BY GARY MAY
The Talbot Trail passes right by Abigail’s Bed and Breakfast in Port Rowan, but owner Madaline Wilson is willing to wager no more than one in 50 people you ask in this Lake Erie village will have heard of it.
The Talbot Trail is one of a series of tourist routes established in the 1990s by the province to encourage Ontarians to become more acquainted with their history and to explore lesser-travelled roads. But the trails have been little promoted and signage is, at best, spotty.
Wilson tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com that with the events marking the bicentennial of the start of the War of 1812 coming up, the time has never been better to start making people aware of its existence, and the significance of the man for whom it’s named.
The trail recognizes the key part played by Colonel Thomas Talbot in the settling of Southwestern Ontario. Talbot, the Irish-born aristocrat who came to be known as the Lake Erie Baron, created a personal fiefdom, which he ruled with an iron fist, and settled nearly 50,000 pioneers along a 200-kilometre swath of land that bordered the western half of the lake’s north shore.
Talbot supervised the building of three trails to encourage settlement of the wilderness that covered Southwestern Ontario in the early 1800s — the eastern section began at Fort Erie, the western section began at Fort Malden in Amherstburg, and the northern section linked the lake with what is now London.
Today, the Talbot Trail is a shunpiker’s dream, a route that closely follows the eastern and western portions of the colonel’s original course and introduces travellers to an abundance of sights and experiences they’d never enjoy if they took the 401. For the uninitiated, a shunpiker is someone who “shuns” the turnpikes in favour of quieter secondary roads.
The trail leads you through dozens of waterfront communities and points of interest. Along the way, you’ll also discover the extent of Talbot’s influence: multiple Talbot Streets and Roads (designated in various communities as North, South, East and West), Talbot Hill, a couple of Talbot Trails, a Talbot Café, Port Talbot, Talbot Creek, Talbot Trail Golf Course and Talbot Trail Elementary School.
And perhaps you will choose to stop for refreshments halfway along the route, in St. Thomas, which is also named for Thomas Talbot.
In between, you’ll observe vast expanses of marshy grassland teeming with unusual wildlife; roadside stands that sell fresh produce and homemade pies; vineyards and wineries; immense greenhouses and fields of tomatoes and corn; peanut farms and berry farms; orchards of peaches, pears and apples; migratory bird-watching centres; pristine beaches and huge sand hills; ports that harbour fishing boats and pleasure craft; huge lake freighters; wind turbine farms; Carolinian forests and an internationally recognized biosphere reserve designed to protect sensitive wildlife and vegetation.
There are historic sites, golf courses and fabulous fishing holes. There are live-performance theatres, antique shops, museums and classic car displays. Finally, there is the Welland Canal and the mighty Niagara River beyond.
Here's a guide to some of the places you can experience via the Talbot Trail:
Let’s begin at the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Windsor and Detroit. It is the busiest single crossing point on the Canada-U.S. border. As Highway 3 begins at the base of the bridge, you can stop off at Dieppe Gardens. The landscaped grounds are a great vantage point to view the impressive Detroit skyline, which is dominated by the Renaissance Centre. Across the street is the Windsor Art Gallery.
Amherstburg’s Fort Malden was the original western terminus of Talbot’s road, but today, you’ll have to travel a bit south off the route to get there. Amherstburg is also the site of the North American Black Cultural Centre, which interprets and explains the province’s part in the Underground Railroad.
Then get back onto the route and head for Kingsville where you can visit Jack Miner’s Bird Sanctuary and Colasanti’s Tropical Gardens. Farther along, you’ll reach Leamington on Lake Erie, Canada’s Tomato Capital and home for the past century to the H.J. Heinz plant. Leamington is also where you’ll encounter Lake Erie’s Pelee Passage, where 275 ships have been recorded as being sunk since the mid-1800s. About 50 shipwreck locations are known, and diving is popular here. There is also a marine interpretive centre uptown.
You can take another short detour off the trail to the south end of Leamington, to Point Pelee National Park, where thousands of birders congregate each spring and fall to watch the migrations. You can walk along the kilometre-long boardwalk through the park’s marshlands — keep an eye out for unusual birds, frogs, turtles, muskrats, dragonflies and snakes — or hop the trolley to “The Tip” of the point to stand on the southernmost spot on mainland Canada.
Then head out to Wheatley, which is home base for the largest freshwater fishing fleet in the world. Many area restaurants serve fresh perch and pickerel just caught from Erie’s waters.
Take a little jog for a drive through beautiful Erie Beach
As you continue east, you’ll catch beautiful views of the lake. But wait, what are those pumps bobbing up and down in the fields? They’re called pump jacks, and they bring a touch of the Alberta oilfields to Southwestern Ontario. They may not produce as much petroleum as their larger Western cousins, but people have been pumping oil in this region since it was first discovered at nearby Oil Springs in the 1850s.
For a touch of modern-day energy production, you’re bound to spot a forest of wind turbines at Port Alma, their blades gleaming in the sun as they turn gracefully in Erie’s steady offshore winds. Much farther along the route, west of Port Rowan, you can visit the Wind Farm Interpretive Centre.
In the meantime, continue east and take a little detour off old Highway 3 into Erie Beach and its neighbouring village of Erieau. There’s an old-time summer resort feel to Erieau, with the aroma of fries and lightly battered perch hanging tantalizingly in the air. Erieau also boasts one of the finest beaches on Lake Erie.
At Morpeth, you’ll pass Trinity Church, consecrated in 1854 and site of a memorial cairn to early-Confederation-era poet Archibald Lampman, whose works incorporated tableaux of nature, frequent dream states and idealized communities and relationships.
You’ll continue to catch glimpses of the water as you drive east toward New Glasgow, Duttona Beach and John. E. Pearce Provincial Park, noted for its high bluffs overlooking the lake. Woodland trails at the park are filled with unusual blooms in spring, including yellow mandarin, stiff gentian and beach fern. Nearby, you’ll find the Backus-Page House Museum, dedicated to the history of the Talbot Settlement.
Talbot’s original community was located nearby and burned by invading Americans in 1814. (Ironically, the Talbot Trail made the incursions easier). The settlement was never fully replaced. The colonel’s own home was located at nearby Port Talbot, which is now privately owned. Talbot was fanatical about privacy and once referred to the “impenetrable wilderness” that surrounded his estate.
Jumbo the Elephant memorialized in St. Thomas
On to St. Thomas, once a major rail centre and the place where Jumbo the elephant met his demise during a train accident in 1885. Jumbo, whose name spawned the term “jumbo” to denote large in size, was said to stand four metres tall by the time of his death. Jumbo was struck by a locomotive while on tour with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Today, high on a hill at the northern entrance to the city, a Jumbo-sized statue has been erected to his memory.
Also near St. Thomas you’ll find the Southwold Earthworks National Historic Site. Here you will discover evidence of a civilization that existed more than 500 years ago — the Attiwondaronk Nation, which once stretched from Chatham-Kent to the Niagara Peninsula. The site features the remains of an aboriginal village that could have included as many as 24 longhouses.
The Talbot Trail leaves Highway 3 just east of Aylmer and continues down to the shores of Lake Erie at Port Burwell. Here, a lighthouse built in 1840 has been restored and placed on a hill overlooking the beach. It is open for tours and is used by the local tourist office.
The trail leaves Port Burwell and soon begins to follow Norfolk County Road 42. Here you’ll come to Houghton Sand Hill Park, Ontario’s biggest sandbox. The constantly shifting sands have built up to 22 metres deep. The hills stand 120 metres high above the lake and are 400 metres long.
The trail continues to follow the lakeshore toward Port Rowan. But before you get there, it’s worth a short detour down the road to Long Point, the huge sandspit that reaches out into the lake.
The shoals off Long Point have taken a toll of some 400 shipwrecks. It is a popular destination for recreational boating, swimming, fishing, waterfowl hunting and canoeing. The Long Point Bird Observatory was established in 1960 and it is today considered the oldest such observatory on the continent. Long Point is renowned for its sand dunes and has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve.
Then it’s on to Port Rowan. Canada’s first forestry centre was established nearby and today there is an interpretive centre explaining what that was all about. Port Rowan is the national headquarters of Bird Studies Canada. The pretty downtown is adjacent to a busy but picturesque harbour where fishing boats pull up to offload their catch, while pleasure craft dock right outside a fish restaurant.
Now, the trail begins to wind and curve its way along the shoreline as it hugs the water. The area was once the centre of Ontario’s then-thriving tobacco industry and old curing houses still dot the landscape. But today, the peanut is king around these parts. In fact Ontario’s biggest producer of peanuts is located near Vittoria, just off the trail.
Pass Turkey Point Provincial Park and soon you’re in the Town of Port Dover, a busy destination resort. Fish eateries, hotels, motels and B&Bs abound. Each Friday the 13th, Port Dover is inundated with motorbikers who have maintained the tradition of celebrating motorcycle culture. It has been estimated as many as 150,000 show up when Friday the 13th falls on a beautiful summer weekend. The town also boasts the all-season Lighthouse Festival Theatre.
Port Dover and Long Point Bay is also the location that sheltered the French priests, Dollier and Galinée, over the winter of 1669-70, as they explored the region.
Colourful murals depict local history along the Grand River
The next community of any size is Dunnville, situated where the Grand River flows into the lake. Dunnville’s waterfront is always humming, with shopping, boating and fishing favourite pastimes. A number of colourful murals help tell the story of the town’s connection to the past. It is the entrance to the Welland Feeder Canal, which connects the Welland Canal to the Grand River.
Next to Dunnville is the fishing village of Port Maitland and farther east are Lowbanks and Long Beach, popular places for people to come to enjoy the water and find a lip-smacking fish dinner.
Then you’ll come upon Port Colborne, which sits at the Lake Erie entrance to the Welland Canal. The city celebrates its links to the storied canal during the annual Canal Days festivities, during which time the streets take on a carnival-like environment and Tall Ships dock along the waterfront. Divers also value the conditions at Port Colborne, where there are about 20 wrecks in close proximity to explore.
Sherkston and Crystal Beach follow to the east. Sherkston Quarry was flooded in 1917 when the pumps failed. Today, it is known as a good dive spot, with water as deep as 12 metres. The water is clearest from October to June. Besides fish and the submerged quarry pumphouse, divers come to see two locomotive engines and lengths of track that were left behind when the pumps stopped.
Crystal Beach is another beautiful expanse of sand that, despite its size, is sometimes crowded during the peak summer season.
In nearby Ridgeway, the Point Abino Lighthouse has been designated a National Historic Site and is open for limited summer tours; the community’s downtown core is undergoing a major redo, including the creation of a public square. Historic storefronts abound.
Finally, the trail ends at Fort Erie on the Niagara River. The fort was first built in 1764 as a British fortification after the Seven Years War, also known as the French and Indian War. After the American Revolution, it welcomed countless Loyalists who escaped the newly created United States and it was an important fortification during the War of 1812, during which it changed hands a couple of times. Fort Erie again played an important part as a stopping point for escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad.
Tourist routes such as the Talbot Trail were intended to link places of cultural, environmental or social importance, and were created to follow provincial highways as well as regional, county and municipal roads. Today, however, signage along these routes is sporadic and often falls to municipal governments.
Elgin County a fierce promoter of Talbot Trail
The first Talbot Trail was a corduroy road (created by placing logs perpendicular to the direction of the roadway), built by Thomas Talbot and completed by the end of the 1820s. It runs through four counties and two regional municipalities. Among them, Elgin County has taken the lead in preserving and promoting the trail, and has introduced new signage to make sure motorists, bicyclists and hikers stay on track.
Kate Burns, marketing and communications co-ordinator for Elgin-St. Thomas Tourism, says the trail “is what brought people here. It’s a major pathway through the county.”
Burns says the trail is the focus of the annual Talbot Trail Yard Sale event and is the common thread through tourism programs such as Savour Elgin, Ports of Elgin and The Railway Capital of Canada. “He’s recognizable to the people of Elgin, a known entity,” she says.
Mike Baker, curator of the Elgin County Museum, adds that Talbot is probably more top-of-mind in Elgin than in the other counties through which the trail runs. “He’s an important figure in our popular histories,” he says.
But with Talbot’s impact so far-reaching, Baker believes his story is a thread that could be used to develop tourism in other lakeshore communities. “Figures and elements from the region’s history could be used to promote tourism,” he says.
Back in Port Rowan, B&B owner Madaline Wilson hopes her own Norfolk County will follow Elgin’s lead in tourism promotion. “People advise us to just be ourselves,” says Wilson. “We’re not like Niagara Falls. We’re quieter. You can drive the trail and have lunch at some rustic place, pick your own fruit, enjoy the beautiful sights.”
Why not hit the road and explore the Talbot Trail this fall? There’s a perch platter waiting for you.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — September 2010