Downtown History

History of St. Catharines

With a population of over 130,000, St. Catharines is the dominant centre of the Niagara Peninsula. So, how did it all start?

The very early history of St. Catharines was influenced by events that happened a considerable distance away from the city. In 1783, the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolutionary War. The treaty acknowledged the independence of the United States of America and an international boundary was set. Many British supporters (Loyalists), living south of this boundary, preferred to stay British subjects, so they migrated northward. The British government encouraged this and offered free fertile land to all Loyalists who chose to settle in Canada. A large amount of this land was in the Niagara Peninsula, so many came to this area. The first men known to have taken up land within the limits of what is now St. Catharines were John Hainer and Jacob Dittrick about 1790.

Over the years, the name of the community changed several times and was, in the early 1800's, known as "Shipman's Corners". Paul Shipman's tavern was an important stagecoach transfer point as well as the hub of the community's social life. "The Twelve" was another name used, referring to the Twelve Mile Creek. However, the name St. Catharines, in one form or another, had preceded all other names.  Although its origin is not clear, it is thought to be named after Catharine Askin Robertson Hamilton, wife of the Hon. Robert Hamilton, a prominent businessman.

History of Downtown St. Catharines

The downtown area of St. Catharines was originally known as a storehouse for goods at the crossing of an Iroquois trail over Twelve Mile Creek.  Curving trails formed the foundation of the downtown streets as they appear today.  St. Paul Street curves and meanders along a little ridge which mimics the winding creek that used to run behind it.  Construction of the first and second Welland Canals behind St. Paul Street quickly elevated the area into a prosperous hub for commerce and industry in the Niagara Region. 

Our older downtown buildings reflect St. Catharines’ history.  Architectural landmarks reveal the stories behind the development of St. Catharines and its varying roles as the former seat of Lincoln County, a popular health spa destination, and the premiere retail centre of the Niagara Region.

Buildings that have historical significance include the Old Court House, the Welland House Hotel, Merritt House, the Mansion House, several churches, and many buildings dating from the 1800’s lining St. Paul Street as well as other downtown streets.

Businesses in downtown St. Catharines that are now gone but not forgotten include Diana Sweets, Coy Bros., Levitt’s Fine China, Duthler’s Textiles, the National Bakery, Town Cinemas, Lincoln Theatre,  Russell House Hotel, the Grand Opera House, the YMCA building, and Wallace’s Department Store as well as Woolworth’s Department Store.

Covering 6.5 acres in the heart of downtown is Montebello Park.  It was designed in 1887 by internationally renowned landscape architect F.L. Olmsted, who was also one of the designers of Central Park in New York City.  For many years, visitors to the park have enjoyed the rose garden, the children’s playground, and concerts and events in the historic pavilion and band shell.

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