Built in Defiance: Road Tripping Eastern Ontario’s History

All photos by Michael Bussière

Crisscross eastern Ontario with a back roads map book and you might just stumble upon some of the province’s finest stone heritage. Here are three road trips around the region where you can explore buildings that are the oldest of their kind in the province. They are filled with stories. Each drive requires a few leisurely hours, so pack a picnic or look for chip stands. Of course, they’re everywhere, with ice cream by the scoop!


Head down Old Highway 17 along a scenic stretch of the Ottawa River to L’Orignal (45°37’10.7″N 74°41’22.9″W), home to Ancienne Prison de L’Orignal Old Jail, the province’s oldest courthouse. The seigneurie de Longueuil became a township of the same name in 1791, and by 1816 the administration of law was increasingly formalized with the first Court of General Quarter Sessions of the Peace held at L’Orignal. Mr. Bela Fenn Frost became the first official to serve the court, and serve he did, in multiple capacities. On any given day, Frost’s schedule could see him acting as counsel, High Constable, Grand Juror, County Clerk, tax collector, and occasionally, sitting as the accused.

It wasn’t long before the Court issued a budgetary expenditure for punitive stocks (£2, situated for full and humiliating public viewing in front of the gaol) and, in 1823, £50 for a neo-classical stone courthouse. L’Orignal being the oldest settlement on the Grand (Ottawa) River, the bilingual court also served (as it still does) as the administrative seat of the United Counties of Prescott and Russell. L’Orignal has a gorgeous waterfront park and a wonderful collection of stone buildings to explore on foot or bike.

Just off the 401 in Prescott, there’s a simple Georgian building known as The Barracks (N 44 42.741 W 75 30.747). It’s the oldest military facility in Ontario, and one of the few to survive the War of 1812. The town’s founder, Col. Edward Jessup, was among many Loyalists who came north at the very early date of 1777. He realized that the new colony required not just homes but institutions, and so in 1810 he constructed a teacher’s residence from local limestone.

Prescott turned into a strategic military point along the St. Lawrence where a series of rapids required the transfer of goods and people from smaller to larger vessels. It wasn’t long before the teacher’s residence was pressed into war service as a barracks and hospital, being quickly absorbed into a defensive installation. The heroic efforts of 80 men and 90 horses altered, expanded and eventually surrounded the site creating a fort by October of 1812. A payment of a pint of rum per man was issued for their loyalty. The Barracks is once again a residence, private and peaceful. The huge Ft. Wellington National Historic Site and plenty more is found along Highway 2. King Street features the best fish and chips joint not to mention an authentic Turkish restaurant. (Yep, Turkish, in Upper Canada!)


1810 also saw the construction of a remarkable industrial complex in the village of Delta (N 44 36.613 W 76 07.345) off of Highway 15 in the Township of Rideau Lakes. The Old Stone Mill National Historic Site is the oldest gristmill in Ontario and a spectacular work of design and engineering at a time when Upper Canada was barely more than a scattered stretch of settlements built mostly from timber.

Hastings Steele, the mill’s last owner, deeded the Delta mill in trust in 1963 to a group of four people for the sum of one dollar. Mr. Steele’s only stipulation was that the Mill be restored as a museum dedicated to the early industriousness of those who built it. The Delta Mill Society, founded in 1972 as a non-profit provincial corporation, has lovingly and impressively fulfilled his wish. The museum is amazing!

(From the forthcoming book Built in Defiance: the story of the British refugees of Upper Canada as told by their oldest stone buildings)