know it to be George Henry’s resting place.
While we hoped to get into St. Finnan’s to see where many of our ancestors worshipped, were married, and eventually buried, the doors were locked and we were unable to enter. However, we did enjoy the area. Beside St. Finnan’s is a building that we think might have been a convent at one time, though I don’t believe it is any longer. Coming from Alberta, where most of the buildings are 50 years old or younger, it was impressive to see these old buildings. While they are young by European standards, they are much older than most any building you will find in my part of the country.
Dining at my great great grandfather’s home
After retiring back to the B&B for a rest, we cleaned up and changed and headed over to Georgian House. The anticipation was quite overwhelming. Here we were going to eat in the home that my GG grandfather built close to 150 years ago! The sense of history was like nothing I’d ever felt before.
We arrived and were quickly seated in a beautiful addition to the house that was added during the 1987 renovation. They call it the “Timber Room”, and it was very elegant. There was only one other table occupied. We ordered some Mateus and enjoyed a multi-course meal that was not only elegantly served but very fine and flavourful. Chef Heinz certainly does the gorgeous old home justice with his equally exceptional cuisine.
After dinner, Heinz came out to visit, having been aware that we were coming. We sat and talked for quite some time, and also shared some photographs with each other. He informed us of the more recent history of the house, being owned by the Costello family and being occupied as a two suite rental at various times over the past 50 or 60 years. He was very gracious in giving us a tour of the main level and showed his impressive woodwork. He had personally added a good deal of millwork during the 1987 renovation that was beautiful and fitting to the décor.
After another busy day of footstep-following, we retired back to the Carriage House for some much-needed rest.
On Monday morning, Mom and I went for a walk over to St. Finnan’s, hoping that we might be able to have a look inside since we weren’t able the day prior. Lucky for us, the doors were open since a funeral was scheduled later in the day (not so lucky for the person for whom the funeral was being held). Nobody was yet inside and all of the lights were off. It was too dark to take any decent photographs, so I went off looking for light switches. Poor Mom was having a fit, thinking that my playing with the switches might well set off an alarm of some kind. I assured her that it was highly unlikely that they would leave the doors open but alarm the light switches. She still wasn’t comfortable with the idea, but in my usual style, I did whatever I wanted anyway. Thankfully, no police came to arrest us for turning on the lights and I managed to snap a couple of decent photos.
Uncle Donald felt that the rental car needed some mechanical attention. He also found that he would be able to visit a repository of microfiche and such that he had been wanting to visit. Since he would be making these couple of stops and Mom and I would be mostly sitting around (only so many people can gather around a microfiche machine), we decided to rent our own car for the day to explore the countryside.
We picked up a little Dodge Neon that one of the local car dealerships rents that had exactly 13 km on the odometer. While I’m used to driving much larger vehicles, this was by no means any “Rent-A-Wreck”.
We visited a few more cemeteries, hoping that by chance we might happen across some relevant stones. We were rewarded with only a single Harrison stone in Apple Hill, though we are still not certain if we have found a relation or simply someone with whom our ancestors share a surname. We did, however, get to visit many locales and landmarks that Mom had heard about from her father back in the day and that we heard held some amount of family history. We saw “Frog Hollow Road” where an uncle claimed he would someday move (it was a joke of some kind, but not knowing the area nor having ever met the uncle, the humour is kind of lost on me). We did a little hopscotch jump into the province of Quebec and saw the town known as Dalhousie Mills where the uncles were known to frequent for a libation or two.
We arrived in Cornwall in time for dinner and were treated to a wonderful spaghetti dinner, some nice wine, fresh cheese (having been made just the night before), and superb conversation. These McDougalds can spin tales as well as anyone I have ever met. It was fun and entertaining and a real pleasure to meet cousins that I had never before met.
Once again, it was time to get some rest at the B&B. A short half-hour drive north and we were back at our resting place.
Day 4 – Tuesday, April 22, 2003
The final day of our little tour was upon us. We got up early so that we could stop at a couple more homes of relatives to do some visiting (or, in my case, meeting). We visited a relation (we’re not exactly certain right now how we’re related, but we are) that lives in an old farmhouse on the highway that leads to Alexandria. He told some great stories about our now-deceased uncles from the area. I regret that I am too young to have ever met them. They sound like a really interesting bunch.
On one particular occasion, one of the uncles and a couple of the cousins decided it was time to get a pig to the market. For whatever reason, there was no usual transport available, so they loaded the hog into the back seat of the car where one of the cousins held on tight. If I recall correctly, the animal did what to any animal comes naturally (ahem…let’s say it made a mess), but all arrived safe and sound. While I wish I had the opportunity to meet them, I am glad I wasn’t the one that had to clean the car.
Our next stop was an old farmhouse where a cousin still resides. I don’t recall the actual age of the home, but I’m reasonably certain that that one of my great great grandmothers lived there so many years ago. It is in remarkable condition and, unless told otherwise, I would never have guessed it to be of such vintage. I was pleased to meet yet another cousin that I hardly knew existed and hear more interesting and amusing tales of days gone by.
Unfortunately, our visit was short as our tour was nearing its end. We had to return to Cornwall to catch a train back to Toronto. Uncle Donald drove us back to the city and we made the train with mere minutes to spare. Our tracing of family history was itself history.
While I have always been interested in genealogy, this visit opened my eyes to the wealth and breadth of the history that lay behind me. Having the opportunity to see the places where our ancestors lived, worked and played really moved me to better understand those from whom I descend. How brave those very first people must have been, to move to a new land, leaving all that they know behind. I’m not sure that we can actually appreciate the profoundness of their decision. With modern, swift transportation, we can never be in the same way so far from home, no matter how distant we travel. Because of their bravery, I am in a land that I adore and call home. If I could say anything to them, I suppose it should probably be, “thank you”.