The Lost Prairie of East Gwillimbury

Holland Landing Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve


 The Lost Prairie of East  Gwillimbury
Sounds like a title from a Hardy Boys or a Nancy Drew Mystery book, and indeed as with any good mystery the tale of the lost prairie of East Gwillimbury is about connecting clues from the past to the present.  To be more explicit, it’s the story of the “Holland Landing Prairie Relic”, a pocket of an extremely rare Ontario prairie habitiat. Today, as part of the  Holland Landing Provincial Nature Reserve, it was not so much as being lost as being forgotten and eventually – rediscovered. 
Indeed this relic as in “Raiders of the Lost Arc” has its own connection to a Indiana Jones style European adventurer in the name of John Goldie.  A trained botanist at the Botanic  Gardens of Glasgow, Goldie was determine to explore into newly accessible territories of North America in search of knowledge and possibly, financial gain. 
During the summer of 1819, Goldie visited a number of sites in Ontario during a solitary expedition on foot from Montreal to Pittsburgh in search of plant material to ship back home.  On the 26th  of June, Goldie made a detour from Toronto walking north on Yonge St to the outskirts of Holland Landing. Near the “upper landing” Goldie discovered a sandy plain of dry open ground adjacent a tamarack swamp and fen on the east side of the East Holland River. It was the highlight of his trip. So rich was the site, he spent a week collecting, in which he found several unusual botanical species rare to Ontario, three of which were new to science.
From Goldie’s time of 1819 onward, the rarity of this prairie community was largely ignored.  As part of crown land, the area was planted in conifer trees in 1945 and again in 1975 to stabilize the sandy soil from blow outs and erosion. Ironically the maturing forest cover of these plantations has shaded out much of the sensitive sun loving natural prairie vegetation to the point of endangerment. Remnant pockets of tallgrass prairie remain. Informal trials created by off-road vehicles despite posting, has also impacted the extremely sensitive ground cover vegetation.
A visitor to the prarie in Goldie’s time would see a blanket of yellow flowers of Prairie Buttercup in the spring followed by dotted displays of white Flowering Spurge and puple Harbell in the summer. The Holland Landing Prairie Nature Reserve was established in 1994.  The 34.2 hectare site protects one of the last remaining areas of tallgrass prairie in Ontario such as Big and Little Bluestem and includes almost the entire relict prairie known from this area.
The underlying fine sand soil of the plain is attributed deposits by LakeAlgonquin formed by melting glaciers 10,000 years ago.  The area of the Holland Landing Prairie is known to have been used by Aboriginal peoples as recently as a 150 years ago during the fur trade as a stopover point, and may have been used as an encampment site.  The locally significant Fort Gwillimbury, a log pine storehouse for military supplies and gifts for the natives was also in the area.  
Goldie’s early work in the province was well known to botanists. Over 150 years later, field work in search for the prairie site in the early 1980’s, led to its re-discovery. Many of the rare plants such as Prairie Buttercup, Flowering Spurge and Butterfly weed, were identified on-site as described in Goldie’s research of 1819.  The Lake Simcoe Conservation Authority recognized the site as the most significant botanical area in its jurisdiction of 58 sites desginated as environmentally significant in 1982. The area list includes 40 regionally rare plants, eight rare to Ontario and 31 not found anywhere else in the watershed. 
Connecting the dots of the past, Goldie may not have made his fortuitous discovery of the Holland Landing Prairie if it had not been for establishment of Yonge Street nearly two decades earlier.  As part of his 60 kilometer trek north from York (Toronto) towards Lake Simcoe, Goldie had written: “This is the best road that I have seen in Upper Canada…since I left Montreal.” Governor Simcoe had recognized the need to build Yonge Street as a strategic land route northward and it became a well established military supply road via Lake Simcoe to Georgian Bay during the war of 1812-1815.
As with any detective work, Goldie’s research was important in that it established the presence of prairie like habitat in Ontario before extensive land clearing reduced these relics to a few isolated pockets.  Rare today, areas of tallgrass prairie were once a common feature of the Ontario landscape. With urbanization, agriculture, pollution and other causes, less than three percent of the orginal areas remain in southern Ontario.
Naval Anchor, Holland Landing


The facts today:  If you want to be part of history, Ontario Parks is inviting public comments on a preliminary park management plan of the Holland Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve until May 19th  2011.  The Management Plan document is available with this link  or for viewing at Central Zone Office for Ontario Parks, the East Gwillimbury Civic Centre, and the East Gwillimbury Public Library (Holland Landing Branch) during normal business hours.

The Holland Prairie Reserve Management Plan proposal is aimed at actively restoring and maintaining the native prairie ecosystem on site.  This includes such steps as select cutting of mature coniferous areas and prescibed burns to promote and re-establish native prairie vegetative growth and management of public trails in the area.

As for remaining mysteries in the area?  Pin pointing the exact site of Fort Gwillimbury has been lost to history.  However, the huge 1700 kg navel anchor at the nearby Holland Landing municipal park is certainly a big clue.  Destined for a British frigate on Lake Huron during the war of 1812-1815, it was transported north on Yonge St and left at the ‘landing’ when hostilities ceased.  This hefty artifact from the war may someday lead to the orginal site of the pine fort.  Perhaps in time for a re-enactment for the upcoming 200 year anniversary in 2012.

Robert Alsop

One thought on “The Lost Prairie of East Gwillimbury

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