We are excited to be able to reprint (with permission) the following excerpt from the book Whiskey & Wickedness by L.D. Cotton:
Located on the original “trail” linking Brockville and Perth, Portland was initially called “the Landing”. During the influx of settlers into Lanark County starting in 1816, people travelled northward from the St. Lawrence River until they reached the Rideau River system at Portland. Loading their possessions on bateaux, they travelled by water to Rideau ferry to the mouth of the Tay River and up that watercourse to Perth.
The completion of the Rideau Canal linking Portland with Kingston and Bytown, triggered a commercial boom that founded a new community. Construction of wharves and warehouses to service the steamships and barges became the order of the day. Initially the shipment of potash from Portland was the main activity. However, as the 1830’s began, square timber took over. A half a dozen “forwarding” companies worked out of Portland.
A transient water population on the Rideau, combined with emigrants passing through the community on their way to the interior, created a need for a tavern.
The Government cracked down on the lockmasters in 1841 by prohibiting them from selling beer. A lucrative legal trade with the shipping industry on the Rideau Canal, now became clandestine.
Thaddeus Stevens conducted a busy tavern from the 1830’s into the 1850’s in Portland on Water Street near the wharves. The steamer and barge traffic on the Rideau River became quite heavy after the opening of the Rideau Canal. Initially potash, soon replaced by square timber and then sawn lumber, made Steven’s public house a popular place.
Not all his neighbours were happy about the copious amounts of alcohol consumption generated by this activity. The owner of a parcel of land adjacent to his Tavern, Dr. Peter Schofield certainly was not amused. Schofiled organized and founded the first Temperance Society in Upper Canada and that happened ironically in Bastard Township, where Stevens prospered. The Bastard Township Temperance Society reputedly claimed at the time of its formation that 15,000 gallons of whiskey was manufactured in the Township on an annual basis; enough ardent spirits to drown every resident several times over.
A businessman from Smiths Falls named P. Loucks had a quantity of rock elm timber lying on the ice of the Rideau River within a kilometer of Portland in March 1851. The timber was ready to be shipped. One night a group of people in disguise were seen driving in a sleigh in the direction of Loucks’ timber. Next morning every stick of timber was cut, causing a loss of 250 pounds sterling. This action was followed by several anonymous letters threatening further destruction, advising Loucks to leave Portland and also threatening to murder him and his two sons.
A few nights later, Loucks had several horses in a pasture a short distance out of Smiths Falls. One night three of these horses were ham-strung, supposed to have been done with an axe, as the leg bones were broken. The horses had to be shot after they were found [see Lanark Observer, August 7, 1851].
Hotel Growth in Portland
During the early part of the 1850’s a second hotel owned by William Elliot opened near the wharves, on the corner of Main and East Water Streets. Elliot’s public house soon found the same success that Stevens had encountered. The prosperity created by the American Civil War reflected in the community through an increase in the number of hotels. Two more public houses appeared in Portland in the 1860’s. General merchant, James Donovan erected an addition onto his store, which was utilized as a hotel. Edward Oates established a public house across the street from William Elliot’s place about the same time. Elliott still held a tavern license as late as 1867.
Roger Cawley and R.L. Joynt operated public houses in the community in the early 1880’s; O. Rodger and R.L. Willis in the late 1880’s. Beginning in the early 1890’s, W.H. Murphy hosted a large popular resort hotel in Portland variously called “Murphy’s Hotel” or the “Commercial Hotel”. The proprietor in the 1920’s was Ernie Bell. It burned in 1942. Other hotel operators in the 1890’s were Roger Cawley, R.G. Hervey, 1892-93; Roger Cawley, 1895; Thomas Hart, 1898-1899.