Emmerson digs deep into county historyBy Matthew Desrosiers - Editor | June 22, 2015 It’s a story that needed to be told.
Kim Emmerson is a bit of a local history buff. So when he stumbled upon a missing link in the county’s history books, he decided to do some digging.
“I am kind of interested in local history,” said Emmerson. “I’m somewhat connected a bit to this history because this property [Emmerson Lumber] was integral to the founding of the community, and this person was part of that process. It’s kind of my roots, in a way.”
That person was Alexander Niven, who came to Haliburton in 1868, four years after the first settlers came to the area.
Emmerson, having read up on the county’s history, was aware of Niven. But there was a conspicuous lack of details about who he was and the things he accomplished.
“I didn’t know if I’d have enough to make a book when I started out, but in the end, I had to discard some stuff because I had so much,” he said.
The result of Emmerson’s year-long project is a book titled Alexander Niven: The Biography of an Early Haliburton County Surveyor. He started researching the book in January 2014 and had it to press just after Christmas the same year.
“When readers have a chance to understand what this person did for the community, they will see it’s a story that needed to be told,” he said.
The most concrete document anybody had related to Niven was a personal diary from 1869.
“I was able to get a hold of the diary and also I discovered a few more diaries that no one had seen.”
This was a good start for Emmerson, as it provided the source material he was looking for.
“I really didn’t want to interview people because there’s no one living who would know [him], and any stories they know would be passed down and inaccurate,” he said. “So I went for source documentation.”
The 10,000-word bibliography is testament to Emmerson’s success. After reading the diaries, he sourced documents from Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, and the museums in St. Mary’s, Ontario, and Niagara-on-the-lake. He also found numerous source documents online.
So who was Alexander Niven?
“Everybody thought he surveyed Haliburton County, but that’s not true,” said Emmerson. “He was a surveyor and did surveys here, but did he survey the county? No.”
In actuality, Niven was the county’s first real estate agent. He sold the land on behalf of the Canadian Immigration Company. But that’s not all.
“Today we have to be so careful of conflict of interest, but there was no conflict of interest back then.”
Niven was the county’s first warden; he spent 10 years (not consecutively) as Dysart’s reeve; was the local insurance agent, loans officer, and surveyor; the stipendiary magistrate (a district judge); he was responsible for the railway coming to Haliburton; he was Haliburton County’s largest farmer and the village’s largest single landowner; and he was responsible for bringing the Presbyterian church to the county.
“He did so much,” said Emmerson. “So much.”
Another of his jobs, and the one that links Niven and Emmerson, is that he used to count logs as they flowed over the dam. That same dam is owned by the Emmerson family.
Haliburton County was developed over logs, he said.
“A telegraph in the book says there’s 100,000 logs coming over that dam this spring. I read in a previous history book that the logs would come out to Head Lake, and you could actually walk across the lake and get to the other side without getting wet.”
It wasn’t unusual for people in the community to wear several hats, he said, but Niven did so much more.
“Actually, that led to his marital demise. Too much work. He would be gone all the time, so she took the kids and left. This is the 1800s, that didn’t happen a lot.”
While he had a general sense of the man when he started the book, Emmerson said he had no idea just how important Niven was to the county.
“I was happy I was able to make a story out of it that wasn’t going to be boring, because who wants a boring history book, right?”
According to Emmerson’s research, Niven was anything but boring.
As the founding member of the Survey Association of Ontario, Niven would attend surveying conventions and galas. One source document found in Emmerson’s research was the seating plan for one such gala of which Niven was in attendance. Seated directly next to him at that dinner was Sir Sanford Fleming.
“Sir Sanford Fleming was sitting right next to him,” said Emmerson. “That’s kind of cool. Nobody knows that stuff.”
During Niven’s time in St. Mary’s, Niven would often communicate via telegraphs from the railway depot.
“The telegraph operator was Thomas Edison. The Thomas Edison.”
These are just some of the stories that are told in the book, which is written in such a way as to appeal to readers both young and old.
“I’ve written it as a story so it’s readable, instead of a bunch of facts and figures,” he said. “It’s about a person. The human factor will keep readers interested.”
Alexander Niven died in 1911 and was buried at the Evergreen Cemetery in Haliburton, the very same cemetery he surveyed for $2, 30 years earlier.
The book’s cover is a portrait taken by famous Canadian photographer William Notman. Emmerson is proud of that photo, and many others that are found throughout the book.
Alexander Niven: The Biography of an Early Haliburton County Sureyor is available in hard cover, soft cover, and in e-book format. Emmerson will be signing copies of his book at the Haliburton Museum on June 23 at 7 p.m. Proceeds from the sale at the book signing will benefit the museum. The book goes on sale at Master’s Book Store in Haliburton on June 24.
For more information, visit alexanderniven.com.
MATTHEW DESROSIERS is the editor of The Highlander. - See more at: http://highlanderonline.ca/emmerson-digs-deep-into-county-history?id=727#sthash.GfzWNvBZ.dpuf
The Trent Valley Archives has a wealth of information about the Peterborough Area.,