North Grenville celebrates 25 years of amalgamation this year and the Municipality is planning special meetings to mark the occasion. This is one of a series of articles the Times is publishing to remember South Gower, Kemptville, and Oxford-on-Rideau and how they came to be North Grenville in 1998.
The Council meetings were getting very tense at times. Two members opposing the other two, with the Chair casting the decisive vote again and again. On the one side, a belief that massive investment in infrastructure was the best guarantee of the municipality’s future. On the other side, fear that taxes were getting beyond the ability of people to pay. This was Oxford-on-Rideau and the year was 1852.
The planned coming of the railway through the township was seen by many as the guarantee of future prosperity for the community, especially that of Kemptville Village. It promised trade, increased population and economic opportunity. So, when the railway company ran into financial difficulties and looked for increased investment, it was municipalities and individuals along the route that were approached to take a part in the promised returns that railway investments offered.
Most of the major players in Oxford’s business community bought stock in the Bytown and Prescott Railway Company – just over £5,000 (or $20,000), that’s $1 million in today’s money. This was not enough for the company, however, and a public meeting was called by residents in September, 1851 to call on the Council to invest municipal funds in the railway. There were four councillors sitting that year: Rickey Waugh from Oxford Mills, Ambrose Clothier, William Bottum and Thomas Craig. The Reeve was Robert Kernahan who, along with his colleagues, had become shareholders as private individuals. But Waugh was not convinced that investing public money was the best move for Council, and, when the public meeting resolved that the township should take £6,000 (or $24,000 – another $1 million today) in railway stock, he opposed the move. He believed that “the present taxes are as much as can be paid with convenience by the great bulk of the people”.
But the triumvirate of Clothier, Bottum and Kernahan carried the day, and a by-law was passed authorising the Council to subscribe that amount in railway debentures. But things began to go sour almost immediately. At that public meeting in September, 1851, the people had been assured that the debentures would not be called in for many years, if ever. What that meant was that the railway company promoters assured the residents (and Council members) that their investment was simply a paper one, a guarantee of funds available to the company, if needed at some point in the future. But, the people were assured, the company was in fine form and would probably never need those £6,000: Oxford-on-Rideau could look forward to drawing profits without ever having to pay over a single dollar in cash.
That was September, 1851; by March, 1852, things had changed radically for everyone. The railway company found itself over-extended and suddenly needed that cash. In May, councillors Clothier and Bottum moved that the township seek a loan of the money from the provincial government in order to pay the company. Waugh, now joined on Council by T. A. Kidd, opposed, noting that such a move flew in the face of promises made to residents when they agreed to buy stock. Waugh and Kidd did not believe that Council had the right to impose new taxes on the people in order to repay a loan from the Province to pay for railway stock. After all, at that meeting the previous year, “it was represented that the Stock would not be called for before 20 years if ever and that this Council is not justified in imposing a tax to pay principal without the consent of the people of the Township”. But Kernahan, as Reeve, voted in favour of the loan application.
Throughout that year of 1852, Waugh and Kidd continued to try and obstruct the implementation of the loan. They moved a resolution at Council to have the topic put aside for a year before being addressed again. They tried to prevent, or at least delay, the required public notices being published in the Prescott Telegraph (there being no local newspaper). But at every stage, Reeve Kernahan (himself an investor in the Bytown and Prescott Railway Company) voted with Clothier and Bottum (two more private investors in the company) to override every attempt by the other two members of Council to prevent the new “Railway Tax” from being introduced. In October, 1852, the funds were paid over to the Secretary of the Company, Robert Bell, and the Township of Oxford-on-Rideau found itself with a huge financial debt which required long term tax increases for residents.
But the move to invest in the stock of the Bytown and Prescott Railway Company did more than just raise a new tax to be levied on taxpayers. It led, within a few years, to the Village of Kemptville separating itself from the Township. This, too, was a development linked directly to the railway investment, and cast little credit on the trio behind the railway scheme: Kernahan, Clothier and Bottum. It was a division which was to continue for 141 years, until amalgamation in 1998 once again united Kemptville and Oxford-on-Rideau, this time bringing in South Gower into the new municipality to be called North Grenville. But the story of that original split over railways is a story for another day.