Cooper’s Falls – Ghost Towns of Ontario

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Cooper’s Falls has a few newer homes that appear to be occupied, but nearly all of its historical buildings have been left to the elements. It isn’t that far off of highway 11 north and can make an interesting side trip on your way north of Orillia. At Hiking the GTA we typically explore the places in our area since this is where we spend most weekends but not all of them. These pictures were taken on a trip to visit my mother for her birthday back when that was still a good idea.

Thomas and Emma Cooper were each 27 in 1864 when they arrived at Washago. From there they made their way through the woods to the location of their land grant. After building a log school house in 1874 and donating land for a church and graveyard Thomas opened a general store in 1876. A post office was added on April 1, 1878 and he was postmaster until March 1905. Two generations later his grandson would close it on April 30, 1968. In the picture below a line in the bricks just below the second story windows shows the position of a former front veranda sheltering the door and the display windows. The general store also sold gasoline with the Esso pump being featured in the cover photo. The family home is attached on the side and back with the front porch being seen behind the gas pump in that shot. In 1968 gasoline went to $0.33 per gallon, or 8 cents per liter, for the first time.

Across the street from the general store is a building which was the town hall and was locally known as the courthouse. The original drive shed still extends from the town hall although it has likely been a few years since anyone left their horse and carriage here while on business in town. A string of coloured lights extends across the road to the old general store and can be seen below. There are fourteen of these lights which are maintained by Frank Cooper who was born on the second floor of the general store. He claims to have strung them up sometime after the Second World War when electricity was being extended across the street. He decided to decorate the wire and as of 2011 had still been lighting it nightly.

The first church in town was St. George’s Anglican Church which was built around 1884 a couple of kilometers outside of town. This building is still maintained and is used for the occasional service and as a funeral chapel.

By 1921 William, son of Thomas, had converted the saw mill to steam power. When he had a fatal accident at the mill in 1925 it closed because the lumber supply was depleted and the family didn’t have the will to continue. The Anglican cemetery is just east of the church and contains many early gave markers including those of the several of the Cooper family including William. Although the town began a rapid decline when the lumber mill closed it is clear that a large number of people have lived here and in the surrounding area over the years. This one of two cemeteries in the community.

A second church was added by the Free Methodists in 1894 when the town was booming. This denomination remained separate from the Methodist Church when it was united in 1884 and then didn’t participate in the formation of the United Church. Cooper’s Falls Free Methodist Church has been closed for years but there is still one in Armadale that is the oldest continually serving one in Canada. You can read about it in our story Armadale Free Methodist Church. The Cooper’s Falls Free Methodist Church stands right beside the Anglican Cemetery with its own cemetery on the other side.

In small communities the blacksmith was an important tradesman because you couldn’t run to Walmart when something broke and these people kept horses, buggies and much more going. As the town declined and Washago and Severn Bridge grew, the need for a blacksmith disappeared. After the mill closed his shop wasn’t far behind. Today it has a distinct lean to it.

The buildings along Cooper’s Falls Road are in various states of decay and most of them have either the walls or roof opened up. Even if these buildings were not marked as No Trespassing it would be an exceptionally risky thing to get too close, let alone go into them.

Around Ontario we seem to have kept a fair amount of our grist mill heritage compared to our saw mill history. Perhaps this is because the grist mills operated for a few decades after the last of the lumber supplies forced the closure of most of the saw mills in the province. Lumber camps and their supporting towns seemed to have fared poorly and this part of our heritage seems to be vanishing.

Thomas Cooper served the workers who lived in local lumber camps by providing them with supplies through his general store. He also provided for the people of his community including ensuring they had places to live. The men who worked in Cooper’s Lumber Mill, the blacksmith shop or the cheese factory likely lived in small workers cottages like the one rotting in the trees in the picture below.

There’s no shortage of old homes in the community but unfortunately most don’t have any ongoing maintenance to keep the weather from destroying them. Without the interest and interaction of a local historical society the lumber era portion of Cooper’s Falls is being felled by nature.

The Black River was pretty calm on this particular afternoon when this picture was taken upstream from the falls where Thomas Copper built his sawmill. The waterfall is on private property behind the former general store but can be seen from the road during the winter if you know exactly where to look.

Cooper’s Falls Trail is an 8 kilometer hike which is listed as challenging featuring 100 meters of elevation changes. It includes parts of The Great Trail but the entrance off of Cooper’s Falls Road doesn’t have parking. For that you need to enter off of Housey’s Rapids Road.

Google Maps Link: Cooper’s Falls

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5 thoughts on “Cooper’s Falls – Ghost Towns of Ontario

  1. Richard LeVear

    My wife and I lived in Washago for 10 years in a 115 year old log home on Laidlaw Avenue. We visited Cooper’s Falls a lot as we met the Cooper family and they were great friends. It is a shame that this has happened to the area as the heritage is so needed to keep our country alive and prosperous. We sold our log home in Aug. 2020 and heard the buyers have almost destroyed it. So sad

    Reply
  2. Just Jan

    I too live in the area. Your second paragraph mentions the Coopers arriving in Washago and starting to build. Did they build in Washago or just in Coopers Falls?

    Reply
  3. Holly Dickson-Ramos

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing. My daughter and I drove up to Cooper’s Falls this past summer, when driving and outdoor sightseeing were our only source of entertainment in a socially distanced world. We were a little surprised by the number of No Trespassing signs we passed on our way to this little town, and maybe a little disappointed, too, that we didn’t find more of a town centre. I wish we’d had a chance to read some of the background info you share in this post before our trip – it would have added to the interest and enjoyment of the day!

    Reply

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