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COCKBURN, ALEXANDER PETER, businessman, politician, and author; b. 7 April 1837 in Finch Township, Upper Canada, son of Peter Cockburn and Mary McMillan; m. 24 Sept. 1864 Mary Helen Proctor, and they had five daughters and a son; d. 2 June 1905 in Toronto.

Alexander Peter Cockburn’s parents were Scottish Presbyterian immigrants who had settled in Finch, Stormont County, in 1815. Alex grew up there and was educated at local schools. He became active in local politics before he was 20, and proved a staunch Reformer. In 1857 the family moved to Kirkfield, east of Lake Simcoe, where Cockburn helped to run his father’s store. With characteristic vigour, in 1863 he opened his own store and became the village postmaster; he served two terms (1864–65) as reeve of Eldon Township. A promising young merchant, he moved to Orillia in 1864, and soon afterwards married Mary Helen Proctor of Beaverton, whose father was the leading industrialist in Thorah Township.

The turning-point in Cockburn’s career came in the fall of 1865, when he visited the Muskoka district, which was just being opened up for settlement. With a few friends he took a three-week canoe trip, crossing the Lake of Bays, the Huntsville lakes, and the Magnetawan River, before returning overland to Gravenhurst, then a pioneer settlement. There he was induced to explore Lake Muskoka as well. Delighted with the scenery and convinced that the district had great potential, for settlers, lumbermen, and sportsmen, Cockburn became a zealous champion of the north. He would steadfastly defend the country against criticism that it was too rocky for farming. After publishing a pamphlet about his observations, he returned to Gravenhurst; by the spring of 1866 he had built a large store, established the first stage service to connect with the steamer terminus at Washago, and launched his own steamboat on Lake Muskoka, the Wenonah, which he sometimes commanded. The Wenonah proved a boon to the early settlers, transporting freight, passengers, and mail, and towing logs. Cockburn persevered with it despite frequent groundings in the uncharted waterways and even though the steamer failed to earn a profit until 1868.

In 1867 Cockburn, running as a Liberal, was elected by a large majority as mpp for Victoria North, which included Muskoka. He soon persuaded the coalition government of John Sandfield Macdonald* to survey several additional northern townships, and with others, William Beatty* among them, encouraged it to pass the Free Grants and Homestead Act of 1868. Late in 1867 Cockburn had initiated the founding of the Muskoka Settlers’ Association, of which he was elected president. By the spring of 1869 he had induced the Ontario government to build a lock on the Indian River at Port Carling and a canal at Port Sandfield, to allow steamers to extend their runs to lakes Rosseau and Joseph. These installations were completed by 1872. He also did much to have the Northern Railway extended from Barrie to Gravenhurst by the fall of 1875. This line put the district in direct touch with Toronto and led to a boom in lumbering. Some of the Cockburns, including Alexander’s father and brother Isaac, became active in the timber trade, though family tradition has it that Alexander became disenchanted with logging because of the desolation it caused.

In 1872 Cockburn defeated D’Arcy Boulton* for the federal seat of Muskoka. He was re-elected in 1874 and again four years later. In 1882 the Conservative government gerrymandered his constituency in an effort to destroy his power-base, but Cockburn still managed to carry the new seat of Ontario North. Finally defeated in 1887, he tried without success to secure provincial election in 1890 and 1894, and federal election in 1891.

Cockburn’s repeated rejection at the polls allowed him to turn most of his attention to his steamboat service, undoubtedly his greatest achievement. His fleet grew from a single ship in 1866 to six by 1881, at which time the venture was incorporated as the Muskoka and Nipissing Navigation Company Limited. Cockburn served as general manager almost until his death in 1905, by which time the operation, then the Muskoka Lakes Navigation and Hotel Company Limited, had emerged as one of the most prestigious boat lines on the inland waterways of Canada, with a fleet of ten steamers. Branch operations established in the 1880s on Lake Nipissing and Georgian Bay did not last long because of competition from railways, but during Cockburn’s lifetime and until the advent of the automobile and the motor boat, the steamers were an essential part of the Muskoka District’s economic lifeline.

The steamers, and the railway, also made the tourist industry possible in Muskoka. From the start, Cockburn wrote dozens of pamphlets and press releases extolling the region as a sportsman’s paradise. Apparently it was he who inspired William H. Pratt of New York to open a resort hotel, the Rosseau House (“Pratt’s Hotel”), on Lake Rosseau as early as 1870, before wilderness vacations were in style. In 1900 the Huntsville Forester called Cockburn the “Father of the Muskoka Tourist Industry.” By 1905 the district had over 50 summer resorts, of which the largest and finest, the Royal Muskoka Hotel on Lake Rosseau, was owned by his firm.

Genial, tireless, and dedicated, Cockburn was well suited to be Muskoka’s champion. He was enormously popular, and was frequently recommended for a senatorship. Port Cockburn on Lake Joseph was named in his honour, and fittingly one of his steamers, the Nipissing, built by Melancthon Simpson* in 1887 and now named the Segwun, continues to ply the Muskoka lakes. A. P. Cockburn died in Toronto, where his family also maintained a home, and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Richard S. Tatley

[None of Alexander Peter Cockburn’s promotional pamphlets and press releases on Muskoka and northern settlement have been located. Some are named in his entry in Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). A copy of his pamphlet To the shareholders of the Muskoka and Georgian Bay Navigation Company (n.p., [1902?]), which provides an invaluable summary of his career and steamboat line, is located in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Univ. of Toronto. Cockburn’s other publications include Speech on unrestricted reciprocity, delivered in the House of Commons, Ottawa, on Tuesday, March 19th, 1889 ([Ottawa, 1889?]; copies in the NA and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library) and Political annals of Canada: a condensed record of governments from the time of Samuel de Champlain in 1608 down to the time of Earl Grey in 1905 . . . (Toronto, [1905]); the latter contains a photograph of Cockburn but touches only briefly (pp.410–13, 507) on his political experiences.

Additional detail was kindly supplied to the author by Mary Fowler of Beaverton, Ont., in interviews of 29 Sept. and 17 Oct. 1981. Ms Fowler is related to the Cockburns, and knows much of the family lore.  r.s.t.]

AO, RG 8, I-1-D, annual returns for Muskoka and Nipissing Navigation Company, 1881–88; Muskoka and Georgian Bay Navigation Company, 1888–1901; Muskoka Lakes Navigation and Hotel Company, 1902–5; RG 22, ser.305, no.17993; RG 55, I-2-B, liber 13: f.5. NA, MG 24, B40: 269–72; MG 26, G. Banner (Gravenhurst, Ont.), 1919–60. Canadian Post (Lindsay, Ont.), 1869–1920. Evening Telegram (Toronto), 3, 6 June 1905. Expositor (Orillia, Ont.), 1867–69, 1872–77. Forester (Huntsville, Ont.), 1894–1904. Gazette (Bracebridge, Ont.), 8 June 1905. Lindsay Daily Post, 1895–1924. Muskoka Herald (Bracebridge), 1888–1914. Northern Light (Orillia), 1870–72. Standard (Port Perry, Ont.), 15 Sept. 1885. Toronto Daily Star, 6 June 1905. Weekly Globe (Toronto), 1865–67. World (Toronto), 1887. Canadian biog. dict. CPG, 1877. L. R. Fraser, History of Muskoka . . . (n.p., [1946]). [W. E. Hamilton et al.], Guide book & atlas of Muskoka and Parry Sound districts, 1879 (Toronto, 1879; repr. Port Elgin, Ont., 1971). Thomas McMurray, The free grant lands of Canada, from practical experience of bush farming in the free grant districts of Muskoka and Parry Sound (Bracebridge, 1871). Muskoka and Haliburton, 1615–1875; a collection of documents, ed. F. B. Murray (Toronto, 1963). Newspaper reference book. Railway and Shipping World (Toronto), April 1901: 125. R. [S.] Tatley, The steamboat era in the Muskokas (2v., Erin, Ont., 1983–84), 1.

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Cite This Article

Richard S. Tatley, “COCKBURN, ALEXANDER PETER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cockburn_alexander_peter_13E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cockburn_alexander_peter_13E.html
Author of Article:   Richard S. Tatley
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   June 18, 2024