Owen Sound, Ontario was Canada’s busiest port and that soon made it the country’s drinkin’est, fightin’est and most whorin’ town.
Saloons in this port were open 24/7 and bartenders worked 12 hours on – 12 hours off.
It wasn’t just sailors that kept the town hopping. Both Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk had rail lines running into town and along both sides of the deep, wide harbour. Late in the 1800s Owen Sound, then known as Sydenham, was the principal connection between the established east and points west in Canada, plus to American’s principal cities in the Midwest.
The American consulate to Ontario was located in Sydenham (Owen Sound). The place was called Chicago of the North because of its humming economy, but also known as Corkscrew Town because nearly every guy – and many women – carried a corkscrew for opening corks on liquor bottles.
Eventually the local wives and mothers got fed up and tried to stop the flow of booze. In 1874 they established Canada’s first chapter of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union. They fought long and hard against the demon drink.
With speeches, advertisements and public demonstrations at saloons and bars, the temperance union argued that stopping alcohol would stop poverty and social vices, such as immoral behaviour and physical violence.
And in 1906 the temperance union successfully persuaded local council to ban alcohol.
For 66 years Owen Sound was a dry town
– the longest prohibition in Canada – at least on the surface.
And for 66 years this port city had more bootleggers per capita than any town in Canada. Eliminating prohibition was on the ballot for many municipal elections in Owen Sound over the years, but it survived until 1972. Bootleggers and moonshiners feverishly voted to keep prohibition.
Former CTV reporter Richard Thomas has written a dozen books about the history and characters of Owen Sound and Grey County and his book Saints And Sinners details those wild west days of the port and the dry days of prohibition.
But you don’t have to read his book to learn the inside story. Thomas will escort you around town in a comfortable mini bus to some of the most entertaining sites in the Saints And Sinners story. He leads the Corkscrew Town Tour once a month until September.
His bus didn’t take us to a brothel, although there were dozens operating in Owen Sound’s hay days. But we did go to Canada’s first Christian Women’s Temperance Union hall, still standing on 1st St. W. It’s now a popular yoga, music and dance studio.
“Lips that touch alcohol shall never touch mine”
Local actors portraying temperance campaigners had us sing the prohibition songs, chant their slogans and of course sign the pledge never to imbibe the demon drink.
We also drank beer brewed by Canada’s youngest brewmaster. Spencer Wareham, 28, has been brewing beer since he was a teenager – which is legal as long as it is consumed in the teen’s home with the approval of his parents.
While in high school Wareham sold home-brew apparatus on line and at age 22 opened his micro brewery on Grey Road 18. His brewery, Kilannan, has been experiencing 40 per cent annual growth since he opened.
In 1912, S.S. Keewatin and CP’s other cruise vessels relocated their home base to Port McNicoll from Owen Sound. Railroad service to Owen Sound started a downhill run, eventually disappearing all together.
After the last CP freight train pulled out of Owen Sound in 1987 the CP station sat empty, neglected and deteriating for many years until the city stepped up in 2010 to buy it. The Kloeze family then stepped up to lease the station, establish a micro brewery and open a restaurant. You had better call ahead if you want to get a table at The Mudtown Station, or get on the Corkscrew Town Tour, which includes dinner in the station.
The CN Station on the opposite side of the harbour is now a marine and railway museum displaying Owen Sound’s volatile history.
The Sydenham River tumbles down several waterfalls off the Niagara Escarpment before splitting the town in two and then forming a perfect harbour.
More details on the Corkscrew Town Tour bus tour see thebeerbus.ca