The Counties on Lake Erie | Carolinian Canada

The Counties on Lake Erie

Southern Ontario is divided into various geographical boundaries, including regions, counties, districts and Single-tier municipalities. Regions, counties and single-tier municipalities are all represented along the shore of Lake Erie. From west to east, the six boundaries include: Essex County, Municipality of Chatham-Kent, Elgin County, Norfolk County, Haldimand County, and the Niagara Region.

While the shoreline of Lake Erie is continuous, the EcoTrail is often described according to these geographical boundaries because these boundaries describe natural breaks in the geographical or cultural landscape of the coast.

Essex County

Essex County, located at the southern-most tip of Ontario, enjoys a relatively mild climate and a long growing season. These qualities, coupled with good soil productivity and flat terrain, make agriculture an important component of Essex’s rural economy.

Typical crops in Essex County include soybeans, corn, wheat and fruit crops. Greenhouses are quite common, with the Leamington-Kingsville area boasting the largest concentration of greenhouse vegetable growers in North America with over 900 acres of greenhouses. These greenhouses commonly grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and nursery flowers. Leamington proudly claims the title of “Tomato Capital of Canada”, and Heinz (as in the Ketchup giant) has had a presence in the city since 1908.

The wine industry and ecotourism are also beginning to play a significant role in the local economy. Point Pelee National Park and Holiday Beach Conservation Area are birding hotspots and host upwards of ½ million visitors each year. Essex County’s 200km of shoreline are host to recreational boating, sport fishing and other outdoor recreational activities.

The county faces many environmental challenges. Extensive changes in land use have resulted in the loss of approximately 97% of the original wetland area and 95% of the original forest cover. Thankfully many organizations are working hard to provide residents and tourists with access to and education about a healthy region.

Municipality of Chatham-Kent

As in Essex, agriculture played a large role in the Municipality of Chatham-Kent. Throughout the Chatham-Kent’s history, large areas of land have been cleared and drained for expanding farm operations. Before settlement in Chatham-Kent, 66.4% of the county’s landscape was wetland, 16.5% was forest and 11.9% was Tallgrass prairie. Today, just 3.7% of the original wetlands and only a small portion of the woodlands remain. Agriculture continues to be Chatham-Kent’s main economic driver, along with automotive manufacturing.

Yet, because of Chatham-Kent’s natural heritage, eco-tourism is becoming a growing industry: bird watching, waterfowl hunting and recreational fishing are all past times enjoyed in Chatham-Kent’s wetlands. Rondeau Provincial Park and the surrounding Rondeau Bay Marshes are areas of natural significance that provide beautiful vistas for visitors, while providing a home to many species at risk.

Elgin County

Elgin County has some of the most productive farmland in all of Canada. For this reason, as with Essex and Chatham-Kent, agriculture is the county’s main economic driver. Established as its own county in 1851, Elgin County is named after the Governor-General of the time – Lord Elgin.

Historically, fishing and forestry were also economic drivers for the county. The fishing industry thrived in Port Dover, Port Burwell, Port Stanley, and many other coastal villages. Port Burwell even boasted a ship-building industry. The fishing industry on Lake Erie has since collapsed and many once thriving coastal communities resemble ghost towns. The rich Carolinian forests in southwestern Ontario initially launched initial growth along the Lake Erie coast in Elgin: lumber was a lucrative export commodity. Harbours were dredged and wharfs constructed for easier movement of boats and goods down rivers and along the coast.

Railways also played a large role in shaping the growth and development of Elgin County. Railways were established as lines of commerce and communication between communities across southwestern Ontario; five different railway lines criss-crossed through Elgin county alone. St. Thomas, the only city in the county, is considered the Railway Capital of North America.

More recently there has been a real push in Elgin County for the sustainable management of land, in order to benefit the environment. Elgin landowners are proud of the land that they live on, and want to spend time protecting it. Many organizations are working hard to ensure that the natural and cultural history of Elgin County is protected in perpetuity.

Norfolk County

Norfolk is primarily situated on the Norfolk Sand Plain, an area of sand and gravel soil that was deposited as a delta in glacial lakes 13,000 years ago. In the early 1700s, European farmers were attracted to the area because the sand plains were relatively open and the permeable sand made the area rich in ground water.

Upon settlement, the heavily forested areas surrounding the Norfolk Sand Plain were intensively logged for lumber and to clear land for agriculture. Logging continued until European settlers soon realized that the removal of the forest cover was causing large-scale erosion of the sandy soil. A reforestation program quickly put into place to re-establish those forested areas, and now Norfolk remains the most forested county on Lake Erie, with 20% forest cover.

The towns in the region developed around water powered mills that gradually developed into busy port communities, with both commercial and recreational activity.

Land-use in Norfolk is primarily mixed agricultural, but more recently Norfolk has experienced a growing recreation and tourism industry, which has sprung up as a result of the large forested natural areas and the preservation of the Long Point Peninsula.

Haldimand County

In contrast to Niagara, most of Haldimand is covered by heavy impermeable clay soils deposited as the result of an ancient glacial lake basin known as the Haldimand Clay Formation. Since the soils are impermeable there is a high level of surface water runoff and little groundwater recharge. Much of Haldimand County is poorly drained and there is little good quality groundwater available for use. For these reasons Haldimand was more slowly settled than other parts of the Lake Erie shore.

European settlement began in late 1700s when Loyalist settlers and escaped black slaves were some of the first to settle the region. The poor drainage on the land makes Haldimand County most suitable for livestock pastures and some soybean, corn and hay production.

There are many tributaries in the area including the Grand River that facilitated trade and agricultural development. Agricultural development has eliminated much of the natural forest cover in the region and has ultimately resulted in high stream water temperatures and phosphorus concentrations from runoff. Most natural areas in the region are the result of private land stewardship efforts, and small areas of shoreline purchased as Provincial Parks. Since there has been minimal urban growth in the Haldimand County there is a lot of room for private stewardship.

Niagara Region

Humans have occupied the Niagara Region for almost 12,000 years. The landscape of 12,000 years ago was much different from the Region that exists today; tundra, spruce forest, and hunter-gatherer society dominated the landscape. Over-time, hunter-gatherer society gave way to a more agriculture based economy and European explorers and settlers arrived in the 17th Century.

Nestled in between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and characterized by rich organic soils, a mild climate and proximity to a water trade route, the Niagara Region was an ideal destination for agricultural settlers. Early English settlements were built in Niagara-on-the-Lake (then Newark) and St. Catharines. The Welland Canal, completed in 1829, allowed for the transport of goods between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

Many of the natural areas left in the Region are coastal wetlands that remained undeveloped because they were too difficult to drain; wetlands on clay soil or boarding the Niagara Gorge and Niagara Falls. The Niagara Gorge currently supports Ontario’s highest concentration of species at risk.

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