At its inception, Barrie was an establishment of houses and warehouses at the foot of the Nine Mile Portage from Kempenfelt Bay to
Fort Willow, an aboriginal transportation route that existed centuries before Europeans arrived in Simcoe County. The portage linked Kempenfelt Bay through Willow Creek, connecting Lake Simcoe to the Nottawasaga River which flows into Georgian Bay off Lake Huron.
Barrie played an integral role in the War of 1812. During the war, the city became a supply depot for British forces, and in addition, the Nine Mile Portage was adopted by the British military as a key piece of their supply line which provided a strategic path for communication, personnel, and vital supplies and equipment to and from Fort Willow and Georgian Bay/Lake Huron. Today, the Nine Mile Portage is marked by signs along roads in Barrie and in Springwater Township. The scenic path from Memorial Square to Fort Willow is accessible to visitors year-round.
The city was named in 1833 after Sir Robert Barrie, who was in charge of the naval forces in Canada and frequently commanded forces through the city and along the Nine Mile Portage.
Barrie was also the final destination for a branch of the Underground Railroad. In the mid-19th century, this network of secret routes allowed many American slaves to enter Barrie and the surrounding area. This contributed to the development (and name) of nearby Shanty Bay.
In 1846, the population of Barrie was roughly 500, mostly from England, Ireland and Scotland. A private school, three churches, a brick courthouse and a limestone jail, (built in 1842), were in operation. Local businesses included three taverns, six stores, three tanneries, a wagon maker, a bakery, a cabinet maker and six shoemakers, as well as a bank.
In 1869, Barrie assumed the role as county seat of Simcoe County, flourishing with a population of over 3,000 people. It was a station of the Northern Railway, and was situated on Lake Simcoe's western arm, known as Kempenfelt Bay. Throughout the latter of the 19th century, Steamships ran from Barrie to the Muskoka Territory, Orillia and other communities, and stages were taking passengers to Penetanguishene.
In the midst of World War I, dedicated residents of Barrie helped to hastily construct Canadian Forces Base Borden (CFB Borden) as a means of additional support, and to serve as a major training centre of Canadian Expeditionary Force battalions. The base would open on 11, July 1916, and since then has become the largest Canadian Forces Base in the country, playing a paramount role through the remainder of the war, and throughout history.
During World War II, the Royal Canadian Navy named a Flower-class corvette HMCS Barrie.
On 7, September 1977, a private aircraft dropped to an altitude of 500 feet (152 m) in dense fog, and struck the 1,000-foot (305 m) CKVR-TV tower, killing all five occupants aboard the plane, and destroying the tower and antenna. The station's 225-foot (69 m) auxiliary tower was also destroyed, and damage had been inflicted to the roof of the main studio. CKVR were back on the air in the weeks following using a temporary 400-foot (122 m) tower, and a power reduction of nearly 40,000 watts occurred at 8:55 PM on 19, September, upon their return to the air. The new 1,000-foot tower was rebuilt in 1978.
On 31, May 1985, an F4 tornado struck Barrie, touching down in Essa Township, less than 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) southwest of Highway 400 and the Barrie city limits. At approximately 4:00 PM, all electrical power in Barrie went out, as the Grand Valley/Tottenham tornado took out the main hydro transformers southwest of the city. It then entered the southern part of Barrie shortly before 5:00 PM, causing devastating damage in the subdivisions within its immediate path. The visibility in the general vicinity had been reduced drastically as the tornado was cloaked in heavy rain and dust. It became known as one of the most violent and deadliest tornadoes in Canadian history, claiming the lives of 8 within the city and injuring over 155 people. A state of emergency had been issued for the city that evening, with services from surrounding municipalities being required as the weeks following wore on.
Between 12–13, June 1987, a sculpture called Spirit Catcher by Ron Baird was moved to Barrie from Vancouver, British Columbia, where it had been exhibited as part of Expo '86. The sculpture was erected permanently at the foot of Maple Avenue on the shore of Kempenfelt Bay, and has since become a principal facet in the Barrie city skyline and tourism. However, with the re-development along the waterfront/Lakeshore Drive, the city is considering moving the Spirit Catcher to the gravel outcropping at the foot of Bayfield Street.
On 12, January 2004, the former Molsons plant was found to be home to an illegal marijuana grow-op housing an estimated 30,000 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of $30 million; at the time, it was the largest marijuana grow-op bust in Canada's history. Furthermore, the bust bestowed mass-recognition globally as its prevalence within media-circulation grew.
Barrie's Park Place, (formerly Molson Park), was chosen to host Live 8 Canada on 2, July 2005. The overall success of the concert contributed to a plan to convert the prior Molson Park lands into a commercial district. On 31, October 2006, commercial real estate developers North American Acquisition Inc (NAA), a subsidiary of North American Development Group, LLC (NADG) won an Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) appeal of a rezoning application that had been previously denied by the City of Barrie to rezone the new Park Place lands from general industrial to business park zones, and general commercial or mixed employment. The proposal was followed by several concepts, including: a box store abstraction originally conceived in 2002. The development of the lands were halted temporarily in 2009 due to disputes with the past OMB appeal, and construction of the complex would resume in 2010.
An explosion in the Royal Thai restaurant housed in the landmark Wellington Hotel at the historic Five Points intersection in downtown Barrie occurred at 11:20 PM on 6, December 2007. The fire quickly spread to several other historic neighbouring buildings, and firefighters battled the blaze well into the following morning, requiring assistance from other Simcoe County fire services. Succeeding the fire, officials estimated the damages to be in the millions. The one-hundred-year-old Wellington Hotel building collapsed later in the morning, spilling its remains athwart the nearby road and intersection. On 17, February 2008, two people were charged in connection with the fire after the Ontario Fire Marshal's office concluded the explosion and subsequent fire were the result of arson.