Delving Among Ruins: Settler Dreams of Enlightenment in the Wilderness

Written by Stephen Johnson

 

“Romulus… a melancholy ruin—far more desolate than the majestic forest that Henry Lamb found. Now there is nothing but tumbling walls and broken roofs and weed hidden paths and cold and barren fireplaces.” 1

 

Illustration by J. R. Seavey, published in Pen and Pencil Sketches of Wentworth Landmarks. Hamilton, Ont: Spectator Printing Company, 1897.

Ruins of the Romulus Grist Mill. Illustration by J. R. Seavey, published in Pen and Pencil Sketches of Wentworth Landmarks. Hamilton, Ont: Spectator Printing Company, 1897.

In the mid-1890s, the poet and local historian Robert Kirkland Kernighan traveled the rural township of Beverly, halfway between Hamilton and Guelph in Southern Ontario, delving among the ruins for local stories. He found the tale of Henry Lamb, a pioneer settler of Upper Canada who, during the early part of the nineteenth century, mapped out a great city called Romulus, which he intended to build in Beverly Township.

Wentworth County circa 1875, showing its location at the western tip of Lake Ontario, and its separate townships. Beverly Township is one the left. From Wentworth County: Illustrated historical atlas of the Count of Wentworth, Ont. Toronto: Page and Smith, 1875.

Kernighan reports that this venture was a significant failure, and then takes readers on a tour of the ruins of Lamb's house, tavern, and gristmill. He describes the hubris of someone who would plan such a place in Beverly—most famous for its swampland—and expresses nostalgia for a time when "there were giants" in the land.2 So fully conceived was the plan for Romulus that local residents still referred to "the site of the proposed Catholic cathedral" some seventy years later.3 Clearly Henry Lamb had left a mark on the community, though there were no architectural traces.

Building on the site chosen for the Catholic Cathedral. Though never build, local residents still identified specific locations according to his now-lost city plan, as if it had been surveyed and build. Illustration by J. R. Seavey, published in Pen and Pencil Sketches of Wentworth Landmarks. Hamilton, Ont: Spectator Printing Company, 1897.

The Lamb Homestead as it looked circa 1897. Illustration by J. R. Seavey, published in Pen and Pencil Sketches of Wentworth Landmarks. Hamilton, Ont: Spectator Printing Company, 1897

According to local legend, Lamb advertised in Britain for immigrant settlers, promising to build a city with a market square, cricket grounds, race course, concert hall, ballroom, and "a first-class theatre." The promise of a theatrical venue in a town plan was unusual for the time and region, not least because it was in the middle of an old growth forest. There is a strong possibility that the plans for Romulus were informed by Lamb's devotion to the secretive, and theatre-friendly, Freemasonic movement. The Freemasons were bastions of both enlightenment radicalism, and then of British imperialism; as such, they encouraged Lamb to build a prosperous life as a self-made man in a hostile environment, to dream of building a city in the wilderness—and to misjudge his intended community. Settlers at this time were more at ease with and in need of a popular performance culture, of outdoor rituals and kitchen parties, tavern songs and mechanics institute meetings, and not (or not yet) a theatre. Lamb’s plans for an enlightened city expressed the desire for the orderly, architectural administration of society in a world of improvised spaces.

From an 1875 map. Henry Lamb’s son George remains in possession of some of the land, south west of the village of Sheffield, but by this time the area had been subdivided, sold and cleared of all but traces and ruins of Romulus. From Wentworth County: Illustrated historical atlas of the Count of Wentworth, Ont. Toronto: Page and Smith, 1875.

The graves of Thomas Lamb, his wife and brother, as they looked circa 1897, the ruin of a ten foot high cairn. Illustration by J. R. Seavey, published in Pen and Pencil Sketches of Wentworth Landmarks. Hamilton, Ont: Spectator Printing Company, 1897.

“Henry Lamb built his city on a rock, and he and his were determined to be buried in the middle of the town. The bodies were placed in their rude coffins side by side on top of the ground and were covered with tons of great stones. A stonewall was build around them and this filled in and over with soil, so that when it was finished it formed a cairn 18x27 at the base and ten feet high. There they slept peacefully like the ancient Egyptian kings and queens in the pyramidal tombs, and every night the wolves foregathered above them and fought for the highest seats of the mighty. Today these graves are unkempt and the wall in ruins. Groundhogs make their homes there down among the dead men’s bones and the wind and weather of three quarters of a century have left the cairn only four feet high.”4

Postcard of “The Wigwam,” a log building at Rushdale Farm, Rockton, Ontario, where R. K Khernigan (The Khan) did his writing, according to local legend. From the Toronto Public Library.


1 R. K. Kernighan (The Khan), “A City that Was Not Built” in Pen and Pencil Sketches of Wentworth Landmarks, Mrs. Dick-Lauder et al. Hamilton, Ont: Spectator Printing Company, 1897, 118.

2 R. K. Kernighan (The Khan), “A City that Was Not Built” in Pen and Pencil Sketches of Wentworth Landmarks, Mrs. Dick-Lauder et al. Hamilton, Ont: Spectator Printing Company, 1897, 118.

3 R. K. Kernighan (The Khan), “A City that Was Not Built” in Pen and Pencil Sketches of Wentworth Landmarks, Mrs. Dick-Lauder et al. Hamilton, Ont: Spectator Printing Company, 1897, 123.

4 R. K. Kernighan (The Khan), “A City that Was Not Built” in Pen and Pencil Sketches of Wentworth Landmarks, Mrs. Dick-Lauder et al. Hamilton, Ont: Spectator Printing Company, 1897, 120.