Although Southampton, Ontario was officially founded by Captains John Spence and William Kennedy in 1848, evidence points to French fur traders running a trading post at the mouth of the Saugeen River as early as 1812.
Commercial fishing and the Lake Huron coastal trade were the economic backbone of the newly settled community. The Saugeen River and Lake Huron were the best means of transportation into the region, as easily navigated roads were non-existent.
The growing community of Saugeen, as it was known, was incorporated as the Village of Southampton by a special Act of Parliament in 1858. On April 1, 1859, the guiding beam of the Chantry Island lighthouse shone across the waters of Lake Huron for the first time. Due to the treacherous shoals around the island, a Harbour of Refuge was constructed in the 1870s with the Long Dock stretching out to Southampton and the Short Dock jutting a short way into the water.
The Harbour of Refuge did not live up to its name, unfortunately, as its opening was often impossible to find and then maneuver through during a brutal Great Lakes storm. Also, when railway service arrived in 1872, it changed the way goods were transported and the shipping industry faded away. The docks gradually fell into disrepair, and their remains can be seen today along the shoreline at the Long Dock Beach.
The railway tracks are long gone and now comprise the Saugeen Rail Trail, while the lovingly preserved station building houses a well-known fine dining restaurant. In the early days, Southampton’s summer residents and visitors arrived by train for their annual summer retreat.
When Southampton was incorporated as a town in 1904, its population was 2400 and it was a thriving community. Several furniture factories, a tannery and a sawmill employed local labour. The town’s children were educated at its public and high schools, sitting side by side on Victoria Street and backing onto Fairy Lake (once known as Little Lake). The town’s first public library opened in 1896.
Southampton had a hospital by 1947; in 1952, a brand new post office opened its doors. In 1953, a new public school, G.C. Huston, welcomed the town’s students and the Etta Shields Memorial Library opened in 1956. The Southampton Art School was founded in 1957. In 1961, an arena was constructed, with a new firehall in 1974. Today’s Coliseum building replaced the old arena in 1977.
Municipally, Southampton underwent a major change in 1999, becoming part of the amalgamated community of Saugeen Shores (with Port Elgin and Saugeen Township).
Southampton is a community that honours its past and this is evident when touring around town. Plaques on many older homes state the year the home was built, the owner and his occupation. Many older homes have been preserved and renovated tastefully to maintain the charming look of the era in which they were built. Historic walking tour brochures can be picked up at the local information centres. Pioneer Park pays homage to those who bravely sailed on Lake Huron; replica storm signal baskets, an anchor, cannon and memorial plaques are an every day reminder of those who came before.
Just off the Southampton shore, the Chantry Island lighthouse still stands, and its light still shines, with its once-ruined keeper’s home reconstructed and restored, surrounded by gardens. Boat tours to the island run during the summer where history can be relived by visiting the keeper’s home and climbing the steep stairwell to the top of the lighthouse.
The Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, on Victoria Street North, is building an expanded facility to better exhibit, store, and preserve the multitude of historical documents and artifacts accumulated over the years.