Nearly two centuries ago, First Nations people had explored our rivers and wilderness as they travelled to trade furs. The first man known to live in the area, William Coyne, was a lumber jobber and built himself a cabin in 1820 along the Bonnechere River close to the site of the former St. Joesph’s High School and stayed here for a year.
The area’s untouched tall red and white pine timbers were a magnet to lumbermen who soon began arriving to clear the land. They would send the timbers down the Bonnechere River and onto the Ottawa River.
Renfrew was originally known as the Second Chute on the Bonnechere and for short time after was called Renfrewville, named after the small town of Renfrew in Scotland.
The first official permanent resident of Renfrew was Joseph Brunette. He was allured by the pristine timber and settled here in 1823, and happened to die a few years later. Many consider Brunette the pioneer of Renfrew. He was followed by Thomas McLean, a stonemason in 1825.
Farming in the area became popular with Sgt. Henry Airth settling in 1833 on land between Hall Street, the Bonnechere River and Raglan Street. He went on to establish a farm on the east end of town as well.
That same year Xavier Plaunt, who had come to work for another early settler, Joseph Mayhew, purchased the McLean farm. He also married one of McLean’s daughters. Plaunt went on to be one of the Town’s biggest cheerleaders by donating land for a school and several churches and selling property at low prices to encourage development. Most of the current downtown business area now stands on land once owned by Plaunt.
With a population of 42 people, Renfrew saw its first store open in 1840 by John Lorne McDougall. The second was opened by Robert McIntyre in 1844. Before this, settlers had to travel to the village of Perth on foot for supplies.
In 1858, official proclamation was made to incorporate the Village of Renfrew as it now had grown to have a grist mill, a cooper’s shop, blacksmiths shops, a carriage shop, a saw mill, a brewery, foundry, tannery, carding mill, doctors, shoemakers shops, and a post office. There was also a Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Church and an all-boys only wooden school. Just outside of the village, in Horton township was a flour and oat mill.
Renfrew was situated along the Ottawa and Opeongo Road, a colonization road which started around 1853. It started at the Ottawa River, around Arnprior, and continued on to the present day village of Madawaska.
The construction of this road made a millionaire out of future Renfrew resident M.J. O’Brien, a lumber baron who used the road to access the white pine timber forests.
The Canadian Central Line Railroad also arrived in 1872, which allowed the entire area to grow and thrive.
When Renfrew became a town on August 16, 1885, it boasted sidewalks, drains, fire services, police, a jail, library, and electric lights. James Craig, the town’s first mayor, and council got to work discussing waterworks and expanding the high school. They paid $300 for the current site of the Renfrew Victoria Hospital with the intent to construct a new hospital. Funds also were directed to sprucing up the main street frame buildings by replacing them with brick and stone buildings – some of the same facades line our streets today!
The following year, the town had a new mayor and the population was a little more than 3,000 citizens. Council spent money on the North Ward school, a 12-bed hospital and a hose for the fire department.
The 1900s saw much more growth and Renfrew blossomed into the commercial hub of the area. Renfrew’s own, Ambrose O’Brien, built the National Hockey Association while visiting Montreal, which featured our very own Renfrew Millionaires who played their first game on January 12, 1910, in competition for the Stanley Cup. A few years later, the NHA was turned into what we all know now as the National Hockey League, in Montreal, keeping all the same rules, constitutions and trophies as the NHA.
Renfrew soon gained fame among vacationers who enjoy this natural four-season destination for it’s nearby camping, fishing, skiing, and boating.
The town is now home to more than 8,200 residents, numerous businesses and industry. It boasts a variety of shopping, eateries, beautiful parks, recreational facilities, a library, a museum, ten churches and eight schools.
For information and an extensive collection of materials about Renfrew & Area and the people who built this region (including genealogical information, photographs, microfilm, and special collections), please visit heritagerenfrew.ca
The pioneers of this town fell in love with the natural beauty and endless exploration possibilities in Renfrew and area. We hope you will too!