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Joseph Bigelow: Port Perry's first Mayor

I always enjoy writing these articles, as it gives me an opportunity to meet some fantastic people and dig into their life story. As this is Canada’s 150th birthday, I thought it would only be fitting to write a story about one of Port Perry’s past residents, none other than, Joseph Bigelow.

Joseph and his twin brother Joel, were born in 1829, in Simcoe County, in Tecumseth, which is now west of Bradford. His father, Hiram Bigelow, managed several mills for people. When an opportunity arose to move to Lindsay, Hiram and Mary, along with their children, took advantage of the opportunity.

When Joseph was 22 his father heard of the death of Peter Perry, a visionary in Port Perry who had great ambitions. His death left a large gap, which needed to be filled. Hiram immediately saw this as a great opportunity for his sons. He purchased a parcel of land, known as lot 5 (now the Tweed and Hickory Building) for his sons to make their fortune.

Joseph and Joel set forth and constructed a small general store on the property on Queen Street. Prior to this, Port Perry was the industrial part of Scugog. All social and commercial business was done in Prince Albert. Things were about to change.

Joseph was courting the daughter of a Member of Parliament and proposed marriage to her. Elizabeth Paxton accepted and the couple were soon married. This of course presented a problem, as brother Joel was living with Joseph in the small house adjacent to the store. After the wedding Joel decided to leave and moved to Whitby, where he opened another general store. Shortly after the success of that venture he relocated to Chicago, where he opened and operated the Bigelow Tea Company.

Joseph and wife, Elizabeth decided it was time to expand the venture and in 1863 tore down the existing building. This was replaced with a giant, three story structure known as the Royal Arcade. The business expanded to include clothing, medicines, hardware, a post office and a branch of the Royal Canadian Bank. This undertaking was very successful, and Joseph became Port Perry’s first postmaster.

Elizabeth decided that it was not fitting for the family to live on the main shopping street and they physically moved their residence to 100 Perry Street. The house still stands today, and was recently renovated to become a very modern dwelling within the confines of an historic shell.

Being quite the business man, Joseph purchased a lumber mill from Stephen Doty. Located on the lake, just south of the causeway, it was very successful and added to the entrepreneur’s assets. His father-in-law, Thomas Paxton, a member of the Ontario Assembly, was a huge proponent of building a railroad to Port Perry. He enlisted the help of Joseph, who jumped whole heartedly into the project. In 1868, Joseph Bigelow became the first president of the newly formed Port Whitby/Port Perry Railway.

The project prospered and the railroad made its way here. It was not long after, that it was extended to include Lindsay. With the Bigelow family owning much wooded land, as well as a lumber mill, the opportunity to get his product to the harbour in Whitby was very beneficial.

In 1872 Joseph left the railroad, due in part to a scandal, brought on by his fraudulent ways. People realized that the cedar rails Bigelow was purchasing on behalf of the railroad were coming from his mills, at dramatically inflated prices. It also turned out that most of the lands expropriated for the railroad were in fact, properties Bigelow owned.

After his resignation, Joseph turned to politics and successfully ran for Mayor of Port Perry. No doubt most of his votes were purchased or came from friends, but he did add many benefits to the town. He was responsible for the new Town Hall building (Simcoe and Queen Streets), as well as the replacement of the floating bridge for a more permanent causeway structure.

The Bigelows had five children, but not a single male grandchild. The family prospered and sold the arcade to a Toronto Entrepreneur, Jonathan Blong. In 1877, the year the store was sold, the new owner renamed it the Blong Block.

Bigelow sold his mill to a Mr. Trull, who wanted to build a damn next to it. Unfortunately the mill burned down before the damn was constructed. Part of the lands expropriated by the railroad from Joseph Bigelow included a stave factory and a lumber mill, which he ran even after the railway bought the property in 1872. He moved the building uptown, where it housed an apple evaporator.

In addition to these ventures, Bigelow owned a sawmill, a planing mill, a carding mill and a tannery. He also partnered for 20 years with his father-in-law, Thomas Paxton in a flour-milling business located on Water Street, as well as the Tate Foundry on Perry Street (where Westshore retirement residence sits today) , as well as the Big Red Apple Elevator, on Lilla Street (now Simcoe Street).

Bigelow owned a large property bordered by Queen and Reach Streets, and by Rosa and Simcoe Streets. Together with his lawyer, Mr. Cochrane of Whitby, they began to develop the property, adding two new roads and aptly naming them Bigelow and Cochrane Streets. The two sold the lots and Bigelow built a house for himself on one of the parcels. The house still stands at 178 Cochrane Street.

One of Joseph and Elizabeth’s daughters, Emma, married a local jeweller, Hugh McCaw. They lived in the house on Cochrane Street and raised their 8 daughters, six of whom were married there as well (the other two remained spinsters).

In 1881 Joseph Bigelow ran for the Legislature, but was defeated. His ruthless attitude unfortunately left him a much disliked individual. He paid his workers in company vouchers, which means they were only good at his arcade or his mill. Fortunately the practice did not last long, but long enough to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths.

In 1902, he became president of the Port Perry division of the Royal Bank of Canada. In 1903, he became president of the Board of Trade. Joseph Bigelow lived in his house until his death in 1917, at the age of 88. He was very instrumental in Port Perry being the prosperous community it is today.

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