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Local History

People walking through the debris after a train explosion

The Town of Essex was created on January 1, 1999 when the former towns of Essex and Harrow and the former townships of Colchester North and Colchester South were amalgamated. This merger effectively restored the boundaries of Colchester Township as it had been established in 1792.

Settlement in the area, however, dates back to the late 1700s.

In 1787, the New Settlement was surveyed by Thomas Smith. It included 97 narrow farm lots running inland from Lake Erie between Mill Creek and Malden Township. Land for a village at Colchester was set aside in 1792. Early settlers to the area included soldiers and loyalists. John Snider, a Pennsylvania blacksmith, was one of the earliest settlers. It is said that men working on the roof of his house on September 10, 1813 could hear distant cannon shots during the Battle of Lake Erie.

Settlement of the area continued throughout the 1800s drawing fugitive slaves from the United States, European settlers, and the relocation of some French families from other parts of Essex County. On March 11, 1879, the province divided Colchester Township into Colchester North and Colchester South.

Inland settlement also continued. Originally called Hopetown and nicknamed Mungers' Corners, Harrow was surveyed in 1824 but experienced slow growth until the 1890s. After the Lake Erie, Essex and Detroit Railway established a route from Windsor to Kingsville via Harrow, the small community became an active business centre. Two destructive fires on the main street in 1894 and 1895 were not enough to stop development of the business district. In 1898, Harrow became a police village. It achieved town status in 1930.

A few miles east of Harrow, a small community originally called Colchester Crossing was starting to emerge from the thick and swampy woodland. McGregor, like many other small settlements in the area, started with a sawmill but eventually became a hamlet with St. Clements Roman Catholic Church as its spiritual anchor.

Yet further inland, Essex Centre was following a similar path to development. Located at the hub of Essex County, Essex Centre was born when the Canada Southern Railway laid tracks across the Talbot Trail in 1872. The settlement grew quickly, spurred on by a productive lumber industry and the establishment of key services. The village of Essex Centre was incorporated in January 1884. When it achieved town status in 1890, the settlement became known simply as Essex. To distinguish the urban centre from the municipality, Council re-adopted the name Essex Centre after amalgamation.

Since its beginnings Essex Centre has witnessed a number of unusual historic events. Outraged by unfair tollgate fees charged at the entrances to town, residents rose in rebellion and burned the tollgates to the ground in 1896. A decade later, on August 10, 1907, a boxcar full of dynamite exploded on the tracks at the Essex Railway Station, killing two men instantly and seriously injuring others. The second explosion, a natural gas explosion in the downtown core on Valentine's Day 1980, caused extensive property damage but no loss of life.

Located at the hub of Essex County, Essex Centre has also been the seat of County government since 1974 when the County of Essex moved from Sandwich to the Essex Civic Centre.

Find out more about our history

There are many ways to learn more about our history:

Essex and Community Historical Research Society (ECHRS)

Harrow Early Immigrant Research Society (HEIRS)