Curious about the news in 1853? Elgin County archivists are putting it online | CBC News


More than 160 years of community newspapers from Elgin County are going online, making the stories, advertisements and images readily available to anyone curious to learn about days gone by. 

Archivists have secured funding to digitize 36 different newspapers from St. Thomas, Alymer, Dutton, and places in between, with the first printed paper dating back to 1853. 

The St. Thomas Weekly Dispatch, billed as Canada West’s conservative newspaper, was published until 1876 and is the oldest offering now available online. The Rodney Mercury, another paper that first appeared in 1887, is another gem that showcases the past.

“I find it so interesting because you’ll see a photograph, and then you can check the records and find out about a family. I’m also interested in the crime stories that you see,” said Gina Dewaele, assistant archivist at the Elgin County Archives.

The first edition of the St. Thomas Weekly Dispatch published on Jan. 11, 1853. It featured news stories, poetry, an accounting of landholders in the area and advertisments for “ready made” clothing. (Submitted by Elgin County Archives)

One article that caught Dewaele’s eye was from 1891 and involved the supposed murder of 16-year-old Lizzie Higgins, who had recently arrived from Scotland to work in the area. Turns out the investigators were wrong, and Higgins had simply left her job, caught a wagon ride to another town, and started working for a new family. 

Dewaele also points to stories from the more recent past, including an oil tanker fire that destroyed a portion of Aylmer’s downtown core in 1965 and was featured in the Aylmer Express, a publication that still exists today.

“Another interesting story is the Lawrence Station plane crash on Oct. 30, 1941. At the time, it was the biggest plane crash in Canada’s history. Twenty people were killed in that,” Dewaele said.   

Gina Dewaele, assistant archivist at the Elgin County Archives, is helping to run the digitization project. (Submitted by the Elgin County Archives)

The digitization project has cost the Elgin County Archives approximately $50,000 so far, the scanner accounting for approximately one-third of the bill. It’s been funded through private donations, the local branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society, and help from the county. 

The process is slow, and delicate work, with students hired to carefully remove each page from the box and protective paper currently used for storage. Dewaele estimates that collectively, 540 years of local history have been digitized so far. 

Once each page is run through the scanner, it’s rewrapped in acid-free paper and returned to a climate-controlled storage room. 

Curious to read the news from the past? Find links to the various publications on the Elgin County Archives website. 

The Dutton Advance newspaper headline from Nov. 6, 1941 reads: “American Air Line Plane Crashes Near Lawrence: Seventeen Passengers And Three Crew Perish When Their Plane Burns.” This was Canada’s worst airline disaster at the time. A plaque was erected at the site in 2018. (Submitted by Elgin County Archives)

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