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The City of Cambridge

Most of us have heard of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’ famous tale of mistaken identity and revolutionary France. But have you heard of the tale of one city, two towns, and a village? Well if you haven’t, you’re in for a treat, because what I’m referring to is the thrilling event that, in 1973, shook Southwestern Ontario to its very core: the amalgamation of Galt, Preston, Hespeler, and Blair into Cambridge! So without further ado, let’s dive into Cambridge, the third city of the TriCities (the other two being Kitchener and Waterloo).

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Cambridge in a Glance

Cambridge is a city in southern Ontario. As of the Canada 2016 Census, it has a population of around 130,000. Though the City of Cambridge is bound together and governed as one (it has one mayor, for example), the constituent sections each continue to bear their own unique feels. And though very much an integral part of the TriCities, Cambridge also feels somewhat separate from Kitchener-Waterloo, but Highway 8 does make it easy to get from one to the other (Highways 7 and 8 run throughout the TriCities and beyond). Cambridge has great access to Highway 401 (simply ‘the 401,’ or if you like lengthier, more historical names, the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway). The 401 makes Cambridge ideally-situated to get to Toronto, and you can make the journey from Cambridge to downtown Toronto in around an hour. Cambridge is on the same public transit system as Kitchener-Waterloo (Grand River Transit, or GRT), so travelling between the TriCities is no problem – one fare can get you from downtown Galt to Uptown Waterloo, and transfers from Cambridge are fully valid in Kitchener-Waterloo. Kitchener-Waterloo’s light rail system is scheduled to start up in 2018, and there are plans to extend it to Cambridge in the future.

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As Cambridge is an amalgamation of several distinct areas, its history, of necessity, is more diverse than that of Kitchener or Waterloo. The best way to understand the city’s history is to look at the distinct histories of each constituent section. So, let’s do that!
First up, the smallest community: the village of Blair, which is in western Cambridge today. Like Kitchener-Waterloo, Blair was first settled by German Mennonites from Pennsylvania in the early nineteenth-century, though a different group of German Mennonites from Pennsylvania. Over time, the community grew (it also opened the first Waterloo County cemetery in 1804). Blair went through a few names over the years, including my personal favourite, Shinglebridge, but it eventually settled on Blair, after a local judge and militia colonel. Blair was absorbed by Preston in 1969, but it still has distinct historical buildings.
Hespeler was the second smallest community (in terms of population). Hespeler is presently the northeast part of Cambridge. It, too, was developed by German Mennonites from Pennsylvania, and for around half a decade, its name was Bergeytown (a name almost as elegant as Eugene, Oregon). Things changed when a man by the name of Jacob Hespeler arrived in 1845; Hespeler was a true industrialist, and under his guidance, the community turned into a major hub for various mills, shops, and tradespeople. Hespeler opened a post office in 1859, and the village took on his name to honour his role in bringing prosperity to the community. Hespeler went on to become a town, and it was aided by an electric railway connecting it to Preston and Galt, and then to Kitchener-Waterloo. Its population had climbed to over 6000 by the time of amalgamation, and though its textile mills were becoming less profitable, it continued to be a local industrial hub. It’s now a site of major development and growth.

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The second biggest community was Preston, which makes up the western section of Cambridge. I bet you can guess who settled its lands first (I’ll give you a hint: they’re from Pennsylvania and they speak German). One of the early settlers, and the man who is typically credited as the founder of Preston, was John Erb (his brother, Abraham Erb, is credited as the founder of Waterloo). John bought a large parcel of land near the confluence of the Grand River and the Speed River, and he built two mills and opened them for business in 1806 and 1807. Interestingly, one of these mills is considered the longest continuously running mill in the Waterloo Region (it became a flour mill in the 1830s); also interestingly, the community was at first named Cambridge Mills, after (you guessed it) John Erb’s mills. But John didn’t want to be a town founder; he clung tightly to his lands until his death in 1832, after which a land surveyor from Preston, Lancashire, England swooped in and surveyed the lands so that Erb’s sons could develop them. He convinced them to name the community Preston. The population grew rapidly for several decades (from 250 in 1836 to over 1600 in 1856), with a significant portion coming from Germany. Preston was even something of a resort town for a while, after one of the Erbs discovered “stinky water” that, like European health spas, was good for health. Preston’s population exploded again when a fantastic electric rail company (streetcars!) connected Preston, Galt, and Hespeler (it was abandoned in the 1950s, but the LRT is poised to eventually serve a similar function). Preston became a successful centre of industry, growing until its borders nearly touched Hespeler and Galt.

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Last, but certainly not least, is Galt, the only community in pre-amalgamation Cambridge that had reached city status on its own. It’s the largest, southern part of Cambridge. This area was developed by William Dickson, a wealthy Scotsman, and distinct among each of the other Waterloo Region communities, its original settlers were not German Mennonites from Pennsylvania. No, Dickson divided his land into plots and promoted it to Scottish settlers, and the community became large enough to warrant a post office in 1825. Dickson decided to name the area Galt, after famed Scottish writer John Galt (who also happens to be considered the founder of nearby Guelph. Find out more in our article on Guelph!). Galt was a primarily agricultural community at first, but it grew to support a variety of industries, a fire department, a weekly newspaper, one of the largest schools in the area, and more. Until the early twentieth-century it was actually the largest, most important town in the region (Kitchener and Waterloo would outgrow it, though). Galt became a city in 1915.
There were changes afoot in the Waterloo Region in the late 1960s, and in 1973, the Province of Ontario decided the best way to handle the continuing growth of Galt, Preston, and Hespeler was to merge them into one municipality (along with Blair). The idea was that sharing their resources would be a net benefit to all. But the distinct communities had (and to an extent have to this day) a sort of sibling rivalry, and you can get a sense of how the locals felt when the amalgamation was referred to as a ‘shotgun wedding.’ Nonetheless, in January, 1973, Cambridge became one big city (though locals still tell other locals which specific part they come from).

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Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc. (TMMC) is the largest employer in Cambridge. TMMC has been operating since 1988, and it has two massive plants in Cambridge occupying over 400 acres of land. It’s earned a reputation as an especially high quality manufacturing plant, and interestingly it’s the first plant outside of Japan to produce Lexus vehicles (currently the RX 350 and RX 450h hybrid). Other industrial careers are available in Cambridge, as well as a range of municipal jobs. Parts of Cambridge are quite aesthetically appealing, with many fine examples of elegant, European-style architecture, as well as pleasing views of the mighty Grand River. This in and of itself is a major selling point for the city, but it also serves to draw filmmakers and television crews away from Toronto, bringing quite a lot of revenue to Cambridge. Particularly over the last two decades, many major projects have been filmed in Cambridge, including The Handmaid’s Tale and Murdoch Mysteries (Canada’s nineteenth-century answer to CSI).

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The primary, publically-funded schools in Cambridge are part of the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) and the Waterloo Catholic District School Board (WCDSB). As Cambridge (and indeed the entire Waterloo Region) is growing so quickly, new schools are slated for construction over the next several years, including at least two new Cambridge elementary schools.

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Culture and Activities

In terms of attractions and activities to enjoy and take part in, Cambridge has plenty to offer. Riverside Park is a large, beautiful area to explore, and Preston, Hespeler, and Galt each have lovely downtown areas with a wide variety of restaurants and shops, live music and shows, and plenty to see and do. Downtown Galt, especially, has invested in maintaining its historic buildings, and it has a Historic Farmers Market that’s been running since the mid nineteenth-century, and the oldest continuously-running hockey arena in Ontario (Galt Arena Gardens).

Written by Will Kummer

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