Discover Historic Gems and Local Charm Where Ontario Began

August 14, 2019

Story: Mike Hector
Photography: Heidi Csernak

Hello and welcome! For the past three years, my wife Heidi and I have been exploring the diverse beauty of Ontario and publishing several blog stories about our adventures and experiences along the way. For our latest series of stories, we have set our sights to the East and will be exploring the fabled region where Ontario began. 

For our first trip, we decided to focus on the fascinating history of Cornwall and the SDG Counties in order to get a proper introduction to the area. From historic walks to intriguing museums, charming accommodations, delicious dining and more, join us as we discover this beautiful slice of Eastern Ontario!  

A Breakfast of Champions at Spinners Diner

Our first stop was a charming diner situated in the heart of Downtown Cornwall called Spinners Original Downtown Diner

Spinners is a lovely throwback to the classic eateries of yesteryear – complete with the telltale checkered floors, and cushioned booths with shiny chrome edging. The walls are adorned with vintage advertisements and caricatures of nostalgic celebrity icons like James Dean, Sammy Davis Jr. and Marilyn Monroe to name a few. 

For my breakfast, I chose the Smoked Meat Omelette which came packed with Montreal style smoked meat and a hefty pile of homefries for good measure. Heidi couldn’t resist the Loaded Tots which was a generous portion of tater tots loaded with cheddar cheese, bacon, sour cream and green onions, with two eggs over easy. 

A Beautiful Walking Tour of Cornwall’s History

With the most important meal of the day sorted, we ventured out into Cornwall’s gorgeous downtown area to enjoy a picturesque walking tour that would showcase several places of historical significance. As we meandered throughout the tour’s path we encountered a series of beautifully illustrated plaques which marked the sites of several pivotal places and moments in Cornwall’s history.

The historic walking tour spans three distinct areas of Cornwall including downtown, the waterfront and the “Le Village” walk which includes the story of the illustrious Roxy Theatre (now known as The Port Theatre) and several other places of cultural and industrial importance. The entire self-guided tour spans roughly six kilometres and takes close to an hour and a half to complete. 

An Informative (and Spooky) Tour of The Historic SDG Jail

After our intriguing walking tour, we made our way to Water Street and the Historic SDG Jail and Courthouse. In 1794 a two-story building was erected on this site to serve as a courthouse and jail. This building was destroyed by a fire in 1802 and replaced by the current main block which was completed in 1833.

Once the centre of judicial and municipal affairs for the region, the courthouse and jail are among the oldest in the province and together bear a nefarious and at times macabre history. 

Originally intended to hold 35 inmates, the jail was often overcrowded and at times housed hundreds of inmates consisting of women, children, murderers and social undesirables. Conditions within the walls of the jail were extreme for the prisoners, several of which met a gruesome end by means of violence, suicide, disease and for five notorious inmates – at the end of a hangman’s noose.

The jail is the subject of many harrowing stories of escapes, violent fights and even executions. There are also several tales of the supernatural variety.

Beneath the cracked floor of the exercise yard, the bodies of several inmates who perished within the jail are buried. Another courtyard houses the gallows, which also had a window overlooking it so inmates could witness hangings.

Tales of restless spirits roaming the halls and other paranormal stories add a chilling aspect to the tour, which I won’t spoil for you here. I’ll let you make the trip to Cornwall for a guided tour so you can learn the bone-chilling history of the SDG jail for yourself.

Take a Scenic Waterfront Stroll at Lamoureux Park

Once our tour of the jail was finished, we walked back into the warm daylight, certainly appreciating it more after witnessing the dark cell blocks below. We made our way across the street to Lamoureux Park for a sunny walk along the waterfront trail. There, we experienced a breathtaking stroll through the park’s immense and scenic public areas.

Lamoureux Park is a prime spot for outdoor fun including cycling, picnics and enjoying scenic views of the St. Lawrence River. There is also a public boat launch which was being enjoyed by numerous visitors and residents. 

Along the pathway, we passed several teeming wetlands and encountered more historical plaques marking the former locations of loading docks, factories and other whispers of Cornwall’s industrial heritage. There was also an abundance of various birds, including Canadian Geese, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Cormorants and many more!

Unravel The Past at The Cornwall Community Museum

The Cornwall Community Museum is situated in a beautiful stone house which was built in 1840 by members of the Wood family, who first built their original homestead in 1784 on a plot of land west of what is now the city of Cornwall. The Woods were, like many others at the time, Empire Loyalists who fled what is now the United States during the turmoil of the American Revolution. 

The building has housed three generations of the Wood family, who resided there until 1952. Fast forward to present time and the house is now home to the museum and archives. Inside the museum, you will find a fascinating treasure trove of artifacts, photographs, memorabilia – and an extensive archive that examines and preserves the history of Cornwall and the Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry.  

The house has been turned into a series of exhibits that each explore a significant chapter in Cornwall and the counties’ collective story. The War of 1812, industrial history, the famous St. Lawrence Seaway Project – and subsequent royal visit – as well as many others are vividly represented. 

There is also an immense collection of furniture, clothing, fine antiquities and other cherished keepsakes that help preserve the memories of the Seaway City and surrounding communities. It was while perusing the collections and exhibits that we started to understand exactly why they call this area “where Ontario began.”

Crush Your Dinner Goals at Truffles Burger Bar

Truffles Burger Bar has been a culinary institution in Cornwall since 2010, serving up a selection of creative burgers and other tasty dishes that set them apart from your run of the mill burger joint. Here you can take a step toward the exotic and enjoy a kangaroo or alligator burger, or perhaps sink your teeth into a juicy buffalo patty. 

For starters, we shared a brilliant Mac & Cheese which was reminiscent of the legit oven-baked version that my late grandmother used to make.  It was like taste induced time travel – and seemed to fit in with our historic and nostalgic fueled trip.

I chose the Santorini burger which blends lamb and beef with some tasty Greek-inspired toppings: tzatziki sauce, and feta cheese.  I also added bacon because… bacon!  This mythical meaty treat was easily fit for the table of Hercules himself!  

Heidi wrangled herself a Texas Burger which rounded up a juicy beef patty with a hefty pile of bacon and came oozing with a bold and smoky hickory BBQ sauce. Heidi kicked it up a notch by adding a slice of cheddar cheese, making this beefy little varmint the new Sheriff of tasty-town.

The Elegant Comforts of Russell Manor Bed & Breakfast

After a wonderful dinner, we hopped back into our car and made our way to Morrisburg, Ontario. In the tradition of our historically inspired trip, we’d be spending the night at the storied Russell Manor Bed and Breakfast

The manor dates back to the 1870s and its design is a glorious tribute to French Second Empire architecture. Inside the house, is a menagerie of Victorian themed furnishings and decor, making you feel like you’ve stepped through a time portal into a more elegant and bygone era of hospitality and comfort.    

Owners Ron and Michael have poured their combined passion for regal decor and authentic furnishings into the entire home and guest suites. Our room was the Riverview Suite which is on the top floor of the manor. It fuses both classic and modern comforts by its design in a brilliant way. The room’s warm colour scheme instantly makes one feel at home. 

The suite features a queen-size bed, vintage furnishings, an en-suite bathroom (and shower), as well as a beautiful antique style bathtub, and heated marble floor. To add to the seasonal comfort-level there were also two air conditioners to help keep the room’s climate at a perfect level. 

After a day of walking around Cornwall and our bellies full from dinner, we were quick to lay down in the comfortable bed and soon slipped into a burger induced coma for the remainder of the night.

The next morning, we headed downstairs and had a lovely breakfast. First, we started with a pair of lovely fruit salads with mixed berries and a touch of fresh mint that was likely grown in their gardens. Next, we enjoyed some freshly baked scones and a delicious frittata that was the perfect prelude for the day ahead.

Russell Manor is among the most unique and memorable bed and breakfasts I have had the pleasure of staying at. There’s just something about the vintage atmosphere and impeccable hospitality that places this exquisite B&B in a league of its own.

Experience Ontario’s Living History

Since first opening in 1961, Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg, Ontario has been creating an authentic and immersive representation of a functioning 1860’s village through live and interactive interpretation. The farms in the village are actually growing crops and raising livestock. The mills are actually functioning – grinding grains into flour, processing wool, and cutting lumber. 

The interpreters, or rather, the amazing people of Upper Canada Village are the real magic behind the show. They truly breathe a vibrant sense of life into the entire experience. Each is an expert in their field and will interact with guests as someone from the mid 19th century would. The experience is available in both official languages, which only adds to the authenticity.

I can remember visiting Upper Canada Village as a young child – and getting lost within my own imagination here. I thought I was walking around in an episode of Little House on The Prairie, or my favourite cowboy movie, only, in real life. I’d talk to the farmers, shopkeepers and other villagers – absolutely convinced that they were real people from the “olden days,” as I would call it. 

As an adult, I am still beheld with a similar sense of wonder as I walk throughout the village and interact with the staff. What’s different now, is how it never ceases to give me a better perspective on just how pivotal a chapter this time period was. Its echoes can still be felt today. 

I won’t spoil the entire experience – but a great example is the village newspaper: The Gazette. There, you will find a real functioning antique printing press, much like the one invented by Johannes Gutenberg. The advent of this technology allowed us to mass produce news and information, ushering in a whole new era of communication.

What started as a massive, tedious machine that required a typesetter had to manually arrange each individual letter, paragraph and punctuation, paved the way for the typewriter, the telegraph and much later the computer. That printing press is what truly pushed us into the information age. Needless to say, that as a writer and blogger – I was officially nerding out.  

A Late Lunch at Willard’s Hotel

Another great feature of Upper Canada Village is Willard’s Hotel. This historic Inn is a functioning restaurant for village guests serving historically inspired meals by hosts and hostesses dressed in true time period attire. For lunch, we sat on the upper veranda sipping old-fashioned lemonade and enjoying the cool breeze.

I selected a generous portion of Bangers N Mash, while Heidi enjoyed Mrs. Louck’s Chicken Sandwich. The food was wonderful as we sat on the balcony while horse-drawn carriages passed by and various villagers went about their routines. It was truly unforgettable – as always.

Parting is but Sweet Sorrow…

As we made our way through the exit and the village’s gift-shop there was one last order of business to attend to.  On the way in, we noticed that Upper Canada Village now has a Beaver Tails stand situated right at the park entrance. Being ever the patriot (and sweet tooth) I insisted that we each get ourselves a little something.

I enjoyed a plain Beaver Tail, which is like sinking your teeth into a crispy, sugary, cinnamon-infused pastry made from pure happy. Heidi noticed that there is also a selection of frozen treats, and decided to have a cup of Mango flavoured gelato.  

It made for a truly sweet end to an already unforgettable two day trip to Cornwall, and the SDG counties.  

Start Planning Your Trip Today!

Thanks for reading our story! 

We are very excited to be working in partnership with Cornwall Tourism and The United Counties of Stormont Dundas and Glengarry on an exclusive series of travel blogs! From outdoor activities to fascinating history, decadent dining and beyond, there is a wide variety of things to see and do for visitors of all interests.   

To help you start planning your own trip, we have included a custom Google Map that shows you each location on our trip, including a few other interesting spots nearby. Feel free to download it – and use it to help inspire your next adventure or staycation!
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