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County History - The Beginning

Long before the arrival of European settlers to this area, at least two of the First Nations, the Iroquois and Algonquins, are known to have hunted, fished and travelled on the area's waterways. An influx of British and European settlers began as living conditions became intolerable for many of the working class people near the end of the 18th century. Emigration was a welcome option. In 1763, Britain took control of Upper and Lower Canada from France, ending the Seven Years War. Shortly thereafter, the American Revolution saw the separation of the established Thirteen Colonies from the British Empire. In North America, this left the British with only the vast, sparsely settled Canadian territory. A subsidized emigration and settlement program for Upper Canada, where Lanark County is situated, began.

Montague Township, located in the southeast corner of the county, saw the first settler. Loyalist veteran Roger Stevens received a large land grant in 1790 after serving in the American Revolution. The land was along the Rideau River, including what later became Merrickville. Major emigrations to Lanark County began in 1816. Perth was established as a military settlement, and land grants were given to British veterans of the recent wars. Settlers journeyed overland from Prescott or Brockville to Portland on the Rideau and were then conveyed by scow down the Rideau Lake and up the Tay to the site of Perth. In the next few years, the village of Lanark and the towns of Almonte, Smiths Falls and Carleton Place had their beginnings as groups of Scottish and Irish pioneers arrived to begin a new life in the great pine wilderness. Other groups, settling in Beckwith Township in 1818, travelled up the Ottawa to the Chaudiere Falls, then by land to their new homes.

The Rideau Canal and Other Constructions

Fresh from the wounds of the War of 1812, the British decided to create a secure waterway that did not border on the U.S. In 1826, construction began on the Rideau Canal between Kingston and Ottawa. This difficult engineering project, overseen by Colonel John By, took six years to complete and cost hundreds of lives, some from accidents and many from 'swamp fever,' contracted by labourers as they dug channels through the swamps separating the large lakes of the canal system. The canal was never used for military purposes, but played an important role in the settlement and commercial development of Eastern Ontario. Today it is operated by Parks Canada as a major recreational facility and national heritage site.

On June 28, 2007 the Rideau Canal gained international recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Rideau Canal system, which forms Lanark County's southern boundary, is the only site within Ontario, to date, to receive such a designation.

The seven-mile Tay Branch of the canal, which links downtown Perth with the Lower Rideau Lake via the Tay River, was first built from 1831 to 1834, and rebuilt in its present form in the 1880s.

A visitor to any of the locks on the Canal will see evidence of the skills of the Scottish stonemasons, who carved and fit the huge limestone blocks. Many other examples of their work still exist, such as the Perth Courthouse, the Mill of Kintail at Almonte and the unique five-arched Stone Bridge at Pakenham.

Coming of Age: 1850-1900

During the 19th century, the developing economy of Lanark County was based on agriculture and logging. The northern part of the county, where the flat, fertile lowlands of the south yield to the rugged hills of the Canadian Shield, was less suitable for farming but contained abundant white pine, probably the most all-around useful wood found in Canada, and also spruce and cedar. Logs were floated down the Mississippi and Clyde rivers to sawmills such as Herron’s Mills north of Lanark Village, which dates from 1828. As in so many other areas, though, the pine forests were over cut and by the end of the century the lumbering industry was in decline.

The dairy industry overtook wheat as the largest segment of the farming economy in the later 1800s, when cheese factories became numerous. A landmark event was the production and shipping of the 22,000 pound Mammoth Cheese, which was made in Perth for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. 'Le fromage elephant' arrived at its destination and made an impressive display until it crashed through the floor of the Dairy Exhibits Building!

The four towns in the area of the county, Smiths Falls, Perth, Almonte and Carleton Place, were all linked by the new Brockville & Ottawa Railway, built in the 1850s. This was a major boost to industrial development in these towns, and Smiths Falls was a major railroad centre until the 1950s.

Some items manufactured and exported from Lanark County in this era were stoves, shoes, whisky, clothing and soap. Almonte was considered the capital of Canada’s woollen industry at this time.


The 20th Century

During the first half of the 20th century, the population declined, as did the farming and lumbering industries. Many farms in the rocky northern part of the county were abandoned as their owners left to seek more fertile land in Western Canada. While such places as Ottawa and Peterborough grew into cities, the towns of Lanark County stayed small, and many young people left for education and employment in larger centres. The two world wars and the Great Depression in the 1930s also contributed to this outflow. The lowest point of population in the 20th century was 32,000 people in 1941. By 1971 the census showed more than 42,000 residents and the 1991 estimate was nearly 55,000.


Today farming is still important, and there are a number of sawmills in the northern part of the county doing a brisk trade in rough and finished lumber. These traditional ways of life now exist side-by-side with the aerospace and high-technology industries. Also, Lanark County benefits from the new boom in telecommuting, as many former city dwellers discover its advantages.

In 2005, Lanark County has a population of about 62,500 and is comprised of eight municipalities, including the towns of Carleton Place, Perth and Mississippi Mills and the townships of Beckwith, Montague, Drummond/North Elmsley, Lanark Highlands and Tay Valley. There are 16 members of County Council – two from each municipality.

For more information about the history of Lanark County, check with local libraries. Of note, Lanark Legacy: Nineteenth Century Glimpses of an Ontario County by Howard Morton Brown, was commissioned by the County of Lanark and published in 1984 as an Ontario Bicentennial project.

The Coat of Arms

"Upon the request of the Lanark County Council, the Lord Lyon of Edinburgh, Malcolm R. Innes, on 10 July 1981, proclaimed the following description of the Coat of Arms to reflect the nature and history of the municipal corporation of the County of Lanark, established by Royal Proclamation on 23 August 1866. On a gold field is set a black eagle, which is armed and membered in red. Above it on the upper third of the Shield, a woolsack is set between two gold sheaves of wheat. The Shield is ensigned as a County Coronet, with a circlet of eight green points alternated with gold sheaves, and the circlet is charged with eight maple leaves angled toward the left. Below the Shield, set in a scroll, is the motto 'VIGILANTIA,' meaning 'vigilance'."

County Flag

From Lanark Legacy: Nineteenth Century Glimpses of an Ontario Town, by Howard Morton Brown, 1984, County of Lanark, p. xiv)