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The Weather Network
Sep. 18, 2019 | Wednesday
Entertainment News
Niagara's History Unveiled: Virgil was once called Lawrenceville
The old Lawrenceville Restaurant in Virgil took its name from George Lawrence, after whom the hamlet was once named. (Kevin MacLean)

This story is one in a series about Virgil.

A name can mean so many different things to people and how names are chosen can be interesting.

A good example is Niagara-on-the-Lake. It has had many different names over its life span: Butlersberg (after John Butler and his Rangers), Niagara (due to its location near the Niagara River), Newark (an English town favoured by Lt.-Gov. John Graves Simcoe), then back to Niagara (when Simcoe left town) and then Niagara-on-the-Lake. Even now some people are referring to it as “Old Town,” just to differentiate it from the municipality of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Many towns have had a good reason for their particular name. Niagara originated from the Indigenous language of this region – Onghiara.

St. Catharines was named after the wife of Robert Hamilton, a successful businessman and political figure in Upper Canada, and a respected judge. This is not the man that the city of Hamilton was named after though. It was named for Robert and Catharine’s son George Hamilton.

St. Davids was named after one of the founders of the area, David Secord. He was renowned for his service as an officer in the loyalist militia during the War of 1812, as well as being a politician, landowner, justice of the peace and the brother-in-law of Laura Secord.

Two brothers, John and Colin McNabb, received 1,900 acres in the 1790s for their service to the crown during the American Revolution (1765-1783). The town of McNabb was named in honour of the two brothers as well as their father, Dr. James McNabb, who died in a Loyalist refugee camp in Quebec in 1780.

The Queen’s Rangers used to be stationed in a small hamlet on the Niagara River just under the escarpment. The hamlet is now known as Queenston.

Then we have the town of Virgil, a name that seems so out of context with the rest of the community. It has no Canadian historical meaning, no Indigenous meaning and no geographical meaning whatsoever. It is certainly a name designation that needs an explanation.

Loyalist families who had fled to Fort Niagara after the American Revolution were encouraged to move to the west side of the Niagara River to settle in Upper Canada and 16 families had made the move by 1782. They settled in the village of Niagara (now NOTL) and the small community of St. Davids. The St. Davids site was chosen for its water sources to build mills on Four Mile Creek. The Niagara River was never considered for this type of construction as the current was too strong for any mills to operate.

Several mills were built along Four Mile Creek from the foot of the escarpment north to Lake Ontario. The most northern mill was built at Palatine Hill.

In 1783, Black Swamp Road was built from the village of Niagara to the commercial road bridge over the easternmost S-bend in Ten Mile Creek, which was subsequently straightened when the 4th Welland Canal was installed. This road crossed an Indian trail that travelled from the escarpment north, following Four Mile Creek to Lake Ontario. As the name Black Swamp Road indicates, it was no more than a rutted dirt track built with fallen trees spread through marsh land, making the road surface like corduroy, especially after rain washed away the mud placed between the fallen trees in an attempt to make the ride smoother.

With the continued growth along Four Mile Creek, two former Butler’s Rangers, George Lawrence and John C. Ball, decided to settle another community where the two roads met. The village of Crossroads (Virgil) was founded at the junction of the Indian trail and Black Swamp Road.

Black Swamp Road was being travelled on more and the original design of logs over bogs and a rutted dirt track needed changing. Rocks, cleared from fields, were continuously dumped onto the dirt and boggy road. Soon the name of the road was changed to Niagara Stone Road, which made logical sense at the time.

As the village of Cross Roads grew and became more prosperous, the town’s people renamed it Lawrenceville in honour of George Lawrence (1757-1848), the much admired principal, founder and lay preacher of the village. This name change happened before 1848 while Lawrence was still alive and the local community felt it fitting that the village be named after their leader. 

But we have a quandary of how the name “Virgil” came to be assigned to the village of Lawrenceville.

It was in 1862 when the postal service was first developed. The story of the name change of Niagara (NOTL) is well known. It was the post office that decided there were too many towns called Niagara. So they designated the town by the falls as Niagara Falls, whereas the other Niagara became known as Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Lawrenceville to Virgil makes no sense. In fact, it was noted that the town’s residents did not want a name change at all. It soon became known that some well-educated postal employee, with a passion for Greek and Roman poetry, had influenced the new name. Since the postal employee knew there was a town called Homer in the municipality, named for the same reason, it was an easy leap to renaming Lawrenceville to Virgil.

By the 1890s, the town of Virgil was still a small village of just over 100 residents. It wasn’t until the 1930s, with the arrival of the Mennonites from Ukraine via Vineland and points west, that the town saw any substantial growth. Their contribution to the Virgil community has made the village what it is today.

The name Virgil has no historical significance to the community but as we all understand, names can be changed. As author David Hemmings has stated, “It is never too late to return to the community its rightful heritage and name of Lawrenceville.”

* I would like to thank David Hemmings for giving me permission to use his book, “The Cross Roads: Fortune Favours the Strong,” for much of the information in this story. The book can be purchased at the Niagara Historical Society and Museum in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

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To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

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